The Ottawa 67's...I mean, New Jersey Devils are up next.
1. Kevin Bahl - Ottawa 67's
One of the main pieces of the Taylor Hall trade, Bahl has turned himself into a legitimate NHL prospect and a potential top four shutdown defender over his four years in the OHL. The 6'7, 240lbs blueliner routinely has his way with OHL forwards, tossing them aside as if they weighed as much as a feather. Be it challenges in the corners, in front of the net, or in the neutral zone, he wins the majority. He suffocates you with his strength and is just such a physical player. No question, opposing players grip their stick a little tighter when he's on the ice. However, with his good four way mobility, Bahl is also strong defending the attack and denying zone entry. He is aggressive stepping up on attackers, laying the body on forwards trying to squeeze across the blueline near the wall. Sometimes, this aggressiveness can take him out of the play and lead to odd man opportunities, so he'll have to continue to learn to pick his spots at the pro level. His gap control has really improved and it is rare to see him beat to the outside as he has corrected some of those footwork issues that gave him trouble early on in his OHL career. Bahl has also really improved his exit pass and overall ability to handle the puck and make quick decisions in the defensive zone. Among players tracked by InStat Hockey, Bahl's 84 percent passes completed percentage is among the highest of any defender in the league. You won't see him jump up in the rush a ton. And the upside as an offensive player is probably not quite as high as I thought it could be a few years ago. However, Bahl is a stabilizing presence who certainly won't hurt you with turnovers. This was evident at the World Juniors this year, where Bahl's work as a shutdown defender and PK'er was excellent. I think he has a chance to move quickly through the New Jersey system and make an impact with the Devils as early as the end of next season.
2. Nikita Okhotyuk - Ottawa 67's
Okhotyuk made the most of this year, a season which saw him miss a substantial amount of time with a gruesome finger injury. The offensive production didn't really improve a ton, nor did his development as an offensive player. But that's OK, because what Okhotyuk is, is a true shutdown defender. Everything I said above about Bahl can be replicated about Okhotyuk. He may not have the elite size that Bahl does, but he is every bit as mean and effective in the defensive end. In fact, if you look at some advanced stats from InStat hockey, Okhotyuk actually had the highest challenges won percentage of any NHL draft prospect in the OHL this past season, more so than Bahl. His lateral and backwards mobility are excellent and he is just so poised when it comes to defending in transition. I'm not sure his upside is as high as Bahl's, but I do truly believe that he can be an NHL defender and a guy that you can have anchor your penalty kill. He'll turn pro next season and should be able to be a quality AHL defender right from the get-go.
3. Graeme Clarke - Ottawa 67's
Limited to only 16 games because of a shoulder injury, it's pretty tough to evaluate Clarke's season with the premature stoppage and cancellation of the playoffs. Small sample size, of course, but I'm not sure he really looked much quicker this year. In the limited viewings of Clarke that I had, I would say that his stride still lacked that explosiveness that caused him to fall the 80th spot in the draft. This is obviously crucial to his development. He's still an extremely talented and creative goal scorer and I am really looking forward to seeing him continue to build upon the chemistry that he showed with Cam Tolnai late in the year. Moving forward, the focus will still need to be on Clarke's strength on the puck, the consistency with which he engages without it, and his play in all three zones. Coming back from that shoulder injury, you could tell he was tentative at times to involve himself physically and that's fine. Next year, hopefully those worries subside and he really takes that next step forward. Playing on a strong team, it is not far fetched to suggest that Clarke could be a 40/40 player next year...or even more. He is that talented.
4. Michael Vukojevic - Kitchener Rangers
Well, I would say that odds are, between Bahl, Okhotyuk, and Vukojevic, the Devils should be able to develop at least one dominant shutdown defender for their pro roster, if not more. Vukojevic is cut from the same cloth as the other two. He's big. He's mean. He takes care of his own end, first and foremost. He's not quite as smooth of a skater as Okhotyuk and he doesn't quite have the reach of Bahl, but his mobility and coverage in the defensive end has greatly improved over the last year and a half. As a physical player, Vukojevic is also a bit different than Bahl and Okhotyuk, in the sense that he's not stepping up on attackers and laying those big open ice hits. He's more subtle in his approach. He's more likely to make his presence felt below the hash marks to win a one on one challenge for the puck near the crease or behind the net. He continues to progress as an offensive player, cutting down on his turnovers, improving his confidence in skating with the puck, and making cleaner and quicker exit passes. Like Bahl and Okhotyuk, I think Vukojevic's offensive ceiling is fairly limited. In fact, I would actually say that of the three, he is the least polished in this regard. However, that's not what Vukojevic's calling card will be in the NHL. He will return to the OHL again next year with Kitchener and will be a massive minute eater for them. A 7-8 goal, 35+ assist kind of season is a very real expectation. I would also imagine that we see him become the Rangers' captain.