2013-14 OHL Preview: Mid-West Division

Welcome back to Top Shelf NHL Prospects. We continue previewing the CHL for the 2013-14 season, going East to West across the country.  After looking at the OHL Central Division yesterday, we move on to the OHL’s East Division.  As always you can check out the previous Top Shelf Prospects articles here.

The OHL’s Mid-West Division looks to be the strongest division in the league this year, and should be quite the battle.  The London Knights, two-time defending OHL Champions, have clinched their spot in the Memorial Cup early this year, as they will be hosting the event.  Looking at their roster though, they won’t be content just to go to the party, the Hunters want to win it all this year.  Add to that a very good Guelph team that would be the favorite in any other OHL division, wonderkid Connor McDavid and a good crew in Erie, and you have three very good teams.  Kitchener should have the offence to compete, but needs to get more out of their defence and goaltending, and will battle with Owen Sound in the standings.


Top Contenders

London Knights:  The London Knights boast a team with five NHL first round picks.  2013 saw Vancouver take Bo Horvat, Phoenix take Max Domi, and Montreal take Michael McCarron, and they should combine to give the Knights a potent offence once again.   Add to that Sharks 2012 second rounder Chris Tierney, Blue Jackets 2012 fourth rounder Josh Anderson, Stars second rounder Remi Elie, Oilers fourth Rounder Kyle Platzer, Leafs 2012 6th rounder Ryan Rupert and his twin brother Matt Rupert; the Knights have an offence that can fill the net, and can also play the gritty two-way style that marks the Hunters time in London.  The defence is led by 2012 Penguins first rounder Olli Maatta and Sabres first rounder Nikita Zadorov.  In net the Knights have 2012 Flyers second rounder Anthony Stolarz and Jake Patterson, who will battle to be the team’s number one again this season.  Overall, this is a talented club from top to bottom, and the Hunters will stop at nothing to add even more talent at the OHL trade deadline given that the team is the Memorial Cup hosts.  After two OHL titles, they want it all this year.

Guelph Storm: The Guelph Storm return 4 of their top 5 scorers from last season.  Led by Winnipeg Jets draftee Scott Kosmachuk, Dallas Stars first rounder, Jason Dickinson, Carolina second rounder Brock McGinn, and Zack Mitchell, there is high end offensive firepower.  Add to that Red Wings second rounder, Tyler Bertuzzi, and first round draft possibility Robby Fabri, who are poised for breakout seasons, and they can score with anyone.  The Blueline is led by 2012 Maple Leafs second rounder Matt Finn, who is solid at both ends of the ice.  There were question marks in goal, but a trade for Sault Ste. Marie goalie Justin Nicholls seems to answer that question as well.  The Storm have a solid all-around team and should really push the Knights this season.

Erie Otters:  After some disappointing years, things are finally looking up for Erie.  Connor McDavid arrived last season, and he should be even better this season.  The 16-year old is a phenom, and his continued development will lead the team up the standings.  The Otters also have Leafs draftee Connor Brown, Capitals 1st rounder Andre Burakowsky, Stephen Harper, Dane Fox, Michael Curtis and OHL draft second overall pick Dylan Strome (brother of Ryan) to help the wonder kid put the puck in the net for the Otters. On the blueline, former Islanders 3rd rounder Adam Pelech is quickly becoming one of the best defenders in the OHL, and should play huge minutes.  He leads an experienced defensive group.  In goal, 2012 Blue Jackets second rounder Oscar Dansk is looking to have a big season. Many see them as being one year away from their peak, and while that is true that 2014-15 will likely be “their year”, the window is opening now, and the Otters might give the Storm and Knights a run.  Lets call them a darkhorse pick for now.


Players to Watch

Max Domi, Centre, London Knights: The 13th overall pick of the Phoenix Coyotes and the son of Tie Domi, Max has excellent hockey sense and is able to find openings in the offensive zone to unleash a quick and accurate wrist shot with a top notch release. Domi drives the net and has great hands in tight allowing him to score goals in a number of ways. Domi also has has great anticipation and a great first step which sees him pounce on a ton of loose pucks around the net. He is extremely dangerous with the puck as Domi can beat defenders one on one.  He also has excellent vision and passing ability which he uses to create openings for his teammates.  Domi was voted the 2nd best playmaker in the last years OHL’s Western Conference coaches poll. Domi is an elite skater who uses his shiftiness and changes of pace to confuse and beat defenders.  He has a great first step and top notch acceleration.  Domi also uses his great balance to win far more board battles and be far more dangerous on the cycle than you’d expect from someone his size.  He has a very strong, very powerful lower body. Domi has worked hard over the last two years to develop a defensive game and is now solid in his own zone as well.

Bo Horvat, Centre/Left Wing, London Knights: Acquired with the ninth overall pick after the Canucks traded Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils, the expectations on Horvat will be huge.   Horvat has very good vision, passing skills, and excellent hockey sense.  This makes him an effective playmaker in the offensive zone.  He goes to the dirty areas of the ice winning board battles and taking the puck to the front of the net.  He also likes to establish his front of the net presence where he can unleash a heavy shot with a good release from the slot.  Horvat has good hands and is able to control the puck effectively on the rush or off the cycle game.  He makes smart plays in the offensive zone.  Not the fanciest player, Horvat creates offence through simple, smart, straight ahead plays, and getting to prime scoring areas. He is also a quick skater, and he has greatly improved his speed and acceleration. Horvat’s good balance and strength on the puck allows him to fight through checks.  Horvat is also an effective defensive presence.  He is extremely effective on faceoffs and on the penalty kill. The question will be if the Knights want to play Horvat with Domi on the wing or centring his own line.  No matter what look for a big season from the player who scored 16 goals in 21 OHL playoff games.

Michael McCarron, Right Wing, London Knights: McCarron is an absolute monster of a man at 6’5.5″ and 234 pounds. The physical dimensions alone have many salivating over his power forward potential. He certainly plays a very physical game, hitting a ton, battling on the boards, and getting to the dirty areas of the ice. In terms of offence he has a powerful wrist shot. However his release is slow and it takes too long to load up which means it becomes telegraphed. This is something that will need to improve if he wants to score at the next level. I also feel that he can improve on his stickhandling and playmaking skill.  He did have a very strong NHL camp with the Canadiens, who drafted him 25th overall, and the job in London will be to show the skill that goes along with his impressive size. McCarron is a good skater for his size. For a big man, he has very good straight line speed and acceleration. His first step quickness is a little bit sluggish and his acceleration is merely average.  His agility is good for his size, but really is not anything to write home about.  He is extremely strong on his skates though and it is difficult to knock him off the puck. McCarron is good defensively, and brings his robust physical game at both ends of the rink. He’s a hard worker who backchecks hard, covers his man and is willing to cut down passing lanes, and block shots. His long stick and good skating ability helps him on the penalty kill, where he steals pucks and can even create short handed chances in transition.

Radek Faksa, Centre, Kitchener Rangers: The 13th overall draft pick by the Dallas Stars in the 2012 NHL Draft, Faksa pairs outstanding hockey sense and offensive instincts, with very good vision and passing skills to be an excellent playmaker. He also has a good wrist shot with an excellent release. Faksa is an above average skater, with good speed and strong balance which makes him difficult to knock off the puck. He isn’t afraid to go into traffic and to take hits to make plays for the Rangers. At 6’3, 202lbs Faksa has the great size and uses it to effectively to protect the puck and to establish position in the offensive zone. We do however think that Faksa can use his size more effectively and we’d like to see him drive the net harder with the puck on his stick. We’d also like to see Faksa use his size advantage to be a more effective body checker, especially on the forecheck. Faksa is already an excellent defensive player and has even gotten better this season. He is often used to check the opponent’s top line, and is a key penalty killer for Kitchener. Faksa makes quick decisions and is equally adept at breaking up plays in both the neutral zone and his defensive end. He uses his size and smarts to angle opponents to the outside and keep them from dangerous areas. His long reach is an important asset in closing down passing lanes as well.  If the Rangers get off to a hot start, he could spend the year with them, but if they struggle at all, he’ll be an intriguing trade prospect come the OHL deadline, as it is likely his last year in the league.

Justin Bailey, Centre/Left Wing, Kitchener Rangers: A 2nd round pick of the Buffalo Sabres, Bailey has the type of ideal size that NHL teams long for in forward prospects.  He’s a little lean right now and will need to add muscle to his frame, but that is true of most teenagers who have his height.  Bailey has a tremendous arsenal of shots.  His snap shot and wrist shot are both lethal and feature the type of hair trigger release that drives goalies nuts.  His slapshot and one-timer are accurate and powerful.  He has all the makings of a sniper.  Bailey is strong on the puck, and his good puck protection, balance, and ability to win board battles makes him good on the cycle game.  This coupled with his good passing skill make him a good playmaker.  He is inconsistent in his physical game.  While he is a battler along the boards all the time, he isn’t a big hitter all the time.  It would be hoped that he becomes a more aggressive and consistent forechecker with added bulk. Bailey skates well, with good agility and edgework.  He also has very good top end speed.  Bailey has good balance and power.  He is strong on the puck and difficult to knock off of it.  He will need to get more consistent defensively going forward, and that will be his task this season.

Scott Kosmachuk, Right Wing, Guelph Storm: A 2012 third round pick of the Winnipeg Jets, Kosmachuk led the Storm in goals and points last season. The best way to describe Scott Kosmachuk in the offensive zone, is to say he is an absolute buzz saw at that junior level.  Kosmachuk has a non-stop motor and is constantly forechecking, winning board battles, and getting himself in the middle of the action in high traffic areas.  Kosmachuk is especially effective at controlling the puck down low and creates a lot of offence through an excellent cycle game and then taking the puck to scoring areas.  Kosmachuk has a decent shot and release, and he is not afraid to shoot from anywhere. His playmaking skills, and vision are merely average, and Kosmachuk is far more of a goal scorer than playmaker. He is also an agitator who plays the game on edge.  He’ll hit anything that moves in the offensive zone, and is often involved in scrums after the whistle.  He plays the game right on the edge and he can sometimes take undisciplined penalty by taking too much of a run at an opposing player.  An absolute speedster, Kosmachuk has excellent skating skills.  He’s got good first step quickness and acceleration.  Kosmachuk uses his edges well, giving him good agility and balance.  His high end skating is seen in the offensive zone where he can be all over the ice at times.  His defensive game is still improving, and the Storm will look to him to lead the rest of the forward crew by example.

Jason Dickinson, Centre/Left Wing, Guelph Storm: A late first round pick for the Dallas Stars. At his best, Dickinson is a creative playmaker, with excellent vision and passing ability who can make his linemates better. An excellent stickhandler, he protects the puck well, extending plays and waiting for openings to make a pass; especially when working down low on the cycle. Dickinson shows a quick release, but could stand to become a little stronger and get more power on his wrist shot if he wants to become a real sniper at the next level. Dickinson also has very good hand eye co-ordination and is skilled in tipping in point shots, or burying rebounds from the front of the net. He is involved in front of the net and on the boards as well, but needs to be more consistent. In some games he is very involved physically and initiates the battles, in others he seems to shy away from contact. The question here is if this physical game will become more consistent as he adds more muscle on to his lean frame. At 6’2″ he has the body type to become a power forward if he can add the muscles and the consistency.  Dickinson also has very good hockey sense, and is able to find openings and soft spots in the defensive  coverage. Dickinson has a compact but very powerful skating stride.  He generates good speed and has decent acceleration.  His ability to change gears is good and allows him to fool defenders off the rush, and in cutting to the net off the cycle game. After a rough rookie year, Dickinson improved his defensive game and is now a top penalty killer on the Storm.

Matt Finn, Defence, Guelph Storm: A 2012 first rounder of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he is also the captain of the Storm.  He looked poised for a big season with a great start last year but the combination of mononucleosis and injury would limit him to 41 games. Finn is an incredibly intelligent defenceman in both ends of the ice.  Finn uses his high end hockey sense to be an effective two way player who makes smart reads and very good decisions in all three zones. Offensively, Finn understands the proper time to pinch in at the line, and is effective in picking his spots to join the rush. He is able to find holes in the opponents defence and exploit gaps created in the offensive zone to sneak in from the blueline and create a high quality scoring chance.  Defensively Finn reads the play well in both the neutral zone and the defensive end of the ice, effectively shutting many plays down before opponents get the opportunity to set up. He is a quick and agile skater, and uses these skills in all areas of the ice. In the offensive zone Finn has a good slapshot, which he keeps low and gets through to the net. This allows his teammates to set up screens, and to pick up tip ins and rebounds in front of the net.  Finn is also able to effectively use his wrist shot when he needs to get the puck off quickly.  It is hard and accurate, and his release is quick. He is an intelligent Power Play Quarterback using his vision and skills to make great tape to tape passes and to set up teammates with good scoring opportunities. Finn is a highly effective all around player who will be a big key for the Storm this year.

Andre Burakovsky, Right Wing, Erie Otters: A first round pick of the Washington Capitals, Burakovsky is an outstanding skater. He has the top end speed and acceleration to separate himself from opponents. When he hits top speed he can really fly. His edgework and agility are also well developed and combined with excellent stickhandling, this can make him a real dangerous player off the rush. He has the ability to go wide on defenders and cut to the net. He can also pull up and create space to shoot or make a pass to a teammate. In this way he’s highly skilled and highly unpredictable. Burakovsky is also highly skilled in the offensive zone.  I’ve already mentioned his excellent stickhandling, and he couples that with good passing skills and vision to be a real offensive threat.  He is poised and patient working the puck on the side boards on the powerplay and looking for opportunities.  He also is very good at finding open space and getting himself into good scoring areas when he doesn’t have the puck.  Burakovsky’s greatest strength is as a goal scorer.  He has a very good one timer, and an outstanding wrist shot and quick release.  He also has the ability to drive the net, and the skilled, soft hands to score in tight.  In short, he’s what teams look for in a skilled sniper.  Burakovsky could stand to improve his work along the boards, and will do so by bulking up and adding more upper body muscle.  He’ll have an opportunity to score a lot of goals if he plays with Connor McDavid.

Olli Maatta, Defence, London Knights: A first round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2012, Maatta came to the London Knights with high expectations based on being the first overall selection in the CHL import draft.  He has lived up to the hype.  Over the last two years Maatta has shown to be a solid minute eating defencemen for the back to back OHL Champions. A versatile two-way player, Maatta has greatly contributed to the ongoing success in London with his ability to contribute in any situation and log heavy minutes. Maatta possesses good size and excellent defensive instincts.  He is adept at reading the play and has excellent positioning in the defensive zone. Maatta is not a big hitter, but he is very good at using his size to take opposing forwards out of the play and separate them from the puck. Maatta is a good shot blocker, and anticipates well to cut off passes. Maatta has been a key penalty killer for the Knights over his two years with the team. Maatta is also capable of adding offensive skill from the blue line. He is a decent puck mover who starts the rush with a hard and accurate first pass.  He’s a decent PP point man who is poised with the puck and has a hard and accurate shot. Maatta could use some work on his skating.  His stride is a bit unconventional and this sometimes leads to a lack of explosiveness in his acceleration.  He can also sometimes be beaten to the outside by extremely quick forwards. However he has improved upon this since coming to North America and his edgework, agility and balance are all strong.

Nikita Zadorov, Defence London Knights:  A first round pick of the Buffalo Sabres, Zadorov is best known for his defensive skills. A huge defenceman, he dishes out big hits, and opposing forwards really need to keep their heads up if coming down his end of the ice.  He is mean along the boards and in front of the net. His skating and mobility is top notch, making him really hard to get by one on one.  His pivots are crisp, and his edgework outstanding which allows him to maintain his gap control, cover a lot of ice, and close quickly on a forward and take the body.  His backwards skating is outstanding, which makes him very difficult to beat one-on-one off the rush. He’s a willing shot blocker and his long stick can be an asset in the defensive zone.  He needs to work on his poise with the puck, especially when under pressure as he can have a tendency to make some bad passes and giveaways in his own end of the rink.  Overall though, his defensive game shows a lot of potential, its just a little rough around the edges right now and needs some polish. Offensively, Zadorov improved by leaps and bounds over the course of last season.  Early in the year he was strictly a stay at home type, but is now using his good mobility to allow himself to join the rush and then recover quickly.  In the offensive end he has a very hard and heavy slapshot, and can let it fly from the point.  He also has decent vision and passing skills from the back end, but again struggles at times when under heavy pressure.  His stickhandling and wrist shot are also decent.  This is another area where Zadorov is highly skilled, but again very raw.

Zach Nastasiuk, Owen Sound Attack: A 2nd round pick of the Detroit Red Wings. Nastasiuk is a sniper who has a fantastic arsenal of shots. His wrist, snap shot, and one-timer are heavy, accurate, and the release is very quick. As a pure shooter, Nastasiuk has some very dangerous weapons that are already near NHL caliber. He’s also got soft hands and can make moves cutting to the net, or use them to tip in shots or bang in rebounds. He’s a physical player who isn’t afraid to go to the front of the net, or to win battles along the boards. That said, while he isn’t afraid to initiate contact, and he’s a determined battler, he isn’t exactly a guy who goes out looking for the big hit either. Nastasiuk plays a strong game off the cycle and can be a playmaker as well with good passing ability and vision.  He is also a strong defensive player.  He will need to work on his skating going forward.

Chris Bigras, Defence, Owen Sound Attack:  A second round pick of the Colorado Avalanche, he is currently still in Avs camp, but expected to eventually make a return to Owen Sound. Bigras is an extremely smart player with outstanding instincts and positioning. While he is not flashy, he consistently makes the smart play in nearly all situations and in all three zones. Bigras is extremely poised with the puck and makes hard, crisp tape-to-tape passes, both on the breakout and powerplay. He can sometimes join the rush as a trailer, but is not likely to lead it, instead using his passing skill to get Owen Sound’s transition game going. He is quick and efficient with the puck meaning less time is spent in his own end and more time spent in transition. On the powerplay he is a heads up playmaker. His shot needs work on its power, but he has great ability to keep it low and on target, leading to tip ins and rebounds. Bigras is solid in the defensive zone. He uses his strong positioning and good instincts to their full advantage. He maintains good gap control and is rarely beaten in one on one situations, keeping his man to the outside and forcing him away from the net. He blocks passing lanes effectively as well.


Top Draft Eligible Players to Watch

Robbie Fabri, Left Wing/Centre, Guelph Storm: Fabbri is a slick offensive player with great hockey sense.  He seems to always be in the right place, and finds and exploits openings in the defence.  He has good stickhandling and passing skills to be a strong playmaker, along with a good shot and the soft hands to score goals. Fabbri is a a very good skater, who has good speed, and excellent balance on his skates.  He may be a little undersized, but he plays a strong and gritty two way game and is absolutely fearless out there.


2015 Draft Eligible Players to Watch

Connor McDavid, Centre, Erie Otters: After entering the OHL last season as a 15-year old exceptional player, McDavid lived up to the hype, winning Rookie of the Year in the league, and then going to the Under 18s, where he led Canada to the gold medal and won tournament MVP against players three years his senior.  The comparisons as the best player to come around since Sidney Crosby are being thrown around, and in my mind they are accurate.  Tanking will become a real issue with McDavid on the draft board next season.

Lets start with looking at the offensive weapons here, and the kid has it all.  Exceptional hands and stickhandling ability, he can dangle past a defender and does an excellent job of protecting the puck and maintaining possession.  His hockey sense and decision making is already at an elite level.  His decision making and vision are excellent, he reads the play very well and always seems to keep the puck moving in a smart and efficient manner.  His passing is outstanding as the young centre has the ability to thread pucks through tight spaces and put passes tape to tape at high speeds.  He’s an elite level playmaker.  McDavid also possesses an accurate shot, with a good release, but will need to continue to work on his strength and the velocity of his shots going forward.

His ability to make all these plays at a high speed, and to never have to slow down his feet to control the puck is a huge asset.  He has the ability to change gears quickly and effectively and this aids him in beating defenders.  His top speed is good, but its the acceleration and the ability to vary his attacks, to slow the game down when necessary or to make the quick play that really sets him apart.  The unpredictability can leave defenders flat footed as he quickly accelerates around them.  Or he can look like he his going to beat his man wide and suddenly slow down, opening up space for a shot or quick play in front of the defender. His agility and edgework is also outstanding. He also has very good balance and is a lot stronger on his skates than I expected.  Sure as  15 year old he was occasionally be knocked over by bigger stronger, 19 and 20 year old defencemen, but it doesn’t happen as often as I thought it would knowing his age.  As he gets older this year, expect this to happen less.