2013 OHL Preview: West 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 Mid-West Division yesterday, we finish with the OHL’s Wesst Division.  As always you can check out the previous Top Shelf Prospects articles here.

The OHL’s West Division is wide open.  All of the contenders have lost significant talent, and it creates a situation where literally anything can happen.  Yesterday we said that the Mid-West was the strongest division in the league, this might be the weakest.

That said there is still significant talent in the division and plenty of players to watch this year.  The teams are reloading and the talent is young and there are a number of players who could be taken with high picks in the 2014 NHL Draft.  As these teams mature they will again be contending for OHL Championships.


Top Contenders

Plymouth Whalers: People will talk about all the offensive talent that the Whalers have lost, and there is no doubt about it; in Vincent Trocheck, Garrett Meurs, Stefan Noesen, Rickard Rakell and Mitchell Heard the Whalers have lost significant talent.  And while they will not repeat as the highest scoring team in the league, they still have 2012 NHL first rounder Tom Wilson (or should when he returns from Washington Capitals camp) players like Chicago Blackhawks first rounder Ryan Hartman, potential 2014 first rounder Matthew Mistele, and potential later round picks Connor Chatham and Francesco Villardi looking for breakout seasons.  They have also added talent in Swede Victor Crus-Ryberg via the import draft and Carter Sandlak via trade.  In goal the reigns have been handed to Alex Nedeljkovic who will be the full time starter with Matt Mahalak in Kingston now.  In front of him will be promising draft elible prospect Alex Peters, Capitals draftee Connor Carrick and Blue Jackets prospect Gianluca Curcuruto. Nick Malysa, and Josh Wesley round out a strong defence corps.  The Whalers will likely take a step back this year with all the losses, but given the fact that everyone else in the division has major weaknesses as well, they still might have enough to win it.  Next year, as these youngsters mature, Plymouth could be set up to compete for so much more.

Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds: This team will be built on goaltending and defence.  Penguins draftee Matt Murray is a solid goalie and should be able to compete with anyone in the league.  The Greyhounds expect to be getting back their top defenceman from Oilers camp in Darnell Nurse, and he will log huge minutes for the team.  Alex Gudbranson and Tyler Ganly provide depth on the blue line.  Like the Whalers, the Greyhounds have also taken a hit offensively, losing all five of their top scorers last season.  Sergei Tolchinsky, who was surprisingly undrafted signed an ELC with Carolina and has been sent down to lead the offence; and draft eligible Jared McCann is looking for a breakthrough year.  Jorgen Karterud comes in from Norway and we hear good things about him, but I think that the Sault will need to play a tight defensive game as scoring goals may be an issue for this team.


Top Players to Watch

Darnell Nurse, Defence, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds:  Taken seventh overall by the Edmonton Oilers, Nurse’s offensive game really blossomed last season. He showed off his big-time point shot and one-timer, scoring 12 goals in 69 games. Nurse became really effective at keeping his shot low, getting it through and on net, and generating opportunities for rebounds and tip-ins in front of the net. He also effectively utilizes a good wrist shot. Nurse also improved his puckhandling skills, and shows more poise and patience in controlling the play at the blueline. He walks the line well, and uses lateral mobility to open up shooting and passing lanes. Last season he was the trigger man on the powerplay with Ryan Sproul as the quarterback, but now it will be Nurse’s time to run things. A fantastic natural athlete (Nurse comes from a family of elite athletes), his skating is elite given his size. He has excellent edgework, pivots, and agility. This allows him to transition quickly and cover all areas of the ice. He can change direction very quickly, allowing him to close space in an instant, and throw big hits. Nurse has terrific size and uses it effectively in his own end. He’s a big hitter who can strike fear into opponents. He wins board battles and effectively clears the front of the net. His mobility makes him very difficult to beat one-on-one off the rush. He uses his size and active stick to cut down passing lanes, and willingly sacrifices his body blocking shots. Nurse has continued to improve as a shut down defender.

Tom Wilson, Right Wing, Plymouth Whalers: A first round pick of the Washington Capitals in 2012, there were some questions about Wilson’s offensive potential in his draft year, as he scored just nine goals in 49 OHL games, before exploding in the playoffs. He started to answer some of those questions with 58 points in 48 games for Plymouth, and 17 points in 12 playoff games last year. However he was also the 4th highest scorer on the team in both the Regular Season and Playoff, and so the question should be asked if he benefited from playing ice time with offensively talented players, and taking advantage of the huge size advantage he has in junior, or if he has true offensive potential. As a leader on the Whalers, Wilson will get the opportunity to answer half that question this year.  Wilson has the size that NHL teams drool over. His skating stride is unconventional, but it works for him and he generates very good speed for a big man. He is a punishing body checker who loves to dish it out and absolutely hammers defencemen on the forecheck. He can be scary in the neutral zone as well, as Wilson absolutely loves catching an opposing player and laying him out. He is no doubt one of the most feared hitters in the OHL. He also hasn’t been afraid to drop the gloves and defend a teammate, or stick up for himself.  There are still questions about Wilson’s game in the offensive end of the rink. His wrist shot is hard, and has good accuracy. He improved his release last year, however it still needs to be quicker. His stickhandling, is a work in progress as are his hands in tight to the goal. At the OHL level Wilson is able succeed by manhandling defencemen infornt of the net. However he will need to rely on more than just size and strength going forward and so will look to develop offensive skills this year.

Ryan Hartman, Centre, Plymouth Whalers:  The first round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks is listed at 5’11″ and 185 lbs and many wouldn’t think of Hartman as a power forward, but that is the type of game that Hartman plays. He is extremely physical in all areas of the ice and especially strong on the forcheck. Hartman protects the puck very well down low and is excellent in the cycle. He fights through checks to the dirty areas of the ice. Hartman is a playmaker, who uses excellent passing skills and very good vision to set up teamates. He has very good hockey sense and often makes the smart play with the puck on his stick, and has an ability to find openings when its not. His wrist shot is extremely heavy and features an excellent release.  He also can score goals by taking the puck to the net, and using soft hands in close. Hartman is an agitator who loves to chirp opponents and is often in the middle of things after the whistle.  He’s also been known to drop the gloves.  Hartman is a very good skater, he has good top end speed, and reaches it quickly with a quick first step and good acceleration. His biggest asset is his excellent lateral agility, and good edgework which allows him to escape checkers and pull away from them. Defensively his game is well advanced as she pressures the puck very well and forces his opponents to make errors.  He is fearless in blocking shots and brings his physical game to the defensive end of the ice.  He is really solid on the penalty kill.

Brady Vail, Centre, Windsor Spitfires:  A 2012 Montreal draftee, Vail is an effective two-way centre. Offensively he is strong on the puck and is at his best playing a cycle game down low.  A tireless worker, Vail wins a ton of board battles and is never afraid to get himself into traffic. He has a hard, accurate shot and a quick release. Vail is also a good passer, and has decent vision to find the open man in the offensive zone. He isn’t the type of player who will dangle a ton of defencemen, or deke guys out.  His offensive game is more straightforward and based on pure north-south play, and a dogged determination. Defensively, Vail is an incredibly intelligent player. He uses strong positional play, and good instincts, to almost always be in the right spot in the defensive zone. He understands how to cut down on passing lanes, and to block shots.  A dogged player, he gets into his opponents face, and his high energy level can get under an opponent’s skin. Vail even spent part of last season playing defence for the Spitfires when injuries hit. He’ll be a key penalty killer and match against top lines.

Kerby Rychel, Right Wing, Windsor Spitfires: A first round pick of the Blue Jackets; Rychel has a very heavy, very accurate wrist shot and an excellent release which can really fool goalies. Rychel also has a very good one timer and should be called a pure sniper. He’s scored 40 goals in each of the last two years and a ton of those goals come from the top of the circles. However, he can also absolutely lethal in close to the net, using his soft, quick hands to tip in shots and bury rebounds. Rychel also drives opposing goalies nuts by setting up right at the top of the opponents crease and creating traffic and chaos in the goal mouth. He works hard in the corners and throws some big hits by getting in hard on the forecheck. He also has decent vision, and can make plays for his linemates, especially off the cycle.  Rychel will need to work on his defensive consistency and on his first step and acceleration going forward.

Slater Koekkoek, Defence, Windsor Spitfires:  Tampa Bays first round pick in 2012 just can’t stay healthy.  He’s missed a ton of time with shoulder injuries and just can’t seem to stay healthy.  The Spits hope that the surgery he got in January (after just two games with the team) and an offseason of rehab is enough to fix the problem and that he’ll contribute big minutes in Windsor this season. Koekkoek is an effective offensive defenceman. His slapshot is hard and accurate, and Koekkoek understands the importance of keeping it low and on net. Koekkoek is also a very good passer, and his excellent vision helps him to quarterback the Petes powerplay. He is a good puck handler, and has shown the ability to join the rush, and smart decision making to do it at the right times.  Skating wise, Koekkoek could use some work on his top end speed as it is merely average. However his agility, balance, and lateral mobility are very good and will serve him well going forward. Defensively Koekkoek is a physical presence.  He is a player who just loves to throw big body checks, and can strike fear into opponents coming down his side of the ice.  Koekkoek is also a willing and able shot blocker.  However, Koekkoek’s defensive game is far from a finished product.  He requires more work on his defensive assignments, and on his positioning in the defensive zone. He’s got good height and a good frame, however he does need to work in the weight room in order to properly fill out, as he is currently very slender and this could be leading to his injury issues.

Jimmy Lodge, Centre, Saginaw Spirit:  A Winnipeg third rounder, Lodge’s game is really based around his skating. He has good top end speed, but it is his acceleration and first step quickness that really sets him apart from his peers. This quickness allows Lodge to surprise and pounce on loose pucks, or beat defenders by changing speeds quickly. He has good agility and his good edgework helps him to be elusive in making his way through traffic and finding open areas on the ice. He does need to add some strength in his lower body though, as he needs to be stronger on his skates, and add some balance, as he is knocked off the puck too much right now. Lodge has good vision and playmaking skill. He has the ability to thread passes through tight areas, or to saucer the puck over sticks and onto the tape of a teammate. He also has a top notch wrist shot and a very good release allowing him to fool goaltenders. If there is a criticism of Lodge it is his inconsistent intensity level. Some nights he gets his nose dirty, plays in traffic, battles in front of the net, and works along the boards. Now he will need to gain strength to be more effective in these areas but that is a concern for many prospects and is easy enough to address. The more concerning thing is the games where Lodge just lacks intensity, where he doesn’t seem to want to hit or be hit, and becomes an ineffective perimeter player. This must be improved upon by Lodge going forward or he will infuriate coaches and will likely see plenty of time on the bench or in press boxes at the pro level. The hope is that it is something he will mature into, and can be developed. Lodge’s anticipation and his quickness make him a good defender when he puts in the effort.

Jake Paterson, Goalie, Saginaw Spirit: The Detroit Red Wings third round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft.  He has good size for a goalie at 6’1″ and plays a butterfly style.  He has good skating which allows him to come out of the crease to challenge shooters, but recover backwards if they go for the deke.  He has quick legs and takes away the bottom of the net well, and his athleticism leads to a strong glove and blocker to take away the top of the net.  Like many young goalies, he will need to continue to work on his rebound control. He is calm and poised in net, and should be amongst the best goalies in the OHL this season, and will challenge for a role on Canada’s World Junior team after being the #3 last season.


Draft Eligible Players to Watch

Matthew Mistele, Left Wing, Plymouth Whalers: Mistele is looking like a first round pick at this stage.  He has the size (6’2″) and the willingness to play a powerforward’s game.  He works in all three zones, whether its being quick on the forecheck, fighting for space in front of the net, working the corners, or playing strong defensive hockey.  He is a good skater who can fight through checks and cut hard to the front of the net.  He also has a hard and accurate wrist shot, and a very good release.  With all the offensive talent that has left Plymouth, he should get plenty of ice time to improve on his 60 points in 68 games last year.

Alex Peters, Defence, Plymouth Whalers: The younger brother of former Whalers (now Carolina Hurricanes/Charlotte Checkers) goalie Justin Peters, Alex is a defenceman blessed with great size as he is already 6’4″.  His skating is very good for a big guy, with good speed in both directions, and strong edgework and pivots.  He has the mobility to cover all areas of the ice, and the good gap control that allows Peters to throw big hits.  He has good hockey sense and plays a strong defensive game with good work in the corners, clearing the front of the net, and cutting down passing lanes with his long and active stick.  He has a big slapshot and if he can develop other parts of his defensive game, could move up the draft board.

Alex Nedeljkovic, Goalie, Plymouth Whalers: As a 16-year-old he stole the Whalers starting job from Matt Mahalak, which is incredibly rare and impressive for an OHL goalie.  At 6’0″ he has just average size for the types of goalies NHL teams seem to be drafting now, and has to make up for it with quick reflexes.  He is especially strong in the lower half of the net.  Calm an composed for a youngster, Nedeljkovic really impressed in the playoffs and could even have been said to steal games vs the eventual OHL Champion London Knights last year.  With Mahalak in Kingston, he’ll get every opportunity to continue as the Whalers number one goalie and should get plenty of exposure to NHL scouts.

Jared McCann, Centre, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds: McCann is a very good skater, with great acceleration and very good top end speed.  He combines this with good agility and edgework, along with top notch stick-handling which makes him incredibly dangerous off the rush. He has excellent vision and passing skills, making his linemates better.  He also has a quick shot, and cna get it off very quickly.  McCann has already developed a strong-two way game and even became a penalty killer for the Greyhounds late in the season last year.  He brings his non-stop work ethic in all three zones. He is a very well-rounded and complete player, and could be taken in the first round.

Nikolay Goldobin, Right Wing, Sarnia Sting: With Charles Sarault, and Reid Boucher gone; Goldobin will be given big responsibilities for the rebuilding Sarnia Sting club. He’s a strong skater, with the ability to stickhandle in a phone booth. He also has a killer wrist shot, and an outstanding release. Add to that incredible passing skills and Goldobin can do it all in the offensive end of the ice. He’ll need to improve his two way game and his intensity going forward. If he does that and can bring more consistency night in and night out, the sky is the limit on how high he could be taken come draft day.

Joshua Ho-Sang, Centre, Windsor Spitfires: Ho-Sang is incredibly skilled.  He is a lightning fast skater with incredible agility and edgework.  He also has quick, soft hands, and incredible puck control.  When he’s on his game, he is a joy to watch as he can do things with the puck that other players only dream of.  He can play the role of playmaker with good vision and passing skills, and has a decent release on his wrist shot but could use more power.  That may come as he bulks up, which is something that Ho-Sang will need to do.  He was knocked off the puck too easily as a 16-year-old and that should be the focus of his improvement this year.

Nikita Serebryakov, Goalie, Saginaw Spirit: Stuck behind Jake Patterson, he won’t get the opportunity to showcase his skills as much as Nedelkojvic, but this Russian Goalie prospect also has draft pedigree. Serebryakov backstopped Russia to the gold medal at the 2012 World Under 17 Hockey Challenge and won the tournament MVP.  He has also performed well at the Hlinka tournament.  That said his first year in the OHL didn’t go as planned as he struggled adjusting to the smaller ice surface and the new angles he covers.  At just 5’10” he’s an undersized goalie who relies on his reflexes. He’ll need to improve on last year’s performance if he wants to overcome the Russian factor and Size stigmas he will face.


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