OHL West Division Preview

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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 West Division Preview

The Contenders (In order of how I predict they will finish)

TopShelfProspectsPlymouth Whalers:  The Whalers made two really big moves this summer to improve their scoring this season.  In overager Matthew Campagna, and Columbus Blue Jackets first round pick Sonny Milano they have added two-thirds of an elite OHL first line.  Add in returnees Matthew Mistele, Connor Chatham, Frankie Vilardi and Viktor Crus-Rydberg all adding a year of experience and the Whalers will score plenty of goals.  At the other end of the ice 2013-14 OHL Goaltender of the year Alex Nedeljkovic knows how to keep pucks out of the net, and could be even better this season.  The defence led by Alex Peters, and overager Gianluca Curcuruto, is solid but unspectacular.  With a strong offence and a great goaltender, thats all it needs to be for the Whalers to be the favorites in the West Division.

Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds:  Its really a two-horse race in the division, with the Greyhounds as tough competition for the Whalers.  The difference here is that two of their stars have some early season question marks.  Battling a bout of mono, its unclear when Jared McCann will be 100% and how this will effect him early in the year.  Meanwhile Darnell Nurse is still in Oilers camp and could even make the team.  For this ranking, I expect him to get a 9-game NHL try out before coming back to the Soo. Up front Sergey Tolchinsky should lead the way and after scoring 91 points last season, he could break 100 this year.  Michael Bunting and Bryan Moore are back up front, while Gabe Guertler joins the team out of the University of Minnesota to add scoring depth.  The team can match anyone in the league in terms of offense.  The defence will be led by Nurse, who is supported by Tyler Ganly, Kyle Jenkins, Colton White, and new import Gustav Bouramman in what will be a solid core.  Alex Gudbranson was supposed to be back for an overage season, but instead signed with the Minnesota Wild and is heading to the AHL.  Expect the Greyhounds to add another overager shortly. In goal, Rangers second round pick Brandon Halverson takes over as the starter.

Sarnia Sting: The Sting were the worst team in the OHL last season, and while it may take time for them to get back to challenging for the top of the division, I think that the off-season additions make them a playoff team this year.  Pavel Zacha was the first overall pick in the CHL Import Draft, and the 17-year-old out of the Czech Republic looks like an OHL star and top 10 NHL Draft pick.  Jakob Chychrun was the first overall pick in the OHL draft and is expected to have an immediate impact in the OHL.  Meanwhile Nikolay Goldobin and Anthony DeAngelo are returning stars and offensive catalysts. Nikita Korostelev, Noah Bushnell and Connor Schlichting should all be better in their second year in the league. Overager Taylor Dupuis is a solid goaltender.


Players to Watch

Connor Chatham, Right Wing, Plymouth Whalers: A third round pick of the New Jersey Devils; Chatham is already at NHL level size, at 6’3″ 225 lbs. There is some real potential for Chatham to develop into a power forward. He uses his size well, playing physical on the forecheck, and in front of the net and in battles along the boards. He’s not afraid to go to the net and get in good positions to bang in rebounds or to create havoc with a screen. His stickhandling isn’t anything to write home about, but it is decent. Still Chatham plays a straight ahead no nonsense kind of game. In terms of passing, he is more likely to make the type of short, safe pass that keeps the cycle game going than to make high-risk, high-reward plays. His shot has good power, but could use a bit of a quicker release.

Sonny Milano, Left Wing, Pymouth Whalers: Getting Milano in Plymouth was a big win for the Whalers.  The Columbus Blue Jackets first rounder was a big time scorer with the US NTDP last season, and helped them to gold at the Under 18s. Milano will likely miss the first few weeks of the season with facial fractures, but that shouldn’t be a big deal in the big scheme of things for the Whalers. Milano has good top end speed, but his quickness is outstanding.  By that I mean that he has a tremendous first step, great acceleration, and the ability to change direction on a dime.  This really helps him to get by defencemen as the moment he sees an opening, he can fly through it. His ability to change speeds is deceptive and makes him very elusive. Milano also has very good agility and edgework. His balance and strength on the puck would be improved by adding more muscle to his frame. Milano has great hands and the ability to make plays with the puck at top speed. He loves to shoot the puck, and has a great wrist shot and release. He also has a very dangerous backhand which he can get off in an instant. Milano is relentless on the puck, chasing down loose pucks in the offensive zone with reckless abandon. He wins puck battles via his determination, positioning and leverage, but can do even better if he added muscle.  He is very dangerous working off the half-wall on the powerplay, as he can take advantage of smallest bit of extra time and space to create excellent scoring chances with a shot or a pass. He is a tremendous playmaker with great vision, and the ability to thread the needle and put the puck on a teammates tape.

Matthew Mistele, Left Wing, Plymouth Whalers: A Los Angles Kings Draft Pick, Mistele has the size 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.  Consistency was an issue for him this season, as he struggled as the go to guy in the Whalers offence.  Had 34 goals and 60 points as a rookie, but only 18 goals and 37 points in 56 games last season.  He will search for consistency this year.

Alex Nedeljkovic, Goaltender, Plymouth Whalers: A second round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes, Nedeljkovic was the goaltender of the year in the OHL last season. At just 6’0″ Alex Nedeljkovic 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 where his butterfly style is complemented by extremely quick legs that take away most low shots.  He has excellent leg strength and a strong push help him him to go side-to-side very quickly, and he tracks the puck extremely well, allowing him to close down quickly and effectively on cross ice passes. His rebound control is surprisingly well-developed for a 17-year-old, but could still use even more improvement, as is true for almost all young goalies.  Still he is ahead of the majority of draft eligible goalies in this area. Nedeljkovic is also extremely athletic and able to recover quickly if he does get caught out of positioning.  Good skating allows him to challenge shooters, and recover quickly if an opponent tries to deke.  A quick glove hand and a solid blocker take away the top half of the net. Nedeljkovic is extremely good at handling the puck. He plays like a third defencemen on dump-ins helping his defencemen to clear the puck, and to start the transition game.  He is also able to make long passes to catch teams if they are making a poor line change. Alex Nedeljkovic is an on-ice leader for the young Whalers team, displaying a confidence in the net that calms his teammates.  He shakes off bad goals quickly, and does not allow any mistakes to get to him and he is ready to make the next save by the time the puck is dropped at centre-ice.

Blake Clarke, Left Wing, Saginaw Spirit: An extremely intriguing prospect. He had a tremendous 16-year-old season with the Brampton Battalion, and one year ago he looked like a potential top 5 pick for the 2014 NHL Draft. A disastrous 17-year-old season saw him not even drafted.

Last summer he looked very good in the US camp but then suffered a shoulder injury and never seemed to get back on track.  Finished the season with only 2 goals and 12 points in 54 games, split between North Bay and Saginaw.  It was hoped the mid-season change of scenery would get him back on track, but it didn’t.  He teased with flashes of that potential, but they were few and far between this year.  Looked lost on the ice at times.

Last year we said ““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.”

The question becomes what version of Clarke will come back this season?

Jimmy Lodge, Centre, Saginaw Spirit: A 2013 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.

Dylan Sadowy, Right Wing, Saginaw Spirit: He put up 27 goals last season, and then followed it up with 4 goals in 5 playoffs games. Sadowy scores most of his goals in tight, tipping in shots, banging in rebounds, and converting passes in front of the net.  He battles hard and plays an agitating style.  He could use some work on his skating as it is merely average right now.  A longer stride would help. He showed great improvement between his first and second year though, so there are good signs there.  Game is reminiscent of Scott Hartnell in terms of style.

Anthony DeAngelo, Defence, Sarnia Sting: A first round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning, DeAngelo has had some much publicized discipline issues.  His on-ice talent can not be denied though, as DeAngelo is a star offensively from the blue line.  He has good skating and puck handling skills and can lead the rush or join as a trailer. He has high-end speed and excellent acceleration which can allow him to make these types of plays. DeAngelo has a good assortment of shots, including an excellent wrist shot and release, a hard slapshot and a booming one-timer. He is a natural power play quarterback who shows poise with the puck and excellent passing skills. DeAngelo has patience to wait for the right play, and can use good lateral agility and mobility to walk the line and open up lanes. Loves to pinch into the slot to get into a better position to get a shot off, though he can sometimes get caught doing it too often and this hurts his defensive game. Defensively his game is very much a work in progress, and he will work to improve it in his last year of junior hockey.

Nikolay Goldobin, Right Wing, Sarnia Sting: Selected in the first round of the NHL Draft by the San Jose Sharks, Goldobin has outstanding offensive skill. He has all the tools to put up points as he did scoring 94 for a poor Sarnia team last year. He is blessed with the ability to stickhandle in a phone booth. His wide array of moves can leave defenders spinning. He also has a killer wrist shot, and an outstanding release. Goldobin also has a very effective one-timer. Add to all of this great hockey sense and the ability to find holes in the defense. Top it all of with some incredible vision and passing skils, and there is no doubt about Goldobin’s abilities in the offensive end of the ice. When he is on his game, he is quite simply a dynamic offensive catalyst for Sarnia. Goldobin can play a high speed game off the rush, or he can show poise with the puck and be patient and wait for an opening in the offensive zone.  He doesn’t seem to get flustered often with the puck on his stick, and if he has the time and space out there, chances are that he will take advantage of it. Goldobin is a very good skater.  His top end speed and his acceleration are both well above average. He also has outstanding agility and edgework which makes him extremely elusive both off the rush and in the cycle game. His balance could be improved, as he will need to add strength. He can sometimes be knocked off the puck by bigger and stronger defenders, and this also hurts him in his ability to win board battles. Goldobin will also need to improve his defensive game going forward.

Darnell Nurse, Defence, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds: Nurse is currently at Oilers training camp, and he may get in his 9-game NHL tryout, but I expect to see him back in the Soo this season. The offence that Nurse showed in his draft year, continued to improve this past season, as he set new career highs in goals, assists and points despite playing four less games. Nurse continued to show off his big-time point shot and one-timer, scoring 13 goals. Nurse is extremely effective at keeping his shot low, getting it through and on net, and generating opportunities for rebounds and tip-ins. He also effectively utilizes a good wrist shot and release when he doesn’t have time to load up. Nurse has also improved his puckhandling skills, and shows more poise and patience at the blueline. He walks the line well opening up shooting and passing lanes. The biggest area of improvement this year though was in his playmaking. Nurse improved his first pass, and his ability to quarterback the powerplay, making smart passes and setting up teammates.  A fantastic natural athlete, coming from a family of athletes, Nurse’s 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 good speed moving forward and backwards, and an above average first step and acceleration. Nurse uses his size effectively in his own end. He’s a big hitter who can strike fear into opposing players as they come down his end of the ice. He wins board battles and effectively leans on opposing players and 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 an active stick to cut down passing lanes, and willingly sacrifices his body blocking shots.

Jared McCann, Centre, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds: Suffering through a bout of Mono this summer it is unclear if McCann will be ready to start the season, and how effective he will be when he does get into the lineup. The first round pick of the Vancouver Canucks, McCann is an excellent skater. He has great acceleration and very good top end speed. He is amongst the quickest players in this draft class. His ability to change speeds can be used to fool defenders, he loves to turn up the speed at the last second and cut to the middle of the ice, leaving an often flat-footed defender in his wake. McCann combines this with good agility and edgework, along with top notch stick-handling which makes him incredibly dangerous off the rush. He also has very good balance, and is strong on his skates, making him very difficult to knock off the puck, helping him in board battles, and allowing McCann to fight through checks to get to the front of the net. McCann has excellent vision and passing skills, and the ability to make his linemates better. He cycles extremely well waiting for teammates to find an opening, and then hitting them with the pass. If given an opening he is willing to take the puck through the high traffic areas and to the front of the net. McCann also has a quick shot,  and can get it off very quickly, with a very good release.  He is willing to battle in front of the net and in the corners, and plays a gritty game.  He also plays a very strong defensive game including killing penalties.

Sergei Tolchinsky, Right Wing, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds: After being undrafted in 2013, he signed as a free agent with the Carolina Hurricanes.  The reasons for him being passed over in the draft are likely due to a combination of his size (5’9″) and the dreaded “Russian Factor,” but he is one of the most skilled players in the OHL. Tolchinsky is a fantastic skater.  He has a tremendous first step, great acceleration, and strong top end speed.  He can beat defenders wide on the rush, by turning on another gear and blowing past them, or he can cut quickly to the inside to go to the net.  Add silky smooth hands and moves, and a strong wrist shot and great release, and you have the recipe for a sniper.  Tolchinsky has also become a great playmaker, as he shows outstanding vision, and the ability to make a pass through the eye of a needle.  He’s not afraid to get to the dirty areas of the ice, at least in the offensive zone, to make plays. Defensively, he’s very much a work in progress.  Tolchinsky can float in his own zone, and will often take off and leave early looking for the breakaway pass as soon as his team has the puck.  He really will drive coaches crazy with his play in his own end of the ice, and really needs to work on this.

Joshua Ho-Sang, Right Wing, Windsor Spitfires: A first round pick of the New York Islanders, Ho-Sang has a ton of talent. Ho-Sang is incredibly skilled. He is a lightning fast skater with incredible agility and edgework. Ho-Sang has a great first step and outstanding acceleration as well.  This helps him to get to loose pucks and dart through openings in the offensive zone.  He could stand to use this great speed more, taking defenders wide and cutting to the net more often would add another aspect to his game off the rush.  Improved strength would help him to have better balance and be stronger on the puck. Ho-Sang 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 quite literally can stickhandle in a phone-booth. Ho-Sang can play the role of playmaker with good vision and excellent passing skills. He has the ability to make a saucer pass over sticks, or to thread the needle through very small areas.  Ho-Sang can score goals with his excellent moves and soft hands.  He also has a good release on his wrist shot but could use more power.  His one-timer could also be stronger.  That may come as he bulks up, which is something that Ho-Sang will definitely need to do before going pro.  He can make dynamic offensive plays when he has time and space, but in fighting traffic he still gets knocked off the puck a little bit too often, and this is another area where bulking up would help. Defensive play and discipline remain an issue.

Brady Vail, Centre, Windsor Spitfires: A 2012 Montreal Canadiens draftee, who was surprisingly unsigned.  Vail is currently at Toronto Marlies training camp but may return to Windsor as an overager.  He 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.


Draft Eligible Players to Watch

Mitchell Stephens, Centre, Saginaw Spirit: The Spirit’s first round pick in the 2013 OHL Draft, Mitchell Stephens shows tremendous acceleration and great top end speed.  He can really fly out there, and this makes him deadly off the rush.  As defenceman have to back off him to protect against that speed, he can use them as a screen, and has a very good wrist shot and release.  Stephens stickhandling is good, but he could use work on his vision, passing and hockey sense.  He will also need to work on his defensive game.  If he can fix some issues, he can really rocket up draft boards this year.

Pavel Zacha, Centre/Right Wing, Sarnia Sting: The first overall pick in the CHL Import Draft, the Sting convinced the Czech star to join the team in Sarnia.  Zacha has been a star at the international level playing in the Under 18s two years in a row, as well in the Ivan Hlinka. He also played at the 2014 World Juniors. Zacha has the skills to be a power forward at the NHL level.  He is a good skater with a powerful stride that can help him to drive the net and has the soft hands to finish in close.  His wrist shot has great power and a hair trigger release.  He will score a lot of goals for the Sting this year on his way to being a potential top 10 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft.  His vision and passing skill is also decent, but Zacha is very much a shoot first kind of player.

Blake Speers, Centre, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds: Speers is another player who can really skate.  In addition to his top end speed, and acceleration, he adds outstanding agility and edgework making him very slippery and elusive.  Speers also has very good stickhandling ability and a wide variety of moves that can help him get around a defender.  He showed good hockey sense in the defensive end, and the ability to cause turnovers.  This two-way ability will help him get more ice time this season even on the very deep Greyhounds forward group.

Ryan Foss, Centre/Left Wing, Windsor Spitfires: Foss is a big forward who plays a simple but effective game.  He is great at using his size to protect the puck and to control it down low in the cycle.  He loves to play dump and chase hockey, and gets in quickly on the forecheck.  Foss may not make a lot of fancy plays, but he always seems to make the right play.  He also is well-developped in his own zone.


2016 Draft Eligible Players to Watch

Jakob Chychrun, Defence, Sarnia Sting: The first overall pick in the OHL priority draft, the Sting are looking for the 16-year-old to come in and immediately take on a top four role on the team.  He played with Sean Day on Team Ontario at the World Under 17 Challenge and now will challenge Day to be the first defenceman taken in the 2016 NHL Draft. A superb skater, Chychrun’s stride looks effortless, his pivots crisp, and his agility is outstanding.  Already at 6’2″, and still growing, he also has the size teams will be looking for.  Add in good passing skills and a hard shot and he has all the tools to be an offensive force.  Chychrun must work on his defensive game, but he is so young that there is plenty of time for that to happen.


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