Tuesday, June 6, 2023

My Final Top 50 OHL Players for the 2023 NHL Entry Draft - Part 2: 30-11

Here's part two of my rankings release: the players ranked from 30 to 11. 

11. Andrew Gibson - Defense - Soo Greyhounds
I would be absolutely shocked if Gibson was the 11th OHL player drafted or later. He's going to go earlier than this ranking. NHL teams love him. And quite frankly, I really like him too. I just don't believe he has the high end upside of the ten players I have ranked ahead of him. Let's start with the limitations. Gibson's first pass and decision making in the defensive end will need to improve. He can make some very poor decisions with the puck under pressure. The same can be said of his play in the offensive zone. He's actually most effective off the puck because of how smart he is. He supports possession incredibly well, but due to some small area skill limitations, he can get boxed in when carrying play. From a skating perspective, Gibson is good, especially for his size, but his transitions and quickness will need to improve a smidge. Skating is not really a concern IMO. OK, so what about the strengths? Defensively, he is a potential rock. The length, mobility, physicality, compete, and IQ are all top end. He is aggressive at closing gaps or angling off and loves to step up on players early. He is suffocating down low. He competes for pucks and space and is a tremendous shot blocker. He has a great point shot that he gets through traffic to generate second chance opportunities. As mentioned, he does a great job of finding soft spots in the offensive zone, or when jumping up in the rush and this is because of his processing ability. Even if Gibson ends up as no more than a solid #5, there's a ton of value in that as a second round selection. 

12. Easton Cowan - Wing - London Knights
Cowan's transformation from complementary support player to primary play driver in the second half (and into the playoffs) has led to a massive jump for him in my rankings. Man...he was so good for London in the playoffs. There are just so many things to like about his game. He's a high end skater. His compete level is excellent. He's strong on the forecheck and backcheck. He can play in any situation and projects as a high end penalty killer. His shot and scoring instincts are good. His vision with the puck is good, especially when attacking with pace. As the season progressed, he gained so much confidence in his carrying ability. Not only that, but his poise and patience increased. In the playoffs, we saw him dictate pace and learn to slow the game down, rather than simply just play that North/South game. There are limitations in his skill and creativity. He's not likely to be a high end skill guy in the NHL. In fact, he probably settles into more of a complementary role in the NHL. But for him to show that he CAN be the guy already in the OHL is a critical step in his development. I like his odds of developing into a really solid middle six guy like a Jasper Fast. Don't be shocked if he gets taken inside the top 50 this year.

13. Hunter Brzustewicz - Defense - Kitchener Rangers
I kind of feel wrong about ranking Hunter this late. It just doesn't feel right considering how good he was in the second half for Kitchener as part of the Rangers' resurgence. The first half of the year, I was legitimately concerned about his projection. He struck me as one of those "jack of all trades" types who can struggle to find a role at the NHL level. Especially given that late birthdate, the runway for development just wasn't as long. But, he really tightened things up defensively in the second half. The physical intensity level increased. He was taking better routes to retrievals to let him utilize his skating ability to help Kitchener in transition. He also gained confidence in his ability to play with pace and lead the attack with his feet. This made him more dynamic and again, IMO, improved his projection. Unquestionably, the best part of Brzustewicz's game is his play and composure in the offensive end. He holds the blueline so well because of his edgework and lateral quickness. But he's also just so calm and composed back there. He rarely makes a poor play that leads to an odd man opportunity the other way. So why is he 13th? I guess I'm still a wee bit concerned about his projection. Players like him do tend to have difficulty finding a role at the NHL level; Roland McKeown comes to mind. I love him in that 50-75 range because of that risk, but probably not earlier.

14. Luca Pinelli - Wing/Center - Ottawa 67's
My colleague at McKeen's Joely Stockl (who you should be following by the way) put it perfectly in a recent report; a decade ago, a player like Pinelli would have been an after thought because of his lack of size and lack of quickness. However, the game has changed for all the right reasons. There is a place for players like Pinelli now. Obviously my ranking is a little lower than some have him, but I do appreciate him as a player and do see him as a potential high energy, middle six guy like a Dillon Dube. Luca is very much a different player than his brother Francesco. He's so tenacious in puck pursuit; his feet are always moving. He's also fearless. He shows no fear in challenging bigger players and as he gets stronger and improves his conditioning further, he's likely to develop into a top flight shift disturber. I think Pinelli's skill level is underrated too. He shows a high level ability to problem solve out of pressure and can combine his silky mitts with his strong edgework to be a difficult cover. Ultimately there are two questions. One; can he continue to be successful playing this type of game at his size in the NHL? Two; can his quickness and speed improve to give him a better projection at the NHL level? I thought about ranking him a bit lower but I was very impressed by how he elevated his game in the playoffs this year; especially after a bit of a disappointing second half of the year.

15. Cam Allen - Defense - Guelph Storm
Here's what it comes down to. I absolutely refuse to believe that Cam Allen is as bad as he was at times this year. Not the player that I saw dominate games as a 16/17 year old rookie. You don't just forget how to play hockey. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. I think the pressure of carrying the Guelph Storm, given their early season struggles, was too much for him and he fell into some awful habits. Could those habits point to some flaws in how he sees the game; flaws in his processing ability that could prevent him from being an NHL player? Absolutely. But, we didn't see a lot of that in his rookie year when he largely kept things simple. Ditto for the Hlinka/Gretzky Cup in the summer. That probably means that Allen will need to work on simplifying his approach next year. Get back to the basics. Improve your scanning habits in the defensive end and look to make clean and simple exits using the wall or your defensive partner. Take better routes to the puck to be able to use your feet to clear the zone and trust them more. Limit the chances you take jumping up into the play for now. Continue to get stronger to win battles more consistently. I loved the compete level he showed at the U18's in the defensive end. If he can play like that defensively all the time, he'll be fine once he cleans a few things up. The upside is certainly not as high as it once was thought to be, when we were comparing him to a guy like Charlie McAvoy. However, he has enough tools and enough character to overcome some of the warts we see currently to become an NHL defender. 

16. Quinton Burns - Defense - Kingston Frontenacs
Burns is a throwback defender. He doesn't have the elite size and length that you like to see from players of that ilk, but neither did the likes of Rich Pilon, Lyle Odelein, Ken Klee, Craig Rivet, etc. Burns just flat out loves to be a pain in the butt to play against. He loves to lower the boom and play the body. He's in the corners and in front of the net laying the lumber. As he gets stronger, this component of his game will only intensify. However, Burns does also have some intriguing offensive tools. He can lead the rush and quarterback the powerplay with some decent puck skills. His future in the NHL is probably as more of a stay at home type, but he'll be a top end powerplay QB in the OHL first. IMO, there are two keys for Burns in order for him to reach his potential as a solid #4-5 guy. The first is improving his footwork and four way mobility. It's not a weakness by any means, but without elite length, he'll need to be a bit quicker and cleaner to be a standout defense first guy. The second is improving his decision making with the puck in the defensive end. It was tough playing on Kingston this year. He didn't get a ton of help. However, like mentioned with Gibson, he needs to have a higher panic threshold and develop better habits with the puck. He was probably Canada's best defender at the U18's before that nasty lower body injury, so that's going to give him major points for NHL scouts, proving that the situation in Kingston probably led to a lot of the inconsistencies in his game this year.

17. Denver Barkey - Center - London Knights
I mean, how can you not love Barkey? This guy just has a motor that doesn't quit. Do I wish he was bigger? Yeah, sure. Do I wish he was a little quicker? Yeah, sure. But, as he proved in this year's OHL playoffs (and in the summer's Hlinka/Gretzky Cup), he can play just about any role you ask of him and excel at it. I kind of expected him, and not Easton Cowan, to be the one to step up in the second half to become a primary play driver for London, taking a step forward in his skill development, but that didn't really happen. Barkey is still at his best when he keeps things simple. Chip and chase. Work the wall. Drive the net. Outwork. Outhustle. His IQ is really good and his three zone awareness is among the best of any player on this list. The hustle and awareness will take him a long way and then once the athletic tools improve, we'll see him become a top flight OHL player. But what about the NHL potential? At this point, I think I overvalued his creativity and skill early on. I'm not sure he'll ever be more than a bottom six guy at the NHL level. The shot isn't a strength currently. He can get boxed in. He'll improve a lot under Dale Hunter, but is he more than a Casey Cizikas type? Lots of value there in the third or fourth round still.

18. Matthew Mania - Defense - Sudbury Wolves
On pure offensive upside, Mania is going to be an intriguing project pick for NHL teams. His even strength production was among the best of any defender in the OHL this year. He can have a really profound impact on the transition game with his skill and ability to carve up the neutral zone. His skating is a real asset. Mania also has a good point shot and does a great job getting pucks through to the net, part why his production was so solid at even strength. As he learns to use his skating better inside the offensive zone to evade pressure; as his poise and confidence improves, the ceiling is quite high as an offensive defender. Defensively, he's a work in progress. He needs to get stronger to win battles along the wall and near the net. He can be too easy to play against currently. His defensive zone awareness also needs to improve; he can get lost in coverage, especially when trying to recover from the offensive zone. But on pure offensive upside, one could easily argue that he has the most of any OHL defender available this year. He's either going to mature as part of that young Sudbury team and turn into a great NHL prospect...or completely fall flat and probably not end up getting signed. I don't really see an in-between here.

19. Ondrej Molnar - Wing - Erie Otters
It had to be really tough for Molnar this year, under the circumstances. I mean, yes, those circumstances were self inflicted (the floorball incident that led to his dismissal and move to Erie), but it didn't make it any easier on him to quickly acclimate himself to a new league on a last place team. On the powerplay, you could see the potential Molnar has. The skating ability, plus the hands and the vision were on full display with room to operate on the outside. At even strength, he really struggled because he's just not strong enough to compete between the hash marks at this level in North America. He was too easily pushed to the perimeter and struggled to get himself in scoring position. I actually didn't even mind his compete level. He worked hard to try to find success as an F1, using his speed to be first to pucks. But, he just wasn't strong enough to maintain possession long enough to truly capitalize on it. I do think that the upside is still really high. He's going to grow as part of that young Erie group that's going to be really good in a few years. But is there a chance that NHL teams avoid Molnar completely as they did Egor Sidorov? I think it could end up being a mistake, but it's completely possible. 

20. Ethan Miedema - Wing - Kingston Frontenacs
Consistency is the number one issue here. That's not always an easy fix, but it's a common one for big, power wingers like Miedema. It takes great conditioning to be an impact power forward and right now it's clear that Miedema doesn't have that. On some nights, he brings it physically but struggles to make an impact offensively. On other nights, he plays a more passive game, but showcases his skill and playmaking touch. Rarely, did he find a way to put both together this season. The other thing that needs to continue to improve is his skating ability. I think his linear quickness improved this year, which is a start. However, his overall agility is lacking and it makes him pretty rigid. For such a big guy, he doesn't find himself in scoring position near the crease near enough and he's not making the kind of impact that he can make between the hash marks. At this point, I view Miedema as a pretty big boom/bust kind of selection. The number of players like Miedema who've not succeeded is a longer than the ones who have. We're looking at a Matthew Strome, Nick Magyar, Josh Brittain, Graham Knott, AJ Jenks type situation or we're looking at Josh Anderson. 

21. Joey Willis - Center/Wing - Saginaw Spirit
If Willis had better physical tools/athleticism, I firmly believe we'd be talking about him as a top 50 pick. The offensive production wasn't anything to shake a stick at either, for a player without those physical tools. Yet, every time I saw Saginaw this year, this young man passed the eye test. He's just such a smart player. Always in the right spot. Always makes the right play. His vision is a real asset in the offensive zone. I think he has more to offer from a skill perspective too. I've seen the notion that he's not a high skill player, but I saw enough flashes of creativity this year to suggest that as he gains confidence, we could see him become more assertive. I have no doubt that Willis will become a high end OHL player. It's just about whether the skating and strength will improve enough to make him a serious NHL prospect. Maybe he's Austen Keating. Maybe he's Riley Damiani or Cal O'Reilly. But maybe, just maybe, he's Brad Richardson (a very useful, longtime pro). Considering that this was his first year playing out of the AAA level south of the border, I'm inclined to believe that as he adds strength and improves his conditioning, his skating can and will improve. I'm mentally preparing myself for Willis to go undrafted, but if he does, it will be a big mistake IMO.

22. Alex Pharand - Center/Wing - Sudbury Wolves
Pharand is just a really solid North/South player with a concrete projection as an NHL player in some capacity. Personally, I'm not sold on him having high end upside. I think he's best when he keeps things simple. He uses his linear speed to forecheck and chase pucks. He drives the net. He works the wall. When he tries to make skilled plays, turnovers often happen and plays die on his stick. He's not a high end shooter, although he does have great hands near the crease to score the greasy ones he earns with hard work and determination. Maybe he's a Marcus Foligno type, but it's also possible that he doesn't have the skill or sense to be a long time NHL player. I came into the year really high on him, but his really poor second half has me less infatuated. I'd be very comfortable taking him in the fourth or fifth round because I think he has pro qualities. But, I have a feeling that someone will take him in that 50-75 range and that's too rich for my blood.

23. Ethan Hay - Center - Flint Firebirds
I really like Ethan Hay and I think he deserves to be selected in the mid rounds, which is higher than I've seen him on other independent lists. At McKeen's we have him ranked 171st and EP has us (currently) as the only one with him listed. He's kind of like Liam Arnsby previously. Hay is the kind of player NHL teams are looking at and thinking, this guy could be a long time fourth line center and defensive specialist for us. He's got good size. He skates well. He has great instincts at both ends. He competes hard. There is a real chance that he's a Scott Nichol, Luke Glendening type. That has value. Anytime you can get an NHL player in the mid rounds, you do it. Is the upside high? Not likely. It will be interesting to see how he performs with more responsibility in the future, but right now his game looks pretty limited. But the high end physical tools and awareness that he possesses makes him an ideal bottom six player in today's NHL. 

24. Brad Gardiner - Center/ Wing - Ottawa 67's
Gardiner played so many different roles for Ottawa this year. He's extremely versatile and that has value. He can be a shutdown defensive center. He can work as the F1 and be a complementary piece to more skilled players. He can work the wall and kill penalties. His skating is good, although he could stand to be a little quicker. He's most effective off the puck because he always keeps his feet moving and he has a quick release that should make him an effective goal scorer at the junior level. I've seen him ranked fairly high in some places (like The Hockey News), but after he really hit a wall in the second half of the year, I'm kind of skeptical about his future role. What is Brad Gardiner at the next level? He does a lot of things well; it's why he's a swiss army knife for Ottawa. But does he do anything at an above average level? I like the bloodlines (father is Bruce Gardiner). I like the spot that he's in with Ottawa moving forward. However, he's more of a mid round guy for me.

25. Angus MacDonell - Center/Wing - Mississauga Steelheads
This is a player who already knows exactly who and what he is. There is a strong sense of self. Whether you watched MacDonell with Sarnia, with Mississauga, or at the U18's, you likely saw him playing the exact same way. He's about as consistent as it gets and that consistency really seemed to endear him to his Canadian coaches at the U18's, who slowly increased his work load. For that reason, I'd bet good money that he ends up a captain in the OHL by the time he graduates. As for his NHL potential, he's not going to be a front line player or big time point producer. If he makes the NHL, it will be in a high energy, depth role. He's not big, but he's tenacious. He's not the world's quickest skater, but he always keeps his feet moving. He has a great shot and scoring instincts. He opens up space for his linemates and prolongs possession. He can play center or the wing. Am I one hundred percent confident in his odds of making the NHL? Nope. But I love the way he plays and I firmly believe he should and will get drafted.

26. Matthew Soto - Wing - Kingston Frontenacs
Soto definitely has his fans in the independent scouting community. All things considered, he had a pretty good year for the Frontenacs, leading them in scoring. I'm just worried that he's too vanilla. I like the way that he pushes pace. His skating is good and it's probably going to be great once he gets stronger. He was one of the fastest players in this age group in minor hockey, but other players have caught up to him as they have matured physically at a greater rate. I think that he's, generally, a pretty hard worker and he is someone who will take a hit to make a play or compete hard in puck pursuit in all three zones. But, I think his game is too perimeter focused at this current time. I also don't see him ever developing into a high end goal scorer. Will a winger with average physical tools who profiles best as a perimeter focused playmaker make it as an NHL player? I'm not as sold. I see a very good junior player, but not necessarily more. For me, Soto is a mid to late round flyer and not earlier.

27. Cooper Foster - Center/Wing - Ottawa 67's
Foster didn't get a ton of ice time this year for Ottawa, but he made the best of it. It's extremely obvious that Foster is a highly intelligent player. He clearly needs to get stronger to be an impact player, but he managed to be a strong supporting piece this year because of his quick thinking and strong off puck positioning. I could actually see an NHL team really liking Foster if they believe that he has a long runway to improve his athleticism/quickness. He's the kind of guy who could get drafted late and then explodes in future years and looks like a steal because he was hidden on a deep team. But, I could also see Foster being just a good junior player and nothing more because he lacks a true standout quality that could separate him from others. 

28. Charlie Robertson - Goaltender - North Bay Battalion
Massive goaltender who plays more of a hybrid style in order to take advantage of his huge frame. He tries to stay up as long as he can, but he does look comfortable dropping down to the butterfly to make saves. He's kind of awkward in the crease as he tries to cover his posts or get out to the top of the blue paint. There's a need to improve his up/down quickness too. But, I can't help but be intrigued by Robertson. He's rail thin; his body type reminds me a lot of Matt Murray in his Soo days. If North Bay can manage to get him to beef up, it'll help him improve his strength and control. I felt like he played really well in the second half when he got a chance to give DiVincentiis a break. If he was a starter and got more exposure, would we be talking about him more? There's no way I draft a netminder from the OHL in the first three or four rounds this year, but Robertson could make for an interesting late round flyer.

29. Cole Brown - Wing - Hamilton Bulldogs
Brown is a big power forward who plays a mature game that sees him find most of his success below the hash marks or near the blue paint. He is comfortable and confident as a net front presence and has good hands in tight, especially for deflections. I felt like his skating improved a lot over the course of the year. It's still not amazing, but from start to finish, he looked quicker and this helped him drive wide to try to beat defenders to the net or to retrieve pucks. Like many other players ranked in this range, the offensive upside is probably pretty limited. Brown isn't a high skilled guy. He doesn't have a high end shot that allows him to beat goalies from a distance. He's not a terrific or confident transporter. But with his frame and physical consistency, an NHL team will definitely draft him in hopes that he can be a solid bottom six option in the future.

30. Donovan McCoy - Defense - Peterborough Petes
McCoy's development is something that has perplexed me. I really thought that we'd see him develop into one of the better 2004 born defenders in the OHL. He has all the tools, but putting them together has been an issue. He shows flashes of being a competent puck mover who can be a rush leader, use his feet as an asset, and make plays to hold the offensive blueline. But most of the time he settles for lower percentage plays or defers to his defensive partner/his centermen to handle the puck. Defensively, he's a physical presence and he can be difficult to match up against, especially in the corners where he wins the vast majority of his 50/50 puck battles. However, there are times where there are lapses in judgment in coverage and that makes me wonder just how well he is processing things on the ice. In a lot of ways, McCoy reminds me of how Connor Punnett looked in his original draft year and now we're discussing him as a possible re-entry candidate. Development is non linear. While McCoy is not likely to ever be the player many thought he could become when he drafted into the OHL (myself included), it does not mean that there is zero chance that he could still put it together to be an high end OHL player. He was good for Peterborough in their playoff and Mem Cup run. It was also interesting listening to Dan Malta (who covers the Petes) talk recently (on our podcast) about how McCoy is one of the most mature young men that he's encountered in his years covering Peterborough. That stuff matters (as it should) to NHL teams.

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