Truthfully, there isn’t much to write about these days in the OHL. Fresh off the preliminary media/scout poll for 2021, I’m certainly eager to write. However, the lack of OHL season is complicating that. I’m not about to post a new personal draft ranking for 2021 given that few players have played and my rankings haven’t had the opportunity to change much from the last time I posted them (in November). And with a 2021 season in doubt, writing a hypothetical season preview wouldn’t make much sense.
So it got me thinking. How about a retrospective article? I’ve always admired when writers and scouts post about the players that they got wrong. Corey Pronman of The Athletic updates his list relatively frequently and it’s always a terrific and informative read. While I have certainly reflected on the concept, I have never actually written about it. So...why not now? It seems like the perfect opportunity to reflect on the history of ‘OHL Prospects’ draft rankings.
I have broken down the article by draft year, stopping at 2016 because the jury is still out on the four most recent drafts. In each year, I have tried to highlight a player that I had too high and a player that I had too low (in retrospect), in addition to what lessons I may have learned from it.
Too High - Ethan Werek
One thing you’ll see as a trend is how much value I place on that size and skill combination. Admittedly, I am an absolute sucker for that throwback power forward, growing up idolizing the likes of Wendel Clark, Brendan Shanahan, Owen Nolan, among others. This is a clear bias of mine, perhaps even to this day. In Werek, we had a kid who had a terrific scoring season in Kingston (and was a mid second round selection). I had him rated above Ryan O’Reilly and Nazem Kadri, among others. While he’s had a successful pro career in the AHL and Europe, he just was not skilled enough with the puck on his stick, and not a dynamic enough skater to break through as an NHL player. He plateaued in his draft eligible season, using his physical maturity (size) and strong anticipation/offensive awareness to get off to a hot start in his OHL career, but ultimately others caught up to him.
Takeaway - It is OK to still have a proclivity towards forwards with size and goal scoring ability. However, in the modern NHL, they need to be quick on their feet and they need to be able to play with pace and skill. How do they receive passes while in full stride? Can they beat defenders to the middle with more than just strength?
Too Low - Ryan O’Reilly
This is an interesting case. I had O’Reilly rated 10th among OHL players, really not that much lower than he was selected in the NHL by Colorado. So we both (being the NHL and myself) got it wrong. What makes it more interesting is to ponder if Ryan O’Reilly was eligible in 2020, would he have gone even lower than 33rd overall given the concerns over his skating ability and inconsistency offensively? Today, a lack of high end skating ability pushes a lot of quality kids down draft lists. Ultimately, I had some really bad views of O’Reilly early on in the season and it stuck with me for the entirety of the year. Additionally, I had concerns over his high end upside, even though I wrote about how much I liked his vision, playmaking ability, and IQ at both ends of the ice. I believe playing for a weak team in Erie (which he led in scoring and wore an ‘A’ for) should have allowed for some forgiveness in those inconsistencies offensively.
Takeaway - Don’t put so much emphasis on early season views (for the good or the bad). Instead, look for linear progression which O’Reilly clearly showed but I was too stubborn to truly see. Additionally, put a premium on “hockey sense” and how a player sees the ice. Skating can be improved and in some cases (like O’Reilly), centers can get away with being only average skaters if the rest of their game is sound and they have many pro-like tendencies.
Too High - Stephen Silas
I absolutely loved Silas in his draft year despite the fact that the Belleville Bulls were terrible in 2009/10. I had him rated 10th among OHL players and he ended up going in the fourth round, which had me perplexed and feeling like scouts were overlooking him because of the team he played on. He was so well rounded and I thought that he was a lock to be an NHL defender in some capacity. The issue was...Silas was good in a lot of areas, but not great in any either. To be an NHL defender, there needs to be a few qualities that grade out at well above average, or at least have the potential to. My overrating of Silas based on having, simply, a well rounded game led me to rank a guy like Stuart Percy a little bit lower than my contemporaries in future rankings.
Takeaway - It’s great to have defenders who are terrific at both ends of the ice, but make sure that their game will translate to the NHL level because they grade out well above average as a skater, or in other areas. Additionally, be careful not to overrate offensive potential due to a draft eligible player seeing significant ice time on a poor team, which inflates their stats over peers who are getting less responsibility (especially powerplay time) on stronger teams.
Too Low - Phil Grubauer/Petr Mrazek
I rated both of these goaltenders pretty low (27th and 31st respectively) and spoke quite fondly of them, particularly focusing on their high end athleticism and competitiveness in the crease. Yet, I questioned their propensity for giving up bad goals due to their unorthodox styles and the weaknesses in their positioning. Additionally, at this time in my scouting “career,” I just wasn’t quite confident in my ability to project goaltenders so I had a tendency to rate them lower. Both of these guys had terrific OHL playoff performances in their draft years and that should have also counted for more, as it does seem to serve as a great litmus test for the future.
Takeaway - When evaluating goaltenders, athleticism and puck tracking may be two of the most important qualities, whereas positioning and technique can be improved more easily with the right coaching and mindset. Additionally, put higher emphasis on a goaltender’s performance in the playoffs because it shows how well a goaltender can handle increased pressure. Lastly, if you like a goalie, don’t be afraid to put them high on your list.
Too High - Alex Khokhlachev
In his draft year, you either loved Khokhlachev or you hated him. There didn’t seem to be a middle ground. Some scouting agencies had him rated as a potential lottery selection and others had him down near the third round. The question is, is there really a lesson that can be learned here? Khokhlachev had a terrific OHL career, improving each season. He transitioned to the AHL seamlessly. But he just didn’t get that shot in Boston and after three years in the AHL, he returned to Russia to play in the KHL (where he’s been an all star). Sometimes you just miss on players. Khokhlachev had it all. He was quick, skilled, feisty. But at the end of the day, he just wasn’t willing to wait it out in the AHL to make the NHL. I do believe that he could still be an NHL player to this day.
Takeaway - Some players just don’t hit. Their games just don’t translate to the NHL level or they don’t get the opportunity they need to show what they’re capable of due to the strength of their parent club (and end up needing a change of team to show their true worth). Some NHL scouts might look at this situation and say, “be wary of Russian players due to the allure of the higher paying KHL,” but I don’t agree with that.
Too Low - Rickard Rakell
In his draft year, Rakell finished the season very poorly and then got injured, which caused him to plummet down some draft boards. Scouts also questioned his offensive potential at the NHL level, giving him the classic “grinder” tag. I actually really liked Rakell in his draft year, but...his poor finish concerned me and I too questioned the kind of offensive potential he had. Ultimately, Rakell improved many of his “skills” considerably after being drafted. He became a more explosive skater. The physical element to his game became more consistent. And his shot and release really improved, making him a great NHL goal scorer. I do believe that I fell into the trap of reading too many of the scouting agencies criticizing his game and potential and my final ranking was influenced by that to fit more of the trend, instead of trusting what I truly believed.
Takeaway - Be careful not to underestimate the offensive potential of already “complete” junior forwards. Look for the potential of their offensive game to translate, which we should have seen in Rakell due to his ability to succeed in small spaces. He wasn’t one to consistently hit the highlight reel, but he was very efficient at creating space with his body and hands. Additionally, with today’s digital age, it is important to get extended looks on injured players from before they were injured due to video scouting.
Too High - Daniil Zharkov
Man, this was a big miss. I had Zharkov ranked 10th among OHL’ers in 2012, ahead of the likes of Tom Wilson, Adam Pelech, and Matt Murray. I was absolutely enamored by his combination of size, speed, and skill (hmm sounds familiar doesn’t it?). But there were so many red flags. He didn’t seem to see the ice very well; offensive zone turnovers were a problem. His intensity level wavered and he wasn’t consistently eager to play through the middle of the ice. And his defensive awareness and compete level was non existent. Yet, I rated him high because I felt like he could be “fixed.” That his offensive potential was way too high to pass up. Today, Zharkov is a 26 year old playing in the VHL (not even the KHL).
Takeaway - Don’t be fooled by shiny things. Offensive zone turnovers will happen for skilled and creative players. However, look for trends. Are these players learning from their mistakes or are the same mistakes happening repeatedly? Players like Zharkov are going to be able to create at the junior level given their size and speed advantage. But if “hockey sense” is a red flag, it should not be overlooked. This is especially true if it is combined with a lack of “compete.”
Too Low - Tom Wilson
What the heck happened here? If there was anyone who should have had Tom Wilson rated highly, it should have been me given how much I love players just like Wilson. So why did I have him 11th among OHL players? I wasn’t convinced that he had high end goal scoring potential and I wasn’t sure he thought the game well enough with the puck on his stick. I was confident that other components to his game would translate given his skating ability and physical dominance. But I just wasn’t sure he could be a top six player. That said, in my write up I said I thought he should be a first rounder. Yet...I ranked him 11th? That’s a hell of a contradiction. Ultimately, Wilson is a player who seems to only be getting better as an NHL player and it’s due to the fact that in combination with his intimidating presence, he’s actually a pretty smart player who does a lot of little things right on the ice. As such, he can be that perfect compliment to more skilled players.
Takeaway - Firstly, look for inconsistencies in your rankings. If you wouldn’t take a player in the first round (like Zharkov), why would they be rated ahead of ones that you would? Secondly, when big guys skate like Wilson, have great hands, and play a complete game, give into your instincts to rate them highly. It’s OK to have some biases. Size and physicality still play at the NHL level, pending that they skate well and can play with pace like Wilson can.
Too Low - Chris Tierney
Here’s another player that I actually really liked. It’s pretty harsh of me to say that I had him ranked too low because I actually had him ranked higher than many scouting agencies (for example NHL Central Scouting had him 118th in NA). My write up of him speaks to the massive improvement that I saw from the start of the year to the end and how I felt his offensive potential was being underrated. To be honest, I was too much of a chicken to rank him higher because I felt like I was already being aggressive compared to my contemporaries. Yet, I should have gone with my gut and put him even higher, even if the numbers didn’t dictate it. Tierney has become a quality middle six NHL center who can play in all situations, which is exactly what we saw him become over his time with London.
Takeaway - Trust your gut. If you like a player and believe that the progression they have shown warrants a high rank, be aggressive. Who cares what others think? Additionally, Tierney was one of the first players who really helped to solidify trust in the Dale Hunter development model in London. Trusting organizations who have a history of developing players well is key.
Too High - Zach Nastasiuk
Another case of my overrating a big, high energy forward. I had him 8th among OHL players in 2013, ahead of some quality NHL players. I loved “Zach Nasty’s” tenacity and the progression he showed in his draft season. But what I overlooked was the fact that his skating ability just wasn’t great and that without being “quick” he wouldn’t be able to be as effective as an energy player at the next level. Of course, skating can be improved, but if you’re going to take a risk on a player improving their skating, it’s going to be on someone with more creativity, skill, and offensive upside (think Tyler Toffoli). I believe my judgment here was clouded by the fact that I just really enjoyed watching Nastasiuk play, but that I should have recognized that his game may not have translated as well as others. You can love the way a player plays, but push him down your draft board.
Takeaway - Tenacious, high energy wingers are great to have at the NHL level. But these players need to be high end skaters to be effective in that role at the NHL level today. Taking a chance on players who aren’t great skaters is fine, but save those selections for players who think the game at an elite level, or possess elite level offensive skills.
Too Low - Jason Dickinson
I was highly critical of Dickinson in my final draft write up for 2013, dropping him down to #14 in my OHL rankings (much lower than many had him). He had originally been one of my favourite players in the class, but I had too many views of his where he was simply not a factor and his compete level and overall engagement was questionable and inconsistent. While Dickinson is far from an NHL star, he’s carved out a career as a quality third line center because of his skating ability, playmaking ability, and improved two-way play. In all honesty, I’m fine with this in retrospect. This is a player who improved away from the puck considerably over his OHL career, learning to be an effective two-way center. The red flags were legitimate and he worked hard to improve them. Not all players do, and you are going to get burned by players aiming to prove critics wrong.
Takeaway - You will not always be right. The light bulb will go on for some players and they will make you look bad for rating certain aspects of their game poorly. The assessment may have been correct at the time. This is where NHL scouts make their money, in determining which of these players (so Dickinson, as an example) have the drive to improve. This is done from talking to coaches, talking to the player, putting them through the ringer at the combine, etc. Dallas did their due diligence on Dickinson and obviously came away with the impression that he would find that consistency.
Too Low - Tyler Bertuzzi
Bertuzzi is another player who had injury issues in his draft season and I just don’t think I did my due diligence to catch him enough to really be comfortable ranking him highly. I remember liking him, especially the way he played upon his return from injury. However, I suppose that I just wasn’t confident enough in his offensive potential to put him higher. With video scouting becoming so important these days, I think the lesson here (along with Rakell...and Dvorak coming up) is to make sure you really get good views of players with injury issues to form a stronger opinion on their games and overall NHL potential. In reality, how much really separated Nastasiuk from Bertuzzi? Similar kinds of players only Bertuzzi was a better skater and showed better vision and creativity with the puck on his stick.
Takeaway - As mentioned, the major takeaway here is to utilize video scouting to focus on players who happened to be injured for a large part of the year, to make sure you have a greater understanding of what they are capable of.
Too High - Brendan Perlini
In regards to Perlini, he was such an alluring prospect because of his size, skating ability, and goal scoring potential. His shot was a serious weapon. However, there were certainly many red flags about his game that I wrote about, but overlooked to rank him high (as did NHL scouts). There was concern about the consistency of his compete level and his tendency to coast around the perimeter looking for those one time opportunities. While his shot was fantastic, there was an absence of layers to his goal scoring ability. In a lot of ways, I think we as a scouting community were too focused on the “what if’s” in regards to Perlini. What if he starts to play through the middle more? What if his playmaking ability improves? What if he starts using his size more? When we should have really been asking, “what if he doesn’t?” Now playing in Europe, these exact concerns kept Perlini from becoming a high end NHL goal scorer over the long run.
Takeaway - High end goal scorers at the NHL level have more than just a big shot. There needs to be an emphasis on being able to score a lot of different ways. And where are they scoring these goals? Very few players are able to carve out NHL careers these days as powerplay specialists who camp out at the dot and rip one timers. Additionally, high end goal scoring prospects should have other layers to their games, be it strong forecheckers, good defensive players, high end vision as a playmaker. They won’t score every game and they need to find a way to be impactful in other ways when they aren’t scoring or they won’t have a long NHL career. And like I mentioned earlier with Zharkov, don’t ignore questions over physical engagement levels.
Too Low - Christian Dvorak
I remember thinking at the time that I was probably too low on Dvorak (ranked 33rd among OHL players). There was a lot of talk that NHL scouts viewed him as a second round pick (or higher), but I just didn’t feel comfortable ranking him that high given his knee injury and my lack of views of him. When he did play, he was buried in the bottom six and it was tough to get a read on him in only a few views with limited minutes and responsibility. Obviously, the next OHL season (following his draft year), it became pretty apparent to me that he should have been ranked higher and that I totally missed the boat on him. He’s become a solid NHL player and is in the midst of a breakout season for Arizona.
Takeaway - This isn’t the first time that I’m mentioning regret over ranking a player too low due to the fact that they were injured and I just wasn’t comfortable enough with their abilities. Again, hopefully an increased emphasis placed on video scouting can help rectify that.
Too High - Nikita Korostelev
In a strong draft year for the OHL, I ranked Korostelev 12th in the league and he ended up being a 7th round selection. The NHL scouts certainly ended up being the correct ones here. Again, red flags in compete level, engagement away from the puck, and skating ability were overlooked because of the potential he showed as an NHL goal scorer. This is a classic case of overrating size...because Korostelev certainly didn’t play the game like you wanted a 6’2, 200lbs winger to. No doubt, Korostelev was (and is) a talented offensive player. However, his skating never improved to the point that it needed to, and his play away from the puck never really improved either. So we were left with a one dimensional goal scorer who struggled to keep up with the pace of the pro game in North America. It seems like that he will eventually carve out a KHL career, but an NHL player he is not.
Takeaway - Another case of overrating a forward who could score and who had size. Players of this ilk can have flaws, but when they have multiple flaws, it should probably sound some alarms about the likelihood of them reaching their potential. If playing with pace is an issue, they need to be able to score from between the dots and outwork opposing defenders to earn their chances. Time and space just won’t be afforded to them at the next level, so lethal shot or not, a lack of pace and a lack of compete is a bad combination.
Too Low - Rasmus Andersson
Flat out, I think a lot of us were wrong about Andersson. The production was there. But a lot of scouts were concerned about his lack of dynamic skating ability in combination with some questionable decision making due to over aggressiveness. He was a late second rounder for a reason. But, it turns out that Andersson’s weight and lack of conditioning turned out to be the only thing holding him back. As he got in better shape, his skating improved. And as his skating improved, he was able to play that high risk offensive style a lot more efficiently because he was able recover more effectively. Now he’s playing over 20 minutes a night and leading Calgary’s top powerplay unit.
Takeaway - In a lot of ways, this is the reason why the NHL holds its combine and physical testing. It gives them a chance to see what players have unlocked their true physical potential. Believe it or not, those who test poorly are not necessarily looked down upon, because it shows that if they start to take their training seriously, they may have significant potential to improve their performance further. This is especially true if interviews suggest that he has the mindset to commit to betterment.
Too High - Will Bitten
This is a tough one. Bitten is in the final year of his NHL contract, now in his second NHL organization. There is certainly still hope that he can develop into an NHL player in some capacity, even if he’s yet to have that breakout moment as a pro. As a draft eligible player, Bitten looked like the complete package. He was undersized, but he was far from a perimeter player. He played the game with pace, using his speed, but he also had a high skill level with the puck and a desire to play through the middle of the ice. However, his game really plateaued in the OHL, for whatever reason. His best season was his draft year. His finishing ability never really developed to the point where he was able to consistently finish off the scoring chances he was creating. Ultimately, that lack of finishing ability has prevented him from being a reliable top 6 player at the AHL level, instead being utilized as a change of pace, high energy checker.
Takeaway - Truthfully, I’m not sure what the takeaway is here. While undersized, Bitten was everything you wanted a smaller, skilled player to be. Quick. Elusive. Determined. He played the game the way you wanted a 6’4 player to, let alone a 5’10 one. Sometimes, players just don’t work out even if you think they’re a sure bet to be an NHL player in some capacity. I loved Jordan Kyrou in his draft year, but I stand by ranking Bitten ahead simply because they were similar types of players (at the time), but Bitten showed a greater determination in battling for ice when he couldn’t use his speed.
Too Low - Alex Debrincat
I rated Debrincat right around where he was drafted in the NHL (11th in the OHL). But we both got it wrong. I loved Debrincat in his draft year. But two things concerned me. The first was the fact that he was a 5’7 player who did the majority of his damage within five feet of the net. The second, was that while he was a good skater (especially in terms of edgework and agility), he was not to be considered a “burner” or a guy who would beat you with speed. I was worried, to some degree, that his game would have difficulty translating to the NHL for those reasons. However, Debrincat was the kind of player who could score in so many different ways. He wasn’t a one trick pony. And his competitiveness and drive to succeed made him so difficult to contain. Also, I think Debrincat is the perfect example of why it is important to break down skating ability into different components. While Debrincat was never going to beat Connor McDavid skating in a straight line, his edgework, balance, and explosiveness were all excellent and it made him very successful in navigating tight spaces. It made him elusive. Now, he’s a 40 goal scorer in the NHL and a big part of the rebuilding Blackhawks. His 89 goals are fourth among those drafted in 2016 so far.
Takeaway - I think there is one main takeaway here. It is to embrace change and the fact that smaller players (even as small as Debrincat) can find success in today’s NHL pending that they possess certain qualities. Such as a competitive edge and a desire to play through traffic, showing an ability to simultaneously elude checkers but also engage them. Additionally, another is high end four way mobility and explosiveness; components to skating that appear more important to success than straight line speed...especially for smaller players.