We've reached the top 10 and it is time to conclude my rankings for 2019.
1. Arthur Kaliyev - Forward - Hamilton Bulldogs
Going to throw some names at you: John Tavares, Steve Stamkos, Alex Debrincat, Jeff Skinner. I'll throw another name at you: Sidney Crosby. The first list is comprised of the U18 players to score 50 goals in the OHL in the new millennium. The second list is comprised of all U18 players to score 50 goals in the rest of the CHL in the new millennium. Success rate in the NHL = 100%. Now am I saying that Kaliyev is guaranteed to be an impact player in the NHL? Absolutely not. There is certainly a bust factor involved here. What I'm saying here is that even with his faults, prior history suggests that his ability to score should translate. Is Kaliyev the most explosive skater? No. But he's not a terrible skater either. When required, he does possess some power in his stride that allows him to beat defenders as he drives wide, and he is strong enough to keep these defenders on his back once he gets ahead of them. Is Kaliyev a complete offensive player? I actually think that his playmaking ability really took massive steps forward this year. Sure, he is a shoot first kind of player, but he exhibited a lot more patience with the puck this year, especially when working down low or when on the powerplay. There is a reason why the Bulldogs employ him on the point of the powerplay at times. And even though he does prefer to slow the game down, his ability to produce when the pace picks up did also improve. He became an extremely versatile offensive player this year. Realistically, I think the biggest concern is his wavering intensity level away from the puck. Kaliyev is not the type of player who competes hard on the forecheck, nor is he someone who consistently uses his size (at 6'2) to win loose puck battles. His play in the neutral zone and defensive zone is equally mild mannered. How much that improves moving forward remains to be seen and will be the biggest impetus as to whether he becomes an impact NHL player. But players with his size, shot, and goal scoring instincts do not grow on trees. To give you an idea, I think Kaliyev is a more well rounded offensive player than Owen Tippett, and he went 10th overall. Even if Kaliyev becomes a Thomas Vanek kind of player at the NHL level, that's still a guy who has scored close to 400 goals in his career. Outside the top 10, Kaliyev is worth the risk considering his upside to be a dominant goal scorer.
2. Philip Tomasino - Forward - Niagara IceDogs
Tomasino had such an impressive sophomore season in the OHL. He received little powerplay time and was even buried in a deep lineup at times, but still managed to produce over a point per game. His 30 even strength goals this year were tops in the OHL among U18 players. He was also second to only Nathan Legare in the entire CHL. And considering the fact that I think Tomasino's shot could actually stand to improve and his goal scoring ability is one of his weaker areas, that's mighty impressive and speaks to how well rounded of a player he truly is. At the heart of Tomasino's game is his explosive skating ability. While he may not possess the high end top speed of a guy like Liam Foudy or Alex Formenton, his first few steps are among the best in the OHL and gives him that quick strike/separation ability. This allows him to be excellent in transition. It also allows him to be a puck hound in the offensive end who is a very effective forechecker. NHL teams are always looking for guys who can succeed in the new age NHL, and Tomasino is just that; he gets better as the pace picks up. Tomasino also has great hands and skill with the puck. He is extremely illusive in traffic and has that ability to make defenders miss him as he cuts through the middle of the ice. At the U18's this year, I thought Tomasino was excellent for Canada and he really showcased his playmaking ability and motor. At times, Tomasino can be too easily pushed off the puck, so improving his strength is going to be necessary. But it's important to note that with a late July birth date, he's one of the younger players available this year. Additionally, I'd like to see Tomasino use his speed and tenacious nature to be more of a consistent factor in the defensive half of the ice. But at this point, I do expect him to be a first rounder in June.
3. Thomas Harley - Defense - Mississauga Steelheads
Without question, Harley is one of the most athletic defenders available for the NHL Draft this year. His skating ability is top notch and he has to be considered one of the best skaters in the OHL. Harley is such an asset in transition because of how quickly he is able to start the breakout. Can grab a loose puck in his own end and be across the opposing blueline in a matter of seconds. And because of his size, he is so difficult to separate from the puck as he is cutting through the neutral zone. Once he gets that head of steam going, he is almost a sure bet to gain access to the offensive zone. Harley is also very aggressive in his rushes. Few defenders in the OHL ended up with as many partial breaks as Harley this year, after spitting defenses on end to end rushes. Harley is also a good powerplay QB, who can use his length to hold the line and his skating ability to open up passing lanes. His shot is still developing and is not yet a consistent weapon, but it could be one day as he adds strength and becomes more aggressive in attacking those lanes that he opens up with his mobility. Harley's vision is also excellent. He is just as efficient making a breakout pass as he is skating the puck out and that makes him such a dangerous offensive weapon. Defensively, there are some warts though. Harley really needs to become more assertive physically. He will allow attackers into the offensive zone too easily and leaves too large of gaps, hoping to use only his length to keep them at bay. At 6'3, he should not be losing as many battles along the boards as he does currently, and again that's from a lack of intensity. But with his size and mobility, once he adds some strength, there's a good chance that this could improve. Harley is a mid August birthday, meaning he's one of the younger players available. Like Tomasino, I thought Harley had a good U18's, actually showing more intensity defensively than he did at times during the OHL season. With his size, skating ability, and offensive prowess, Harley will be a hot commodity in June.
4. Ryan Suzuki - Forward - Barrie Colts
If I am being completely blunt, I actually wanted to have Suzuki lower on this list. But his offensive potential was too great for me to move lower than 4. Let's start with the positives. There are not many kids who see the ice as well as Suzuki does in this entire draft, let alone just the OHL. His vision and passing ability are top notch. He makes such quick decisions with the puck and processes the game at the pace that is required of top 6 forwards at the NHL level. Few players can thread the needle, cross ice, with a saucer pass the way Suzuki can. Also understands how to utilize his skating ability and puck skill to draw defenders in, only to pass off at the last second. Like his brother, (Nick), he is great at using stick fakes and shoulder fakes to keep defenders guessing. Ryan has that similar profile and potential as his brother, but is slightly bigger and quicker. But he did not have a terrific draft season, even if he was over a point per game. Firstly, there just seems to be a real lack of confidence in his shot and he has become a pass first player to a fault. Opposing defenses keyed in on that in the second half, forcing him to shoot and it neutralized his effectiveness. Second, he needs to play between the dots and be more aggressive playing through traffic. He seems hesitant to attack the middle with speed, preferring to stay to the outside and it really limited his effectiveness 5 on 5. Kaliyev, Tomasino, McMichael, and Ethan Keppen all produced greater primary points per game at even strength than Suzuki, with Rees and Keegan Stevenson having identical production and Nick Robertson and Blake Murray not far behind. Too often when I saw Barrie later in the year, Suzuki was a non factor because when the puck is not on his stick, he's just not a very noticeable player. Throw in the fact that he was unable to make an impact at the U18's because of an injury and you have a player who looks more like an early second round pick to me, and not a first rounder. All that said, the offensive potential is still high and in a weak draft year for centers outside of the lottery picks, Suzuki is still extremely alluring because of his high boom potential.
5. Jamieson Rees - Forward - Sarnia Sting
Easily one of my favourite draft prospects available this year, in any league. He's such an endearing player because of how hard he plays the game. His outstanding performance at this year's U18's was most definitely his coming out party. On a team with potential top 10 picks like Dylan Cozens and Peyton Krebs, he was a consistent force and proved that he has the talent to be taken in the first round of the NHL draft. Whether he is or not...remains to be seen. Scouts do have very real concerns over his durability considering his lack of size (5'10, 170lbs), and his abrasive style of play. These concerns are brought to light because he's missed large chunks of time the last two seasons due to significant injuries (ankle injuries, lacerated kidney). A guy like Robby Fabbri isn't doing him any favours because he's a similar player with a similar build who scouts had durability concerns about. And he's had two knee surgeries already, on top of other injuries. Rees also needs to tow the line more effectively. His play can, at times, be deemed reckless. This was evident at the U18's where his undisciplined penalties did hurt the team at times. He was also suspended 8 games this year in the OHL for a blind side hit. All of that said...I think he's a heck of a hockey player. His speed is a big time asset. He hits full speed in only a few strides and can create daylight behind opposing defenders. He uses his speed to be a tireless workhorse in all three zones, be it retrieving loose pucks, or racing back to break up an odd man rush. Rees is also extremely skilled with the puck and has the ability to make moves at full speed. As he gets stronger on the puck, I would expect that we'll see even more of this on display, in addition to him shooting the puck more. He possesses all of the qualities that you would want in a future top 6 forward. As long as he stays healthy, he will definitely become an NHL forward IMO.
6. Vladislav Kolyachonok - Defense - Flint Firebirds
A very tough year to be able to evaluate Kolyachonok in the OHL. First the fiasco with London and his waiver transfer to Flint, which took him because of immigration issues. Second, the fact that he played for Flint, a team which was on the wrong side of their share of beat downs this year. But this kid just kept on trucking through it all. I've talked to people and read a fair amount about this kid's work ethic. It's at a pro level. He takes his development very seriously and I do not think you have to worry about him not working hard enough to reach that next level. I would imagine that he will interview and perform extremely well at this year's NHL combine. On the ice, the U18's were an extremely important event for him to show scouts what he could do outside of Flint. And his play was the main reason Belarus had such a remarkable tournament, making it to the quarter finals and avoiding relegation. His size (6'2, 190) and mobility are impressive traits. He glides around the ice with ease and generates a lot of power in his stride. As a confident two-way defender, Kolyachonok's positioning in the defensive end is excellent, as he is calm and poised. He can use his mobility to track down loose pucks to start the breakout. He can use his size to shield off attackers on the forecheck and win board battles. He will block shots and take the body when he needs to. Offensively, I think the U18's were huge in showing off his ability to run the point on the powerplay, something that wasn't really on display consistently in Flint. It really made me reconsider my opinion of his long term NHL potential. He did a terrific job of creating shooting/passing lanes with his mobility and showed excellent vision and decision making. When you combine his character, raw physical skill and power, and growing skill level, you have a kid who could be a solid top 4 NHL defender and maybe even a potential first round pick in June.
7. Nick Robertson - Forward - Peterborough Petes
After a very strong showing at the summer Hlinka/Gretzky tournament for the United States (he led the team in goals), Robertson's OHL season got off to a bit of a rocky start thanks to a wrist injury. The injury took some time to heal fully and Robertson got off to a slow start from a production stand point. If you remove his first 10 games from his stat line, his production looks a lot more impressive (25 goals, 26 assists, in 44 games, or a near 80 point projection over a full season). Robertson is an absolutely dynamic play maker and creator. His puck skill and creativity are among the best in this OHL draft class. His edge work and agility are also excellent, keeping a wide base as he eludes defenders. Even though he's undersized at 5'9, Robertson is tough to separate from the puck because of how quick his hands are and because of how he always keeps his feet moving. This makes him a very dangerous player on the powerplay, as he often draws multiple defenders to try to take the puck off of him. Robertson also has a fantastic shot; a wrist shot which he can get off very quickly and without hesitation. I also really like Robertson's competitiveness without the puck in the offensive zone. If he does happen to turn it over, he's aggressive in pursuit to get it back. In the defensive end, his awareness and energy level is not quite as consistent and his lack of strength limits his effectiveness here. I also think Robertson could stand to improve his first step explosiveness and his top speed, considering his lack of elite size. It's not at the same level as his brother Jason's at the same age (in a negative way), but Jason was also considerably bigger. That said, Nick is one of the youngest players eligible for the draft this year (September 11th birth date). There is likely still a lot of physical maturation in store for him, especially when you consider that his brother is 6'2, 200lbs. If you're looking for a high upside winger, Robertson is your man.
8. Connor McMichael - Forward - London Knights
I may take a bit of flak for this one, as most lists seem to still have McMichael much higher among OHL players. And most lists have him in the first round. By ranking him 8th among OHL players, I'm not saying that I don't like him. I do. I think he's a solid NHL prospect who has had a terrific year in London. He may have been London's most consistent offensive player this year. He led all draft eligible players in primary assists at 5 on 5. He also finished 3rd among draft eligible players in point per game at 5 on 5. He was equally dangerous on the powerplay and at even strength. He kills penalties. This is just a well rounded kid. His skating ability is top notch. McMichael has great top end speed. And because he processes the game so well, especially in the offensive end, he can use that speed effectively to track down loose pucks or get behind defenders to create or finish off scoring chances. McMichael is one of those players who isn't extremely flashy, so you don't notice him quite as much as other players on the ice. But by the end of the game, he finishes with a goal and assist. He has that quiet effectiveness about him. Another underrated component to McMichael's game is his versatility. Can line up at center or the wing. And when he's down the middle, he's a great faceoff man. Because of his high end hockey sense, I actually prefer him down the middle. All of that said, I do find that at times his game lacks urgency. I'd like to see him be more aggressive with the puck. I think some of that has to do with a lack of strength, and as he gets stronger we may seem him be a little more consistent through the middle of the ice and below the hash marks. I also have some concerns about his high end upside as an NHL player. There is always that concern with heady guys who do a lot of things well, but nothing exceptionally. IMO, he more than likely settles into a 2nd or 3rd line center role as a pro (think Valtteri Filppula, Antoine Vermette, etc). The guys I have ranked ahead of him I feel have a greater chance of being concrete top 6 players, even if their "bust" potential is higher.
9. Graeme Clarke - Forward - Ottawa 67's
Here's where things get interesting. At this point, I think it's safe to say that "most" scouts that I've chatted with have the same top 8 from the OHL (obviously in different orders). That number 9 spot is where we'll see some stronger differences in opinion. For me, that guy is Clarke. I think you need to look at the team that he played for in Ottawa and how they deep they were. He did not get a ton of ice time, yet he managed to hit the 23 goal plateau. He also really stepped up his game in the playoffs, upping his production to 14 points (7/7) over 18 games. I also love how Clarke really transformed his game this year. He really improved his play away from the puck and became a much more engaged player in all three zones. In his MM year and in his OHL rookie year, I found him to be too complacent and really only a factor when the puck was on his stick. I don't think that's necessarily the case anymore. Kudos to him for recognizing that as a fault and fixing it. On individual skill level, Clarke is near or at the top of this age group in the OHL. His creativity and hands are elite. I don't know how many times I've seen him do the Mike Legg lacrosse goal over the years. Clarke also has one of the best shot releases in the age group and projects as a big time goal scorer at this level and the next. So with all this skill level, why is Clarke 9th and not, say top 5? I think there are very realistic concerns over his skating ability. His stride doesn't generate a ton of power and we have seen how difficult it can be for goal scorers to transition to the NHL without that elusiveness. Additionally, I wonder how good his vision is as a playmaker. The hands and puck skill are so good, yet they mostly create openings for himself and not necessarily his teammates. Turnovers in the offensive zone can be an issue. However, this is a kid who has clearly worked hard already to improve his faults. No reason to suggest that he can't keep working and improving. Next year, he'll be a huge part of another strong Ottawa 67's team and could easily be a 40 goal scorer in the OHL. You'll be hard pressed to find a player with as high of a ceiling in the second round.
10. Blake Murray - Forward - Sudbury Wolves
Murray has been on the periphery of most rankings nearly all season long despite being a 6'3 center who put up 30 goals this year and was an offensive leader for the upstart Sudbury Wolves. Part of that is because Murray doesn't really have a standout quality. He's a good skater, but not a great one. His physical game is inconsistent. He has a good shot, but at times he hangs on to the puck too long. There are just too many shifts where he is not a factor. Yet...he still scored 30 this year. And that's why he's ranked at #10 for me. I just think that the best is yet to come for Murray. He's got a July birth date and is still relatively physically immature. I think that as he fills out his 6'3 frame, he could develop into a real beast in the offensive zone. Adding strength is going to be key for him, as it will allow him to be more effective below the hash marks and allow him to be more effective cutting through the neutral zone as a force in transition from down the middle. Another key is finding more consistency in his physicality and overall effort without the puck. At times this year, he looked really engaged and that was when he was at his best. But bringing that effort along the wall, in puck pursuit, and in all three zones, every shift and every game is a different story. I think whatever team drafts him will need to be patient. It could take him some time to put it all together. And I do wonder how much his playmaking ability with the puck develops. But as I said, 6'3, goal scoring centers do not grow on trees. If you're drafting outside the first round, aren't these the type of guys you take a chance on in hopes that they can put everything together? The upside is just too tantalizing, especially when you consider how weak the OHL crop is this year.