It's that time of the year for my annual (2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009) list of the top second and third year eligible OHL players for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. This is always one of the most read articles I put out each year. It's also the topic which I receive the most questions on, whether through email or blog comments. For whatever reason, the concept fascinates people. Of course, I'm referring to the concept of the "draft re-entry." A shift in drafting philosophy has seen an enormous rise of these players getting drafted in recent years. This is mostly because drafting a second or third year eligible player gives NHL teams a lot of flexibility in their development under the CBA. Plus, a lot of these guys have been having success in recent years (Tanner Pearson and Andrew Shaw are great examples from the OHL), which basic psychology tells us that other NHL teams will try to mimic.
Just to clarify yet again, for those with limited understanding of the NHL draft system; North American players have either two or three years to get drafted, depending on their birth date. For those born from January 1 to September 15, they will go through three NHL drafts. For those born from September 16 to December 31, they will go through two NHL drafts. The players on this list are a mix of those having been passed over once or twice already.
Also, do not confuse this list with players drafted in 2014 who will re-enter the draft should they fail to come to a contractual agreement with their NHL team by June 1 (and whose birth date still allows them to be eligible). Quite often those too are referred to as draft re-entries. But this list does not contain them because it is not yet known who those players will be.
Last year four re-entries from the OHL were drafted (Mangiapane, Desrocher, Schmalz, Lorentz), and two others signed NHL deals in the offseason (Sharipzyanov and Murphy), which was definitely to be expected. This year, I think we'll see about the same number. It's a good crop and I could see another 4-5 getting drafted, and a few others getting NHL looks in the offseason.
Without further rambling, here's my list:
10. Jalen Smereck - Defence - Oshawa Generals
A first year defender, Smereck came over from the USHL this offseason and made a pretty seamless transition into Oshawa's top 4. He plays a pretty rugged game, despite being only average sized (6'0, 180lbs) and loves to look for the open ice hit as forwards cut across the blueline. He moves well on the backend and has proved to be a solid offensive contributor too, seeing time on the powerplay and looking to jump up or lead the rush. With his average size, the development of his offensive game will be key to him becoming a serious NHL prospect. But considering he's a '97 and flashes some solid two-way potential, he could be worth a look.
9. Jacob Friend - Defence - Owen Sound Attack
Definitely a personal favourite of mine. Absolutely love watching this kid play. Friend was an FA signing by the Attack and he earned his way into the Top 4 with strong play (developing great chemistry with Thomas Schemitsch). Friend is one of the OHL's most physical players, and best of all, he does it the right way. He loves to engage one on one and has proven himself to be a great stay at home defensive prospect because of how hard he plays the game. His offensive skills really improved over the course of the season too, especially his ability to start the breakout with a solid outlet pass. Started to jump up into the rush later in the year too. But with good size at 6'2, and some intriguing skills, I'd probably use a later pick on him to see how his game develops.
8. Stepan Falkovsky - Defence - Ottawa 67's
Size sells. Let's be honest. Even though the NHL is an ever changing game, (focused on speed and skill), teams will always seek out size on the blueline. Falkovsky, a Belarussian import, definitely has that. At 6'7 and nearly 230lbs, he's quite an imposing figure. Ironically, it's his offensive game that, IMO, is his main draw and not his defensive game or physical abilities in his own end. Falkovsky's main issue this year was inconsistency. Was a healthy scratch at one point because of how poorly he was playing around midseason. But he found his form again down the home stretch, which is bound to leave a good taste in the mouth of scouts. Falkovsky's got a massive point shot, showcases an ability to run the point on the powerplay, and has some puck skill in starting the rush. You draft him because he's a big body who can create some offence from the backend, and you hope his decision making and overall defensive awareness improves with more time in North America.
7. Trent Fox - Forward - Hamilton Bulldogs
Thought Fox had an outside shot of getting drafted last year, but alas it did not happen. To his credit Fox returned to Hamilton and looked much better this year. The younger brother of former Erie forward Dane, Trent has established himself as one of Hamilton's core pieces moving forward. The 6'3 center looked quicker this year and really improved his consistency away from the puck. He's living up to the Fox name by becoming quite the pest and with his size, he's got the potential to become a real physical beast down the middle. I don't know if he's got his brother's shot and release, but he's most definitely a more well rounded offensive player at the same age. With NHL teams scooping up centers with size and skill, it wouldn't shock me if they gave Fox a look this year. Big kid who's continuing to improve and shows potential to become a very well rounded player.
6. James McEwan - Forward - Guelph Storm
Easily one of the OHL's most improved players this year. While Guelph was most certainly not terrific this year, McEwan did lead the team in scoring with 25 goals and 52 points. His speed is definitely his most noticeable asset, as he uses it to create the majority of his chances flying across the blueline. Not huge (5'11), but McEwan shows little fear in driving the net, using that speed to disrupt and create. It's also an asset on the penalty kill, where he had 6 PK points this year. Quite frankly, I didn't even think McEwan was a lock to make the Storm this year, but it's obvious he put in the work to elevate his game and I'm sure NHL scouts have taken notice. He'll be a focal point to Guelph's offence again next year and as the talent level improves around him, it will be interesting to see what he can do.
5. Dante Salituro - Forward - Ottawa 67's
Probably surprising to most people that he's number 5 on this list, and not number one. This is because there was a lot of backlash over the fact that he went undrafted last year. And he continues to produce. But let me ask you something...is Salituro a better player than he was last year when all 30 NHL teams turned a blind eye? Honestly, probably not. That said, I do think that Salituro deserves to be given a chance at being a professional hockey player (be it as an NHL draft pick or signing). At 5'9, he does the majority of his work below the hashmarks and I think that's what scares NHL teams away. Can he have the same success in the dangerous areas of the ice against much bigger and stronger defenders? But you have to applaud his fearlessness and his ability to operate in the offensive end. Has a knack for finding loose pucks and I think he could be a complimentary offensive player at the next level if he continues to get quicker and upgrades in the strength department.
4. Artem Artemov - Forward - Saginaw Spirit
Like McEwan, Artemov was the offensive leader for a lackluster team. His 55 points lead Saginaw in scoring this year and he was, without a doubt, their most consistent offensive player. I really like his game and he was a noticeably improved player this year. A lot of that stemmed from the fact that he was consistently engaged physically, looking to use his size to drive the net and work the boards to create scoring chances for his linemates. While I do wonder about his scoring potential (doesn't seem to possess elite scoring hockey sense or a fantastic shot), there's most definitely enough to like about in his game to suggest that he couldn't develop into a quality checking line player at the next level. He understands how to create off of the forecheck and the cycle and is an ideal candidate to play with quicker, skilled guys to create space for them.
3. Jeremy Helvig - Goaltender - Kingston Frontenacs
Helvig was the Eastern Conference's Most Improved Player as per this year's OHL Coaches Poll. A well deserved honor. Last year, Helvig couldn't stop a beach ball (harsh, but true), sporting an .862 save percentage and was highly disappointing considering he was a high draft pick and the supposed heir apparent to Kingston's goaltending throne. But what a difference a year makes. This year, Helvig was a different player; more poised and confident. With his strong play, he managed to supplant reigning OHL Goaltender of the Year Lucas Peressini as Kingston's starter towards the end of the year. At 6'4, Helvig possesses the size that NHL team's covet in the position. And he's worked hard to become more athletic, improving his agility in the crease. He squares up to shooters well and really uses his size to cut down angles. Quite honestly, I wouldn't be surprised at all if Helvig was the second OHL goaltender off the board come June (behind Tyler Parsons).
2. Matt Luff - Forward - Hamilton Bulldogs
On paper, Luff's stats don't look incredibly impressive. His 57 points did lead the Bulldogs in scoring, which is certainly a feat to be recognized (as we have above with McEwan and Artemov). But it's how he finished the year that should have scouts taking notice. In his final 20 games, Luff had 17 goals and 14 assists and was generally an unstoppable force for Hamilton. Last year many expected Luff to be a late round selection, but he finished the year very poorly and failed to have his name called. This year, the 6'2 winger made noticeable improvements to his skating, making him a much more dangerous option off the rush. His shot is definitely an asset and as the year went on, he really gained confidence in using it from anywhere on the ice. Luff also increased his intensity level away from the puck and is developing into a power winger who can score goals in a bunch of different ways. If an NHL team really liked what they saw in the last couple of months, we could see him off the board as early as the 3rd.
1. Brett McKenzie - Forward - North Bay Battalion
Quite honestly, I do expect Luff and Helvig to be drafted ahead of McKenzie this year. But I prefer the Battalion pivot as a prospect long term and thus I've got him ranked first. I must admit, I felt he should have definitely been drafted last year, when he was a key cog to North Bay's deep playoff run (as the team's 3rd line center). But ultimately, I suppose, NHL teams felt that his skating needed to be upgraded and that he didn't show enough offensive upside to warrant a selection. This year, he made improvements to nearly every area. His skating is definitely better, more explosive. His shot has added velocity and become a major asset. He had 26 goals on the year, but only 2 were on the powerplay (which points to a continued trend upwards next year when he gets more PP time). McKenzie is also a terrific two way player who excels on the penalty kill (with 5 shorthanded goals) and loves using his size to disrupt on the forecheck and along the wall. In terms of progression, not a ton separating McKenzie from a guy like Nick Paul at this point in their development (Paul also had 26 goals in his 19 year old season). You have to trust Stan Butler when it comes to the development of big centers with offensive talent.
Honorable Mentions (organized by position):
Peterborough's Matthew Mancina had a terrific year, finishing the year with a top 5 save percentage (.910). Mancina's a big kid who really does a good job of taking away the bottom of the net by challenging shooters and he should be one of the top goalies in the league next year as an OA (should he return). Ottawa's Leo Lazarev is certainly not your ideal NHL prospect, and he probably doesn't get a look. But he deserves mention on this list. At 5'10, he does everything he can to make saves; playing a style that hearkens back to the age of Dominik Hasek...or former '67 Petr Mrazek. Consistency will likely need to improve before the NHL comes calling at his size, but he's sure fun to watch.
Erie's Darren Raddysh is definitely someone NHL teams could take a look at come June (and would have been #11 on this list). A terrific two way player, as not only did Raddysh finish in the top 20 of defenceman scoring (with 40 points), but he was also named the top defensive defenceman and 2nd best shot blocker in the West (as per the Coaches Poll). Guelph's Garrett McFadden probably doesn't get drafted, but he deserves mention here based on the improvements he made this season. The team's 1st rounder in 2013, McFadden more than doubled his point production from last year. Slightly undersized, but McFadden is one of the OHL's premier skaters from the backend and he is terrific at starting the breakout. Owen Sound captain Santino Centorame is another undersized offensive defender who could garner some attention. He's a very smart player offensively. London's Brandon Crawley is a name that continues to show up on NHL Central Scouting's list because he's got good size and loves to play the body. Lastly Windsor's Jalen Chatfield has some raw abilities that suggest he hasn't reached his high end potential yet. Can skate with the puck and really shoot it, but his awareness and decision making at both ends needs improvement.
Definitely some interesting forwards in this HM group. Windsor's Aaron Luchuk was one of the last cuts on this list after a breakout season. The 5'10, '97 born center nearly tripled his production in some areas and was maybe Windsor's most consistent player this year. He's a very smart player and has great hands in close, but I'm not sure if his skill set screams NHL player. The Kitchener duo of Gustaf Franzen and Mason Kohn deserve mention. Both are among the hardest working players in the OHL. Franzen is a terrific two-way player who creates a lot from hard work along the boards, but lacks scoring touch. Kohn is a scrappy center who battles for every inch of ice. Cut from the same cloth as them is Niagara's Johnny Corneil. Doesn't possess ideal size, but he's the perfect complimentary player on a scoring line, as he creates space with his aggressiveness in driving the net and working the cycle. Lastly we have two Imports who improved significantly as the season went on. Mississauga's Daniel Muzito-Bagenda had 16 goals in his final 24 games (including the playoffs) and showed terrific chemistry with Alex Nylander down the stretch. He's a big body who displays great hands in close. Euros are rarely worth an overage AND import spot, but I'm hoping that Mississauga elects to keep him around next year. Ottawa's Artur Tyanulin is an interesting case. He was supposed to be a star for the 67's last year, but got home sick and went back to Russia. However, he returned this year and looks to be a key cog for Ottawa moving forward. Speaking of blazing finishes, Tyanulin had 32 points in his final 25 games (including the playoffs) and was absolutely brilliant down the stretch. He's not big (5'9), but he oozes offensive talent. Has great stick skills and is a very slick puckhandler, dazzling with one on one moves and his finishing ability. As he gets stronger and more confident, he could be a top 20 scorer in the OHL next year should he return.
Special Mention: Zach Bratina, Forward, North Bay Battalion
I thought it would be great to add Bratina to the end of this list as a special mention. Bratina decided to retire this season after sustaining one too many concussions during his playing career. This decision had to be incredibly difficult. Not just because he had to walk away from the game he loved, but because he did it in the midst of a career season that would have seen him at the top of this list had he continued at that pace (12 goals in 12 games). There's no doubt in my mind that he was an NHL prospect (size, speed, skill, and physicality on the wing). But, Bratina ultimately made the right call and I have such a massive amount of respect for that. Best of luck to him in his future endeavours.