Thursday, August 24, 2017

Preseason Top 30 for the 2018 NHL Draft

With the Ivan Hlinka tournament completed and OHL preseason action around the corner, it's time for the first draft list of the season. I only started doing a preseason list a few years ago, but I enjoy it because it gives you a great perspective on where players have come from (for fun, here's the 2017 preseason list).

This is obviously a very difficult list to make. The progression for draft eligible players can often be a tad unpredictable. The player you see in a sophomore season isn't often the same player you see in a freshman year. Growth spurts occur. Strength is added. Confidence grows. Timid perimeter players can become physical beasts, etc. Or, conversely, you've got players who look great as 17 year olds but just don't progress in their sophomore seasons. Plus, you've got all the players who haven't yet played in the OHL (at least more than a few games), but who are projected to be impact players in their draft year (Andrei Svechnikov, Merrick Rippon, etc).

Heading into the season, I think the most noticeable thing about this year's OHL crop is the lack of a true top player (or players) on this current list. I honestly believe that a case can be made for any of the top 5/6 guys on my list currently as the #1. Because of that, it should come as no surprise that on early lists from scouting agencies, the OHL presence (in terms of current players) inside the top 10 is lacking. Of course, Andrei Svechnikov will probably cure that as a potential first overall pick, but it's interesting none the less. Which of these guys, if any, will really step up as potential top 10 picks?

Here's my early list:

1. Akil Thomas - Forward - Niagara IceDogs
At this point, Thomas is the top OHL prospect for me. He's not a big, power center. He's not a dominant physical player. He's not a quality two-way player. But, what he is, is an offensive wizard who is the complete package in terms of his ability to control play in the offensive end. He's a terrific skater, who looked like he had added an even more explosive first few steps at this year's Hlinka. His elite lateral agility is definitely most noticeable as it makes him incredibly elusive. IQ and playmaking ability is also elite IMO. Has fantastic anticipation and vision and the hands to create time and space for himself to extend possession and make plays. Thomas also possesses a quality shot and huge goal scoring potential. As an offensive player, he has practically no weakness. As a "complete" player, there's work to do. If he can find a way to use his speed to be a more consistent factor away from the puck, it would add another element to his repertoire. And obviously continuing to add strength would make him more difficult to separate from the puck. But the bare bones are there for a player that could be first line winger in the NHL.  

2. Ryan Merkley - Defense - Guelph Storm
Merkley is already the most talked about player from the OHL in this draft crop because of how he has scouts divided. Those who love him, love the way he can create offense using his fantastic skating ability. His ability to start, stop, change direction, and leave defenders in his wake is a sight to behold and can be mesmerizing. And his ability to control the point on the powerplay, opening up lanes and creating scoring chances is also a thing of beauty. Those who don't love him point to his questionable decisions with the puck and his weak play in the defensive end. And his lack of size has some comparing him to Ryan Murphy, who's had a tough time breaking into the NHL. Merkley is number 2 for me still because his potential is off the charts. Defenders who can create offense like Merkley can, do not grow on trees and are pivotal to success in today's NHL. When you've got a guy like Merkley, you're going to have to live with some turnovers because of the way he plays. High risk, high reward. That said, he's not number one because I've seen him at his worst, where he's turnover prone and ineffective in the defensive end. I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt that he will improve next year. And based on what we saw at the Hlinka, he's taken steps forward. He doesn't have to be perfect, but improving his awareness and effort in the defensive end will be the deciding factor as to whether he's a lottery pick or taken later.

3. Ryan McLeod - Forward - Mississauga Steelheads
Speaking of big, power centers (that I mentioned earlier), McLeod is one of those. With his play in this year's playoffs, he really elevated his status as a prospect IMO and secured this number 3 spot for me. The late '99, 6'2 forward is obviously the brother of teammate Michael McLeod and he plays a relatively similar game. Fantastic skater. Has the ability to dominate at both ends. Better playmaker than he is a goal scorer. Like his brother, Ryan will need to continue to improve his shot and his ability to drive the middle of the ice to create scoring chances. But if he can average a point per game (like he did in this year's playoffs) and dominate without the puck the way that he's capable of, McLeod will be an NHL first round pick. 

4. Ty Dellandrea - Forward - Flint Firebirds
Another power center, Dellandrea is coming off a solid first season with the Firebirds. He was also part of Canada's gold medal entry at this summer's Hlinka, where he played a shutdown, 4th line role and excelled as a penalty killer. Dellandrea is one of the most complete players of this age group, as he does a lot of little things well. Forechecks hard. Wins faceoffs. Wins battles along the wall. Uses his size to separate players from the puck. Uses his size to play the front of the net and be a disruptive force. Just a really solid player in all three zones who excels without the puck. This year I think we'll get a better idea of the offensive potential he possesses. Will he take that next step forward as a playmaking center who can drive the play and consistently create scoring chances with his size and speed? Close between McLeod and Dellandrea, but McLeod's playoff performance gives him the slight nod for me right now.

5. Evan Bouchard - Defense - London Knights
Another late '99, Bouchard is a mobile defender who has already improved a lot over his first two seasons in the OHL. Relatively effortless skater who does a good job starting the breakout and possesses a lot of offensive potential with the way that he jumps up into the play and can control the puck. Has learned to use his mobility to defend well off the rush, just as Victor Mete did under the Knights' coaching staff. He'll need to continue to work on his defensive zone coverage, and to limit his turnovers from trying to force plays up ice. But with good size, and mobility, he could be a quality two-way defender at the next level. If he could up his intensity in the defensive end and continue to create offense from the back-end, he could and should be a top 45 pick come June. I'm a big fan of his two-way potential.

6. Allan McShane - Forward - Oshawa Generals
McShane is best described as one of those guys that you sometimes don't notice a ton, but when the game is over, he's got three points. Hockey IQ is off the charts good. Was able to step right into two quality OHL lineups (Erie and Oshawa) and have an impact as a supporting offensive player despite not being the quickest or the strongest. Reads defenses very well and has great hands and vision. Shows intensity without the puck and could be a very good two-way player once he gets stronger. The one thing that he does have going against him is a lack of size and a lack of elite skating ability. As an under 6' center, he's going to need to show improvement in his first few steps this year if he wants to be an NHL first rounder (or tear up the league offensively the way Nick Suzuki did). Unfortunately, he missed the Hlinka because of an upper body injury (from an open ice hit by Jett Woo in camp), so hopefully he's ready to start the OHL season.

7. Barrett Hayton - Forward - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Moved up several spots on this list with an outstanding Hlinka performance. Was one of Canada's most consistent forwards. Really like the competitiveness and feistiness he showed. Drives the net with a reckless abandon and shows very good hands in close. But also has the skating ability and wrist shot to be a fantastic goal scoring forward. He's going to be a big part of a strong Soo Greyhounds team this year and I think that he'll be a quick riser up draft boards.

8. Giovanni Vallati - Defense - Kitchener Rangers
Vallati was one of the most disappointing players at this summer's Hlinka camp (and was the reason he didn't make the team), but you can't completely overlook all the great things he did as an OHL rookie last season. Has everything you look for in an NHL defender. Size, terrific mobility, good IQ at both ends, solid puck skill. In particular, I loved his conservative and effective defensive approach as a rookie, as he emerged as a top 4 defender on an injury riddled Kitchener blueline. His skating ability really is an asset at both ends. But he'll need to increase his intensity level in the defensive end next year and really start to utilize his size. He'll also have to figure out a way to improve his offensive production without becoming turnover prone (which was an issue at the Hlinka camp). Should definitely be a top 2 round pick come June (although I think I said the same thing about Jacob Paquette at this time last year).

9. Kevin Bahl - Defense - Ottawa 67's
Massive defender who could be this year's Logan Stanley. At 6'6, Bahl has the length and size to become a dominant defensive player. He certainly showed that at this year's Hlinka where he played a shutdown role as a third pairing defender and PK specialist. Actually possesses pretty decent mobility for a big man too, which only further solidifies his potential as a stay at home stalwart. The million dollar question is what type of offensive potential and capability does he possess? At the Hlinka, I thought he did a great job with the puck, making quick decisions in the defensive end and actually displaying good skill and reads at the point in the offensive end. Scored a huge goal for Canada in the medal round. Like Hayton, Bahl could be a quick riser if he can show well at both ends.

10. Dennis Busby - Defense - Flint Firebirds
One of my personal favourites among this year's OHL crop. Busby is already one of the better skating defenders in the OHL and this gives him great potential as a two-way defender. Thought he showed exceptionally well at the Hlinka camp, despite not making the team. Offensively, he can push the pace of play and lead the rush deep into the offensive end. His skating gives him great separation from forecheckers. And defensively, he makes up for a lack of elite size with that plus mobility and a solid defensive IQ. With his size, he's going to need to put up good offensive numbers this year to be a top two round pick, but I am definitely a believer. 

11. Owen Lalonde - Defense - Guelph Storm
This ranking certainly has more to do with potential than it does performance thus far. Lalonde certainly wasn't bad in his rookie season in the OHL, but he wasn't a standout player either. Like Busby, The former 2nd overall pick in the priority draft did show well at this summer's Hlinka camp though. Saw more from him offensively in those couple days than I did all of last season. Lalonde does have the potential to be a quality two-way defender and with an increased role we could see that come to fruition. He finally got his trade from Sudbury and is now a member of the Guelph Storm, which is a great fit for him. He and Merkley actually looked great when paired together on the PP at the Hlinka camp.

12. Kirill Nizhnikov - Forward - Barrie Colts
Bit of a tough first year for Nizhnikov in the OHL. Held out for a trade from the Steelheads and went to Barrie, but was limited to only 43 games due to injury. Without question, Nizhnikov is one of the most offensively talented players in this age group. Size, speed, and skill on the wing. Off the rush, he can be a really dynamic player and has a ton of goal scoring potential due to a quick release and creative hands. Also plays with some jam to his game and isn't afraid to mix things up. But consistency is an issue, especially in his play away from the puck. When the puck isn't on his stick, he's not the most noticeable player. Really needs to keep his feet moving as he has a tendency to float. But Barrie is injecting some some crazy talent into their roster this coming year and if Nizhnikov gets to play with Svechnikov and Lipanov, he could put up some impressive offensive numbers. Major wild card for the draft at this point.

13. Jacob Ingham - Goaltender - Mississauga Steelheads
Without a doubt, the top goaltending prospect from the OHL for the draft at this point. Ingham had an excellent rookie season with the Steelheads where he split time with Matt Mancina. He really kept Mississauga afloat while Mancina was struggling to find his game. Big, athletic goaltender who displays excellent positioning in the butterfly. Really tracks pucks well and has good movement. Like any young goalie, rebound control and fighting through traffic are areas that need to improve. But he's going to be the starter on a quality Mississauga team this year. Would be extremely surprised if Ingham doesn't remain the top goalie of this OHL class this year and a top three round pick.

14. Serron Noel - Forward - Oshawa Generals
Noel is a player who got better and better as the 2016/17 season went on. The massive winger (6'5, 200lbs) is also coming off a very impressive performance at this summer's Hlinka where he played a key role on Canada's gold medal winning squad. Love Noel's intensity away from the puck. A tireless worker who is an excellent forechecker because of his wingspan and physical gifts. Has relatively impressive straight ahead speed for a big man too and drives the net with authority. Noel really has the potential to develop into a puck possession monster. I guess the big question I have is how much offensive potential does he have? Looks awkward when moving East/West and will need to work on his agility and balance. But if he can prove to be a quality goal scorer this year to go with the size and the impact he has without the puck, Noel is going to quickly climb up draft boards.

15. Connor Roberts - Forward - Hamilton Bulldogs
A solid pro style center who has the size and ability to dominate in puck possession. Already 6'4, 215lbs, Roberts shows flashes of being able to drive the play in the offensive end by grinding out along the wall and being very difficult to separate from the puck. Doesn't possess elite start-ups, but once he gets going, he's like a mack truck who can drive the net with authority. At the Hlinka camp, actually thought he looked even quicker than he did last year which is bad news for the OHL opposition. Would love to see him play more physically and have greater intensity without the puck. Also still wonder about his overall offensive potential, especially as a playmaker. How good is his vision? But definitely a potential power center who will garner a ton of NHL interest if he produces offensively.

16. David Levin - Forward - Sudbury Wolves
Probably going to be a surprise to many with how low I have Levin. Firstly, he's a very creative player with the puck who possesses high end stickhandling ability. Can create time and space for himself with his hands. Has a sneaky good release on his wrist shot too and is slowly getting more aggressive in using it. But there are a lot of red flags for me when it comes to him being an elite level NHL prospect. He hasn't grown since entering the OHL and remains relatively undersized for a center in today's NHL. Couple that with the fact that he's not the quickest skater. Has good agility which makes him relatively elusive, but he doesn't possess great straight ahead speed or starts ups, which limits his effectiveness off the rush. I also still find him to be relatively turnover prone in the offensive zone; a lot of dazzle, but not a ton comes from it. Lastly, his two-way play and effectiveness away from the puck also remains a work in progress as he looks to get stronger. Now I know that Levin hasn't been playing high level hockey for very long, so there was bound to be a learning curve. But this is a kid who's a late '99, entering his 3rd year in the league. Because he doesn't skate incredibly well, isn't much of a complete player, and lacks ideal size, I'm just not sure he's going to be a high draft pick. Unless, of course, he lights up the league offensively and finds himself up near the top of the league's scoring race. And at this point, I'm just not sure I see that least not yet. Still a solid prospect, but not in the first round as some publications have him.

17. Matthew Struthers - Forward - Owen Sound Attack
Very underrated prospect for this draft right now because of his late '99 birth date and because he's yet to take on a large role in the OHL. But he has the makings of developing into a quality two-way center with size. Really excelled in a depth role (3rd/4th line center) for the Attack last year. Really seems to know how to work in tight spaces, drawing in defenders and showcasing good vision coming off the wall. Also shows the potential to be a solid net presence with good strength on the puck. And playing for an Attack team that preaches two-way play from it's players, his defensive game has improved and shows a lot of potential, especially when paired with his size. Really interested to see what he can do with a little more ice time this year (although it looks like he'll battle a guy like Aidan Dudas for that). Just how good he can be offensively remains to be seen, but I have liked what I have seen thus far.

18. Nathan Dunkley - Forward - Kingston Fronteancs
Highly competitive two-way, playmaking center who is coming off an excellent rookie season and performance at the Hlinka camp (even though he was left off of the final roster). One of the first things you notice is Dunkley's speed. Incredibly quick player who has an extremely high motor, always buzzing around looking for an opportunity to battle for the puck. As he gets stronger, I think we'll see his physical game really develop to match his forechecking ability. Shows good vision as a playmaker, and the ability to use his speed to create plays off the rush. He's slightly undersized and I do wonder how much of a goal scorer he can be, but if he performs well, he could be a quick mover up the rankings.

19. Liam Foudy - Forward - London Knights
Speedy, competitive forward who has been tough to get a read on because of wavering ice time with the deep Knights (a tune we're all used to hearing). But I saw enough games of London last year where he made the odd play or two that really made me believe his potential is quite high. Like how he uses his speed to attack the middle of the ice and he does seem to possess quite good hands. And he's a competitive kid who is already a pretty good forechecker. A lack of size and strength really seemed to prevent him from making a consistent impact as a rookie. And is he a center or a winger? Lots of questions surrounding Foudy (including how much ice time he gets this year too), but I've seen enough to rank him this highly.

20. Tyler Tucker - Defense - Barrie Colts
Easily one of my favourite prospects for the draft right now from this OHL crop. To be blunt, he was one of the only reasons I enjoyed watching the Colts, at times, last year. Tucker, with only a year of OHL hockey under his belt, is already one of the most physical defenders in the OHL. Really competitive kid who seems to relish in the opportunity to lay out an attacker, and defends the crease and the corners with pride. His skating isn't great, but IMO it's already improved. At the beginning of the year we saw teams looking to abuse him out wide, beating him with speed. But by the end of the year, it seems like he had made some great adjustments to utilize his size and anticipate the play better. Currently, makes simple decisions with the puck and doesn't really look to take chances. But I know he was known for a massive point shot in minor midget. As long as he continues to improve his mobility, and shows a little more with the puck, Tucker could be a quality stay at home defense prospect.

21. Kody Clark - Forward - Ottawa 67's
Really liked the development of Clark as the OHL season went on last year. Transferring from St. Andrew's College, there was bound to be a learning curve, but I felt like Clark got better and better as the year progressed. The son of Leafs' legend Wendel Clark, Kody has undergone a big growth spurt over the last few years (was 5'9 in his OHL draft year and was listed at 6'1 by the 67's last year). It's really helped his competitive style of game, giving him the strength to drive the net and it's given him better puck protection skills. Showed a lot of potential late in the year as a power winger who can put defenders on his back and make skilled plays with the puck. Possesses a heavy shot and could definitely have goal scoring potential. He's a late '99, so he'll probably have to have quite the breakout season to stay on the draft radar. But he could be this year's Jonah Gadjovich. Really curious to see how his game looks this year.

22. Carter Robertson - Defense - Ottawa 67's
Raw defender who was one of my favourites heading into the 2016 Priority Draft. His rookie season in Ottawa had major ups and downs. Thought he looked pretty decent to start the year, showcasing his natural offensive abilities from the back-end. But as the season went on, he really seemed to tire/lose confidence and his ice time was cut as well (even drawing in as a forward a few times). Still think he's got among the highest potential of any defender in this age group, as he gains strength and confidence in his abilities. Has size, mobility, smarts, and skill. Just needs to gain experience. Was disappointed that he didn't stand out more at the Hlinka camp, but I still think he'll have a good sophomore season. 

23. Adam McMaster - Forward - North Bay Battalion
McMaster is an undersized center who is also one of the quickest players of this age group. He can flat out fly on the ice and he's learning how use his speed to be an asset without the puck too, under the tutelage of Stan Butler. Like how competitive he is and how he plays bigger than his size. He flashes great skill with the puck and the ability to be a top flight playmaker too. Given his lack of size, I want to see how his offensive game continues to grow before I put him higher on my list. He looked good at the Hlinka camp and hopefully he can take that experience and use it to become a go to player for the Battalion this year. They're going to need the scoring help. 

24. Riley Damiani - Forward - Kitchener Rangers
Another undersized forward who plays with a high compete level. Demonstrated great effort at both ends for the Rangers in a checking line role last year. But I think there's a lot of offensive potential here. Flashes great hands and creativity, to go with great acceleration. He's very quick to loose pucks and always seems to keep his motor running. Damiani is another player I thought had a very good Hlinka camp and looks poised to have a breakout in the OHL. The question is, where does he slot in a deep Kitchener lineup? Will he get the ice time necessary to standout?

25. Hunter Holmes - Forward - Flint Firebirds
Really intriguing offensively oriented center. Center with decent size who flashes potential to be able to control the middle of the ice. Looks comfortable working in close to the net and displays good hands in close. Because he lacked strength, he struggled a bit as an OHL rookie. But as he gets stronger, he could be a very interesting prospect. Good size, good skating, good hands, and the potential to control the tempo in the offensive end if he adds more intensity to his game. It will be really interesting to see where he slides into Flint's line-up this year and how he grows with a young team.

26. Declan Chisholm - Defense - Peterborough Petes
Smooth skating, potential two-way defender who received sheltered minutes on a deep blueline as a rookie. The biggest compliment that you could make is that he didn't ever stand out in a negative way. Makes smart decisions with the puck and shows a good head for the game defensively. I guess the question is, how much can he impact the game offensively using his skating ability? As he moves into a top four role this year (likely), we'll get a good chance to see what he's capable of at both ends. Could be a quick riser if he shows well. 

27. Pavel Gogolev - Forward - Peterborough Petes
Even with limited ice time on a solid Peterborough club, Gogolev had a relatively disappointing rookie season after being drafted 8th overall. You can tell he has a high skill level, but the strength, confidence, and intensity level were seriously lacking last year and it prevented him from making more of an impact. Billed as a puck protection beast and net presence, it's likely Gogolev just wasn't physically mature enough to play his game. That brings us to this season where he's hopefully gained the strength to give him the confidence to use his speed and puck carrying ability to put a few more pucks in the net. But he'll have to play better to earn more ice time on a still strong Peterborough club.

28. Aidan Dudas - Forward - Owen Sound Attack
Absolutely love this player. He's extremely exciting to watch and you can tell that his hustle and non stop motor is contagious among his linemates. Thought he had a great Hlinka tournament, where he showcased his intense, puck hound style. He's just a very complete player and I think he's going to eventually develop into a terrific OHL player. The problem is, he's extremely undersized, even by NHL standards. At only 5'7 (as per his Hlinka measurements), Dudas is going to have to play out of his mind to stay on NHL draft lists. But he could get a chance to be a 2nd liner in Owen Sound this year and I think he's going to have a good year. But will it be enough? If this guy were 5'11, or even 5'10, he'd be in my top 15 on this list.

29. Max Grondin - Forward - Saginaw Spirit
A very interesting prospect for this year's draft and a guy who will rise pretty quickly if he can up his offensive production. Grondin is a 6'3 power center who drives the net hard, works the corners, and plays both ends efficiently. His skating needs to improve, and I think it remains to be seen as to how good his hands are and what his offensive potential is. But these are the types of guys NHL teams love and Grondin is going to get more of a chance to contribute this year if he shows progression early on.

30. Semyon Der-Arguchintsev - Forward - Peterborough Petes
One of the more exciting players to watch in this age group because of his playmaking ability. Dazzles in puck control at times because he can keep the puck on a string. But also exhibits the vision to spot passing lanes and anticipates the play well. For a rookie, I thought he did a good job limiting his turnovers in the offensive end. He is undersized though (5'9) and he'll need to continue to get quicker to make himself more elusive. And obviously adding strength will be crucial to filling out the rest of his game so he doesn't have to constantly rely on his hands to create time and space. Potential is very high here.

Honorable Mentions:

Jordan Kooy - Goaltender - London Knights

Damien Giroux - Forward - Saginaw Spirit

Connor Corcoran - Defense - Windsor Spitfires
Peter Stratis - Defense - Ottawa 67's

DJ Busdeker - Forward - Saginaw Spirit

Brady Hinz - Forward - Sarnia Sting

Eric Guest - Forward - Kitchener Rangers

Appearing Soon:

Andrei Svechnikov - Forward - Barrie Colts

Merrick Rippon - Defense - Mississauga Steelheads

Nico Gross - Defense - Oshawa Generals

Blade Jenkins - Forward - Saginaw Spirit

Zach Malik - Defense - Sudbury Wolves

Adam Liska - Forward - Kitchener Rangers

Billy Moskal - Forward - London Knights

Cam Hillis - Forward - Guelph Storm

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