A strong OHL crop of prospects for the Florida Panthers.
1. Owen Tippett - Saginaw Spirit
Kind of a status quo year for Tippett. After making some nice strides last year in rounding out his game, he was able to continue to build upon that to be more than just a North/South attacking goal scorer. Tippett's size and skating combination make him very difficult to stop once he gains a head of steam coming across the blueline. And he still has no conscience when it comes to shooting the puck. His goal scoring numbers did drop a bit this year, which I think had to do with him making more of an effort to utilize his teammates and exhibit more patience in the offensive zone. And his play and engagement in all three zones has really come a long way. His effort and understanding as a defensive player really progressed over his OHL career. That said, I do still have some reservations about his game and how well it translates to the NHL. His goal scoring numbers dropped every year of the last three. For how talented he is, that just shouldn't have happened. I just wonder how good his hockey IQ is. He still seems to struggle to find his way to the middle of the ice at times and even with his size, he can be neutralized in higher traffic areas. As he transitions to the pro level this year, I don't expect him to make the jump to the NHL immediately. I think he spends the year at the AHL level where I would expect him to be a 25+ goal scorer. But I could also see an adjustment period being needed similar to when Michael Dal Colle made the jump.
2. Serron Noel - Oshawa Generals
I really liked the progression shown by Noel this year. His game took a massive leap forward. He's just such a powerful kid. As he gains confidence in his ability to handle the puck and work as the primary focal point, there's no limit to what he can accomplish at this level. He generates so much power in his stride and is so difficult to separate from the puck. Noel showed way more consistency in his ability to assert himself physically in all three zones. He's just such an asset in puck retrievals with the way he can control the wall, or force defenders into turnovers. This made him a very good penalty killer. Also thought Noel's shot looked much better this year. It's clear that he worked on his release to be able to make quicker plays with the puck in traffic. Moving forward to the coming year, I think there are still a few things Noel can do better. Continuing to improve his overall agility, especially with the puck on his stick should be a focus. Additionally, I want to see him be an even more dominant net front presence. This is especially true on the powerplay. A guy with his profile should not be limited to 5 powerplay goals on a year. This year's playoffs were also a learning experience for Noel. He struggled a bit with some undisciplined play. Next season, I expect another step forward for Noel. I think he ends up as a 40+ goal scorer and a 90+ point player.
3. Vladislav Kolyachonok - Flint Firebirds
Great selection for the Panthers this year. I'm a big fan of what Kolyachonok brings to the ice (and off the ice). He's a very mature kid with a clear understanding of what it will take for him to be a pro hockey player. He's extremely dedicated. It wasn't the easiest year for him; starting in London, getting waved, waiting a long time for his visa, and then suiting up for a last place club. But he handled it all with class and was a leader and workhorse for the Firebirds from the back end. His mobility is such an asset. In particular, his first few steps are fantastic. He is so explosive. He uses that to his advantage in the defensive end by being aggressive at denying entries and stepping up at the blueline. He knows his mobility gives him the ability to recover and chase down those loose pucks in his own end on dump ins. He also has a great stick in the defensive end and really does a great job staying with the play near his crease, denying slot passes and breaking up scoring chances. Offensively, I think there is way more to his game than we have seen. He looked great manning the point of the powerplay the U18's, and that's something that we didn't see a lot of in the OHL this year. With Flint likely taking a step forward as a team, I think we'll see a big jump in Kolyachonok's numbers. One thing I do want to see him doing is using his mobility to start the breakout more efficiently. He can be forced into turnovers in his own zone because of some poor decision making. He just needs to keep things simple and trust his athletic ability to create that separation instead of forcing things. Look for him to be in the 10+ goals, 35+ assist range this year.
4. Cole Schwindt - Mississauga Steelheads
I know there were some that were surprised by Schwindt's third round selection by the Panthers this year. But this is a kid who plays a very well rounded game and who has a projectable pro frame for the center position. He also really improved as the season went on and blossomed following the trades of McLeod and Tippett to Saginaw. With increased ice time, we saw his offensive game really take shape. With his length, Schwindt is a real asset as a defensive forward. He's a terrific penalty killer and he does a great job forcing turnovers in the DZ and the NZ. Schwindt also works well down low, keeping his legs moving to prolong possession and he has good vision coming off of the wall. In order to take that next step as an offensive player this coming year, I want to see Schwindt become more of a consistent factor creating off the rush and with pace. In order to do so, his ability to handle the puck at top speed needs to improve. And his skating, especially those first few steps, could also improve. With first line ice time and special teams responsibility, I think Schwindt should be a point per game player or close. A 25/40 year is definitely a realistic expectation.
5. Greg Meireles - Kitchener Rangers
Hard work pays off, as Meireles gets drafted in his final year of eligibility. He was an absolute force in the second half of the OHL season. Meireles is a very complete player. He skates well. He has good puck skill and has a good shot. He is engaged in all three zones. And he is terrific below the hash marks even though he isn't the biggest guy on the ice. He is very difficult to pin down because of how strong and tenacious he is. It looks like the plan for Meireles is for him to return to Kitchener for his overage year and this is a decision that I fully endorse. This will give Meireles a chance to really dominate over a full season and be a part of a strong Kitchener club that could win an OHL Championship. As an overager, Meireles should contend for the scoring title and I think he has a real shot of developing into a quality NHL prospect.