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 Mid-West Division Preview
The Contenders (In order of how I predict they will finish)
Guelph Storm: The Storm were a juggernaut last season, strong in every area of the game, and for my money they were the best team in junior hockey. All respect to the Edmonton Oil Kings who defeated the Storm in the biggest game of the year and are worthy Memorial Cup Champions, I just feel that no team was going to beat last year’s Storm squad in a seven game series. That said, the team has lost a lot including captain Matt Finn and Nick Ebert from the blueline; and Scott Kosmachuk, Zack Mitchell, and Kerby Rychel up front. Now while they won’t be as strong as last season, there is still plenty of talent. Robby Fabbri was the team’s best forward and could has solid support with Tyler Bertuzzi and Jason Dickinson also returning. Bertuzzi really took off in the playoffs and Memorial Cup and the Storm hope that translates into the new season. Pius Suter is a capable second line centre who can provide offence and match against top lines. Justin Auger is expected back as and overager, and Tyler Boston should be a talented rookie. On the backend, Ben Harpur leads a talented defence group with Zac Leslie and import Phil Baltisberger. Meanwhile they have the best goaltending tandem in the league in Justin Nichols and Matt Mancina. They won’t run away with the league like they did last year, but the Storm will win their fair share of games.
Erie Otters: Erie lost some quality scoring with Dane Fox and Connor Brown graduating, and it looking doubtful that Andre Burakowsky will be back. However this team shouldn’t lack for offence as it has Connor McDavid in his draft year, and another possible top-10 pick in Dylan Strome centring the second line. These two will make their wingers better at even strength, and work together on the powerplay and the Otters certainly shouldn’t lack in the goal scoring department. The defence faces questions about youth, but there is a ton of talent with Travis Dermott leading the way. The team will be counting on Cole Mayo, Jesse Saban, and T.J. Fergus to be solid OHL players, and they have the talent to do it. Add in Devin Williams as a solid goaltender and there is a lot of potential in Erie. While they are a young team, they are also a team that could go “all-in” knowing that it is McDavid’s last year, and make some big acquisitions before the trade deadline. If Burakowsky doesn’t return, a free import slot is one area they can look to fill with a big piece.
London Knights: Its so hard to predict the Knights this year. I really didn’t know where to put them, but we can’t ignore them either. If Max Domi, Nikita Zadorov, and Bo Horvat all have legitimate chances to make their NHL clubs. If all three are back, I could see them challenging the Storm for first place in the division. If none are back, they are likely in the lower half of the conference, fighting for a playoff spot and could be surpassed by Owen Sound or Kitchener. If one or two come back, then they are a solid middle of the pack club. Its just impossible to tell right now. As it stands, the offence will look to 2015 NHL draft eligible Mitch Marner and Overagers Brett Welychka and Matt Rupert to lead the forwards. They will also ask for big improvements from Montreal Canadiens first round pick Michael McCarron, and Arizona Coyotes second round pick Christian Dvorak. The defence will feature overager Dakota Mermis leading a very young group. Import (and Sharks draftee) Julius Bergman will be expected to take a big role right away. Aiden Jamieson will be given a bigger role in his second year, and Victor Mete was a highly hyped player taken by Owen Sound in the OHL draft, who the Knights traded for. They will look for big things from him over the next several years. The team acquired Michael Giuogvaz out of Belleville with the eye on him taking over the number 1 goalie job as they lost both goaltenders from last season. He’s a bit of a question mark. The success of the Knights really hinges on the status of their three biggest stars, as there are major question marks in all areas if none return.
Players to Watch
Note that I included links to Domi, Horvat and Zadorov’s full scouting reports in the section on the London Knights as I’m just not sure if they will be back. It would be a big surprise if the players below were not returned to their junior clubs.
Robby Fabbri, Centre, Guelph Storm: A first round pick of the St. Louis Blues, Fabbri is the classic non-stop worker. He never seems to stop moving his feet and is always right in the middle of the play. Don’t let his lack of size fool you, Fabbri is an aggressive and physical player, who just loves to hit on the forecheck. He’s an absolute buzz-saw constantly pressuring defencemen and causing turnovers. Fabbri is also not afraid to go to the net and battle with bigger defencemen for position. When he gets the puck, Fabbri has very good hands, and outstanding vision and passing ability. He can be a real playmaker either off the rush, or in the cycle game where he protects the puck by keeping his feet moving at all times. He isn’t just a one dimensional playmaker though, Fabbri can also score with soft hands in tight, and a good snap shot and quick release from further out. Obviously Fabbri needs to add muscle to his frame going forward and will need to bulk up to play this style at higher levels, but this shouldn’t be too difficult. Fabbri’s skating is very good, with strong top end speed, but it is his quickness that is really off the charts. Has a great first few steps and outstanding acceleration. Fabbri is also good on his edges, with good agility and can make very sharp cuts to avoid defenders. He has decent balance, especially for his size, as he skates with a low centre of gravity. The gritty, buzz-saw, non-stop mentality also applies to Fabbri’s defensive game, which is well-developed.
Jason Dickinson, Centre/Left Wing, Guelph Storm: A 2013 first round pick of the Dallas Stars, 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. At 6’2″ he has the body type to become a power forward if he can add muscle to his frame. 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. His agility and edgework is also solid, and his balance and power allows him to fight through checks.
Tyler Bertuzzi, Left Wing, Guelph Storm: Bertuzzi really took off in the playoffs last year with 15 goals in 22 playoff games (including the Memorial Cup). A Red Wings pick and the nephew of Todd Bertuzzi, Tyler plays a very physical game, getting in hard on the forecheck, winning battles on the boards and establishing position in front of the net. He has a very good shot, and an excellent release. With the puck on his stick he’s always looking to drive the net. He plays a very simple game and is more likely to go through a defenceman than to try to make fancy moves to go around him. Bertuzzi could stand to add some muscle to his frame.
Justin Bailey, Centre/Right Wing, Kitchener Rangers: A 2013 second round pick of the Kitchener Rangers, Bailey had 24 goals and 43 points in 54 games last year. 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. Bailey skates well, with good agility and edgework. He also has very good top end speed. Earlier in the year his first step and acceleration left something to be desired, but he seems to have worked at cleaning up the choppiness of his first few steps. Bailey has good balance and power. He is strong on the puck and difficult to knock off of it.
Ryan MacInnis, Centre, Kitchener Rangers: A second round pick of the Arizona Coyotes, MacInnis is the son of former Calgary Flame/St. Louis Blue Al MacInnis. Ryan MacInnis has great size and the potential of him developing into a power forward is tantalizing. He has a very strong wrist shot with good accuracy and a decent release. MacInnis also has very good hockey sense and vision and outstanding passing skills. Despite that great size MacInnis isn’t really physical at this point. While he doesn’t initiate contact his size and balance help him to battle his way to the front of the net and fight through checks, protecting the puck. They also allow him to win battles in the corners. It is hoped that MacInnis may become more physical as he adds mass to his lanky frame. MacInnis does have very good hockey sense, and positioning. He finds the open areas of the ice and is able to find openings and opportunities for himself. Skating is an issue for MacInnis. His stride could use some work, it is a bit sloppy especially in his first few steps, and this takes away from his quickness and acceleration. Work with a good skating coach to improve his footwork could definitely help him. He does have good balance and power though, which allows MacInnis to fight through checks and get to the front of the net with the puck. His agility isn’t bad for a player listed at 6’4, but he can be a bit awkward at times.
Christian Dvorak, Left Wing, London Knights: Limited to just 33 games last year, Dvorak still showed enough to be a second round pick of the Arizona Coyotes. Dvorak is a very good skater with above average top-end speed and very good acceleration. His first step is very good, and his ability to change speeds helps him to beat opponents off the rush. He also has good agility and edgework, allowing Dvorak to slip around defenders. He could stand to bulk up though, to improve his balance and be stronger on the puck. Dvorak has shown some offensive flair at times. He has a very good wrist shot and an excellent release, though he doesn’t really use it enough. Dvorak tends to be look to be more of a playmaker off the wing, using good patience, vision and passing skill to set up teammates. Dvorak plays a fearless game as he is not afraid to handle the puck in traffic, to battle on the boards, or to get to the front of the net. If he is able to get stronger, and add some muscle to his frame going forward. Dvorak already plays a strong two-way game, as seen by coach Dale Hunter’s willingness to use him on the penalty kill despite being one of the younger forwards on the Knights.
Michael McCarron, Right Wing/Centre, London Knights: A first round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 2013, there isn’t much you can say about McCarron’s 2013-14 season other than that it was a complete disaster (as far as what is expected out of first round forwards after they are drafted). He started out on the Knights top line, but soon found himself on the third and sometimes fourth where he languished for the entire season. Here are some stats for you. He finished tenth on the London Knights in points per game (PPG) amongst forwards. Out of all 2013 NHL Draft picks who were playing forward in the CHL, he was the sixth worst forward in terms of PPG. The players behind him included a fourth rounder, a fifth rounder, a sixth rounder and two seventh round picks. Add to it the fact that he didn’t get an invite for the 2014 U.S. World Junior Team’s selection camp in December, and was an early cut at the 2015 Team’s Summer Camp, and there are some very worrying signs here concerning his development.
While he improved slightly in the second half of the season, even the improved production was still well below what should be expected out of a first round pick playing in the OHL. He did have some production in London’s first round playoff romp over Windsor, but was again invisible in their series with the Guelph Storm and during London’s three losses at the Memorial Cup.
McCarron has tremendous size, and a great wrist shot, but there are a number of areas of his game that need series work. He plays far too much of a perimeter game, preferring the long range wrist shot to actually driving to the net. Without the puck he is a good hitter, and plays physical, but he seems to want to avoid getting hit when he has the puck on his stick. He also seems to lose far too many board battles (and often gets knocked over) by smaller opponents. His stickhandling and playmaking skill are below average for a drafted player. While McCarron’s offensive game can sometimes show spurts, such as a good run in January last year, his upside as a point producer at the pro level appears limited. In terms of next season, the Knights will have to hope that McCarron can take a big step forward with more top 6 time, and use his size to be a man amongst boys at the junior level.
Chris Bigras, Defence, Owen Sound Attack: A second round pick of the Colorado Avalanche in 2013, Bigras is a well-rounded defenceman who seems to do everything well, but nothing great. He is an extremely smart player with very good 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 on the power play. 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 power play 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. Bigras works hard in board battles and in clearing the front of the net, but must add more muscle mass to be really effective in these situations. He isn’t a huge hitter, but will take the body when necessary to make a play. He was part of Canada’s World Junior team last season and should be back on the team again.
Zach Nastasiuk, Right Wing/Centre, Owen Sound Attack: A second round pick of the Detroit Red Wings in 2013, Nastasiuk put up 23 goals and 51 points in 62 games last year. Nastasiuk has a fantastic arsenal of shots. His wrist and snap shots are heavy, accurate, and the release is very quick. He has a very good one-timer as well. 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. The weakest part of Nastaskiuk’s game is his skating. It is his below average skating that will need to be improved if he wants to be more than just a grinder at the NHL level. His stance is choppy and he really should work on developping a more powerful, longer stride. The speed is decent when he reaches top speed, but a slow start-up step, and issues with acceleration that must be improved mean that by the time he reaches that speed, the play has usually passed him by. He also needs work on his edgework and turning. However Nastasiuk is strong on the puck, and this makes him hard to knock over and allows him to protect the puck off the cycle. Nastasiuk plays a solid defensive game. He brings the phyiscal elements of his game to his own end of the rink, where he’s known for applying good pressure on the puck career and generally backchecking to the right spots.
2015 Draft Eligible Players to Watch
Travis Dermott, Defence, Erie Otters: A late 96, Dermott is a very good skater from the backend. He has a very smooth stride, and good pivots, edgework and agility, allowing him to cover all areas of the ice. He’s a good stickhandler and can use this to both skate the puck out of danger in the defensive zone and lead the rush in the offensive zone. He makes good passes on the breakout and in the offensive zone at times, but is also a little inconsistent as he can be prone to bad giveaways as well. Defensively Dermott is very involved physically. He just loves to get under an opponents skin, and does so very well. He hits hard, and then will chirp about it afterwards. Always in the middle of every scrum, his skating and chippiness will get him noticed, but must cut down the giveaways if he wants to go high in the draft.
Connor McDavid, Centre, Erie Otters: Here he is, the Wonderkid. Lets start with looking at the offensive weapons here, and McDavid 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. Connor McDavid also possesses an accurate shot, with a good release. 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 most expect. As he continues to get bigger and stronger and add muscle to his frame he’s only going to get better, and he’s already extremely tough to knock off the puck. Expect a huge season from McDavid in what will be his final year in the OHL.
Dylan Strome, Centre, Erie Otters: The Brother of Islanders centre Ryan Strome was the 2nd overall pick in the 2013 OHL Draft. A versatile forward, Strome spent some time at all three forward spots last year, but should be used as a second line centre this year. That said he may move to wing on powerplays to play with McDavid. Strome has an outstanding wrist shot, and a great release. He also has good hands and can be a real sniper. Strome has the ability to be a playmaker with great vision and passing skills. He has good size at 6’2″ and uses it to protect the puck, and is very good on the cycle. He has high-end hockey IQ, and seems to make the right play with the puck, or can find openings in the defense. Strome shows a smooth skating stride, and good top end speed, but his acceleration could use some improvement. His defensive game is pretty good for a 16-year-old.
Mitch Marner, Centre/Right Wing, London Knights: Marner took on a top 6 role with a very experienced London team last season that was gearing up to host the Memorial Cup. The minutes he played and the responsibilities given as a 16-year-old on such a deep squad were impressive and are indicative of the type of talent he possesses, especially when you consider who was doling out those minutes. He is a little undersized, but that doesn’t stop Marner from playing a gritty game and getting to the front of the net or battling in corners. He has great speed, and very slick hands and can go end-to-end at any time. Has a decent shot, but it is his vision and playmaking skill that sets Marner apart. Marner should have an ever bigger role this season as many of the Knights veterans have moved on.
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