Well it's pretty obvious that scouting the 2021 draft crop is going to be different. No Hlinka/Gretzky Cup, or training camp for that matter. That camp always gives you a great idea of the improvements that draft eligible players have made over the summer. Additionally, we have a late start to the season, coming in February. And that's if everything goes according to plan and the pandemic "cooperates." As difficult as this list was to make this year, I think it's still a great exercise. 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 2020 preseason list).
Never mind the pandemic, in any year this is a tough list to make (as mentioned). 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 16/17 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 (like Logan Mailloux, Brenden Sirizzotti, Artyom Grushnikov, Colby Saganiuk, Alec Geci, etc).
The strength of this year's crop for the OHL remains to be seen right now. We have a contender for first overall in Brandt Clarke. I would be shocked if he is not a top 5 selection when all is said and done. We have a strong group of forwards that look like candidates for the first round. And we also have what looks like it could be the best crop of OHL goaltenders in several years (Gaudreau, Lennox, Vrbetic, Cajan, Drobac, and any other first year goalie who wants to step up). I am also really curious to see how many Import players and '03's and '02's (who didn't play much last year) find their way into the rankings because it looks like a very strong group on paper. Bring on the 2021 scouting season!
Here's my early list:
1. Brandt Clarke - Defense - Barrie Colts
About as complete a 16 year old defender that I've seen come through the OHL. Defensively, he was the most composed, mature, and effective rookie blueliner since Aaron Ekblad. I mean, that should come as no surprise considering Clarke came from a Don Mills MM team that played with more structure than some OHL teams. However, it's still impressive. If you recall, I posted some advanced stats in my (relatively) recent Top 25 prospects release (here). Clarke's defensive metrics, such as his 9.17 takeaways per game, were right up near the top of the class already. Offensively, his confidence really soared in the second half after the coaching change to Todd Miller. In the 22 games under Miller, Clarke had 21 points. We saw him get more powerplay responsibility. We saw his confidence blossom in leading the attack, taking more chances to create. This is a 6'1 (and possibly still growing), right shot defender who tracks as a possible number one, all situations, franchise defender. He has mobility. He can play physical. I mean, there aren't many, if any faults to his game. Needless to say, it looks like he'll get drafted higher than his brother Graeme (of the 67's and New Jersey Devils). Brandt has a very real chance of pushing for first overall and I would be shocked if he's not a top five pick in 2021.
2. Mason McTavish - Left Wing/Center - Peterborough Petes
There's a lot to like about McTavish's game from an offensive standpoint and that's why he's ranked second on this list. He is a very talented goal scorer. The release on his wrist shot is superb and he has the type of shot and aggressiveness that makes him a threat from anywhere on the ice. I also really like how he attacks the middle and plays net front. These are the types of goals that are easily translatable. McTavish is also highly skilled with the puck and has that ability to create his own scoring chances. He is so much more than just a triggerman. Coming out of MM, McTavish was billed as a physically aggressive player and someone who could drive time of possession down low, but we didn't see that as much in his first OHL season. It will definitely be something to watch for in his sophomore season as he gets stronger. Ultimately, how high McTavish goes will depend on his ability to round out his game and find consistency. He hit a major wall in the second half of his rookie season, but that's not uncommon for first year players. I'm particularly interested to see how his ability to facilitate and his patience with the puck matures this year. If he takes the necessary steps forward, there's no reason to suggest that he can't be a top 10 selection.
3. Francesco Pinelli - Center/Left Wing - Kitchener Rangers
A personal favourite of mine dating back to his MM days, I'm not sure we got the best of Pinelli last year, or a true indication of the type of dominating force that he can be. With a game built around his aggressiveness, on and off the puck, I don't think he was strong enough to truly showcase his talent. We got bits and pieces of a larger puzzle, but I think he's in for a monster draft year. At his best, Pinelli is a driving force in transition because of his skating ability and assertiveness in driving through defenders, rather than around them. He may not be huge (5'11), but he plays the game hard. His shot is also a big weapon, IMO, particularly his ability to shoot while in full stride. Again, I'm not sure that's something we saw a ton of in his first year. I just see Pinelli as this potentially dominant two-way force down the middle who can be a future star at the NHL level. With some graduations in Kitchener, he's likely to get all the ice time and responsibility he can handle and I am very excited to see what he does with it.
4. Daniil Chayka - Defense - Guelph Storm
A late 2002 born defender, Chayka had a really nice breakout season for the Storm in 2019/20, where he established himself as a top 3 OHL defender on a team that surprised many with their strong play in the face of numerous graduations. Chayka has a lot going for him. He's big (6'3). He's mobile. He can quarterback a powerplay or anchor a penalty kill. He is a possible all situations type of pro at the next level. I think he shows a lot of composure when holding the offensive blueline and does his best work when he's controlling the point. His instincts as a goal scorer are excellent and he does a great job identifying opportunities for him to jump up into the slot to use his big shot. Next season, there are a couple things that I'll be looking for. The first is, can he be more effective leading the rush and help to create in transition? The second is, can he learn to use his size more to his advantage in the defensive end to play a little more aggressively and to take away space? If the answer to both of those is yes, he's a potential lottery selection. If not, he may see his ranking slide a bit as scouts question his upside as a pro. I've been told that he was excellent for the Russian U20 team in a preseason event this summer, so that bodes well. He's also currently getting reps in, in Russia as he awaits the start of the OHL season.
5. Brennan Othmann - Left Wing - Flint Firebirds
Honestly, I wanted to put Othmann higher on this list. I really like his game. I think it is easy to see his game translating well to the NHL; he's composed and mature on the ice beyond a typical 16 year old forward. Two things really stand out about him. The first is his shot. He can rifle the puck, possessing both a great wrist shot and one timer when positioned near the dot. The potential for him to develop into a high end goal scorer is high. The second is his understanding of how to play without the puck in all three zones. His defensive awareness is terrific and his effectiveness as a defensive player will only improve as he gets stronger. Bottom line, Othmann is just a very efficient and intelligent support winger. The big thing that I'll be looking for this coming season is improvements in his skating, both in his power/start ups and his top gear. If he can really upgrade that area, he'll be weapon as the F1 on the forecheck and an even more dangerous goal scorer.
6. Brett Harrison - Center/Left Wing - Oshawa Generals
Harrison did a great job for the Generals in his first OHL season. I think his skating was definitely better than it was advertised to be (one of the reasons he fell to Oshawa at 16th). He plays with such power and conviction through the middle and has a lot of success driving the net or playing near the crease despite his age and his physical immaturity. His hands are quite good and he proved to be an excellent net front presence on the powerplay for a talented Generals team. I think that because of his strength on the puck, size, and hands, he could develop into a very solid and dependable player down low who can really drive time of possession. Like any young player, I found that his decision making with the puck, in particular the quickness of his decisions and precision of his passes, was very inconsistent. If he's going to be that "power center," we're going to want to see him increase his pace of play to be the guy leading the charge over the blueline, making those quick decisions to get the puck to his wingers. The Generals hope to be one of the best teams in the OHL this year and they are hoping Harrison can have a big year.
7. Ben Gaudreau - Goaltender - Sarnia Sting
I am always a little uneasy ranking goaltenders this high in preseason rankings because their development is so unpredictable. However, Gaudreau has been hyped for a few years now as one of the top young goalies to come through Ontario in recent years. His play at the U17's not withstanding, he was about as good as you could have expected him to be last year with Sarnia. He had some stinkers, and playing behind that Sarnia defense could not have been easy. However, he also had some amazing performances where he absolutely stole games for the Sting. His tracking ability is just phenomenal and as such, so is his positioning. Given his size and how well he sees the ice, he truly can be a wall at times. He's just one of those kids who makes the hard saves look easy. That sort of composure is really attractive to NHL scouts, perhaps more so than the goalie who relies on just his athleticism to keep him in plays.
8. Ryan Winterton - Center - Hamilton Bulldogs
An aggressive ranking for Winterton here as I haven't really seen him this high on other early lists. But I think he is going to really rocket up draft lists this year with a strong season. At times last year with the Bulldogs, he looked like a real force out there. When asked to play up in the lineup, he elevated his game. And when asked to play lower, he was still effective as a two-way center. As an early September birthday, he is going to be one of the youngest players in this draft class and as such, I believe that there is a ton of untapped potential here. I see speed and power. I see high end skill with the puck and the ability to be creative to facilitate for teammates. I see a high end IQ in all three zones. I really hope that Hamilton gives him an increased role next year so that he can showcase possible improvement.
9. Chase Stillman - Right Wing - Sudbury Wolves
The son of coach (and former NHL'er) Cory Stillman, Chase had a terrific rookie season in Sudbury. I really like how he pushes the pace of play in transition and is already effective at gaining the offensive zone. He handles the puck well at full speed and is certainly not lacking in confidence when the puck is on his stick. I also really like his intensity level without the puck in the offensive zone. Like his brother Riley, I see him developing into a very physical player and a guy who could be a real pain in the ass to play against. Ultimately, I want to see how he handles an increased role this coming season with the Wolves to get a better gauge of his overall scoring potential and NHL upside.
10. Wyatt Johnston - Center - Windsor Spitfires
Much like the rest of his teammates in Windsor, it was an up and down first year for the former 6th overall selection. Johnston is a lot like Hamilton's Ryan Winterton in the sense that he's a strong two-way player already and has a high IQ as a playmaker. I've got Winterton a little higher right now because from what I've seen, I think his skating ability and puck skill/creativity are a little more advanced than Johnston. But a lot can change in an offseason (especially one as long as this one). Competition for ice time will be high in Windsor next year due to so many forwards returning. But I'm betting we see him rise to the top.
11. Connor Lockhart - Right Wing/Center - Erie Otters
An offensive buzzsaw, Lockhart may have been a little underwhelming in his rookie season with Erie, but he remains a forward with an abundance of skill and a high offensive ceiling. He is ranked 11th because I am assuming that the issues that he had last year (strength on the puck, consistency, fighting through traffic) will all be much improved this coming season. While he may be a little undersized, he possesses the speed, skill, and finishing ability to be a superstar in this league and a high end NHL player.
12. Tristan Lennox - Goaltender - Saginaw Spirit
It was a tough year for Lennox, a player that I thought would come in and be one of the best goaltenders in the OHL last year. But an injury at the Hlinka/Gretzky really seemed to deflate him and he just wasn't able to get himself on track. His confidence just seemed really low and every time I saw him play, he seemed to really be fighting the puck and having trouble tracking the play and controlling his rebounds. But make no mistake, this kid has the potential to be one of the first goaltenders off the board in 2021. At 6'4, he has the size and athleticism you look for. And when he's on, he is nearly impenetrable. Saginaw should have a strong team yet again and I really do think that he gets himself back on track.
13. Joe Vrbetic - Goaltender - North Bay Battalion
Another late born '02, Vrbetic differs from Lennox in that he is still entering only his second OHL season. Like Gaudreau and Lennox, Vrbetic has a very high ceiling. A hybrid goalie (certainly rare to see a goalie who stays on his feet as much as Vrbetic does), Vrbetic's size at 6'6 gives him a major advantage. He's a huge kid. When hes squaring to shooters and covering his angles well, Vrbetic is a brick wall. His rebound control, especially on low shots, really seemed to improve over the season. In fact, his entire game did. Before the pandemic stoppage, he was playing some really good hockey. If he managed to get a little quicker in his crease (he can look a little stiff at times) and bulk up a bit to be stronger covering his posts, he could easily push Lennox and Gaudreau. As mentioned, the goaltending crop for this draft looks fantastic from the OHL.
14. Ethan Del Mastro - Defense - Mississauga Steelheads
Without question, Del Mastro was one of the most improved 03's in the league from the start of the 2019/20 season to the end. You could really see him gain confidence in his ability to play physically and in his ability to move the puck. At 6'3, his size makes him really intriguing as a potential two-way defender, especially when you factor in his fluid stride in all directions. We've seen how guys like Kaiden Guhle and Braden Schneider have rocketed up draft lists in 2020 and Del Mastro has a chance to be a similar kind of player. Look for him to develop into one of the most feared hitters in the OHL over the next few seasons. Ultimately the question will be, how good can he be with the puck?
15. Avery Hayes - Right Wing - Hamilton Bulldogs
A late '02, Hayes missed some time with injuries in his second OHL season and as such, wasn't able to make the kind of impact that some may have expected him to. The upper body injury came at the worst time too, as Hayes was really heating up at the end of December. When he's at his best, Hayes is a high energy winger who impacts the game in a variety of ways. He has the speed and skill to push the pace and handle zone entry. However, he can also be used as a forechecker because of his strong work along the wall and his quick feet to cut off passing lanes. Hayes can play the PK or the PP and has good vision as a playmaker. Basically, he's a versatile kid. Let's hope he can stay healthy next year and take his offensive game to the next level.
16. Isacc Enright - Defense - Niagara IceDogs
Mobility and quickness are the name of the game here. Enright has the potential to be one of the better skating defenders in the OHL and as such, a very effective puck mover. He certainly struggled at times in his rookie season, both with decision making and in his own end. However, I do think that he improved over the course of the year and that his confidence as a puck carrier really stood out. He also happens to be a right shot defender who can potentially QB a powerplay, obviously a hot commodity. I would imagine that he is given first crack to replace Elijah Roberts' ice time this year and could be the IceDogs QB on PP #1.
17. Jack Beck - Left Wing - Ottawa 67's
A personal favourite of mine. Just a player who does everything well. And he does everything well because his hockey sense and overall ability to excel without the puck is among the best of any Ontario player in this '03 class. He played so many different roles for the 67's in his rookie season, even getting significant time on a scoring line with Jack Quinn. Beck is just the perfect complimentary winger. The question is, what kind of upside does he have? Can he continue to upgrade his skating, his shot, his skill level with the puck, and his confidence with the puck in order to be more than just a passenger? I think he can, but let's see how this year turns out.
18. Josh Bloom - Left Wing - Saginaw Spirit
Another personal favourite who I felt was a real steal for the Spirit in the second round a year ago. His play as an OHL rookie certainly made that seem so too, as even as a fourth liner on a lot of nights, he found a way to make himself noticeable with his energy level and strength driving through the middle of the ice. A good sized winger, Bloom plays the power game to a tee and is going to be a very attractive player for NHL scouts should he prove that he can be an effective goal scorer. With the likelihood that some of Saginaw's net front presences and complimentary wing attackers graduate, Bloom could be a guy who ends up playing in the top 6 this year. The fact that NHL Central Scouting left him off their watch list was head scratching.
19. Deni Goure - Center - Owen Sound Attack
Goure is a quick, goal scoring center who has the potential to develop into an all situations player in the OHL and at the next level. A quick strike player as an OHL rookie, I was also impressed with his work ethic away from the puck and how he managed to hunt down scoring chances in the slot despite being undersized. His release and shot are both high end. Ultimately, as a slightly undersized center, I want to see how he responds to being more of a focal point in Owen Sound's attack this season.
20. Stuart Rolofs - Left Wing - London Knights
Man, is it tough to evaluate London rookies. There's a reason why they start low on preseason lists and then rocket up when games start being played. The Hunter development model works and should be trusted. This is especially true for players like Rolof. A big winger, Rolofs can absolutely fly out there and he can really shoot the puck too. The rest of his game and how he utilizes that speed is a major work in progress. But his potential as a serious NHL prospect is quite high. This ranking is unquestionably made with the belief that Rolofs will take a big step forward this year, like other Knights in the past.
21. Paul Christopoulos - Defense - North Bay Battalion
Big fan of Christopoulos, going back to his MM year with Don Mills. His skating ability, IQ with the puck, and ability to create in transition/push the pace make him the perfect modern day defender. His rookie season with the Battalion was certainly up and down (although I don't think he was as bad as his -41 would suggest). As an undersized defender (5'10), the focus and attention will be on Christopoulos to improve his offensive production in his draft year in order to stay on the draft radar. Hopefully he is given a chance to be the QB1 on North Bay's powerplay and I'm curious to see if his game takes that next step.
22. Jack Matier - Defense - Ottawa 67's
Tough to get a read on the type of OHL player Matier could become with limited ice time with Ottawa last year. But the 6'3, right shot defender did stand out at times with his decision making with the puck when holding the blueline, and his positioning defensively. With good four way mobility and potential to develop into a two-way defender, Matier could shoot up lists quickly if he shows progression. The 67's have a very talented young defense though, so playing time will be tough to come by yet again as he battles to push for a top four spot in light of a few graduations.
23. Jacob Holmes - Defense - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
One thing that the Greyhounds have done very well in recent years is develop defenders and Holmes could be the next in line. A strong skating two-way defender, Holmes certainly had his minutes sheltered in his rookie season, but stood out at times, especially in the defensive end. Drafted as someone who possessed high end offensive potential, Holmes will look to showcase his ability to carry the puck and jump up in the rush more consistently this year. With several returning defenders, it may have to be from the third pairing, yet again though.
24. Braeden Kressler - Center/Right Wing - Flint Firebirds
An undersized forward (5'8, 155lbs last year), Kressler is noticeable because he plays so much larger than his size. With speed to burn, he excelled without the puck for Flint, looking to force turnovers without the puck, driving the net, and excelling as a penalty killer. This coming season, he'll be looking to showcase what he can do with the puck on his stick as he prepares for an increased role in the Flint offense.
25. Ty Voit - Right Wing - Sarnia Sting
One player who was really hurt by the lack of the Hlinka/Gretzky Cup this summer as I think he would have been a top six player for the U.S. squad. No question, Voit is a skilled player. He dazzled at times as a rookie with his creativity in the offensive end. The skating is high end too, which you like to see from an undersized forward (5'8, 140lbs last year). Like Arcuri, Voit could move up lists quickly if he's producing and is able to improve his consistency and confidence.
26. Ethan Burroughs - Right Wing - Owen Sound Attack
Assertive, support winger who was a standout for the Attack last year as an OHL rookie. Burroughs excels down low and along the wall and plays the game hard. He very much fits the type cast of the kind of forward Owen Sound has been developing well in recent years. Just how high is Burrough's offensive ceiling? Can he be a leader on a scoring line and if he doesn't, does he have the scoring instincts and skill to still be an effective middle six player?
27. Francesco Arcuri - Left Wing - Kingston Frontenacs
One of the key members of that strong Don Mills team, Arcuri struggled at times in his rookie season with Kingston. Incredibly skilled (evident by his shootout success), he seemed to lack the strength to really push through traffic and maintain possession long enough to show what he is capable of as a playmaker. No question, Kingston will be hoping that he has improved some of those physical skills in order to be a consistent contributor. As mentioned, he's a very creative player and could rise quickly if he's producing. He'll need to cut down on some of those offensive zone turnovers that were abundant as a rookie.
28. Connor Punnett - Defense - Barrie Colts
Physical, stay at home defender prospect who was a key piece in the Ryan Suzuki deal from Saginaw. At 6'1 (and likely still growing), Punnett already excelled at times as an intimidating presence in the defensive end as a 16 year old, showing a penchant for the big hit and for competing hard along the wall. Look for that to increase moving forward. The question is, does he have the puck skill and the IQ to be a two-way defender? He struggled at times with his offensive decision making as a rookie. He could get a look as a top four defender in Barrie this season.
29. Maddox Callens - Left Wing - Kingston Frontenacs
Sometimes you just have to go with your gut in these preseason lists and Callens, like Wisdom the year prior, always impressed me in a limited role when I watched the Frontenacs. Not a huge kid at 5'10, but he plays much bigger than that and displays a real nice power game from the wing. He drives the net. He controls the wall. He kills penalties. I'm operating under the impression that his skating and offensive game take nice steps forward this year.
30. Braden Hache - Defense - Kingston Frontenacs
Another instance of following my gut. Hache may not have played a ton for Kingston last year, but he always stuck out. Good size. Good mobility. Good instincts at both ends. I think he tracks well as a very good stay at home defender, at the very least. Got some flashbacks to watching Kevin Bahl in his rookie season at times. Additionally. Hache seems like a real amazing kid with his humanitarian efforts. If he works as hard on the ice to improve, as he does off of it, he should be a player.
J.R. Avon - Center - Peterborough Petes
Alex Christopoulous - Right Wing - North Bay Battalion
Simon Motew - Defense - Kitchener Rangers
Kyle Jackson - Left Wing - North Bay Battalion
Daniel Michaud - Left Wing/Center - Oshawa Generals
Tucker Robertson - Right Wing - Peterborough Petes
Kaleb Lawrence - Left Wing - Owen Sound Attack
Landon McCallum - Center - Sudbury Wolves
Giancarlo Chanton - Defense - Niagara IceDogs
Matthew Maggio - Right Wing - Windsor Spitfires
Bryce Montgomery - Defense - London Knights
Lawson Sherk - Center - Hamilton Bulldogs
Logan Mailloux - Defense - London Knights
Brenden Sirizzotti - Right Wing - Ottawa 67's
Colby Saganiuk - Ceneter - Erie Otters
Artem Guryev - Defense - Peterborough Petes
Ranvir Gill-Shane - Defense - Ottawa 67's
Matvei Petrov - Right Wing - North Bay Battalion
Alex Geci - Center - Sarnia Sting
Artyom Grushnikov - Defense - Hamilton Bulldogs
Brian Zanetti - Defense - Peterborough Petes
Pavel Cajan - Goaltender - Kitchener Rangers
Vsevolod Gaidamak - Center - Ottawa 67's