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. The QMJHL kicked off their new season on September 10th, while things are set to start on September 24th in the OHL and WHL. With that in mind we will start our division previews out east and work our way across the country this year.
In any event, you can check out all of this year’s Top Shelf Prospects articles here.
2015-16 OHL Mid-West Division Preview
THE TOP 3 CONTENDERS (IN ORDER OF HOW I FEEL THEY WILL FINISH)
London Knights: Mitch Marner was the second leading scorer in the OHL and is expected to return to lead this offence. Also back is Christian Dvorak, who had over 100 points playing with Marner. The team has added Leafs draftee J.J. Piccinich along with top 2016 draft prospects Max Jones and Matthew Tkachuk. Scoring goals should not be a problem. Tyler Parsons had a good year last season, and should be able to build on that between the pipes. The only question is on defence. There are plenty of good defencemen here, but its unclear who will be the go-to guy. Olli Juolevi is highly touted and looked great in the pre-season but will also be an OHL rookie. The Hunters haven’t been afraid to make trades though, so don’t be surprised if they add a big gun on the blueline come January. A top pairing two-way defender who would share some of the load with Juolevi would make this Knights team the OHL favorite.
Erie Otters: Connor McDavid may be gone, but this team will still have plenty of offensive punch with OHL point leader Dylan Strome and 2016 draft eligible player Alex Debrincat leading the way. Nick Betz, Taylor Raddysh, and Mason Marchment will add secondary scoring. On the blueline, Maple Leafs second rounder Tyler Dermott does it all for the Otters, while Darren Raddysh anchors the second pair. They will need some of their talented young defenders to learn quickly on the job if they want to be able to challenge for the division though, as the depth here is suspect. Devin Williams will need to be more consistent in goal to make up for the inevitable mistakes in front of him. If he can do that, there is no limit to where the Otters can go.
Kitchener Rangers: Ryan MacInnis leads the offense and is poised to break out in his last year in the OHL. He’s got a very deep supporting cast of forwards who will help him put up offence. The Rangers will be backstopped by Luke Opilka, a Blues prospect they got to commit to the team this summer. Dmitrii Sergeev and newly acquired overager Brian Brosnan will lead the defence, while 19 year olds Frank Hora and Dylan DiPerna ensure that they have a talented group. With so many 19 year olds on the roster this is a make or break year for the Rangers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them make a number of big moves at the OHL trade deadline knowing that the team they do currently have will need a bit of a rebuild next year.
Players to Watch
Travis Dermott, Defence, Erie Otters: Drafted in the second round by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Travis Dermott’s biggest asset is his hockey sense. His positioning at both ends of the ice is extremely strong. He reads the play well, and picks the right times to pinch in at the blueline, to join the rush, or to look to step up and make a hit. With the puck on his stick he is able to avoid danger with good poise and decent stickhandling, use his vision to make a strong first pass, or to control the play and quarterback things from the point on the powerplay. His shot power is good, but not great. More importantly he gets it through traffic, and keeps it low and on net, looking for screens, deflections and tip-ins. He almost always has his head up and looking for the right play, which he makes on most occassions. He isn’t the top of puck rushing defenceman to try and go coast to coast with it, but has been known to follow up on the play to unleash a wrist shot or one timer. Travis Dermott is a very good skater. He has impressive speed and acceleration in both directions. He has a very quick first step which allows him to be first on loose pucks. With his good pivots, edgework and agility he is able to transition from offence to defence, or vice-versa, quickly and this helps him to cover a ton of ice.
Dylan Strome, Centre, Erie Otters: Drafted third overall by the Arizona Coyotes, Strome is a versatile forward who has spent some time at all three forward spots over the last two seasons. This year, with Connor McDavid in Edmonton, he will be the Otters number 1 centre. Strome has an outstanding wrist shot, and a great release. He also has very good hands in tight and can be a real sniper. Strome also has the ability to be a playmaker with great vision and passing skills. He has good size and uses it to protect the puck in the cycle game. He is great at working down low, extending plays and waiting for the opening to take the puck to the front of the net, or for a linemate to get open and make the tape to tape pass. He has high-end hockey IQ, and seems to make the right play with the puck on his stick, or can find openings in the defense to set himself up for a one-timer. Dylan Strome’s skating has been a source of criticism in other areas, but it is something that I think is a bit overblown. He shows a relatively smooth skating stride once he gets going, but his first few steps are choppy. This should be something that can be improved with a good skating coach. His top end speed is decent, but his acceleration and first few steps could use some improvement before he hits the NHL.
Robby Fabbri, Centre, Guelph Storm: A 2014 first rounder of the St. Louis Blues, Fabbri was also the 2013-14 OHL MVP. Last season, he was limited to just 30 games, but put up 51 points in that time. 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 a ton of turnovers. Fabbri is also not afraid to go to the net and battle with bigger and stronger defencemen for possession. 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. If the Storm start out slowly, Fabbri won’t be in Guelph for long as he can get a huge return on the trade market and Guelph can rebuild their team quickly by moving him.
Ryan MacInnis, Centre, Kitchener Rangers: The son of Hockey Hall of Famer Al MacInnis, Ryan MacInnis scored 62 points in 67 games for the Rangers last season. MacInnis has great size and the potential of him developing into a power forward should be tantalizing for many scouts. He has a very strong wrist shot with good accuracy and a decent release that can fool goaltenders. 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, this takes away from his quickness and acceleration.
Dmitrii Sergeev, Defence, Kitchener Rangers: Undrafted in the 2014 NHL Draft, Sergeev went to the St. Louis Blues training camp last year, and earned an entry-level-contract. The Russian defender is good at both ends of the ice, and plays a steady, but unremarkable game. He is good in his own end, with solid positioning and the ability to create turnovers and transition quickly to offence. He makes a good first pass, or can play the role of quarterback on the powerplay. He also has an above average shot. The issue with him falling in the draft was likely two-fold; the Russian factor being first, and the fact he does everything well, but has no standout or great individual skill.
Mitch Marner, Right Wing/Centre, London Knights: Drafted 4th overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Marner may be a little undersized, but that doesn’t stop him from playing a gritty game and getting to the front of the net or battling in the corners. He is relentless on the forecheck. He has developed a much stronger shot, and has an excellent release. That said, it is Marner’s outstanding vision and playmaking skill that make him elite. He controls the puck extremely well, and can extend plays on the cycle giving his linemates time to get open. Marner’s hockey sense is top notch as he makes the smart play with the puck, and can find openings in the offensive zone without it. Marner is a tremendous skater. He has great speed, and very good acceleration. His quick first few steps help him to pounce on loose pucks. He has excellent agility and edgework and is extremely shifty. Couple this with his strong puckhandling, and he is very difficult to defend off the rush. He also shows the ability to slow the game down, or speed it up, which is just one more weapon in his arsenal that he uses to fool defenders.
Christian Dvorak, Centre, London Knights: A 2014 third round pick of the Arizona Coyotes, Dvorak had 104 points last season. He 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 has a very good wrist shot and an excellent release. He used it more this past season and the result was a 41-goal campaign with the Knights. Dvorak can also be a playmaker, using good patience, vision and passing skill to set up teammates. He 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.
Michael McNiven, Goaltender, Owen Sound Attack: Undrafted in 2015, McNiven has been invited to the Montreal Canadiens training camp, and impressed in the teams rookie tournament. He has great size, and takes full advantage of it by coming out of his net and cutting down angles effectively. He gets up and down in the butterfly quickly, to take away the bottom of the net. He also has a very good glove hand. He could stand to work on his rebound contol, an issue for many young goalies. With Owen Sound rebuilding, and some contenders looking to solidify their goaltending, he’s a trade target.
Thomas Schemitsch, Defence, Owen Sound Attack: A third round pick of the Florida Panthers, Schemitsch played big minutes in all situations for the Attack last season. He has great size, and uses it to cut down passing lanes and block shots. He could stand to add some muscle to his frame and be more physical though. Offensively he reads the play very well, and is effective jumping in from the blueline to get in a one timer or good wrist shot. He also has good vision and passing skills. He broke his wrist at Panthers training camp and is expected to be out of the lineup until November.
2016 NHL Draft Players to Watch
Alex DeBrincat, Right Wing, Erie Otters: An undersized forward who came out of nowhere to score 51 goals last season. Did he benefit from playing a lot of minutes with Connor McDavid and/or Dylan Strome? Yes, of course. That said, it wasn’t all on those two players, he has some talent in his own right too. He has great skating, and the speed and acceleration to overcome the lack of size. DeBrincat is a pure sniper with an excellent wrist shot and release. He also is a decent play maker with good vision and passing skills. He is also a pest out on the ice, not afraid to throw hits, go to the net, fight in the corners, or get in the middle of scrums despite his lack of size.
Taylor Raddysh, Right Wing, Erie Otters: The Otters first round pick in the 2014 OHL Draft, Raddysh bounced around the lineup a bit as a rookie, but should be in a scoring role this season. He has very good size and good speed. He gets in quickly on the forecheck and punishes opposing defenders; causing turnovers and creating offense. He also has a very good shot and strong hockey IQ. Raddysh protects the puck well down low on the cycle and can make good passes to teammates.
Noah Carroll, Defence, Guelph Storm: Carroll is a solid defensive defender who does a lot of little things right in his own end. He retrieves pucks effectively, and makes a good first pass out of the zone. He also is physical in board battles, and in front of his own net. He can really move up draft boards if he can add some offense to his game this season. The passing, skating and stickhandling skills have all been seen in flashes, but now is the time to put it all together as one package that produces points.
Matthew Hotchkiss, Centre, Guelph Storm: The Storm’s first round pick in the 2014 OHL Draft got buried on the lower lines and had to play a defensively responsible game last year, and not take too many offensive chances. He got pucks deep and was effective on the forecheck, and also played well in his own end. This year he moves up the lineup and will get the chance to show if he can add some offensive flair. With good size, good skating, and a well developed defensive game; he could rise up draft boards quickly if he starts putting up some offensive numbers.
Givani Smith, Left Wing, Guelph Storm: A first round pick of the Barrie Colts in 2014, Smith joined the Storm in a 2014 trade deadline deal where they started looking towards building for the future. Already at 6’1, 200 lbs at just 16 years old, Smith is developping into a power forward. He loves to hit, and does so in all three ends. He controls the puck down low in the cycle game and takes it to the front of the net, whether he has to go around an opposing defender, or right through him to do so. He has the soft hands to finish in tight as well as a good wrist shot and quick release to score from further out.
Max Jones, Left Wing, London Knights: Max Jones recently committed to play the 2015-16 season with the London Knights. He has an elite shot with a tremendously quick release. Another big winger who plays a power game, getting in quickly and throwing hits on the forecheck and battling for pucks in the corners and in front of the net. Jones protects the puck extremely well, working the cycle game. He has a good first step, and a strong stride that gives him good speed and acceleration. He can sometimes be too much of a shoot first player though, getting tunnel vision and not being enough of a passer.
Olli Juolevi, Defence, London Knights: Taken in the first round of the CHL import draft there is a ton of hype on the young Finnish defenceman. At this point he looks to be the best bet to quarterback the Knights powerplay with good skating ability, a powerful slap shot, strong wrist shot, and very good passing skills. On top of that, he’s looked great defensively in the OHL pre-season. He’s already making a name for himself and climbing up draft boards, and he’ll have a ton of tools around him in London as he looks to become a first round selection.
Matthew Tkachuk, Left Wing, London Knights: The son of former NHLer Keith Tkachuk played with Jones on the US NTDP this year, and will also be heading to the Knights for the 2015-16 season. Tkachuk has very good positioning and high end hockey sense, and the puck seems to follow him around the ice. He understands how to find open spots in the defence. He has an excellent shot and release, as well as a soft touch in close to the net, making him a real goal scoring threat. Good vision and playmaking skill from the wing as well. He backchecks hard and already plays as strong-two way game. His skating was weak at the start of last year, but improved as the year went on. While he’s not a speedster, he is above average and improving.