It's that time of the year for my annual (2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009) list of the top second and third year eligible OHL players for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. This is always one of the most read articles I put out each year. It's also the topic which I receive the most questions on, whether through email or blog comments. For whatever reason, the concept fascinates people. Of course, I'm referring to the concept of the "draft re-entry." A shift in drafting philosophy has seen an enormous rise of these players getting drafted in recent years. This is mostly because drafting a second or third year eligible player gives NHL teams a lot of flexibility in their development under the new CBA. Plus, a lot of these guys have been having success in recent years (Tanner Pearson and Andrew Shaw are great examples from the OHL), which basic psychology tells us that other NHL teams will try to mimic.
Just to clarify yet again, for those with limited understanding of the NHL draft system; North American players have either two or three years to get drafted, depending on their birth date. For those born from January 1 to September 15, they will go through three NHL drafts. For those born from September 16 to December 31, they will go through two NHL drafts. The players on this list are a mix of those having been passed over once or twice already.
Also, do not confuse this list with players drafted in 2013 who will re-enter the draft should they fail to come to a contractual agreement with their NHL team by June 1 (and whose birth date still allows them to be eligible). Quite often those too are referred to as draft re-entries. But this list does not contain them because it is not yet known who those players will be.
Last year was a down year for players selected from the OHL, which was definitely to be expected. Hunter Smith went early though (second round), and the trend still continued across the other CHL leagues. This year, I would be absolutely shocked if the number didn't increase again. I'd be willing to bet a decent amount of money that the top four guys on my list this year all get drafted and then there's usually a couple others from my list or HM's that get the call.
Without further rambling, here's my list:
While he had to be very patient, Appleby finally got his chance to start for the Generals this year; his second last year in the OHL. That means it's his final chance to get drafted. It's certainly more rare for goaltenders to be drafted (and signed) out of the CHL after their first year of eligibility, but it does happen. And Appleby has the characteristics that NHL scouts look for. For one, he's a very big net minder who takes up a lot of space by being aggressive in his crease. He's really worked on his agility too and is making more second/third saves, refining his motion/agility. He's also worked to improve his ability to swallow up original shots, especially high to prevent rebounds. Is he a product of Oshawa's terrific defence this year? I do think so a bit, but that shouldn't take anything away from his accomplishments this year and he definitely has pro potential.
9. Stephen Desrocher - Defence - Oshawa Generals
A very interesting player who's still earning ice time and an increased role on a deep Oshawa club. He's a 6'4 defender who flashes ability at both ends of the ice. He's got a big shot and has the potential to grow as a power play catalyst if he continues to work on his distribution and puck carrying skills. Defensively, he's quite solid and plays a pretty refined game, flashing the ability to play quite physical. If he can use his size even more consistently, he could be a very good defensive player. If an NHL scout has an idea of what type of player he could become (right now I'd want to see another year from him to see what type of defender he becomes with increased ice time), he'll be an attractive late round option.
8. Brandon Robinson - Forward - Kitchener Rangers
I've always had a soft spot for this particular player and have believed in his potential for some time. Robinson has always had all the prerequisite skills necessary to become a dominant power forward in the OHL, but for various reasons (injuries, consistency), he just hasn't been able to reach that level. This year, though, he did take some massive steps forward. He largely avoided injury and was one of Kitchener's most consistent forwards. He really seemed to embrace the physical aspects of the game this year and it helped his game get to another level. If he's not drafted this year (his final year of eligibility), I fully expect him to have a great overage season next year (with some talented playmakers flanking him) and for him to be a hot commodity on the NHL free agent radar.
7. Stephen Harper - Forward - Belleville Bulls/Hamilton Bulldogs
Is he a forward? Or a defender? I think it's safe to say that the defence experiment is finally over, after Harper switched back to center in the last few months of the season. As a forward, his stats were actually quite decent and close to the point per game mark. But stats aren't everything and I actually think he played even better than the statistics would indicate. In the games that I saw of Belleville late in the year, Harper was consistently one of the best players on the ice. He looked re-energized at center and played with conviction and a high motor. Of course, the skill level has always been there too. NHL teams are looking for big centres with skill and Harper is definitely that. Like Robinson, if he's not drafted, I expect Harper to return to Hamilton and have a great overage season that would make him a coveted signing option for NHL teams.
6. Damir Sharipzyanov - Defence - Owen Sound Attack
I think that there is a lot to like about Sharipzyanov and he certainly had a breakout season in Owen Sound. He's a big defender and he loves to use his size in the open ice. He is certainly not afraid to lower the boom on forwards crossing the blue line or driving to the net. Sharipzyanov is also a good offensive defender. He has very underrated puck skill and does a great job of leading the rush out of his zone and gaining entry into the opposing end. He's also got a big point shot and has improved as a power play QB. The question mark IMO is probably the hockey IQ. He'll take himself out of position at times, either on a bad pinch or on a missed hit and is a bit of a scrambler still defensively. That said, he's improved a lot already and I think there's definite potential there for him to develop into a two-way player.
5. Nick Betz - Forward - Erie Otters
While he was certainly more effective (and noticeable) offensively at the beginning of the year, Betz remains an attractive option for NHL teams because of his ability to create space for his line mates. His skating has also improved, which is making him more of a factor without the puck (especially retrieval). Offensvely, he knows his role. Keep the puck alive along the wall and go hard to the net. His hands are pretty good in close. His shot/release isn't terrific and I don't think he'll ever be a goal scorer at the next level. But with his size, tenacity, and ability to operate offensively near the crease, he could be an NHL 4th liner and the type of guy a team takes a chance on based on his progression this year. If not, like Robinson and Harper, Betz will return to the 'O' and make a trio of quality power forward overagers NHL teams may fight to sign.
4. Liam Herbst - Goaltender - Ottawa 67's
I love his story. I was really hoping he'd have a great year this year and he definitely did. Herbst was one of the youngest players eligible last year, when he was passed over (two days away from being first time eligible this year). But his draft neglect last year was no surprise. Herbst was coming off double hip AND knee surgery. And quite frankly, didn't play well. But all of that was to be expected. The road to full recovery was bound to be a slow one and Herbst was put behind the developmental eight ball. In fact, he's already ahead of where I expected him to be this year. The great news is that there doesn't seem to be any lingering effect from his surgeries which allows him to focus on his conditioning and continuing to improve upon his agility and quickness in the crease. But he's a big guy who puts himself in position to make the first save and who is likely only scratching the surface of his ceiling. He is an absolute sure fire NHL pick this year IMO. While one game isn't everything, I think his performance at the Top Prospect's Game (where he was an injury fill in) really helped his cause.
3. Matt Schmalz - Forward - Sudbury Wolves
Easily one of the most improved players in the OHL this year. At 6'6, 210lbs, Schmalz can be a very difficult player for opposing defences to stop. A lot of defenders had a difficult time stopping Schmalz off the rush this year, where he's excellent at using his size to drive the net coming down the wing. His skill with the puck has greatly improved and it's allowed his offensive game to blossom. He's also a physical player who thrives on taking the body. Once the key piece of the Corrado/Leivo deal, Schmalz is finally living up to expectations. That said, he's still a work in progress (which is something that I think some NHL scouts might actually find exciting). He's currently a one trick pony offensively. He'll need to learn to use his teammates more effectively, and improve his vision coming down the wing. He'll also need to become better and more consistent away from the puck. But when you consider that he'll probably be up to close to 225lbs come training camp next year, it's exciting to think of how far his game could grow if he fine tunes some things and continues to get better.
2. Pius Suter - Forward - Guelph Storm
Suter really was sensational for the Storm this year, and he needed to be for a team that was asking him to be one of their key offensive pieces (after playing a depth role last year). He's not big, but he's such a hard worker that I'm not worried about him being under 6'0. Here's a stat to back it up. Suter had 46 goals this year (including playoffs). Of those 46, only 11 were on special teams (6 power play, 5 shorthanded). His even strength goal total was actually second to Connor McDavid this year. Pretty impressive. Suter has an excellent release on his shot and I think it projects him to score some goals at the next level. When you factor in his ability as a penalty killer and two way player, it only strengthens his argument as a legitimate draft prospect. Worst case scenario, you could be getting a high energy role player who can chip in a goal here and there. Best case scenario, you get a high energy goal scorer who can play a variety of roles. If he's not drafted, rumours are suggesting that he'll return home to play professionally in Switzerland. Guelph fans have to be crossing their fingers.
1. Andrew Mangiapane - Forward - Barrie Colts
Like Suter, Mangiapane is a smaller guy who plays a lot bigger than he is. For all the skill level he possesses, he's certainly not a perimeter player. The key to Mangiapane's game is his vision and hockey sense. He's so smart when operating off the rush and sees passing lanes before they open up. He also exhibits great patience with the puck and doesn't force plays. His confidence this year is much higher than it was last year. When the puck's not on his stick, he's fighting hard to get it back and has evolved as a 200 foot player. That said, he's still undersized. And there's no question that he's more effective on the power play with more room to operate. But as he gains strength and gets even quicker, he'll no doubt be a more effective player 5 on 5. The top 4 guys I've listed on this list are all pretty interchangeable IMO, and all four have a chance of being top 100 draft picks come June.
Honorable Mentions (organized by position)
Behemoth Owen Sound netminder Jack Flinn is obviously an intriguing prospect based on his size alone (6'8), but he also happens to be a pretty solid net minder. He struggled at the start of the year, but was very good in the second half. He's a better prospect than former OHL'er Jason Missiaen IMO, who was an eventual NHL signing (by the New York Rangers). Kingston's Lucas Peressini also deserves mention here. Much like Appleby, he was very good in his first year as an OHL starter. Goaltending was supposed to be a sore spot for the Fronts this year, but Peressini was a stabilizing force for the club, even if he didn't have a terrific playoff performance.
Trevor Murphy, the 4th highest scoring defenceman in the OHL this year, was probably the last player cut from this list (he or Flinn). Murphy really broke out this year and has become a very dynamic player. He leads the rush well and can really fire the puck. He also plays a lot bigger than his 5'10 height. He's certainly not afraid to mix it up. But, he's still a high risk/high reward type of player who can be prone to mistakes at both ends. If he can return as an overager and continue to refine his game, while playing for a good team, I think NHL teams will take more notice. Erie's Darren Raddysh is a very interesting player. He really broke out this year as an offensive defender. He's a very quietly effective player at both ends. To some degree I think that works against him as an NHL prospect for the draft. With only average size, I don't think I've got a great handle on the type of player he could become at the next level. And I assume I'm not alone.
Sarnia's Kevin Spinozzi should be a really intriguing player to NHL teams IMO. He has size, plays well at both ends, and made great strides this year. A very underrated player who did a good job of 'somewhat' shutting down Connor McDavid in round one of the playoffs. Guelph's Phil Baltisberger is a rock solid defensive player who blocks shots and takes the body. The skating may not be strong enough for NHL teams though. The last guy worth mentioning is Saginaw's Greg DiTimaso. After the trade from Mississauga, he really blossomed as a player and will go into next year as a top 4 guy for the Spirit. He definitely has potential as an offensive defender. NHL teams are likely to want to see a full year of production from him though.
Sault Ste. Marie's Keigan Goetz was no sure thing to even be in the OHL this year, after struggling in a limited role last year with the team. But he battled hard in training camp to secure a spot and has since been a pleasant surprise for the Greyhounds. He's played a variety of different roles for the Hounds this year (depending on injuries, suspensions, etc) and has excelled in all of them. He plays the game hard, creates space for his line mates and has shown surprising skill in close. He's bound to take on a larger role next year and could breakout even further. Cut from the same cloth is Ottawa's Sam Studnicka. He wears an "A" for the 67's and does a bit of everything for them. Even though the offensive numbers aren't eye popping, his contributions are not always measurable. I think he has the potential to be a 4th line energy guy if his offensive game continues to grow.
Oshawa's Bradley Latour plays a similar style to Goetz and Studnicka, but lacks the size that they possess. Regardless, he plays much larger than he is and has a constant motor on the ice. His offensive instincts below the hash marks are good too and he finds scoring lanes. Could have a big year as an overager next year. Last guy to mention is North Bay's Zach Bratina. He's had some injury issues, but Stan Butler has really gotten the most out of him thus far in North Bay. I think that as long as he stays healthy, he's going to develop into a pro prospect under Butler. He plays a power game, is active physically and on the forecheck, and he's actually quite skilled with the puck. Even if he's not drafted this year (given his lack of games played this year, this will probably be the case), I think he'll be an NHL prospect by the time his OHL career is over.