Saturday, October 26, 2013

Early Season Top 30 for the 2014 NHL Draft

The 2013/2014 OHL season is in full swing, and as per the norm (~ the end of October), it's time to look at my first draft ranking of the year (excluding my preseason list, found here).

While the 2014 NHL Draft is being touted as only average from a broader perspective, I actually feel like the crop available from the OHL might be the best since 2003. There are legitimately close to 15 players who look like they could be first round picks, and of those 15, at least half could be lottery selections. The high end talent available is just scary good. Seven of the league's current top 25 scorers (as I write this) are on this list. And several others are currently leading, or are close to leading their team in offensive categories. It's definitely a good year for the OHL.

Let's look at my top 30.

1. Aaron Ekblad - Defense - Barrie Colts
Most people know about Ekblad by now. The former priority draft exception is already in his 3rd season and has become a household name in the OHL. Even though Barrie's gotten off to a disappointing start, I don't think you can pin a lot of that on Ekblad. While he is the captain of the team (a feat that deserves praise at such a young age), it's been the team's forwards that shoulder the majority of the blame for the team's losses thus far. Ekblad is a tower of power on the blueline. He's a physical specimen that is incredibly difficult to play against in the corners and in front of the net. Offensively, he's still growing and gaining confidence in his ability to run the transition game, but he's made great strides on the powerplay where he looks more confident distributing the puck and using his shot. All that being said, I do think the gap is closing between him and some of the other fantastic talents available from the OHL this year. The likes of Bennett, McKeown, Dal Colle, etc are breathing down his neck for this spot.

2. Sam Bennett - Forward - Kingston Frontenacs
Bennett is simply a fantastic all around talent. He's been consistently one of the most dangerous players in the OHL this season (10 goals, 10 assists in 10 games). If there's a job that needs to get done, Bennett is the man to do it. His offensive instincts are terrific and he's great at finding holes in the defense, which will allow him to score his share of goals at the next level. But he's also a terrific playmaker who can assume that bull in a china shop mentality to make plays. His work along the boards and on the forecheck is also excellent. As a penalty killer and defensive player, his game is growing leaps and bounds, which suggests that he profiles as an above average two-way player moving forward. TSN scout Craig Button recently suggested that he could challenge for first overall, a concept that isn't incredibly far fetched.

3. Roland McKeown - Defense - Kingston Frontenacs
McKeown's development as a player has really impressed me this season. His play in his own end has always been a strength, but he's playing with a lot more confidence and has been nearly impossible to score against this season (a remarkable +21 so far). His reads and positioning in the defensive end are fantastic and he's playing with more piss and vinegar this year which is allowing him to win more battles in the corners and in front of the net. The area that has grown the most though is his ability to confidently carry and distribute the puck. He's showing no fear in leading the rush and jumping up to make plays offensively, possessing the confidence to know that he can get back defensively. His ability to run the powerplay and make reads on the point has also improved, even if I'd like him to try and use his shot a bit more. McKeown is going to play in the NHL for a long time; think Ryan Suter.
4. Michael Dal Colle - Forward - Oshawa Generals
He just had an 8 game point scoring streak snapped; Dal Colle has come out guns a blazing this year. I think perhaps most impressive is how he led this team at the beginning of the year when it was uncertain whether Scott Laughton would be returning. A natural center, Dal Colle has continued to play wing (for the majority) this year, seeing time with both Laughton and Sterk. Dal Colle's best asset is his ability to use his size to control and protect the puck. Once he's got possession, he's very hard to knock off the puck and is constantly looking to go hard to the net. His hands in close are also terrific and it allows him to pick up his share of goals near the crease. His skating has also improved and it's allowing him to be more explosive to open lanes, making him a more dangerous player without the puck too. Forwards with his size and skill package don't grow on trees.

5. Nick Ritchie - Forward - Peterborough Petes
Ritchie is more of a traditional power forward than Dal Colle is, but is still a similar player in the sense that he's a big bodied winger with a ton of skill. Ritchie's ability to generate off the rush is his best asset as he's a very good skater for a big man. Similar to Dal Colle, he's a great puckhandler who surprises defenseman with how smooth his hands are. As a distributor, I think he's still growing and learning to slow the game down a bit, but his size and skill package is tantalizing. Where he beats Dal Colle is his ability to punish players physically. Ritchie excels when he's throwing his body around and projects as a throw back type of power forward, the way that his brother Brett plays the game. The biggest thing for Ritchie is to stay healthy this year. If he does, he's easily going to get lottery consideration.
6. Jared McCann - Forward - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
One of the more underrated players of this draft crop so far. I think he's right up there with the likes of Ritchie, Dal Colle and Bennett, yet we don't hear a lot about him. The Greyhounds are playing terrific hockey and he's one of the main reasons as the team's 2nd leading scorer. McCann is a heady two-way center who brings speed and smarts to the ice. He makes his linemates better because of his ability to see the ice and create for them. His strong vision also carries over to the defensive end where he's probably the best two-way forward of any of the OHL guys available (even over Bennett). McCann is a dedicated backchecker and has terrific anticipation, getting his stick in passing lanes. He's also a very strong penalty killer and has helped the Hounds have one of the top PK units thus far. He's not as physically developed as Bennett, Ritchie, and Dal Colle, and as such isn't as consistent offensively or as dominant along the boards, but the potential to be great is just as strong.

7. Brendan Perlini - Forward - Niagara IceDogs
Are the Barrie Colts going to stop trading their first rounders to Niagara soon? First Ryan Strome, then Brendan Perlini. Both exploded in their 2nd OHL seasons, much to the chagrin of Barrie fans. Perlini has been absolutely fantastic this season. Not only is he the leading scorer among draft eligibles in the OHL right now (28 points), but he's also leading the entire CHL. OHL defenses just don't have answer for him right now. He's got size, but is also a fantastic north/south skater and he's catching a lot of defenses flat footed as he attacks the zone; defenders are having a tough time keeping him in front of them. Perlini also possesses a fantastic shot coming down the wing and has a lot of confidence using it right now. He and Leafs draft pick Carter Verhaeghe have developed insane chemistry. As he fills out his frame, Perlini is only going to become tougher to play against. I'm not a huge fan of comparisons, but I see a lot of Jeff Carter in Perlini's game and I think he profiles as a similar type of player. At this point, he's got to be considered a strong candidate for the top 10-15 of the draft.

8. Blake Clarke - Forward - North Bay Battalion
Some might be surprised that I've still got Clarke as high as I do, considering his slow start. But I was too impressed with his size and skill package last year to give up on him this early into the season. He's got a lot of games remaining to try and turn it around, even if he's currently out with a shoulder injury. When he's on, Clarke has terrific skill and drive in the offensive end. He creates a lot of offensive chances by using his size to take the puck to the net and is a great finisher in close. His physical game also shows flashes of existing, to the point becoming a more traditional power forward. So far this year, he's looked a bit sluggish and isn't playing to the level that he needs to play. When he returns from injury, he's going to have to dial up the intensity to remain this high on my list. Impressions from your rookie season can only take you so far (ask Stephen Harper last year).

9. Anthony DeAngelo - Defense - Sarnia Sting
For as bad as the Sting have been this year, DeAngelo has certainly been a bright spot. His 19 points in 13 games is easily tops in the OHL. It shouldn't take a genius to figure out how terrific of an offensive player DeAngelo is. He runs the point on the powerplay better than anyone else in the OHL and has terrific offensive instincts. He makes smart decisions with the puck at the point and has fantastic vision with the man advantage. 5 on 5, DeAngelo transitions up ice very quickly and is extremely aggressive in jumping up in the rush. Defensively, he has his shortcomings. He's a bit undersized and could have some difficulties with bigger forwards at the next level. He's also a high risk, high reward type of player who can can caught up ice and occasionally force plays in his own end. But the positives outweigh the negatives at this point as I don't think you can ignore the offensive potential he possesses.

10. Spencer Watson - Forward - Kingston Frontenacs
As he proved at this summer's Ivan Hlinka tournament, Watson is simply an offensive dynamo. He has skill and hockey sense, a dangerous combination in the offensive end. He's certainly undersized (pushing 5'10), but it hasn't held him back yet and with how elusive he is, I don't see it being a huge issue at the next level. His ability to create space for himself to use his shot is excellent and one of his best attributes. And while he's certainly not a physical player, he's not shy to attack the net or go into high traffic areas. He'll give up his body to make a play offensively. Without ideal size, and lacking in some other areas, he's not going to get himself into consideration with the other top forwards in the OHL, but I think he can still be a first round pick. His point production potential is massive.

11. Nikolai Goldobin - Forward - Sarnia Sting
Statistically it's been an OK year for Goldobin so far, averaging a point per game. But the Sting have struggled and Goldobin hasn't been able to contribute consistently. That doesn't change the fact that he's one of the most skilled players with the puck in the entire OHL. He's incredibly elusive and keeps plays alive by avoiding stick checks and making defenders miss. Like Watson, he's not afraid of contact and will go to the net to make plays. His ability to retrieve pucks and play in the corners will need to improve, but when he's got the puck on his stick he's electric.

12. Josh Ho-Sang - Forward - Windsor Spitfires
I've been pretty critical of Ho-Sang's game so far in his OHL career. But I'd be blind if I said he hadn't made some significant strides so far this season. He's using his teammates more this year and isn't committing nearly as many offensive zone turnovers by trying to force plays. There's no doubt about the high level of skill he possesses, as he can maintain puck possession in open ice with the best of them. The rest of his game remains a work in progress (physically, defensively), but I have been impressed with him this year.

13. Alex Nedeljkovic - Goaltender - Plymouth Whalers
The Whalers have been very inconsistent as a team this year, but their problems have definitely not had anything to do with goaltending. Nedeljkovic has been a rock. He's played the most games of any goalie in the league so far and he's seeing a ton of rubber (over 35 shots a game), yet has a solid .914 save percentage. NHL teams might have a bit of issue with the fact that he doesn't have the terrific size they're looking for in goalies these days (he's ~6'0), but the rest of his make up is excellent. He's consistent because of how well he reads the game and gets himself in position and he's athletic enough to make the big saves when they're needed. I think he should be considered a definite first, early 2nd round talent.

14. Robby Fabbri - Forward - Guelph Storm
Fabbri certainly isn't the biggest guy on the ice, but he works his tail off to make up for it. It just so happens that on top of having terrific work ethic, he's also incredibly skilled with the puck. No question that if he were 6'1 instead of 5'10 and about 170lbs, he'd be getting significant consideration for the top 15/20 of the draft. As it is, all the rest of the tools are there. He has terrific hockey sense and can make plays with the puck, or force turnovers and find scoring lanes without it. He's a very well balanced player who fits in well with a hard nosed Guelph line-up.

15. Ryan MacInnis - Forward - Kitchener Rangers
I'm not buying the hype yet. I haven't seen Kitchener as much as I would have liked so far, but in the times I have, MacInnis has been underwhelming. And the statline he's produced certainly backs that up. In reality, I thought about ranking him lower, but I think he deserves a grace period considering the adjustments he's going to need to make as a rookie. The size and skill package is obviously a big plus. 6'4 guys who can skate pretty well and handle themselves in the offensive end are not common. But his physical intensity needs to increase and he needs to do more without the puck in the offensive end. He just hasn't been very visible in his short time in the league. But again, the potential is too high to put him lower just yet.

16. Matthew Mistele - Forward - Plymouth Whalers
After scoring 34 goals last year, Mistele was expected to be a big part of Plymouth's rebuilding offense this year. But he's struggled out of the gate and has even missed time due to a five game suspension. As a late '95, he's entering his third year in the league so the expectations should be high for him. Like Clarke or MacInnis, it's too early in the season to write him off. Mistele has a lot of characteristics that NHL teams are going to find appealing. He's a hard nosed winger with some size who also has a good scoring touch and good offensive instincts. He's got to prove that he can create his own offensive chances with more consistency though.
17. Jacob Middleton - Defense - Ottawa 67's
I don't think the numbers tell the whole story for Middleton. While I don't think he's played terrific to start this season (which is why I've dropped him a bit in my rankings), I also don't think he's been as bad as the numbers suggest. He's had a couple REALLY bad games as part of an awful team effort that has contributed to his poor plus/minus. But generally he's been pretty decent and he's eating a lot of minutes. His offensive game hasn't rounded into form this year like I thought it might, but he's playing physical and is becoming a very difficult player to match up against in front of the net and in the corners. He's also a threat to lower the boom in the open ice. At this point, I think his average skating might be holding him back a bit, and his reads in the defensive end could still use some sharpening, but I still like the two-way potential he has.

18. Eric Cornel - Forward - Peterborough Petes
Cornel started off the year red hot, both in the preseason and through the opening month. He's cooled lately but I still love the improvement he's showing over last year. He's your ideal mold of a playmaking center in today's NHL. Has great size, can move and can handle the puck. I've been really impressed with his ability to make smart plays with the puck in the offensive end and he's been an asset for his linemates thus far. He's also showing some desire to mix it up in the corners and is developing a bit of sandpaper to his game. He's still a very raw player, but I think he's only scratching the surface of what he's capable of.

19. Brendan Lemieux - Forward - Barrie Colts 
I'm sure most OHL fans are familiar with Brendan Lemieux by now. He's a chip off the old block (Claude's son). He only knows how to play the game one way and that's hard. He hits hard. He forechecks hard. He'll drop the gloves. He goes hard to the net. He's sort of that "pest" that we don't see nearly as much in the league as we used to. All that being said, he's a pretty skilled offensive player with some offensive upside for the next level. He has pretty good hands in close and he's able to create offensive chances for his linemates following the puck battles he wins in the corners. I don't think we're talking a top 6 player, but he could be a very useful guy. The one thing I will say is that I do wish he was a more electric skater for the type of game he plays. The high intensity, high tempo game is often played the best by quicker players at the next level.

20. Aaron Haydon - Defense - Niagara IceDogs
Disappointed with his offensive production thus far, but I do still think there's offensive potential there. Last year he started to take that next step as a puck mover, but he's yet to find that confidence this season. But even if the offensive game remains very raw, he's got a lot of other redeeming qualities that make him an interesting NHL prospect. He's got great size and he's very mobile for a bigger defender. This year he's playing a lot meaner and is really throwing his weight around and establishing himself as a tough shutdown defender. Similar to Jacob Middleton, if he wants to keep this high of a ranking, he's going to have to start showing more offensively and establish himself as a two-way threat.

21. Jaden Lindo - Forward - Owen Sound Attack
Lindo is cut from the same cloth as a guy like Zach Nastasiuk in the sense that he's not the most naturally gifted offensive player, but he's an effective role player who works hard at both ends of the ice. He does all the little things for Owen Sound and NHL scouts are going to like him for the how well rounded his game is. He's most effective as a forechecker and someone who can work the cycle and win puck battles along the boards. He's still growing as a puck carrier and once he's able to add that element to his game, he'll become a more dangerous offensive player. For now, he's a crash and bang winger who can do the dirty work on a line.

22. Blake Siebenaler - Defense - Niagara IceDogs
Siebenaler is a very raw prospect, but I really like what I've seen of him so far. He's only been playing defense for a couple of years, but already looks quite comfortable there. The first thing you notice about him is how well he skates. He moves effortlessly out there and is gaining confidence in his ability to lead the breakout. Defensively, he uses this strong mobility to stay in front of forwards off the rush. I've also been impressed with how well he's running the point on the powerplay thus far as he looks comfortable there. He can make some mistakes in coverage, but he's got a ton of potential. He has to be on the radar of scouts by now, especially those flocking to see Perlini.

23. Brandon Robinson - Forward - North Bay Battalion
No question, he's another player in this draft class who is being ranked off his potential and previous performances and not his production this year. With only 4 goals to start 2013, Robinson is struggling offensively. But I seem to have a knock for watching him when he's at his best (including a 2 goal performance in Mississauga this year), so I find it hard to knock him down yet. He's got great size, a great shot and has looked to have improved his skating and first few steps. But the toolbox has to result in consistent production. He needs to play with more intensity, especially physically, as there's no question that he's at his best when he's going hard along the walls and involving himself in the crash and bang game. As a third year player (late '95), he's got to figure it out soon or he's going to start really dropping off draft lists.
24. Mike Amadio - Forward - North Bay Battalion
Amadio has had a good season so far, centering one of North Bay's scoring lines. He's a very skilled player who is at his best when the puck is on his stick. He can create for teammates and has good speed that he uses to gain the blueline. Under Stan Butler, he's working on rounding out his game and becoming a more complete player. I have no doubt that Stan will turn him into a better player along the boards who can use his offensive creativity in the cycle and not just off the rush. But he's an intriguing player based on the offensive skill set that he possesses.

25. Phil Baltisberger - Defense - Guelph Storm
A late '95, Baltisberger has been an absolute rock on the back end for Guelph so far. The Swiss Import is playing in his first season in the OHL, but you'd never be able to tell as he looks like a veteran out there. He's been eating up a ton of minutes for Scott Walker. Baltisberger isn't exactly a flashy player. He's an average skater, has average puck skill, but he makes terrific reads in the defensive end and really enjoys using his size to intimidate opposing forwards. I've also noticed in a couple viewings that he's a great shot blocker and has some definite potential as a stay at home guy at the next level.

26. Brandon Prophet - Defense - Saginaw Spirit 
Prophet is sort of a jack of all trades defenseman. He's got pretty good size and is fairly mobile. He can make a good breakout pass and is generally good with the puck, but he's not a natural puck mover or powerplay quarterback. He's strong in his own end and makes good reads, but he's not a particularly physical player. Prophet is kind of that "steady eddy" who can be relied upon to eat up minutes without making too many mistakes. As he gains more confidence in his offensive game, we could see him take more chances, but he'll probably always be a relatively safe defender who can contribute in all areas.

27. Damian Bourne - Forward - Mississauga Steelheads
The offensive production certainly hasn't been there for Bourne, but I don't think he's played particularly poorly or anything. In fact, I've been relatively impressed with his progression this year as he's more engaged in the play offensively and looks to have improved his skating to the point where he's getting scoring opportunities off the rush. Of course the thing you notice most about his game is his physical presence as he's probably the most physical player that I've listed here. One part of his game that I've actually really noticed is his playmaking ability for a big man. He's got good vision and makes some really nice passes. If anything, he should be looking to shoot the puck more, but he's turned himself into a player that can open up some space for his linemates and help to set up scoring chances for them.

28. Stefan Leblanc - Defense - Sudbury Wolves
A lot of his physical skills don't really jump out at you, but he's been very effective in his first year in the league. He's playing a ton for Sudbury and has been noticeable for all the right reasons thus far. I really like how he moves the puck out of his own end. He's not really an aggressive puck rusher, but he's confident to skate the puck out of trouble and makes a terrific first pass. He's also looked very smart on the powerplay and controls the line like a veteran. Defensively, he's not the biggest guy but he's holding his own and is an effective stick checker. In fact, he's actually surprised with a few nice hits this year and could look to develop this "sandpaper" in his game to attract scouting attention to himself.

29. Nick Magyar - Forward - Kitchener Rangers
Kitchener has really struggled this year, but in the times I've seen them, he's been one of their more noticeable players. He's got good size and he's not afraid to get his nose dirty in the corners or in front of the net. He seems to be a pretty good player in puck possession and is having some success playing the cycle game. Magyar also seems to have enough skill with the puck to contribute offensively, but at this point he hasn't shown a lot of creativity and seems to be keeping things simple.

30. Kyle Jenkins - Defense - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Leblanc's teammate in Oakville last year, Jenkins is a similar type of player who's excelling in his first OHL season. He's a little quicker than Leblanc and has greater offensive potential as a puck carrier, but he's also less physically mature and a little rawer defensively. Jenkins has done very well running the point on the powerplay with Darnell Nurse and is quickly gaining the trust of Sheldon Keefe and the coaching staff. As he gains more confidence in his puck abilities, we could see him really start to take off offensively.

Honorable Mentions (alphabetically)

Zach Bratina - Forward - Saginaw Spirit
Michael Bunting - Forward - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Connor Chatham - Forward - Plymouth Whalers
Cristiano DiGiacinto - Forward - Windsor Spitfires
Dylan DiPerna - Defense - Kingston Frontenacs
Christian Dvorak - Forward - London Knights
Brook Hiddink - Forward - Plymouth Whalers
Brandon Hughes - Forward - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Kevin Labanc - Forward - Barrie Colts
Matthew Mancina - Goaltender - Guelph Storm
Alex Peters - Defense - Plymouth Whalers
Alex Protapovich - Forward - Niagara IceDogs
Francesco Vilardi - Forward - Plymouth Whalers
Nikita Yazkov - Forward - Windsor Spitfires

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Hype Surrounding Connor McDavid

My latest article for UHN is up and discusses the hype surrounding Connor McDavid this season.

You can read it here.

Thanks to Dominic Tiano, Sean Lafortune, Brendan Ross, and In the O-Radio for contributing quotes.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ten 2014 Draft Prospects You Need to Know

The 2013/2014 OHL season is three weeks in and already there have been surprises and disappointments. The young and exciting Kingston Frontenacs are off to a blazing start and lead the OHL standings (as I suggested they would be capable of in last week’s article). Meanwhile, the current scoring leader is a player who was acquired during training camp in exchange for a couple of mid round picks (Oshawa’s Josh Sterk).

Several of the league’s top draft prospects are off to blazing starts like Roland McKeown, Sam Bennett, Aaron Ekblad, Michael Dal Colle, and Jared McCann. However some are struggling like North Bay’s Blake Clarke, and Niagara’s Aaron Haydon. It’s too early to make assumptions or chastise, but it’s never too early to highlight some of the young players in the league currently flying under the radar. Below I’ll profile ten players not listed by NHL Central Scouting in their “preliminary ones to watch” list.

You can check out the 10 prospects here

Friday, October 4, 2013

Frontenacs Knocking!

Every week I'll be writing an article for Liam Maguire's new hockey site called Ultimate Hockey Network.

This week's article (the debut) is about the resurgence of the Kingston Frontenacs.


You can also follow the Ultimate Hockey Network on twitter (here)