Thursday, October 23, 2014

Early Season Top 30 for the 2015 NHL Entry Draft

It's time for my first official ranking for the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. I say official because I release a preseason ranking in the summer (which can be found here). Now that the 2014/2015 season has started (well under way in fact), updating that list to reflect changes of opinion is a priority. That said, it's important to not over react to hot or cold starts. Some of those currently disappointing, will most definitely pick up their play. And some of those off to blazing starts won't be able to hold that production. At the end of the day, it is a cool exercise to go back and look at my first list of the season. For instance, here's last year's early season draft list.

New this year, I've decided to do a top 50 for every ranking, not just the final one. I'll only write in detail on the top 30, but will include quips on the other 20 as part of my honourable mentions (with ranking).

While compiling this list, it's evident that this is another strong draft year for the OHL. We've got 6 guys currently receiving votes from various scouting agencies for the top 10. And about another 6-7 receiving consideration for the first round. The depth is incredibly strong too. I'm looking at some of these guys I've got rated in the late 20's, early 30's and they could easily be top 100 selections come June.

It's also important to note (for those that aren't familiar with my lists), that I don't include 2nd and 3rd year eligible players on the list (like breakout defenseman Damir Sharipzyanov). I do a year end list for those players.

Without further ado, here's my early season top 30.

1. Connor McDavid - Forward - Erie Otters
Averaging nearly 3 points per game. Quite often players start the season exceptionally hot, but can't maintain their pace. Hard to believe that McDavid won't. Heck, he's playing with a 5'7 rookie (Debrincat) and a guy whose previous career high in goals was 5 (Betz). Those two are certainly playing well, but it pales in comparison to how unstoppable McDavid is right now. He's going to miss time at the WJC's. But it's hard to imagine him not being the first OHL player to break the 150 point mark since Corey Locke. This is especially true once the Otters make a trade to strengthen their roster (imagine how good Nick Baptiste would look alongside McDavid?). So what's been the difference? IMO, two things. First and foremost, McDavid looks considerably stronger. He's not just beating defenders with his speed and smarts anymore. He's now outmuscling them too. And secondly, he's playing with much more conviction without the puck. When it's off his stick, he wants it back. He's engaging physically and digging harder along the boards than he has before. What a player.

2. Dylan Strome - Forward - Erie Otters
I think we all expected Connor McDavid to produce despite not having a ton of proven talent to work with on the wings. But not Dylan Strome. Words can not describe how truly awesome he has been this year. He's playing with two rookies (Taylor Raddysh, and Mason Marchment), and dazzling. Strome uses his size so well to protect the puck, creating extra time for his line mates to get open. Think of how good Ryan was as a puck handler, then add some size to his frame to make him more difficult to knock off the puck. Strome is drawing multiple defenders which is really opening up the ice for others. Strome  also has terrific hockey sense. He uses his creativity and poise to create scoring chances, rather than simply play a "tunnel vision" style game that others with his talent level can get sucked into. Now just imagine when his skating really improves (it's average, not poor). Look out.

3. Pavel Zacha - Forward - Sarnia Sting
Quite often, Import players or big time American commits (from the USHL) tend to need a grace period as they become accustomed to the league. In other words, the expectations placed them can often be hard to live up to. Zacha has been the rare case of a player advertised to be fantastic, who actually has been. I had seen him play internationally before, but he's actually been more impressive than I expected.  That's mainly because he's been surprisingly physical. He plays the game hard and at a very high tempo. Once he gets going, he's so hard to defend off the rush because of his size and ability to carry the puck. But he's also proven to be very effective along the boards and is setting up shop behind the net and winning battles on the forecheck. At the beginning of the year, he looked hesitant to shoot and was playing more of a pass first game. But he's starting to really come around and is taking more chances in shooting the puck. Just a fun player to watch.

4. Travis Konecny - Forward - Ottawa 67's
Thankfully he doesn't have a concussion (apparently) as a result of that nasty hit from Plymouth's Gianluca Curcuruto (who isn't the dirty player people are making him out to be). But he's got to be better offensively than he's been so far this year. Ottawa's new captain (a testament to his leadership ability) just hasn't been able to find a groove so far this year. He's such a dynamic offensive player, that I can't see him staying cold for much longer. His speed is a game breaker, and his release is as good as it gets. What I will say is that I love how physical he's playing this year. As a 5'10 guy, he's got to play that way to increase his draft value.

5. Mitchell Marner - Forward - London Knights
Tough year for London so far (which I predicted would last the entire season). Marner has been right in the thick of that. Even if London continues to struggle (and they go into a rebuild mode), Marner is simply too good to be kept down all year. The great thing is that he's grown from last year and is now sitting close to 6'0. He's got it all as an offensive player. He's able to create in a variety of ways, but is most effective off the forecheck, forcing turnovers. He's also exceptionally smart, and he makes anyone he plays with better.

6. Lawson Crouse - Forward - Kingston Frontenacs
Crouse is a throwback. They don't make them like this very often anymore. His game is all power. He's a very exciting north/south guy who'll run you over on the way to the net if he has to. He hits, and he hits hard. But he's starting to improve his ability to handle the puck and he's got great hands in close to the net. Doesn't quite have the offensive potential of some of the other forwards ranked around here, but when you throw in his ability to play the power game, it elevates his value. That said, he does remain primarily a complimentary offensive player, who'll need to learn how to create his own chances more consistently.

7. Nikita Korostelev - Forward - Sarnia Sting
Has developed terrific chemistry with Pavel Zacha on Sarnia's top line. Korostelev has been great so far this year. He's an exceptional puck handler, and with his size, he's able to create so much time and space for himself in the offensive end. His shot also looks much better this year and it's clear that he's worked on that part of his game this offseason. My only real beef is that he hasn't been playing quite as physical as I saw him last year. When you combine his skill set with an ability to engage physically, you've got a pretty special player.

8. Matt Spencer - Defense - Peterborough Petes
Still first among defenseman on this list, but he's feeling the heat. There are several defenders who are having terrific seasons thus far (better than Spencer), and they could all end up rising above him in the draft rankings. Spencer has kept this position sort of by default because he possesses so much potential. Not like he's had a really bad start or anything. Just that others have been so good. Spencer impacts the game in every facet. His offensive game continues to gain confidence. But it's his defensive game that really makes him an exciting prospect. With his size, skating ability, and intensity level (hitting ability), he could develop into one heck of a player in his own end.

9. Thomas Schemitsch - Defense - Owen Sound Attack
Was sooo tempted to put Schemitsch ahead of Spencer. But I didn't (I think Spencer still has the most potential of any defender in this group). In his second year in the league (despite being a late '96), Schemitsch has absolutely exploded and is among the league leaders in defenseman scoring. Basically, think of his brother Geoffrey and his intelligence at both ends of the ice, and smooth skating stride. Then add significant size, a mean streak, and a desire to be more involved offensively (aggressiveness in jumping up in the play), and you've got Thomas. That's a pretty complete player. He's going to rise BIG time if he keeps playing like he has been (which I think he will).

10. Graham Knott - Forward - Niagara IceDogs
Started slowly, but has really picked up his game as of late (part of why it's important to not overreact to slow starts). Knott is such a well rounded player. You could certainly classify him as a power forward, but he's also a very strong two-way player and has way better playmaking ability than most stereotypical power forwards. Basically what I'm trying to say is that he's sort of non traditional power forward. His game isn't built around power in the sense that he drives hard to the net, blasting pucks home. It's built around his ability to force turnovers by playing physical on the forecheck. It's built around his ability to win battles along the wall. It's built around his ability to fight off checks and to play through traffic near the crease. And you add to that, that he's already a great penalty killer and dedicated defensive player. Foot speed is lacking, but I don't think it holds him back. His game has too many other layers to it.

11. Mitchell Vande Sompel - Defense - Oshawa Generals
Had him lower than others in my preseason rankings because I was skeptical of how his lack of size would impact the progression of his defensive game. Well he's higher now because his defensive game has been great so far. Oshawa continues to surprise and it's because Vande Sompel has emerged as a legitimate first pairing defender. His speed is so difficult to contain and it's very rare that he gets pinned in his own end because of how well he can escape pressure and transition to the breakout. An interesting tidbit. He's been playing forward on the penalty kill where he's been incredibly effective (Oshawa has the 2nd best PK in the league), using his speed to try to create turnovers.

12. Rasmus Andersson - Defense - Barrie Colts
I'll admit, Andersson is probably 12th (and the 4th rated defender) because of my lack of familiarity with him compared to the guys above him. That said, I've been impressed and he's right there neck and neck with those 4 (and guys like Dermott and Lemcke). Looking like a great year for defenders in the OHL. I've been VERY impressed with Andersson's ability to run the point on the power play. He does a great job of getting shots through to the net and moving the puck. He's also bigger than I thought he'd be, and he does a good job of engaging in the defensive end. In comparison to the four guys ahead of him, I think his foot speed is a notch below and that's why he's 4th (in addition to my comment from the   beginning of the paragraph).

13. Blake Speers - Forward - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
I think I've already determined that I like Speers a lot more than scouting services and, perhaps even NHL scouts will this year. He's not a "sexy" player. He's not that big (5'11). He's not yet really an effective player on the forecheck or along the boards. He's not the type of player who dangles through an entire defence on his way to the net. But, he's an incredibly intelligent player who shows a willingness to pay the price to make plays. Speers fills open lanes very well and it's part of why he has so much chemistry with Miller and Bunting, two players who create space with their speed. He makes smart plays with the puck and shows patience in the offensive end. And he's also got a great shot which he requires little space to get off. In a lot of ways, he reminds me of Seth Griffith, who just scored his first NHL goal the other day.

14. Mackenzie Blackwood - Goaltender - Barrie Colts
Blackwood is the prototypical NHL goalie for today's game; a 6'4 butterfly net minder who takes away the bottom of the net with quickness, and the top with size. As a late '96, the expectations were high on him for this year and he hasn't really disappointed. He does a great job of squaring to shooters and he's already greatly improving his ability to keep rebounds from the slot. Seems like a candidate to be the top North American goaltender taken in June. Only concern is that he's injured now for a couple weeks with a lower body injury, which hopefully doesn't plague him all season.

15. Travis Dermott - Defense - Erie Otters
There are tons of young defenseman making their mark in the OHL this year, but Dermott can't be forgotten about despite missing most of the year so far with injuries (hand and foot). He's an absolutely terrific two-way defender. He's not tall, but he's very stocky and strong down low. There really aren't many holes in his game. It's scary that Erie has been as good as they have been this year without him. Imagine once he's healthy.

16. Justin Lemcke - Defense - Belleville Bulls
I really like Lemcke's game. He's certainly not a flashy player, but he's cut from the same cloth as guys like Stuart Percy, Chris Bigras, Scott Harrington, etc. Defenders who can play both ends of the ice and who are reliable and consistent. Lemcke's skating ability is definitely an asset on the big ice in Belleville. Defensively, I love his ability to cut off lanes to the net, and his ability to get his stick in passing lanes. He reads plays very well. And he also makes a strong breakout pass. I think it's only a matter of time until he starts using his skating ability to generate scoring chances more consistently.

17. Dante Salituro - Forward - Ottawa 67's
At the beginning of the year, I felt like he was probably more of a candidate for the back half of the draft, given his lack of size. But he's been too good this year to ignore. And while I did rant about overreactions to hot starts at the beginning of this article, Salituro is more than that. We're talking about a near point per game player last year who's continuing to get better. While Travis Konecny was supposed to be the offensive leader of the 67's, it's been the Salituro show thus far. His 10 goals make up nearly 40% of his team's offensive production (both an impressive stat for him, but a depressing one for 67's fans). You have to love the intensity Salituro is playing with this year, attacking the net and fighting for position near the blue paint.

18. David Miller - Forward - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
If he were bigger, Miller would definitely be receiving consideration for the top 10. He's easily one of my early favourites of this draft class. Miller is a very well rounded player who plays much larger than his 5'9 frame. His speed and ability to miss checks entering the offensive zone is the immediate thing that sticks out about his game. But he's also active on the forecheck and the back check. And he's a very astute player who makes the players around him (Bunting and Speers) better because of how well he sees the ice and the decisions he makes with the puck. I think he's still a relatively high pick in June despite being undersized.

19. Mitchell Stephens - Forward - Saginaw Spirit
Had such high hopes for Stephens this year after he lit up the Ivan Hlinka tournament and the OHL preseason. But he started the regular season quietly and was recently sidelined with a concussion (hasn't played since October 11). When he returns, I do expect him to live up to this ranking. Stephens' game is built around his speed, which is among the best in this draft class, but he'll need to round out his game and really work to make himself noticeable in other ways than leading play across the blue line.

20. Brett McKenzie - Forward - North Bay Battalion
The offensive numbers haven't been great thus far, but I have to believe that he's going to get better and better as the season goes on. Besides, there's way more to his game than putting up points. He remains one of North Bay's top two way players, using his speed and size to be a presence in all three zones. McKenzie will be appealing because he's that prototypical NHL center for today's game.

21. Kyle Capobianco - Defense - Sudbury Wolves
The Wolves are going to be bad this year. But one of the few bright spots on the team will be former high pick Capobianco. He had a terrific preseason and has carried that over to the regular season. He's going to be one of the youngest available players for the draft this year, which always peaks the curiosity of scouts. As an offensive defenseman, Capobianco is a terrific skater who will likely be one of the league's top offensive blue liners by the time his OHL career is over. His play in his own end continues to need a bit of work (he needs to keep his feet moving in his own end), but he's a puck mover with some size, which is always in demand.

22. Vince Dunn - Defense - Niagara IceDogs
Dunn was one of the league's top rookies last year, emerging as a top 4 defender on an up and coming Niagara team. This year the late '96 is playing on (arguably) the team's top pairing with Blake Siebenaler and seeing ice time in all situations. He's certainly at his best as an offensive defenseman who can lead the rush and jump up in the play. That said, I've been a little disappointed with his decision making in his own end thus far this year. It seems like he's trying to do too much at times (especially true given Niagara's rough start to the year).

23. Gustaf Bouramman - Defense - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Super impressed by this smooth skating, puck mover from Sweden. The scouts that I had talked to after the Import Draft all said that he was a high risk, high reward type of defender who had a tendency to ignore his obligations in his own end. While he's not a world beater in his own end, he's been far from a  liability. And he's creating a ton of scoring chances, leading the rush with his great speed and poise with the puck.

24. Sam Harding - Forward - Oshawa Generals
The jack of all trades for the Generals. Harding plays in all situations. He plays hard at both ends of the ice. He wins face-offs. And he's looked way better and more confident offensively this year, even if he hasn't been getting as much ice time as of late. The offensive numbers haven't been great since a hot start, but there's way more to his game than a blank score sheet. That said, given his size, he will need to start producing more consistently if he wants to be a candidate for the first three rounds.

25. Roy Radke - Forward - Barrie Colts
A late '96, but one playing in his first OHL season after signing with Barrie this offseason. Radke has been a great addition to the Colts lineup. He's a big winger who has definite power forward potential. He's already starting to play with more of an edge and looking to create by driving wide, using his size to protect the puck. I think that as the season goes on, we could see his ranking rise as he gains confidence in his ability to create his own scoring chances.

26. Matt Luff - Forward - Belleville Bulls
Really like what I've seen from this big winger. He's already very difficult to move from the crease and he understands his role on a scoring line. The skill level in close is quite high too and I think he's got significant goal scoring potential if he can improve his confidence in his shot. The only drawback I can see is his skating ability. He currently lacks that explosiveness in his stride and it makes him more of a complimentary guy, rather than the focal point of an attack.

27. Gustaf Franzen - Forward - Kitchener Rangers
Has sort of come as advertised. Stocky forward who plays the game hard and is learning how to battle in the corners and come out with the puck. He probably hasn't been as much of a physical presence as was anticipated (there were comparisons to Landeskog), but the effort is there on and off the puck. Offensively, he's developing chemistry playing with Magyar and rookie Adam Mascherin. He's able to get them the puck and looks like he could develop into a player as a guy like Henri Ikonen (former Kington Frontenac).

28. Ethan Szypula - Forward - Owen Sound Attack
Went from not even being in consideration for my preseason list, to on it in a matter of months. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Szypula looks like one of the most improved 97's. He's got 6 goals, and he's been one of Owen Sound's best players in the games that I've seen. Every facet of his game has improved and he's showing a pretty high skill level in open ice, creating scoring chances off the rush and making things happen with the man advantage. He's certainly not the biggest guy (5'11), but he's playing bigger than that and you have to be impressed with his progression.

29. Colton White - Defense - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Now that Darnell Nurse has returned, White's role is most likely to decrease a bit, but there's no denying how impressive the 2nd year defender has looked. He's paired with Import Gustaf Bouramman (#23) and been the rock to Bouramman's offensive freedom. He's seeing lots of time on the penalty kill and has impressed with his defensive awareness and ability to read opposing forwards. He's also shown an ability to make a good first pass too and probably has more offensive potential than he's showing right now. Hopefully he continues to get big defensive assignments even with Nurse back.

30. Zachary Senyshen - Forward - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
A Hounds 3rd rounder who has really made some noise in his first year in the league. He had a cup of tea last year, which seems to have been very beneficial because he's now playing with confidence and looks to have really added strength to a good frame. He's skating on one of the Soo's scoring lines with Gabe Guertler and overeager Jean Dupuy. He brings great size to the wing, but also skill and he can take advantage of space in the middle of the ice. Big wingers who can drive the net and create/finish off scoring chances are often a hot commodity.

Honorable Mention
31. Garrett McFadden - D/Guelph Storm
Has looked better this year, displaying more confidence with the puck. Skating is terrific and he's playing with jam. Lacks elite size though.
32. Marcus Crawford - D/Saginaw Spirit
Very smart offensive defender who already does a great job on the power play. Will need to continue to prove his capability in his own end.
33. Artem Artemov - F/Saginaw Spirit
Started slowly, but has started to produce in Saginaw. Was one of the top young players in the USHL last year so I figure it's only a matter of time until he plays more consistently.
34. Adam Laishram - F/Belleville Bulls
Wish he was bigger. But does all the little things right. Have seen Belleville a few times this year and I'm not sure I've seen him lose a face-off.
35. Jesse Barwell - F/Mississauga Steelheads
I like him. I think there's more to his game at the OHL than he has shown us thus far. Is starting to create more scoring chances, but needs to bring it every shift.
36. Jeremiah Addison - F/Ottawa 67's
Late '96, Addison is a very hard worker. Still not sure how much offensive upside there is though.
37. Jesse Saban - D/Erie Otters
Stay at home defender who has proven to be quite capable in his own end. Uses his size, but will need to demonstrate more poise with the puck.
38. Tyler MacArthur - D/Owen Sound Attack
Tall, but lanky defender who already plays with an edge. Once his fills out, he could be a real monster in his own end. Needs to cut down on turnovers though.
39. Michael McNiven - G/Owen Sound Attack
It's only a matter of time until McNiven gets more playing time thanks to a trade of one of Brandon Hope or Jack Flinn. Owen Sound can't keep this goaltending carousel going all season. McNiven is an ultra talented youngster who won his first start of the year (although it was against Sudbury)
40. Artem Vladimirov - D/Peterborough Petes
Big Russian defender with a booming shot. Don't have a terrific read on him yet, but could definitely be a riser as the season goes on.
41. Justin Fazio - G/Sarnia Sting
Started the season very poorly, but has picked up his play of late. Sarnia will likely be up and down all season, but Fazio will need to be the consistent anchor if they want to make the playoffs.
42. Hayden McCool - F/Niagara IceDogs
Currently holding down a spot on Niagara's 3rd line (with veterans Cody Payne and Jordan Maletta), but hasn't been overly noticeable despite having great potential.
43. Mike Davies - F/Kitchener Rangers
Former first rounder has started slowly like most of Kitchener. Big winger who needs to step up and play with more of an edge consistently.
44. Johnny Corneil - F/Niagara IceDogs
Not the biggest guy on the ice, but plays the game hard. Has shown some chemistry playing with Graham Knott and he really gets his nose dirty on the forecheck.
45. Petrus Palmu - F/Owen Sound Attack
Pint sized forward who oozes skill. Been very impressed with his play, but I don't really see him as a serious NHL draft prospect.
46. Riley Bruce - D/North Bay Battalion
Real big kid, but can still struggle with the offensive side of things at this level. Big potential and could explode up the list if he improves and gains confidence.
47. Zach Wilkie - D/Niagara IceDogs
Caught in a numbers game on a deep Niagara blue line. Wilkie is a talented player. If an injury occurs, he stands to get more playing time and hopefully takes advantage of it.
48. Doug Blaisdell - D/Kitchener Rangers
Thus far, doesn't seem to have improved much from last year, but does have potential as a two-way defender.
49. Adam Craievich - F/Guelph Storm
Been incredibly disappointed in his play so far this year. Seems to still be missing that extra gear. Shot and offensive skill is undeniable though.
50. Noah Bushnell - F/Sarnia Sting
Suspended power forward who I'm curious to see play this year, to see if his skating and offensive game have developed. When he finally gets to play at the end of October, he'll be rusty.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sunday Top 10 - Players to Watch in 2014

The new OHL season is well underway now. I've been inspired by some of the other lists I've seen put out recently, chronicling players to watch in respective junior leagues (like Ryan Kennedy's NCAA players to watch). I see this as an opportunity to highlight some of the players I see "breaking out" this year. You won't find the likes of Connor McDavid, or Michael Dal Colle on this list. Everyone knows them and what they're capable of. I'm writing about players who haven't yet reached the provincial or national spotlight, but who have the chance to this year.

These are my OHL players to watch in 2014 (in alphabetical order of their OHL team).

Joseph Blandisi - Barrie Colts
Blandisi has never really had the chance to be the go to offensive guy on an OHL team thus far in his career. He's been a key member of some good teams, playing the "character guy" role. He's been the support guy on scoring lines. He's killed penalties. He's been a dressing room influence. And well, now he's been fuelled by the fact that an NHL team chose to not sign him (Colorado). He's come into this OHL season in great shape, brimming with confidence. And he's finally got the opportunity to be one of the key offensive guys on his team. Right now the offence is Barrie is running through him and the early results have been astounding. His 14 points in 5 games leads the OHL in scoring and he seems to be on pace to be this year's "Dane Fox."

Remi Elie - Belleville Bulls
In reality, Elie broke out last year. He WAS the Belleville Bulls last year. He jumped from 7 goals in his rookie year (and draft year) with London, to 29 last year with Belleville. Problem is...Belleville was so bad that no one noticed. This year Belleville is, and will be better. I expect them to battle for home ice in the first round and Elie will be the catalyst. His tenacity, physical bravado, and underrated offensive skill make him an ideal NHL player in today's day and age. Elie may even be a surprise candidate for this year's WJC team IMO.

Dylan Strome - Erie Otters
In his draft year, brother Ryan had to climb the charts and prove that he was a top 10 candidate. Dylan is starting the year already in most top 10's. But that doesn't mean that he can't climb further. At this point, he's looking like a serious candidate to be number 4 behind the "big 3" (McDavid, Eichel, Hanifin). Teammate McDavid is going to steal a lot of the spotlight, but if Strome continues to keep pace with Connor offensively, he's going to be a hot commodity. The Erie Otters have been nearly unstoppable so far this season because of the 1-2 punch they possess down the middle. Who cares about depth on the wing when you've got these two guys feeding you the puck. Strome is incredible.

Pius Suter - Guelph Storm
No Fabbri? No problem. Through training camp, and the preseason, Suter's development as a player was one of the main stories coming out of Guelph. The team lost some important pieces from last year's Championship squad. But they've still got a ton of talent, as evidenced by their performance so far. Suter was stashed away in a 4th line role, killing penalties last year. But if you saw Guelph a lot, you saw he was capable of significantly more. Suter is going to be a critical player for the Storm this year, even when (likely) Fabbri returns.

Sean Day - Mississauga Steelheads
Remember how much better Aaron Ekblad was in his second year? Well, that's happening with Sean Day right now. Day has been sensational for the Steelheads thus far, and at the ripe age of 16 is looking like one of the best defenders in the league. He now possesses the confidence to match his skating ability, and he looks way more determined in his own end. Truthfully, I didn't expect him to be quite at this level just yet, but it's looking like he is. Day is a special player and is really putting the critics (of his exceptional status) to shame.

Blake Siebenaler - Niagara IceDogs
OK, so Niagara is one of the only winless teams in the league thus far. Don't panic Niagara fans. I still expect this team to end up near the top of the Conference. And I expect Siebenaler to experience a big time breakout, leading this team's talented defensive unit. Vince Dunn and him have picked up where they left off and are playing great. Now the rest of the team needs to follow suit. His offensive talents are undeniable (especially his skating ability), but it's his defensive awareness and ability that has really grown to the point where he's becoming one of the league's top two-way players.

Nick Paul - North Bay Battalion
Not everyone gets to be a key piece of a Jason Spezza deal. That's a lot of pressure on a young kid, replacing Jason Spezza in Ottawa. But I think Paul can handle it and I think he's REALLY going to take off this year and establish himself as a terrific NHL prospect. He was great towards the end of last year. He was great at the Team Canada summer camp. And now he's been great so far this year. Paul will lead the Battalion another solid year and I think he's a big time candidate for Team Canada at the WJC's.

Jack Flinn - Owen Sound Attack
The big guy from Halifax has thus far emerged as the starter for Owen Sound (a trade has to be imminent there with Flinn, Hope, and the very talented Michael McNiven around). Now matter where he plays this year, I expect him to play well. Flinn has taken his experience at an NHL camp and turned it into a confidence level yet to be displayed in his CHL (QMJHL and OHL) career. He takes up so much of the net and is learning to control his rebounds and better position himself. Maybe the Q should send us some more huge net minders after the success of Trudeau and now Flinn.

Dylan Wells - Peterborough Petes
Man, who says the Petes need a net minder (OK I did)? The first goalie taken in this year's priority draft, Wells has been a revelation for Peterborough. It's not common for 16 year old goaltenders to lead their team into the playoffs, but it's not unheard of (cough, Alex Nedeljkovic, cough). I still expect Peterborough to make a deal (whether it's one of Owen Sound's guys, Jake Paterson, etc), but Wells has certainly put himself on the map and looks like the next great Canadian net minder to play in the OHL.

David Miller - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Loved this guy last year. Plays the game at such a high tempo. With Jared McCann out (mono), Miller has been the go to guy so far and he's playing lights out. He's undersized, so it remains to be seen how much NHL attention he'll generate, but he's a future OHL star and a potential Eddie Powers Memorial Trophy winner over the next couple of years. He may finish in the top 10 of OHL scoring this year, let alone in future years.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

2014/2015 Season Preview - Award Predictions

Season kicks off today! My awards predictions conclude my 2014/2015 season preview. Oddly enough most of my picks are from the West.

Red Tilson Trophy (MVP) - Connor McDavid
I predicted McDavid to win this last year too, but it was Connor Brown who led the way for the Otters instead (although McDavid did finish 4th in OHL scoring). I'm going back to him this year too. Here's the way I see it. If the Otters are going to be a respectable team this year, McDavid is going to have to be a scoring machine, and the type of player who can elevate his unproven or inexperienced linemates to above and beyond what they would otherwise be capable of. He's going to miss some time at the WJC's, we all know that. But he nearly cracked the 100 point plateau last year despite that. A 120-130 point season (in around 55 games) is completely possible IMO. So who else could be in the running. I've got five other names I'm going to toss out (although I do truly believe there are tons of candidates this year). If Oshawa is (again) better than people believe they will be, Michael Dal Colle is an obvious choice. If Plymouth is as good as everyone thinks they will be, Alex Nedeljkovic could be a contender. Then Sam Bennett, Robby Fabbri, and Sergei Tolchinsky are all likely to lead their teams to top 3 finishes in the Conference.

OHL Goaltender of the Year - Alex Nedeljkovic
Only one goalie has ever won this award in back to back years and that's Mike Murphy (2008, 2009). Nedeljkovic is my choice to be the second. There's no doubt in my mind that Plymouth will be one of the top teams in the league this year. He won the award last year after posting great numbers, and that was with a vastly inferior team in front of him compared to this year's edition of the Whalers. In all honesty, my back up pick would be Barrie's Mackenzie Blackwood, making it two straight years that a draft eligible goaltender would have won the award. 3rd choice is probably Justin Nichols in Guelph, although you never know what to expect from Brent Moran and Brandon Halverson, considering how good I think their teams will be. A darkhorse candidate could be Brandon Hope in Owen Sound as an overager.

Max Kaminski Trophy (Top Defenseman) - Anthony DeAngelo
Tough choice for this award really. I'm certainly not a fan of DeAngelo's defensive game, but there's no denying his offensive talent. I think he has an honest chance of cracking 100 points this year and if he does that, he'll be a shoe in for the award, even if his defensive game doesn't round into form. I wanted to say Darnell Nurse, but I just don't think he's going to get enough games in between getting a brief look see with the Oilers and the WJC's. Next in line would be either Zac Leslie (assuming he returns) or Roland McKeown.

Emms Family Award (ROY) - Pavel Zacha
I'm definitely a believer in Zacha based on what I've seen from him already internationally, and what he accomplished this preseason. He's going to have some talented offensive players to work with in Sarnia and he should be able to put up a 70 point season. Truth is though, this should be an absolutely fantastic rookie crop this year. So many guys with the opportunity to play a large role for their club. Here are some other guys I think are serious contenders. Jakob Chychrun is an obvious choice in Sarnia, although I'm not sure he'll be able to put up the type of offensive numbers necessary to win. I think Jeremy Helvig probably ends up Kingston's starter and has a great year. Import Artur Tyanulin is an explosive offensive player despite his lack of size. Ditto for Erie's Alex Debrincat (who could be playing with McDavid). And '98's Victor Mete, Mike McLeod, and Brandon Saigeon will also be a big part of their team (amongst many others).

Leo Lalande Trophy (Overager of the Year) - Mathew Campagna
In Plymouth, Campagna is going to put up some huge numbers playing with some very talented (and bigger) wingers. I think he's a pretty safe bet to be the highest scoring overager and could even be a candidate to lead the league in scoring. I think Zac Leslie is probably the 2nd runner up, as I expect him to contend for defenseman of the year. I also think Brandon Hope is a possibility as I expect him to contend for goaltender of the year. Owen Sound's Holden Cook is one of the league's highest scoring returning overagers. Brady Vail could also be a contender if he returns to the OHL. I'm a big fan of Bryan Moore in the Soo too and I think he could hit the 75-80 point mark this year.

Matt Leyden Trophy (Coach of the Year) - Marty Williamson
As I mentioned in my Eastern Conference preview, I think the Dogs will take the Conference and as a result, Williamson will be named coach of the year. There's no question that he has one of the most well rounded squads in the league. If the Greyhounds can overthrow the Whalers, then Sheldon Keefe is going to get his share of the votes this year. I think two new coaches have a chance too. Don Elland, taking over for Vellucci in Plymouth. And Jeff Brown in Ottawa, if the 67's can surprise people and climb the East.

Eddie Powers Trophy (Scoring Leader) - Connor McDavid
As I said, I think this is McDavid's to lose this year. And even though he's going to miss time at the WJC's, I still see him sitting around the 120-130 point mark. I actually think Sergei Tolchinsky and McDavid will have a good battle for this though. I see him as the top combatant. After that, I already mentioned Mathew Campagna as an overager. Guelph's Robby Fabbri, Kingston's Sam Bennett, and Oshawa's Michael Dal Colle will all be up there too.

Goal Scoring Leader - Michael Dal Colle
Truly had a hard time deciding between Dal Colle and Fabbri for this one. Went with Dal Colle because I felt like he would be more of a focal point in the offense. I expect both to be 50 goal scorers this year though. Thought about Nick Baptiste here too, but I feel like the dire situation in Sudbury will hurt his stat line (at least until he's dealt). Nick Ritchie and Brendan Perlini could also very easily capture this too.

All Star Teams

1st Team All Stars
C - Connor McDavid
LW - Michael Dal Colle
RW - Sergei Tolchinsky
D - Anthony DeAngelo
D - Roland McKeown
G - Alex Nedeljkovic
Coach - Marty Williamson

2nd Team All Stars
C - Mathew Campagna
LW - Nick Ritchie
RW - Nick Baptise
D - Zac Leslie
D - Darnell Nurse
G - Mackenzie Blackwood
Coach - Sheldon Keefe

3rd Team All Stars
C - Robby Fabbri
LW - Brendan Perlini
RW - Spencer Watson
D - Blake Siebenaler
D - Travis Dermott
G - Justin Nichols
Coach - Don Elland

All Rookie Team
C - Pavel Zacha
LW - Luke Kirwan
RW - Alex Debrincat
D - Jakob Chychrun
D - Victor Mete
G - Jeremy Helvig

Would love to hear your predictions in the comments!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

2014/2015 Season Preview - Western Conference

The last time the Western Conference didn't have a team under the 50 point mark was 2010/2011 (Sarnia and SSM finished with 57 and 56 points at 9th and 10 place). In 2001/2002, nearly every team in the Western Conference had at least 60 points (the 10th place Battalion had only 59). I see this year's Western Conference battle shaking down quite similarly. Quite honestly, I could see any team I've got ranked 4 through 10, being one of the two who misses the playoffs. They're all quite close to each other, with all having strengths, but also potentially significant weaknesses. For that reason the Western Conference is not as strong as the East this year (even if they've got likely the two best teams in the league in Plymouth and Sault Ste. Marie).

The interesting thing (or what will jump out at you) is the fact that I've got the Spitfires and the Knights finishing out of the playoffs. That's certainly not a common occurrence and I'll try to explain why I think this happens below.

1. Plymouth Whalers (West Division Champs)
What a difference a year makes. Last year, the stellar Alex Nedeljkovic kept the Whalers in the playoffs, something the team would not have sniffed had he not stood on his head. This year, the team returns many of those same players. So why the change? It's more than just the acquisition of Mathew Campagna and Sonny Milano (although that certainly is a part of it). The Whalers now have a very experienced forward group, with many of their key players being 19 year olds. Guys like Matthew Mistele, Connor Chatham, and Victor Crus Rydberg will all be better this year after struggling with consistency issues last year. This is especially true because Campagna and Milano will be there. One of the main reasons that the Whalers struggled offensively last year was that they had no one to get their wingers the puck. Too many players with similar skill sets. Milano and Campagna are those playmakers. Of course Milano is out until late October with facial fractures, but that shouldn't affect things too much. And of course, the strength of this team will be preventing goals. Nedeljkovic needs no explanation, but the defence in front of him is big, mean, and mobile. In particular, I look for Alex Peters to have a fantastic year. The one wild card is how much the loss of Mike Vellucci affects this club, but I don't anticipate it being much of an issue.

2. Guelph Storm (Midwest Division Champs)
While this team won't be as good as last year's model, they'll still be pretty good, and in a weaker Midwest division, I think that will be enough to get them the division. Even though many veterans of the 2013/14 squad have moved on to the professional ranks (Rychel, Kosmachuk, McGinn, etc), the Storm had such remarkable depth last year that they've got more than enough players ready to flourish in expanded roles. One of those guys is Jason Dickinson, who along with Robby Fabbri, will be counted on to be the go to offensive guy. Based on what I saw from him last year, playing in more of grinding role, I think he's ready for that. And Pius Suter, who steps into the second line center role, is a vastly underrated player. Defensively, Zac Leslie returns and he'll be an anchor. And Ben Harpur and Phil Baltisberger are ready to be more than the third pairing guys that they were last year. In goal, you've got Nichols and Mancina, possibly the best tandem in the league (even if I expect Mancina to be dealt by the end of September). Bottom line, this team is still good enough to compete for the Conference title for another year behind several veteran workhorses leftover from the previous year.

3. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Second best team in the Conference. They could easily end up the best team instead of Plymouth. The key? Brandon Halverson. This team will have no trouble scoring goals. They will have little trouble defensively. But what can we expect from Halverson? I know the Hounds have a lot of faith in him, but the reality is that he's got 19 games of OHL experience thus far. How he responds to the starter's role remains a bit of a mystery. Of course, another mystery is what comes of Darnell Nurse. I'd be VERY surprised if he doesn't get some NHL games this year, but I do expect him to be back (which contributes to this ranking). He'll anchor a very big and physical defensive unit that closely resembles the group that Plymouth will be sending out this year. As I previously mentioned, the forward group of the Hounds is probably the best in the West. New addition Gabe Guertler looks like an OHL star in the making and his addition will help to ease Jared McCann back into the line up following his bout with mono. Guys like Bryan Moore, Michael Bunting, and David Miller all bring a balance of skill and tenacity and should be in for big seasons. And of course there's Sergei Tolchinsky, who IMO, is the second most likely candidate to lead the league in scoring this year behind Connor McDavid.

4. Owen Sound Attack
I see this year's Attack team closely resembling last year's North Bay team. Not a ton of difference makers, or elite level talents. BUT, they'll work you hard and win the majority of those one goal games, especially since they'll get good goaltending from Brandon Hope. Zach Nastasiuk returns as captain and I think he really puts his stamp on this team, leading by example while having a breakout offensive season. Owen Sound's two overage forwards are better than people give them credit for too (Holden Cook and Daniel Milne). Like Nastasiuk, they bring both a skill and grit element to the ice. See the pattern? Up and down this line up, you've got guys who will push your buttons to grind out victories. There's been some talk of Chris Bigras having a chance to making the Avalanche, but I don't see it happening. He anchors the defence, a defence that plays as hard as the forwards, but is considerably bigger. And as I mentioned, Brandon Hope is a great netminder. As an overeager, he's going to be motivated to try and earn a professional contract. I think they'll use Jack Flinn has trade bait to make the team better (or to get picks which can be used to make the team better). When you've got a team which buys into the team concept as much as Owen Sound is likely to, it usually bodes well (see every Stan Butler coached team in history).

5. Erie Otters
I see a lot of people picking the Otters to finish towards the bottom of the Conference, but I just don't see it. I've said it many times, but it's pretty uncommon to see a team struggle when they've got two fantastic centres and a solid goaltender. As you saw in the preseason this year, when you're as talented as Connor McDavid and Dylan Strome, you're going to make your wingers better (see Nick Betz and Alex Debrincat). There won't be much depth offensively, but there won't need to be for this team to creep up into the middle of the Conference. In particular, I'd be surprised if McDavid and Strome didn't play on the power play together, and that will be a VERY dangerous thing for the opposition. And since Erie knows it's McDavid's final year, I'd be surprised if they don't go out and add a forward or two over the course of the season (they'll have Import spots open). On top of an explosive top two lines, Devin Williams should be a rock in net, as he proved last year when stealing the starting gig away from Oscar Dansk. The big question mark remains a young defence. But, we're not talking about absolute scrubs here. Cole Mayo, Jesse Saban, and T.J. Fergus all have the potential to be quality OHL players. AND I still think Troy Donnay comes back at some point. And did I mention that Travis Dermott is a stud? Honestly, teams with this much top end talent don't miss the playoffs, even with some holes on their roster.

6. Saginaw Spirit
A young team that I have faith in. I think they end up being better than they look on paper. All that said, defence and goaltending are potential issues. Part of me is afraid of ranking them this high because they remind me of Belleville last year. If their young forwards don't progress, and their goaltending and defence struggles, it'll be a long year. For that reason, I could see the Spirit anywhere from 5 through 10. So why have them 6th? For one, I think their younger players are better than Belleville's were last year. Mitchell Stephens showed at the Ivan Hlinka and in the preseason that he's ready for a breakout season. Blake Clarke is just too talented to repeat last year's disaster. Tye Felhaber might be the most talented '98 in the league. The most important piece of the puzzle might actually be Jimmy Lodge and his ability to stay healthy. This brings us to the goaltending. It's Nikita Serebryakov's show and he's got to be better and more consistent than he's been in his OHL career thus far. He has tons of talent, as he's proven in stretches, but playing 50 or so games is a different story. But, since I've got them 6th, I obviously think he'll be good enough to help out a younger defence.

7. Sarnia Sting
As they probably proved this preseason, the Sting are likely to be a better team than people think they will be. Depth wise, they aren't a top team. But they've got great high end talent at forward and on defence. Pavel Zacha looks like the real deal at forward after a tremendous preseason performance. He's going to make whoever he plays with a lot better. I think Nikita Korostelev is in for a big year too. And this without factoring in Nikolai Goldobin (who is said to be either on the trade block or likely to get an audition with San Jose). Defensively, Anthony DeAngelo is a near shoe in to lead the league in defensive scoring. The question is, how will his defensive game grow in his 4th and final OHL year? Jakob Chychrun will go through his growing pains, but he's too talented to not be a difference maker on many nights. Throw in some underrated guys like Chapman, Spinozzi, and Schllichting and the Sting could actually have a half a decent blue line. In goal, overeager Taylor Dupuis won't be remarkable, but he'll get the job done, at least to the extent that's required to get the Sting into the playoffs.

8. Kitchener Rangers
On paper, this team should probably be better than I have them ranked. It's more than just a feeling or a hunch though. I truly worry about the team's goaltending. I don't think Jordan DeKort or Matthew Greenfield are starting netminders in this league. And with how close the battle will be for the playoffs, that could really hurt their ability to put up 'W's consistently. This is especially true because I don't think  that the Rangers defence is tremendous. Max Iafrate is the workhorse, but that was the case last year when the Rangers finished out of the playoffs. While it's likely a few of their younger defenseman take steps forward, it's also highly unlikely that all of them do and that still would leave Kitchener with some gaps on the back end. Now, I've still got the Rangers in the playoffs and there's a reason for that; their offence should be fairly solid. Kitchener will roll out three strong scoring lines. But, this hedges on guys like Ryan MacInnis, Justin Bailey, Brandon Robinson, Brent Pedersen, being significantly better than last year. This is no sure bet. I do think they'll struggle with consistency, but will be good enough to win games.

9. Windsor Spitfires
I do expect to take some heat from the passionate fan bases of Windsor and London for the next two predictions, but the reality is...someone has to finish out of the playoffs. I absolutely love the make up of this young Windsor team moving forward. They've rebuilt and done it the right way. Kids like Luke Kirwan, Logan Brown, Logan Stanley, Ryan Moore, Andrew Burns (etc) are extremely talented. This Windsor team will definitely be able to score goals. I expect Josh Ho-Sang to have a big year offensively as he looks to prove the naysayers wrong. And there's definitely scoring depth. However, I think this team will really struggle defensively. Trevor Murphy and Patrick Sanvido probably enter the season as the team's top pairing. Again, there's talent on the blueline, but the West has some teams with serious offensive firepower (especially in their division) and I don't know if they'll be able to keep up consistently. And Alex Fotinos is a decent goaltender, but I don't think he's the type of top flight starter that can steal them games the way others in the conference can. As I did say at the beginning of this article, I think any team near the bottom could easily be up near the top. If Windsor's defenders get better and better as the season goes on, then they'll be able to really compete with the strength of their offense. They could easily be up near 5 or 6 if everything goes perfectly.

10. London Knights
And that brings us to the London Knights. This was a tough prediction. They've got three top flight talents who are possibly going to be NHL'ers (Max Domi, Bo Horvat, and Nikita Zadorov). If they all come back, there's no question that this London team will be better. At this point, I'm not expecting that though. And I also think that if one of these guys come back (especially Zadorov), I could see them being dealt. London has spent the last few years in true contender mode and because of that, the young talent on the roster doesn't have the experience of some of the other teams in the league. They need to spend this year recouping some draft picks and acquiring young talent (Victor Mete was a great start). It's a perfect year to rebuild because they must know that their defense and goaltending won't be good enough to compete for home ice in the first round. That said, I've heard great things about Tyler Parsons and his future potential in the league. In 2015/2016, this team could be really good again if they do things properly this year and retool. Again though, like Windsor, this team could easily be much higher and much better than I'm predicting. Even without Domi and Horvat, this team has some weapons up front (Marner, Rupert, Welychka, McCarron). And if Victor Mete proves ready for the second pairing already, the defense could be better than we think. The goaltending will still be a sore spot, but that won't prevent them from finishing in the 5-6 range if everything else falls into place. What a tough year to predict the OHL standings.

Monday, September 22, 2014

2014/2015 Season Preview - Eastern Conference

The 2014/2015 OHL season starts up next week and that means it's prediction time. As always, predicting the OHL can be a bit of a crapshoot. NHL teams may choose to keep certain players on their roster and that can negatively impact an OHL team. Would I have the Fronts and Generals as high as I do if Sam Bennett and Michael Dal Colle crack the NHL? Definitely not. But I'm operating under assumptions with these rankings. Assumptions that certain players will return. Assumptions that certain players will take massive steps forward in their development. And even, assumptions that certain players could be, and will be traded.

I honestly believe that the Eastern Conference is better than the West this year. It's completely wide open with many of the teams in the Conference having a chance to finish first. It will be a real dog fight for the playoffs this year and realistically, one pretty decent team is going to just miss. Many of the East teams are much improved, including Niagara, Belleville, Ottawa, and Mississauga. And the teams that got worse, didn't do so by a whole lot. As someone who sees a lot of action in Mississauga and Niagara, I'm excited to see it all shake down.

1. Niagara IceDogs (Central Division Champs)
By far the strength of this Niagara team is on the defensive side of things. They've got the deepest defensive unit in the league and perhaps the most talented. They return their top two pairings last year (Mercer/Haydon & Dunn/Siebenaler), all of whom will be a year stronger and more confident. In particular, I look for the Dunn and Siebenaler pairing to really blossom and become one of the league's premier two-way pairings. Then you throw a recent 4th rounder in Ryan Mantha into the mix with one of Alex Mikulovich or Zach Wilkie, and you've got the makings of a pretty solid team. While we don't really know what we'll get from Brent Moran in net, this defensive unit should play well enough in front of him to limit scoring chances and elevate his confidence. On the offensive side of things, they're a much deeper team than last year. The acquisition of Cody Payne helps a lot, when combined with the improvements that guys like Graham Knott, Jordan Maletta, Hayden McCool, and others are sure to make. And don't forget, they're returning one of the league's top lines from last year in Perlini/Verhaeghe/DiFruscia. Even with Brendan Perlini missing time with a broken hand, a guy like Knott or Payne should be able to step on to that first line and produce for the first 6-8 weeks. While the East is certainly wide open, I think Niagara is the most well balanced team in the conference and I like the mix of veteran leadership and improving youth on the roster. Perfect timing for a strong year with their new arena (the Meridian Center) opening in October.

2. Peterborough Petes (East Division Champs)
Let me preface this by saying that I fully expect the Petes to acquire a starting netminder by the start of the OHL season (someone like Matthew Mancina or Jack Flinn). This team is too good in every other area, and has too many veteran players to waste the opportunity to capture the division crown. They've got a great group of overagers (that probably sees Brandon Devlin as the man out) which really helps in this league. Michael Clarke and Josh MacDonald will provide secondary scoring and help this team to rolling out three very competent offensive lines. I like the Nick Ritchie and Hunter Garlent to continue to explore their chemistry together and they should both have monster seasons that have them up near the top of league scoring. Defensively, the acquisition of Dominik Masin was huge and I think he'll really solidify things on the backend. I also expect Matt Spencer to have a great year and establish himself as a NHL first round talent. While they won't be the best at creating offense from the back end, they should at least work hard to keep the puck out. And I should add that I have a lot of confidence in Jody Hull as a coach to get the most out of this squad.

3. Kingston Frontenacs
Kingston comes into the season as the top ranked club in the OHL, according to the preseason CHL top 10. Can't say I agree with that. Sure the Fronts have probably the most explosive offensive unit in the league, but they also have a ton of question marks surrounding the team. Firstly, will Sam Bennett return? I'd be surprised if he didn't, but stranger things have happened. Secondly, how will their goaltending be? It'll either be the relatively unproven Lucas Peressini, or the rookie Jeremy Helvig in net. Pretty hard to say how they'll react to being the starter. Thirdly, how will their defense shape up? Roland McKeown and Warren Steele are the only players returning who played an important role for the team last year. Having a relatively rebuilt defense, combined with unproven goaltending can be a very risky move in this league. All that said, I expect the Fronts to be a pretty strong team. I think Bennett returns and really leads this team. I also expect Ryan Kujawinski to finally stay healthy and be the leader of the second offensive unit. I also expect the goaltending to be decent as I have faith that Jeremy Helvig will be good and eventually emerge as the starter. And I think the defense will be as good as it has to be, considering that the Fronts hope to play an up tempo style that keeps the puck in the opposing end for the majority of the time. They should get home ice in the first round, but I don't agree with them being the best team in the OHL right now.

4. Barrie Colts
No Aaron Ekblad, no problem. I still think this Barrie team is going to have a good year. It all starts in net where Mackenzie Blackwood is going to emerge as a star in this league. He was already great last year and will be motivated to try and be the top netminder selected in the 2015 Draft, something he has a chance of being. His size and composure in the net are true assets. Offensively, this team will be better than some are giving them credit for. Veteran overagers Garrett Hooey and Joseph Blandisi are the types of hard working players who often explode offensively in their final years in the league. When you mix in gritty, yet skilled guys like Brendan Lemieux, Andrew Mangiapane, and Kevin Lebanc, you've got a recipe for success. Also look for rookie Roy Radke to have a big year (think Mark Scheifele), as he's been dynamite in the preseason. Defensively, the acqusition of Rasmus Andersson will help to replace Ekblad. He's a potential first round talent for 2015 and should step right on to the team's top pairing. Guys like Michael Webster, CJ Garcia, and Josh Carrick will really have to step up after playing more minor roles previously. I really like the make up of this team and I think that they could surprise people.

5. North Bay Battalion
As is the case with any Stan Butler team, defense is the strength of this year's Battalion squad. They return 3 of their top 4 in McIvor, Miller, and Wood, and they've got enough talented youngsters to fill in the gaps (Bruce, Locke), in addition to a hungry Miles Liberati. The team also has a forward group that's committed and talented on the backcheck. Team defense is the name of the game and they play it well. Coming off a strong season, Jake Smith returns with a lot of confidence and an equally talented defensive unit in front of him. No reason to believe that he won't have as good of a season. The real question mark for this team, as is usually the case, is on the offensive side of things. Mike Amadio and Brett McKenzie had good preseasons and look poised to be more consistent this year. But the real key will be the development of Nick Paul. He was such a monster in the playoffs alongside Goodrow and Thomson, but he won't have them this year. It will be all him and the team is going to need him to be their dynamic offensive leader. And I do think that will be the case. I think he'll have a big year, and really establish himself as the key piece of the Jason Spezza deal. In the end though, a lack of secondary scoring will prevent this team from being as effective as they were last year.

6. Belleville Bulls
I definitely did not expect the Bulls to be as bad as they were last year. Bottom line is that they were a younger team whose younger players did not take the necessary steps forward in their development. They just weren't ready yet. This year, those same players are another year older and hopefully have learned from the mistakes they made last year. That's definitely true of the forward group. Remi Elie was THE team on offense last year, but he's going to need some help this year in order for the Bulls to earn wins. I think some of the new players they've brought into the fold (Gustavsen, Saigeon, Luff) will really help to push the likes of Petti, Tomasek, and Cramarossa to be better. And I'm a big fan of new captain Jake Marchment. In goal, Charlie Graham is a better netminder than he showed last year. Consistently exposed to high end scoring chances, Graham should get more help in front of him this year. That said, he still needs to be better too...and I think he will be. On defense, I'm interested to see how a full year (if it lasts) of Stephen Harper on defense looks. Paired with Jordan Subban, the two could be a real force on the back end. I also look for Justin Lemcke to be a big time player for the club and solidify the second pairing (he was the club's most consistent defender last year as a rookie IMO). Like the majority of the teams I've got listed towards the bottom of the conference, the Bulls do have some holes, but I don't see them disappointing two years straight.

7. Oshawa Generals
Yup...I'm the guy who picked the Generals to finish 9th in the Conference last year. I thought Scott Laughton would be in the NHL, and I didn't have enough faith in their younger players doing things on their own. Boy was I wrong. This year, I'm not picking them 9th, but I'm also not putting them as high as I've seen others in their preseason predictions (division champs). Offensively, this team should be fine. Michael Dal Colle proved at the beginning of last year that he's capable of leading this team and they've got enough quality role players to roll out several hard working lines capable of putting the puck in the net. The only concern I might have is Cole Cassels and his mono. That can really wreck havoc on a junior player's season and he might not be at his most effective until midseason. The concern I have with this club is with keeping pucks out of the net. Ken Appleby is a veteran of the league but he's never been a starter before. And while the Generals defense does have some undervalued players (like Will Petschenig for example), they lack a true leader. Mitchell Vande Sompel is a solid prospect but I don't think he's ready to be his team's number one defenseman. The Generals will win some games and they'll play the game the right way (hard), but I don't think they've got enough difference makes in their line up to be a consistent force.

8. Ottawa 67's
Honestly, I've got a feeling about this year's 67's team, that they'll be better than I'm predicting them to be. I could actually see them up as high as 4th or 5th. BUT, a lot of things will need to happen in order for the 67's to find that kind of success and I'm just not sure they're at that level yet. However, I did feel it necessary to at least state that I think this team scares me the most about making me look bad about my predictions (ala Oshawa last year). At forward, I love the make up of this team and I'm going to try and get out to see them several times this year. They're incredibly well balanced up front. Smaller skilled players (Konecny, Salituro, Tyanulin), combined with big wingers to do the dirty work (Bell, Hill, Todd, Addison, etc). And all of their forwards play hard, with vigor. They'll be a difficult team to match up against because of their speed and forechecking ability. It's the defensive side of things where it gets murky. Ottawa was not good defensively last year. No question about it. Those same players are back this year and they're being asked to take major steps forward. Will Jacob Middleton and Alex Lintuniemi be the defensive leaders they're capable of being? Will Troy Henley emerge as the top talent he was touted to be? Will Zack Pittman fit right in? So many questions, and the reality is that not all of them are likely to be answered in a positive way. When you combine that with the fact that Ottawa will be going with an unproven starter (either Herbst or Lazarev), it screams potential disaster (Trudeau was a saving grace last year for Ottawa). All that said, if everything goes right for this team and everyone takes the steps forward that they should, this team could be very scary. Definitely a boom or bust type year depending on how the defense develops.

9. Mississauga Steelheads
I really do think that this year's Steelheads team is better than last year's. That's why it's tough for me to have them ranked where I do. But the East, in general, is much better and I just don't think they're quite at that level where they'll be able to compete consistently enough with the big guns. I love the young talent that they've assembled. With a core of Sean Day, Mike McLeod, Jesse Barwell, Austin Gerhart, Jared Walsh, Stefan Leblanc, etc, this team will be able to compete for the top of the Conference as early as 2015/2016. But they're still exceptionally young at forward, which often results in a poor standing in this league. If your forward group isn't lead by a strong group of overagers and 19 year olds, you'll usually struggle with consistency and look overmatched (think Niagara and Belleville last year). Defensively, while this team is talented, is also young. At this point, it's not fair to ask Sean Day to be a number one defenseman (even if it's something we asked Aaron Ekblad to do at the same age). The real saving grace for this club will be Spencer Martin. He wasn't good last year, and he'll need to be this year. As I said, this club will go through slumps. One game they're going to look great and the next they'll be bad. And in order for the Steelheads to win, they're going to need Martin to be at his best when the rest of the team is not. Likely playing in his last OHL season, he finally needs to live up to the hype that's surrounded him thus far. I do think he'll be better.

10. Sudbury Wolves
The trading of Mathew Campagna was only the beginning this year IMO. The Wolves are clearly the worst team in the Eastern Conference, and probably the entire OHL this year. But they've got a couple of terrific talents which will really garner attention on the open market (Baptiste, Pancel). If the Wolves are smart, they'll pick up some assets for them and try to start over. Offensively, this team just doesn't have elite talent down the middle and that's a huge driving force for success in the OHL. If you've got good wingers, but no one to get them the puck, what's the point? Defensively, the often injured Jeff Corbett leads the way, but even he is likely to be a trade chip. Kyle Capobianco has looked good this preseason, but he's not ready to shoulder the load yet. And in net, Troy Timpano (not yet ready), and Samuel Tanguay (and undrafted FA acquisition) will shoulder the load. Needless to say, things could get very messy in Sudbury this year, especially with the quality of talent being so high in the Eastern Conference.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday Top 10 - Performers of the 2014 Preseason

The 2014 preseason is over and the regular season is just around the corner. It's time to take a look at some of the top performances of this year's exhibition action.

As always, this list is populated by players without NHL affiliations (first or second year players, and undrafted veterans), because they get into more games.

Here were the preseason standings:

1. Ottawa 67's - 3-0 - 1.00%
2. Peterborough Petes - 4-1-1 - .750%
3. Barrie Colts - 4-2-1 - .643%
4. Niagara IceDogs - 2-1-1 - .625%
5. Oshawa Generals - 3-3 - .500%
6. Kingston Frontenacs - 1-1-1 - .500%
7. Sudbury Wolves - 3-4 - .429%
8. Mississauga Steelheads - 2-3-1 - .417%
9. North Bay Battalion - 2-3-1 - .417%
10. Belleville Bulls - 1-2-1 - .375%

1. Guelph Storm - 4-0-1 - .900%
2. Saginaw Spirit - 3-0-2 - .800%
3. Sarnia Sting - 4-1 - .800%
4. Erie Otters - 3-1-2 - .667%
5. Kitchener Rangers - 2-1-1 - .625%
6. Windsor Spitfires - 2-2-1 - .500%
7. London Knights - 2-2 - .500%
8. Owen Sound Attack - 2-2 - .500%
9. Plymouth Whalers - 2-3 - .400%
10. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds - 1-3 - .250%

Here's the list (with several honorable mentions). As I always warn, these preseason statistics are very unofficial. They were accumulated by spending a significant amount of time combing game reports and twitter accounts.

10. Nick Betz - Erie Otters
This whole offseason, one of the many questions surrounding the Erie Otters has been "who is going to play wing alongside Connor McDavid?" Well, Nick Betz proved that he's capable of keeping up with the talented center, potting 6 goals (and adding a couple of assists) this preseason. Betz is an absolutely behemoth winger whose forechecking prowess and physical abilities should help to create more room for either McDavid or Strome on one of the scoring lines this year.

9. Pius Suter - Guelph Storm
Pius is going to have to fill a much larger role this year after being primarily a 4th line center and penalty kill expert on last year's deep Guelph team. His play this exhibition season certainly eased the minds of the Guelph coaching staff as he was consistently one of Guelph's top players, potting 3 goals and adding at least 2 assists. His speed and tenacity fit right in with Scott Walker's uptempo system.

8. Adam Timleck - Peterborough Petes
An undersized 4th rounder from the OHL Cup finalist Toronto Jr. Canadiens, Timleck would have likely been a long shot to make the Petes if not for a tremendous preseason. He had already signed on to play for the Oakville Blades (OJHL), but seems to have cemented his place on Peterborough's 4th line for now. Adding 3 goals and 3 assists, Timleck was consistently dangerous as an offensive sparkplug, channeling the likes of fellow teammate Hunter Garlent.

7. Kris Bennett - Saginaw Spirit
Like Timleck, Saginaw's Kris Bennett is another rookie who has been absolutely dynamite this preseason. However, the difference is that Bennett is playing in his 3rd camp for Saginaw. The former 3rd rounder finally appears ready to take on a significant role for the Spirit, coming off a very good season with Oakville (OJHL). Bennett brought speed, energy, and physicality to whatever line he was on, and contributed 2 goals and 4 assists, helping Saginaw remain perfect during the exhibition season.

6. Alex Debrincat - Erie Otters
We mentioned Nick Betz's strong preseason, but he wasn't the only potential "McDavid wing candidate" to play with conviction this exhibition season. Let me introduce you to the little engine that could, Alex Debrincat. The diminutive rookie was an offensive dynamo, putting up 7 goals and adding at least 2 assists. His speed and confidence with the puck, makes him an obvious candidate to play with McDavid, which also means he's a candidate to put up some serious offensive numbers this year (which is what some Erie fans wrote to me about after I didn't include Debrincat in an offseason article looking at the top U.S. transfers).

5. Pavel Zacha - Sarnia Sting
The top pick in this year's Import Draft came 100% completely as advertised this preseason, sparking Sarnia to 4 preseason victories. While he did not tickle the twine, he did make every player he played with better and was consistently the best player on the ice, earning 5 assists. The potential top 10 pick in 2015 looks to be well on his way to cementing his status as an NHL lottery selection.

4. Gabe Guertler - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
One of this season's prized offseason acquisitions, Guertler was phenomenal in the preseason with 4 goals and 2 assists. The transfer from the University of Minnesota closely resembles some of the Soo's former top scorers in Nick Cousins and Dan Catenacci, in that he plays bigger than his size and pushes the pace of play. He's going to be a huge part of their offense this season, especially at the beginning of the year while Jared McCann recovers from mono.

3. Garrett Hooey - Barrie Colts
Garrett Hooey is exactly the type of overage player you want in your line-up. Over the course of the last three seasons, he's played 67, 68, and 68 games. Talk about a workhorse. He's developed into a very complete player, and this year he seems poised to have an offensive breakout. With 5 goals this preseason, Hooey paced the Colts to 4 victories and they will need him to continue to be an offensive leader. I'd be very surprised if he doesn't surpass his previous career high of 25 goals this season.

2. Mitchell Stephens - Saginaw Spirit
Fresh off his breakout performance at the Ivan Hlinka, Stephens carried over his strong play to the OHL preseason where he netted 5 goals. Saginaw is going to need their former first rounder to be their offensive leader this year, and the speedy center seems poised for a very big year in his draft season. At this point, he seems like candidate to move very quickly up draft lists.

1. Connor McDavid - Erie Otters
Second year in a row that McDavid finishes first on this list (here's last year's). Last year he led the OHL in preseason scoring with 2 goals and 9 assists. This year it was 5 goals and 7 assists (in only a few games). Even without a ton of offensive support, McDavid is going to put up some serious offensive numbers this year...his last in the OHL.

Honorable Mentions 

Anthony DeAngelo - Sarnia Sting
Played in only two games (I believe) and ended up with 2 goals and 5 assists, before heading off to Tampa Bay's rookie camp. I'd say that's pretty indicative of the type of season DeAngelo could have this year (think Ryan Ellis in 2011).

Kyle Capobianco - Sudbury Wolves
The draft eligible defender and former 7th overall pick went all of last year without scoring a goal from the blueline. Doubt that happens this year as he looks way more confident distributing the puck and running the powerplay. His 1 goal and 5 assists were probably worthy of putting him in the top 10.

Matt Luff - Belleville Bulls
A former 7th rounder and '97 rookie, Luff was probably Belleville's best player this preseason, notching 4 goals. The Oakville native looks to be a legit OHL player and a diamond in the rough for the Bulls.

Mike Amadio - North Bay Battalion
Amadio, the LA Kings 3rd rounder, had a great preseason, notching 4 goals and adding at least one assist. North Bay needs him to be way more consistent this year, providing depth behind Nick Paul as the team's 2nd line center.

Matt Mistele - Plymouth Whalers
Got off to a blazing start this preseason, then eventually took off for Kings camp. Mistele ended up with 4 goals and 2 assists and should be poised to rectify last year's disappointing season as he likely suits up alongside playmaking machine Mathew Campagna.

Tobias Lindberg - Oshawa Generals
The Ottawa Senators draft pick and import selection came as advertised this preseason, notching 4 goals. The big winger is going to be counted on to continue that production in support of Michael Dal Colle.

Lucas Venuto - Mississauga Steelheads
Not too often you find an overager with under a season's worth of experience in the OHL, but that's what you'll get in Venuto who has bounced around between the QMJHL, the OJHL, and Mississauga the last couple of seasons. He was probably a long shot to make the Mississauga roster this year, but with an inspired 3 goal, 3 assist performance in the preseason, he's locked up his place in the lineup and should be a key contributor for the Steelheads.

Blake Siebenaler - Niagara IceDogs
Have very high expectations for Siebenaler this year and he was fantastic in the couple of games he played in before heading off to NHL camp. He notched 3 goals in those couple of games. This is obviously very impressive considering his shot and aggressiveness offensively was one of the things holding him back from contributing more last year.

Jacob Harris - Sudbury Wolves
The former high pick of the Wolves, Harris finally appears ready to establish himself as a scoring line player in the OHL. With 4 goals and 3 assists, he lead the Wolves in preseason scoring.

Other Top Performers (organized by team)

Matthew Kreis - 3G, 1A
Joseph Blandisi - 3G
Roy Radke - 2G

Brett Gustavsen - 1G, 3A
Brandon Saigeon - 2G

Dylan Strome - 4G
Joel Wigle - 3G, 1A

Justin Auger - 3G
Stephen Pierog - 2G, 3A
Phil Baltisberger - 3A

Ryan Kujawinski - 2G, 2A
Lawson Crouse - 1G, 3A

Nick Magyar - 3A
Dmitri Sergeev - 2G

Owen McDonald - 4G
Brett Welychka - 2G

Josh Burnside - 2G, 2A
Bryson Cianfrone - 2G, 4A

Johnny Corneil - 3G
Graham Knott - 4A

North Bay
Brett McKenzie - 2G, 3A
Zach Poirier - 1G, 2A

Cliff Pu - 1G, 3A
Chris Carlisle - 1G, 4A
Bradley Latour - 2G, 2A

Travis Konecny - 2G, 2A
Sam Studnicka - 2G, 1A
Artur Tyanulin - 2G (plus a few goals in the shootout)

Owen Sound
Thomas Schemitsch - 1G, 2A
Keenan Reynolds - 2G

Hunter Garlent - 3G, 3A
Michael Clarke - 2G, 3A
Anthony Stefano - 3G
Brandon Devlin - 1G, 3A

Alex Peters - 4A
Bryce Yetman - 3G

Artem Artemov - 3G
Marcus Crawford - 1G, 2A

Davis Brown - 4G, 1A
Jakob Chychrun - 4A
Alex Renaud - 3G, 1A
Nikita Korostelev - 2G, 3A
Ryan Vendramin - 3G

Sault Ste. Marie
David Miller - 1G, 3A
Blake Speers - 2G, 2A

Ivan Kashtanov - 3G
Nathan Pancel - 2G, 3A

Logan Brown - 2G, 2A
Cristiano DiGiacinto - 1G, 3A
Trevor Murphy - 2G, 1A

Saturday, September 13, 2014

List of NHL Free Agent Invites for 2014

It's that time of year where many of the OHL's best are off attending NHL rookie and (eventually) main camps. Most players going are common sense because they're attending the camp of the team that drafted them. However, a large amount of players have received free agent invites to camps. Therefore, here's a list of those players, broken down by OHL team. I've also included graduated OA's from last last year, because I figured fans might want to know what they're up to.

Barrie Colts
Andrew Mangiapane - Arizona
Joseph Blandisi - Buffalo
Zach Hall - Toronto
Cordell James - Vancouver

Belleville Bulls
Stephen Harper - Los Angeles

Erie Otters
Darren Raddysh - Los Angeles
Devin Williams - Nashville

Guelph Storm
Matthew Mancina - Calgary
Chadd Bauman - Chicago
Ryan Horvat - Los Angeles
Steven Trojanovic - San Jose

Kingston Frontenacs
Lucas Peressini - Detroit
Connor McGlynn - Los Angeles

Kitchener Rangers
Max Iafrate - Colorado
Darby Llewellyn - Detroit
Brandon Robinson - Detroit
Paxton Leroux - New York Rangers
Dmitri Sergeev - St. Louis

London Knights
Dakota Mermis - Arizona
Brett Welychka - Chicago
Matt Rupert - Toronto
Zach Bell - Winnipeg

Mississauga Steelheads
Jared Walsh - Buffalo
Stefan Leblanc - Ottawa

Niagara IceDogs
Cody Caron - Chicago
Cody Payne - Florida
Anthony DiFruscia - San Jose
Luke Mercer - St. Louis

North Bay Battalion
Marcus McIvor - Columbus
Zach Bratina - Toronto

Oshawa Generals
Jacob Busch - Arizona
Collin Suellentrop - Arizona
Ken Appleby - Chicago
Alex Lepkowski - Ottawa

Ottawa 67's
Brendan Bell - Calgary
Ryan Van Stralen - Chicago
Tyler Hill - Montreal
Connor Graham - New York Islanders
Phillipe Trudeau - New York Islanders

Owen Sound Attack
Kyle Hope - Columbus
Holden Cook - Los Angeles

Peterborough Petes
Connor Boland - Edmonton
Clark Seymour - Pittsburgh
Greg Betzold - St. Louis

Plymouth Whalers
Mathew Campagna - Carolina
Gianluca Curcuruto - Montreal
Mitch Jones - Ottawa

Saginaw Spirit
Blake Clarke - Detroit

Sarnia Sting
Hayden Hodgson - Detroit
Nick Latta - New York Rangers

Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Charley Graaskamp - Anaheim
Alex Gudbranson - Minnesota
Bryan Moore - New York Rangers
Patrick Watling - Toronto
Jean Dupuy - Winnipeg

Sudbury Wolves
Kevin Raine - Los Angeles
Matt Schmalz - Montreal

Windsor Spitfires
Brady Vail - Carolina
Ty Bilcke - Toronto