This is a yearly tradition (take a look at the Sunday Top 10 sidebar for other years). It's time to examine the top overagers in the OHL, available to be signed by NHL teams for the 2023 calendar year. We've already had one sign with an NHL team (Nolan Burke), but he will be included in this list for continuity.
This list does intend to rank players according to the likelihood that they continue their career at the professional level. Likely more than half of the players on this list will not end up getting a professional contract and will play in the CIS. It's the nature of the beast. The bottom line is that a few will and many will not (be signed) and those players who do not, will take advantage of their education package while continuing to play a high level of hockey at a Canadian University.
It's important to note that this list does not include overagers who have yet to sign NHL contracts, despite having their draft rights owned by a team, such as OHL leading scorer Matt Maggio. This list is for those players who are NHL free agents after going through the draft two or three times (depending on their birth date).
Here's the list:
1. Logan Morrison - Center - Ottawa 67's
At this point, I just don't know how you overlook Morrison. Many of us were surprised and disappointed that he didn't get drafted last year after finishing sixth in league scoring. This year, he's returned as an OA and currently sits second in league scoring. Yeah, I know the skating is a concern. If he makes the NHL, he's going to be a below average skater for the league. It's clear that there are some limitations preventing him from really improving this area of his game. That said, he does so many other things well. He's one of the most intelligent players...on and off the puck...in the OHL. He rarely makes a poor read. He rarely turns over the puck in the offensive zone. His vision and passing ability elevates the play of his wingers. He's committed in all three zones. Outside of skating, there really isn't a significant weakness in his game. Would he still be a long shot to carve out an NHL career? Absolutely. But any of the players on this list would fall under that category. At worst, I think he can still end up as a really good AHL scorer and call up option/tweener. At best, his IQ helps him overcome some of his skating deficiencies and he develops into a Tyler Bozak esque diamond in the rough.
2. Nolan Burke - Center - Sarnia Sting
Already signed by the Nashville Predators to an ELC earlier this season, Burke has shown positive progression in back to back OHL seasons. The key to taking his game to another level this year has been the improvements made to his skating coming into the year. He's really added a step and it's allowed him to be more of a primary play driver, rather than a passenger. He's got great scoring instincts and he's strong on the puck, allowing him to play a North/South power game. What's the NHL upside? I'm not entirely sure. But he's a well rounded enough player and is a good enough scorer that he could eventually find his way into the middle six in Nashville if his skating can continue to improve.
3. Avery Hayes - Wing - Peterborough Petes
His play thus far with the Petes (well under his usual production) is likely going to decrease his odds of getting an ELC, but I still like his chances of eventually carving out a decent pro career. He's not big, but he's about as relentless of a player you'll find. He's kind of like a Tasmanian Devil out there. The fact that his motor never stops will earn him a look at the next level. However, he also happens to be a skilled finisher and play creator. He's got great hands and his strong edgework and agility give him strong puck protection skill despite lacking size. He's not the kind of explosive linear mover you typically like to see from an undersized forward, but his overall skating ability would be considered solid. He loves to incorporate the mohawk stride into his attacking approach in transition, although the transition of that particular style/skill to the next level has not had terrific results. The reality is that Hayes could at least serve a purpose as a high energy, F1, bottom six player at the next level and I'd be shocked if he doesn't get at least an AHL deal.
4. Kyle McDonald - Wing - North Bay Battalion
Big man got a late start to the season after trying out for Belleville of the AHL, then missed a few months through the mid part of the year due to injury. However, when he has played, he's been phenomenal. McDonald is a player who knows and understands his role on the ice. At 6'4, and pushing 220lbs, he is a near immovable object from the net front area at this level. However, he has really soft hands and a great shot; the goal scoring totals the last two years are no fluke. No, he's not the most dynamic skater. No, he's not the most skilled player with the puck in transition. But, there is still a place for hulking, complementary power wingers in today's game. It wouldn't shock me at all if McDonald is the only other player on this list to earn an NHL ELC.
5. Evan Vierling - Center - Barrie Colts
After not signing with the Rangers last year, Vierling has returned to the OHL to be one of the league's better forwards. He's playing with so much more assertiveness compared to last year. The offensive skill set is well rounded. He's got a good shot, but he's probably most effective as a distributor. Because he's being more assertive, he's making better decisions with the puck this year. What is Vierling at the next level? That's the question. I'm not sure he's skilled enough to be a top six guy. I'm also not sure he's tenacious or strong enough in all three zones to be a typical bottom six guy. Ultimately, that's why the NYR opted not to sign him. That said, players can re-invent themselves at the pro level to survive and I think Vierling does enough things well that he could be one of those types. He's another guy that I expect to earn an AHL deal.
6. James Hardie - Wing - Mississauga Steelheads
You have to give it up to Hardie. Honestly, this is a young man who has worked hard to improve the areas of his game NHL scouts had deemed insufficient. He's always been able to score, but in his draft year, there were major concerns over his skating, off puck play, and decision making. Over his OHL career, he's improved all three of those areas. Mississauga gutted their roster this year to start a rebuild and they've actually been playing better since doing that because Hardie has elevated his play and truly embraced being a leader to these talented young players. I don't think Hardie gets an NHL deal. He's going to have to take a longer route to the NHL. But, if he can continue to show the perseverance that he has thus far, I won't be betting against him eventually earning an ELC.
7. Nick DeGrazia - Wing - Sudbury Wolves
DeGrazia is on this list because he's one of the best skaters in the OHL. An NHL or AHL team is going to look at him and wonder how they could use this to eventually make him a bottom six asset. His quickness, edgework, and ability to blend both is incredibly impressive. This year, his hands have improved and he's not overskating the puck or opportunities as much. He's also improved his strength and balance to be better at playing through traffic. He's not going to be a scorer at the NHL...or even AHL level. However, if he can continue to round out the rest of his game at the pro level, he could be a useable asset and a versatile player for coaches. Again, few players can skate like he does.
8. Sean McGurn - Center - London Knights
Is there a more underrated player than McGurn in the OHL? He was great for London last year and has been even better this year as the team's captain, leading London in scoring as of writing this. There's nothing elite about his game. But the sum of its parts make him a consistent on ice leader at this level and someone who can play in any situation asked of him. What is he at the next level? I'm not quite sure. But he's smart enough to find a way to stick in some capacity as a pro, especially if he can make further upgrades to his skating.
9. Riley Piercey - Wing - Flint Firebirds
Massive winger has been good for Flint this year. A little quicker than you might expect given his length and he can be a real difficult cover in transition because of his ability to blend skill/control at his top speed. As a North/South attacker and complementary piece, there could be a place for him at the pro level. Given his size and skill combination, I'd be shocked if he doesn't earn an AHL deal and then attempt to work his way up. A strong playoff run with the Firebirds could earn him even more.
10. Brett Brochu - Goaltender - London Knights
I could have gone in a variety of different directions with #10, but decided to give the nod to Brochu. Look, you can't argue with his success. He's led the league in GAA before. He's won an OHL goaltender of the year award. After this year concludes, he's going to average 30 wins across three seasons in the league. The only thing missing from his resume is an OHL Championship and he'll try to change that this year. However, the other reality is that Brochu is a 6'0 netminder who can give up goals to the upper portion of the net. His athleticism and play reading ability are standout qualities, but he'll have to work hard to be even more technically sound with his positioning and aggressiveness at the next level. If he has a great OHL playoffs this year, I think he gives himself a great chance at earning an AHL/ECHL deal. If he struggles (like last year), he may end up as more of a CIS candidate.
Kitchener's Lleyton Moore was having a really good year in Oshawa to start the year but since going to Kitchener, I've been a bit disappointed in his play. The finish to the year will be key for him. His skating ability is terrific and always has been, but I think he's worked hard to become stronger in the defensive end to become more complete this season. Mississauga's Kasper Larsen hasn't been as good as he was last year, but he's still a unique player because he's a 6'5, 230lbs puck mover who can also clear the crease. Saginaw's Mitchell Smith has always been a favourite of mine because of his high end skating ability. He's playing a bit of a different role with the Spirit this year but he's still found a way to produce offensively from the back-end. Windsor's Michael Renwick is a 6'0, right shot defender who is solid at both ends. He brings a consistent physical presence and has a good point shot. Ottawa's Anthony Costantini is a heady, puck mover who has made great strides in the defensive end this year. Like Renwick, he's also a right shot defender. Sudbury's Dylan Robinson is certainly intriguing because of his size (6'6) and production. He's physical. He can make plays with the puck. His mobility is a bit awkward and his decision making can leave some to be desired, but the overall package is intriguing.
Ottawa's Cameron Tolnai has had a really strong year. He can play the power game from the middle and has become one of the better two-way centers in the OHL (and faceoff men). Oshawa's Ryan Gagnier is a high energy guy who is a real puck hound. He's smart and tenacious and it's led to a real nice production increase this year. I bet there are some competitive teams out there kicking themselves for not bringing him in at the trade deadline. Hamilton's Sahil Panwar has been unreal since going to the Bulldogs (along with Nick Lardis). He skates well and he is competitive at both ends. Kitchener's Reid Valade is a spark plug winger who loves to attack North/South. He has a good shot and could end up being a bottom six goal scorer at the next level. London's George Diaco is likely too small for the NHL. At only 5'7, he's not producing at the clip that he would need to in order to draw the attention of scouts. But, I just really love watching him play. He's one of the most creative and skilled players in the league and I wanted to make sure that he got mention.