Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects. It’s that time again–major junior hockey is back and we’re here to preview the new season for you. While teams have already played their first game in the QMJHL, things are set to start on September 19th in the WHL and on September 24th in the OHL. With that in mind, we will start our division previews out east, then go west, and finally finish in Ontario this year. You can check out our previous Top Shelf Prospects articles here.
OHL East Division Preview
The Contenders (In order of how I predict they will finish)
Picking the winners of the OHL East Division is exceptionally difficult this year. The three teams I have looked at all have a player who was taken in the top 10 of the NHL draft. These players are currently participating in their NHL camps and may spend the entire season with their NHL clubs. While Nick Ritchie is a long shot to make the Anaheim Ducks roster, Sam Bennett and Michael Dal Colle could very well be in the NHL all season long. We just don’t know today. That said, lets get to my picks for the top 3.
Kingston Frontenacs: I picked them to win the division last year, and they fell short, finishing second and then losing a tough seven-game series to the Peterborough Petes. Clearly, if they get Sam Bennett back, its a major bonus for the team. Without him though, 2013 New Jersey Devils draft pick, Ryan Kujawinski would slot in as top line centre and he’s more than capable of doing the job, especially as this will be his fourth OHL season. Los Angeles Kings draft pick Spencer Watson can also score goals from the wing. Lawson Crouse is a top prospect for the 2015 NHL draft, and should show an upswing in offence in his second year in the league. Juho Lammikko joins the team as an import. There are a number of other solid 18 and 19-year-olds who will provide support as well such as Robert Polesello, Samuel Schutt, Corey Pawley, Ryan Verbeek, and Connor McGlynn, . On defence, Kings second rounder Roland McKeown leads the way. He’ll be joined by overager Warren Steele, and former Mississauga Steelhead Chad Duchense, the returning Matt Watson, as well as Import selection Jarkko Parikka. Youngster and first round OHL pick Reagan O’Grady provides some youth on the blueline. The defence is the weakness of the team, overall they are a bit too small, and inexperienced, look for them to really address the issue at the trade deadline if not sooner. In goal, the Frontenacs will likely promote Lucas Peressini to starter and have 17-year-old Jeremy Helvig.
Peterborough Petes: The Petes took a big step forward after languishing near the bottom of the league for several years last year. Nick Ritchie is an old school power forward, he had a good connection with Hunter Garlant, after Garlant joined the team at mid-season, and both should be back and repeating that on the first line. Sabres second rounder, Eric Cornel should also be back and he has the versatility to either complete that line on the wing, or start a second scoring line at centre. Michael Clarke, Josh MacDonald, Connor Boland, and Greg Betzold, provide veteran support up front. On the blueline the Petes return six defencemen from last years team, and add two imports including Lightning Second Round pick Dominick Masin and Artem Vladimirov. Overall the group is big, mobile, and talented. The Petes weakness is in net where they have Jason Da Silva, Scott Smith and Dylan Wells taking over from the graduating Andrew D’Agostini. The three goalies have a combined 27 games of OHL experience, and just five wins (all from Da Silva and split between three teams).
Oshawa Generals: The Generals won this division last year, but have lost some serious talent in Scott Laughton, Daniel Altshuller, and Colin Suellentrop in the off-season. There is also a very good chance that they will lose Michael Dal Colle to the Islanders. The Generals still have talent and will be a good team but this small step backwards, along with step forwards from young squads in Kingston and Peterborough coming of age makes me put them as third in the division. If Dal Colle does come back, he will join Hunter Smith and Cole Cassels in what can be a very strong top line. Josh Sterk and Bradley Latour will be important secondary scorers for the club. The defence features captain Josh Brown, 2015 NHL Draft prospect Mitch Vande Sompel, veterans Chris Carlisle and Will Petschenig as well as incoming imports Tobias Lindberg, and Sonny Hertzberg. In goal the Generals will look to Ken Appleby to take over from Altshuller, and the veteran backup seems ready to make the jump into the number one spot.
Players To Watch
Remi Elie, Left Wing, Belleville Bulls: Drafted in the 2nd round of the 2013 NHL draft, Elie was part of an early season trade that saw him move from London to Belleville last year. With a big time increase in ice time, also came a big increase in scoring as Elie led the Bulls with 65 points in 61 games after the trade (he had 68 total points in 67 games on the season). He has good acceleration and solid top end speed which he uses to be a torpedo on the forecheck. He’s a developing power forward, who can work the cycle game and can shoot the puck. Elie plays a very simple straight line game relying on the dump and chase, finding open teammates in the cycle and getting to the front of the net. He isn’t the type to try a lot of risky plays. He is also very defensively responsible without the puck.
Jordan Subban, Defence, Belleville Bulls: The brother of Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban, and Boston goaltending prospect Malcolm Subban, Jordan was a fourth round pick of the Vancouver Canucks in 2013. He put up 12 goals and 42 points for the Bulls last season. Jordan Subban’s game is defined by his outstanding skating ability. He has very good top end speed and excellent acceleration, and this is true of both his forwards and backwards skating. He has very good agility, edgework, pivots and turns. This allows him to be extremely mobile, and be cover a huge amount of ice. The great skating is especially noticeable in Belleville’s home games, played on an Olympic Sized rink. He has the ability to make quick changes in direction in all 360 degrees. Subban has an excellent slapshot, and is great at one-timers. He also mixes in an excellent wrist shot with a good release from the point. Subban’s great agility and footwork allows him to walk the line and open up shooting and passing lanes. He also has great vision and passing ability and has done a fantastic job as the the Bulls powerplay quarterback, creating plays for himself and his teammates. The Bulls had some issues scoring goals this season, and so the offence that Subban provided on the powerplay was very much in demand. Subban is a very good stickhandler which can allow him to lead the rush, and his good skating allows him to join in as a trailer, or to make pinches and still recover in his own end.
Ryan Kujawinski, Centre, Kingston Frontenacs: The Devils third round pick in the 2013 draft, Kujawinski has NHL size, and great reach. He has a long stick, and excellent puck control which really allows him to protect the puck and extend plays. He is strong on the puck, and powerful down low in the cycle game. Combine this with excellent vision, and the ability to put the puck through the tiniest of openings, and this allows Kujawinski to be an excellent playmaker. Kujawinski is also is a powerful skater who drives the net and plays a gritty style getting involved in the corners and in front of the net. His wrist shot is strong and powerful and he has a good release, but Kujawinski lacks accuracy. The tools are all there and he should really blossom in his fourth OHL season. His defensive game also needs some work. He is guilty of sometimes puck watching and getting flat footed and out of position. He needs to work on learning his responsibilities without the puck. He is also sometimes guilty of looking too much for the big hit which gets him out of position. Kujawinski though, does stick up for teammates and has even been known to drop the gloves.
Roland McKeown, Defence, Kingston Frontenacs: A second round pick of the Los Angeles Kings,McKeown’s skating ability is at an elite level and features excellent speed and acceleration both forwards and backwards, great pivots, excellent lateral agility, and fantastic edgework. He is so smooth on his skates, its like he’s floating above the ice. The great skating gives him outstanding mobility allows McKeown to always be in position defensively, and to join the play offensively and still be able to recover back to his position. He covers a ton of ice, and it is very difficult to beat McKeown one-on-one because he is so good on his feet. Offensively, McKeown shows confidence and poise with the puck on his stick. His offensive game is keyed by smart decision making and excellent passing skills. His could be harder, but is still very good. What really makes it an effective weapon though is the fact that McKeown finds the openings to get it through to the net, and keeps it low and on targe, leading to second chance opportunities for teammates. He does look more like a powerplay quarterback type who runs the play with his smart offense than the big bomber from the point though. His agility and edgework allow him to walk the line and open up shooting and passing lanes. Defensively, McKeown’s mobility keeps him in position to make plays, and a good active stick help him to cut down passing and shooting lanes. He is a smart defenceman who anticipates the play well. McKeown works hard in the corners, and is willing to battle in front of the net, but he could add more muscle to his frame, and play a more physical game.
Cole Cassels, Centre, Oshawa Generals: Cassels, a 2013 third round pick of the Vancouver Canucks is the son of former NHLer Andrew Cassels, who is best known for his time as a Hartford Whaler. Cassels is more a playmaker than a goal scorer at the offensive end, with good vision and passing skills. He has a good shot, but could stand to use it more often. Cassels plays a strong two-way game and works well at the defensive end, effective on the back check and at blocking shots and passing lanes, and at killing penalties. He put up 24 goals and 73 points with the Generals last season. With Scott Laughton graduated, Cassels takes over as the Generals number one centre and should be able to improve those numbers.
Hunter Smith, Oshawa Generals: After going undrafted in 2013, he put up a solid season and was taken by the Calgary Flames in the second round of the 2014 draft. Coming in at 6’6″ tall and 220 lbs, Smith is a man amongst boys in the OHL. Add in a healthy mean streak, the willingness to absolutely crush opponents along the boards, and even to drop the gloves when necessary, Smith has that “potential power forward” look to him. He has a decent wrist shot and release, but most of Smith’s points come from standing in front of the net and causing havoc. It is very difficult to move him once he sets up shop, and he can tip in pucks and bang in rebounds once he’s there. When he has the puck on his stick, Smith is willing to barrel through defenders to take the puck to the front of the net. At the end of the day though Smith is much more of a goal scorer than a playmaker. He has decent puck control and protection, but he lacks the vision and passing ability to put up a lot of assists. Put up 16 goals and 40 points in 64 games last season, and added 11 points in 12 playoff games.
Eric Cornel, Centre/Right Wing, Peterborough Petes: A second round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in the 2014 Draft, Cornel has the versatility to play both Centre and Right Wing. He is a great skater with very good top end speed, and above average acceleration. As he has gained weight and gotten stronger he has improved his balance and is stronger on the puck and better in board battles, however he could stand to add even more core strength in the coming years. His edgework and agility are also very good, and this gives him a leg up in sneaking by defenders off the rush. Cornel has very long reach and excellent puck handling skills helping him to protect the puck . He has very good vision and excellent passing skill, making him an outstanding playmaker off the rush or in the cycle. For this reason many believe he will eventually become a full-time centre. One issue though is that Cornel often tries to rush every play, when he learns to slow the play down and take advantage of his reach, puck handling and passing skills by extending plays, he could be a deadly offensive force. His wrist shot is strong, accurate, and features a very good release, giving him the ability to both score as well as set up plays. He also has a good one-timer, as well as the soft hands to score in tight. While Cornel works well in the cycle game, and isn’t afraid to get to the front of the net and battle along the boards, he could stand to initiate physical contact more and throw his weight around on the forecheck as well.
Draft Eligible Players to Watch
Justin Lemcke, Defence, Belleville Bulls: Lemcke has good size at 6’02” and strong offensive skills. In particular he has a bomb of a point shot which really helps him on the Belleville powerplay. He needs to do a better job of getting it on net though. Lemcke’s passing skills are decent, but he seems to rush plays at time and if he can slow things down would make smarter plays and less giveaways. Defensively Lemcke plays physically and is willing to block shots and clear the front of the net. He must improve his skating though. Lemcke is an interesting draft prospect to watch, as it stands he looks like a mid round pick, but could really move up the board if he can improve on some of those deficencies this year.
Lawson Crouse, Left Wing, Kingston Frontenacs: Was part of Team Canada’s Ivan Hlinka winning squad this summer leading the team with 6 goals in 5 games. He was also on the bronze medal winning Under 18 team last spring. At 6’4″ and 212 pounds Crouse is a budding power forward. He has a powerful skating stride, but could work on his first step and acceleration. That good power allows him to fight through checks and get to the net. He loves to get in the forecheck, and finishes his hits along the boards. He is very good in protecting the puck in the cycle and has the soft hands to bang in goals from the front of the net. Lawson is also a good penalty killer, and defensive player. He should see his ice time increase, and can put up a lot of points in Kingston this year.
Mitch Vande-Sompel, Defence, Oshawa Generals: A puck moving defenceman, Vande-Sompel is an excellent skater. He has good speed in both directions, and excellent edge-work, agility and balance. Vande-Sompel is a good passer, with excellent vision. He makes smart plays with his breakout pass, and on the powerplay. He is also a very good stickhandler who can lead the rush as well. Vande-Sompel also has a good slapshot and wrist shot. At 5’10, he’s a little undersized and has issues with bigger forwards in his own zone. If he can add muscle (as well as grow an inch or two this year) he can be taken in the first two rounds of the NHL Draft.
Travis Konecny, Centre, Ottawa 67s: The first overall pick in the 2013 OHL Draft, the OHL rookie of the Year, and part of the bronze medal winning team Canada squad at the Under 18s, and the gold medal team at this summer’s Ivan Hlinka it was a good rookie season for Konecny. He has excellent speed, and tremendous acceleration. He utilizes it both on the rush, and to be a cannonball on the forecheck. Add to this great vision and passing ability and Konecny is the type of player who can make his line-mates better. He also has a strong wrist shot and a good release. Its not something he can control, but growing an extra inch or two this season could help him go higher in the draft.
Dante Salituro, Centre, Ottawa 67s: An undersized centre, Salituro doesn’t let his size stand in the way of playing a gritty game. He plays on the edge of throwing a lot of hits, and getting over aggressive and taking some bad penalties at times. Still he’s not afraid to battle in the corners or in front of the net. He has good stickhandling skills and can play the roll of playmaker with excellent vision and passing skill. He also has a decent shot that is really made more effective as he has a very quick release. A late 1996 birthdate, he will be entering his third year in the OHL this season. Right now he is looking like a possible second round pick, though could move up with a strong season.
Matt Spencer, Defence, Peterborough Petes: The third overall pick in the 2013 OHL Draft, Spencer has good size (6’2) and skating skills. His offensive game seems to be decently developped with good passing skills, a hard shot, and the ability to lead or join the rush. He has a very good slap shot, and one-timer. Spencer needs some work on his defensive game though, as he gets himself out of position looking for the big hit too often. He also needs to cut out some risky plays and bad giveaways. Another player who really could move up the draft rankings if he can fix a few weaknesses.
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