2013-14 OHL Preview: Central Division
Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects. We continue previewing the CHL for the 2013-14 season, going East to West across the country. After looking at the OHL East Division yesterday, we move on to the OHL’s Central Division. As always you can check out the previous Top Shelf Prospects articles here.
The entire OHL Eastern Conference feels wide open this year, and things are no different in the Central Division. The Barrie Colts won the division last season, and took the conference as well. They were just one goal away from upsetting London and taking the league. Led by a potential first overall draftpick the Colts should be strong again, but we can’t underestimate the competition here either. The Sudbury Wolves are retooled and looking to take down the Colts, while North Bay and Mississauga are both decent clubs. Niagara on the other hand is a very young, rebuilding team and should struggle to make the playoffs.
Also like the East Division, the Central is loaded with young talent, and four potential first rounders will play in the division this season.
Barrie Colts: The Colts enter the season after losing the OHL final in a heartbreaking fashion in game 7 to London. They are also losing a lot of offence in Mark Scheifele, and Anthony Camara, along with their last line of defence in goaltender Mathias Neiderberger. The team will not be as strong as last year, but they are bringing back enough of the talent that went through the playoff wars, that they have the skill and experience to compete. The strength of the club should be the defensive unit led by potential first overall pick Aaron Ekblad. He seems to get better and better every time I see him. Jonathan Laser and Jake Dotchin give them a big 3 on the blue line. In Goal there will be a competition to replace Neiderberger. The early favorite is last year’s backup Alex Fortinos, but Daniel Gibl has been brought in to provide competition. If they can provide adequate goaltending, then the team should be in good shape. Zach Hall and Mitchell Thereot are overagers who should lead the forward group and with a potential star in the form Red Wings prospect Andreas Athanasiou, and depth in Josh MacDonald, and Brandon Lemieux the offence is in good hands.
Sudbury Wolves: A preseason trade for Canadiens third rounder Connor Crisp, was a shot across the bow to the rest of the division. The Wolves believe that their time is now. Crisp adds to a strong forward group that includes Buffalo Sabres draftee Nick Baptiste, Kings draftee Dominik Kubalik, Mathew Campagna, Nathan Cull, Nathan Pancel, and Brody Silk. The group is strong at both ends of the ice, and can play with skill and grit. In goal, the Wolves picked up Frank Palazzese, from Kitchener last year, and he’s back to continue in his role as the number 1. He will backstop a relatively young defence. Kevin Raine is a veteran leader and the team picked up Jimmy McDowell in a deal, but the group of younger defencemen led by Jeff Corbett, and including Stefan LeBlanc, Kyle Capobianco, David Eccles, and Conor Cummins needs to have one or two of these players step up and play big minutes. If that happens, the Wolves become extremely dangerous.
Players to Watch
Andreas Athanasiou, Left Wing, Barrie Colts: A fourth round pick of the Red Wings in 2012, Athanasiou has always had skill but just didn’t seem to click with the Hunters in London. Last off-season’s deal to Barrie was highly beneficial to his career, and he looks to take the next step after scoring at a point per game pace last season. Athanasiou has tremendous skill. He is one of the fastest and best skaters in the OHL. His top end speed is off the charts, he has great acceleration and agility, and can make pivots and change directions with ease. He combines this with incredible stickhandling ability. He has soft, quick hands and can make extremely creative dangles with ease. He has the ability to stick handle in a phone booth, and is a menace to goaltenders in the shootout. Athanasiou combines this with a hard, accurate shot, and quick release. He also has decent vision and good passing skills. He has flashes of absolutely elite skill. However, Athanasiou has massive issues with consistency. While he’s been better in Barrie than he was in London, there are still some nights when Athanasiou disappears and at times he still has an issue with a lack of intensity. He doesn’t drive the net often enough. He sticks to the outside and takes a low percentage shot, instead of trying to make a play in traffic and risking getting hit. He can float and appears to be afraid of contact, almost going through the motions. There are nights where it seems like he is allergic to going to the front of the net, or to battling for a puck along the boards. It is this reason why he lasted to the fourth round of the NHL draft and why London gave up on him. However last year was a definite step forward, and if he takes another, he can turn out to be a steal for both the Colts and the Red Wings.
Connor Crisp, Left Wing, Sudbury Wolves: As a 17-year old draft eligibile player Crisp was limited to just 17 games (one of which was as a GOALIE!), and went undrafted in the 2012 NHL draft. In 2012-13, Crisp got back on track, played the full season, scored 22 goals, and ended up drafted in the third round in a surprise pick by the Montreal Canadiens. At 6’4″ and 225 lbs he’s a huge power forward in the OHL who does his best work going to the net and putting in tip-ins, rebounds, and quick goals on the doorstep. He is a force in front, and in the corners, and isn’t afraid to drop the gloves to protect his teammates. Crisp’s skating and his vision need some work and improving those will be his job this year, and determine if he can have success in the pros.
Nick Baptiste, Right Wing, Sudbury Wolves: A third round pick of the Buffalo Sabres, Baptiste’s game is simple, and based on power. His best work is done down close to the goal line, and he is extremely effective on the cycle. He protects the puck extremely well, using his body to shield the puck and make plays or to power his way to the front of the net. He has a decent shot and release, but Baptiste scores the vast majority of his goals within 10-15 off the goal line. Baptiste drives hard to the net, and battles for position in front, banging home rebounds, and firing home passes. He also has good passing skills coming out of the cycle. Baptiste wins a ton of board battles and plays a very robust physical game. His game features a very powerful skating stride. The power he generates, allows him to battle through checks and play his game. His strong lower body gives him great balance and he is very hard to knock off the puck. Baptiste is also very good defensively, and one of the top penalty killers on the Wolves.
Spencer Martin, Goalie, Mississauga Steelheads: A third round pick of the Colorado Avalanche, Martin is part of the new breed of taller goaltenders that NHL teams have started to fall in love with in recent years. He takes advantage of his size, and challenges shooters, by coming out of his net and playing his angles very well. Martin plays a solid butterfly style and uses his extremely strong and quick legs to take away the bottom of the net very effectively. Up top he has a quick glove hand, and is decent on the blocker side. His technique is very good for a young goalie. Martin has solid lateral movement, and tracks the puck well. He moves post to post quickly to take away cross ice opportunities. He also is decent at handling the puck and can help his defencemen by starting the breakout. Like many young goalies, Martin can sometimes have an issue with rebound control, and he will need to focus on improving that aspect of his game going forward. More importantly though, he will need to work on his mental game. When things spiralled out of control in the second half of last season, he had a hard time getting back in the groove. Martin needs to be able to get past things and recover when he lets in a bad goal, instead of allowing a 2nd or 3rd soft goal to get past him. This should come with more maturity though.
Carter Verhaeghe, Centre, Niagara Ice Dogs: The Maple Leafs third rounder last draft will likely be the best player on a rebuilding club that lost Dougie Hamilton half way through last season and Ryan Strome and Brett Ritchie this summer. Its a big change for a club that has been at the top of the OHL for several years now, but Niagara will really struggle this year. Verhaeghe will lead the offence, as he is a smooth skater and good playmaker for Niagara. He has excellent stickhandling and can be very slippery in the offensive zone, and has the ability to make his linemates better with tape to tape passes. He must show more consistency going forward though, as he has developped a reputation for not showing up every night. It may be a tough year for Verhaeghe, and you shouldn’t judge him if he struggles in the stat department, he doesn’t have a lot to work with this year.
Draft Eligible Players to Watch
Aaron Ekblad, Defence, Barrie Colts: Followed John Tavares as the second 15 year old to be given exceptional status and enter the OHL a year early, Ekblad really matured on the Barrie defence last season, playing top 4 minutes as the team went all the way to the OHL final. Ekblad has a bullet slap shot from the point, and a strong first pass. He shows a ton of offensive potential. With that in mind right now his best assets are a well developped defensive game, as Ekblad dominates older players physically in his own zone winning board battles and clearing the front of the net. He also has strong positioning and good hockey sense and defensive instincts. He’s been talked about as part of this year’s big three, with William Nylander and Sam Reinhart in the competition for First Overall in the 2014 NHL Draft. A natural leader, he’ll provide that for Barrie despite being just 17 years old.
Brendan Lemieux, Left Wing, Barrie Colts: The son of Claude Lemieux, Brendan is proving that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. He plays the same in your face, pest like, borderline dirty style that defined his father’s career, for better or worse. He is always involved along the boards, in front of the net or in any scrum that comes his way, and is a real pain to play against. He has a good shot and has shown some offensive talent in flashes as well. If that develops this year, he becomes an intriguing prospect come draft day.
Blake Clarke, Left Wing, North Bay Battalion: Clarke has good speed, but really shows off his skating skill with his agility, edgework, and ability to change speeds. He has great hockey sense and always seems to make the right play. Equally adept with strong playmaking skills and a good shot, with a quick release, Clarke can play the roles of playmaker or sniper off the wing. He’s not afraid to go to the dirty areas of the ice to score goals, or to carry the puck in traffic, protecting it well with good stickhandling. Not overly physical though. Has a solid frame and could stand to add some muscle this season.
Brandon Robinson, Left Wing, North Bay Battalion: The Left winger shows good size at 6’2″ and knows how to use it being physical in the corners and battling for position in front of the net. He also has a strong shot, and a good release. Add to this good first step quickness, good top end speed, and excellent agility and you have the makings of a potential first round draft pick. He’s got a great opportunity to be productive in what will be a young forward group in North Bay, supported by an experienced and mobile defence corps. A real wild card for the draft.
Aaron Hayden, Defence, Niagara Ice Dogs: A big (6’3″ 200 lbs) defensive defenceman. Hayden is mobile for his size with decent speed and acceleration in both directions. He has good edgework, agility, and a strong first step and he uses this along with good gap control to throw a number of thunderous hits from the backline. He has good hockey instincts, and plays a smart positional game. Uses his size and long stick well to cut down passing lanes. Could be a second rounder based on his defence alone. If he adds offence this year, could really rise up the draft boards.
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