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 WEST DIVISION PREVIEW
THE TOP 3 CONTENDERS (IN ORDER OF HOW I FEEL THEY WILL FINISH)
Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds: The Greyhounds were the OHL’s best regular season team and went to the Western final before falling to Erie. Yes they have lost a lot of talent, but they should still have enough to compete. In Blake Speers, Zach Shenyshyn, and Jared McCann, their forwards can turn any game into a track meet, and this will help them score a ton of goals in transition. Tim Gettinger is a draft eligibile who provides size and power. New York Rangers pick Brandon Halverson gives them great goaltending. Colton White and Gustav Bouramman are NHL draftees who will lead the blue line that features plenty of OHL experience.
Sarnia Sting: Pavel Zacha and Nikita Korostelev both have the potential to take the next step and be big time offensive producers for the club. Draft eligible Jordan Kyrou and Anthony Salinitri should also contribute. Jakob Chychrun is my favorite to be the second overall pick come June. He’s already an elite defender at 17 and brings memories of Aaron Ekblad at the same age. Josh Jacobs was a big addition over the offseason and the New Jersey prospect should help provide support on the defence. Kevin Spinozzi, Jeff King and Zach Core provide reliable depth. The goaltending is a bit of a question mark, but I could see the Sting moving for a goalie if they don’t solve that issue early in the year. This team is too good to leave the netminding in inexperienced hands for long.
Saginaw Spirit: This team may have missed the playoffs last year, but don’t expect a repeat of that fate. The spririt were a young team and have only lost three players to graduation in the off-season. Mitchell Stephens and Dylan Sadowy return to lead the Saginaw offense. Connor Brown, Tye Felhaber, Jesse Barwell and talented Russian Artem Artemov round out the top six and give the group plenty of scoring. Will Petschenig and Greg DiTomaso will lead the defence and teach draft eligible Keaton Middleton how to use his size and skills. Evan Cormier is a young goaltender, but he has represented Canada at the Under 18s, and has the talent to have a strong season.
Players to Watch
Alex Nedeljkovic, Goaltender, Flint Firebirds: A second round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2014, Nedeljkovic won the OHL goaltender of the year award that year, and is arguably the best goalie in the league today. 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 19-year-old. He could use some work, but is ahead of the majority of teenage 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 start the transition game. He is able to make long passes to catch teams if they are making a poor line change.
Alex Peters, Defence, Flint Firebirds: A 2014 third round pick of the Dallas Stars, Peters is a very good skater for his size (6’4″). His first step and his acceleration in both directions are very good, however an awkward stride can take away some of top his speed when going forwards for long distances. This makes him susceptible to quick forecheckers when the puck is dumped in his corner. However he doesn’t have the same issue going backwards and has very good agility and edgework, which he combines with a long active stick to be very difficult to beat one-on-one. Solid balance on his skates makes him very good in board battles. That said, there is room to pack on more muscle to his frame which will make him even better. Peters is a staunch defender who blocks a ton of shots, and is extremely good at reading the play, anticipating, and being in the right position. Peters doesn’t seem to throw big checks that often, but he does use his size effectively to clear the crease and to win battles on the boards. There isn’t much, if any offense to speak of here.
Dylan Sadowy, Right Wing, Saginaw Spirit: Dylan Sadowy absolutely exploded after being a third round pick of the San Jose Sharks in 2014, putting up 42 goals and 32 assists for 74 points last year. He developped a stronger wrist shot, and better one-timer allowing him to score goals from further out. He also showed off better vision and playmaking skill. Still Sadowy’s bread and butter is playing in front of the net. He 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. His skating seems to improve each year, but still could use a little bit more explosiveness going forward. There are some good signs here though with the gains he continues to make.
Mitchell Stephens, Centre, Saginaw Spirit: A second round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Stephens had 22 goals and 48 assists last year. He is among the fastest players in this draft class, winning a ton of races whether they be to loose pucks, or being first on the puck on the forecheck due to a great first step, tremendous acceleration and great top end speed. This also makes him deadly off the rush. If defenders arent careful he will beat them to the outside and cut to the net. As defenceman have to back off him to protect against that speed, he can use them as a screen, and get off a strong shot. Stephens also has very good agility and edge work which allows him to get by defenders both with and without the puck. He has a powerful lower body which gives him good balance and makes him hard to knock off the puck. Stephens has an excellent wrist shot and release. He also has a very good one-timer, and works to get open to get it off. Stephens stick handling is good and he can control the play both in the cycle game and making plays on the rush. Stephens is not afraid to crash the net, whether it be in trying to score on his own play in close, or looking for a screen, rebound or tip-in. He goes to the net extremely hard and has been known to take a goalie interference penalty or tow. Stephens will need to improve on his playmaking skills. He can have a tendency to hold onto the puck a bit too long, missing opportunities to put the puck through a passing lane to a teammate. He can also develop a sort of tunnel vision, where he gets so focused on creating his own scoring opportunity, he takes a bad shot rather than dishing the puck. If he can learn to fix these issues, he could be a dynamic offensive force.
Nikita Korostelev, Right Wing, Sarnia Sting: Somehow Korostelev fell to the 7th round of the NHL draft where he was taken by the Toronto Maple Leafs. He has a strong offensive skill set. A natural sniper, he has one of the best wrist shots in the OHL, featuring power, accuracy and a lightning quick release. Korostelev also has an excellent one timer. He can stickhandle in a phone booth, with outstanding puck control and the ability to make defenders look silly one-on-one. Korostelev’s soft hands are also seen in tight to the net where he has a variety of moves that can beat goaltenders. He also has shown good vision and passing skills, but he doesn’t always use them as often as he maybe should. He can start to get tunnel vision at times, trying to do it all himself and score every goal. He will need to mature and learn to use his teammates more going forward. Korostelev can throw a big hit on the forecheck and be involved in the tough areas of the ice, but seems to lack consistency in doing so. Add to this the fact that he is a dynamic skater and Korostelev should have been drafted much sooner than he was.
Pavel Zacha, Centre, Sarnia Sting: Taken 6th overall by the New Jersey Devils, Zacha has the size and skills to be a power forward one day at the NHL level, but also possesses elite skill to be a sniper, or a top notch playmaker. In the offensive end, he really can do it all. He has the power to get through checks and drive the net, and the soft hands necessary to finish in close. Zacha’s wrist shot is elite. He shows great power and a hair trigger release. He also has a very hard and accurate one timer. While Zacha is a shoot first type of player, he does show the vision and passing skills to be an very good playmaker as well. He gets in quickly on the forecheck and absolutely punishes defenders with hits in the corners and behind the net. He has the size and stickhandling to protect the puck in the cycle game and maintain possession, but he seems to lack the instincts to do it effectively right now. It should be something he can learn though good coaching though, as the tools are there. As he learns to extend plays, his production will improve. Pavel Zacha is a good skater with a powerful stride. He has outstanding acceleration and the ability to change speeds to fool defenders. His top end speed is also very good. Zacha has great agility and edgework, and can combine this with his stickhandling to get past defenders. His balance and power are also good and he wins board battles and fights through checks.
Jared McCann, Centre, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds: McCann would probably love to be able to skip off-seasons and just go straight to what matters. Last year he suffered through a bout of Mono that kept him out of the lineup early in the year, and led to him getting off to a slow start. This summer he suffered a concussion in Canada’s Summer Showcase event. A 2014 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.
Zachary Senyshyn, Right Wing, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds: A controversial pick by the Boston Bruins at 15th overall, many, including this writer were shocked to see him go that high. That said Senyshyn does have skill as we tabbed him as a mid-second rounder. He is an absolutely elite skater, and might have been the fastest skater in the 2015 draft class. He has a powerful stride that generates great speed, and the acceleration to reach that top speed in just a few steps. He also has the strength and balance to fight through a check and drive to the front of the net. This allows Senyshyn to take defenders wide off the rush, and cut to the front of the net. He is deadly when he catches a defender flat footed in the neutral zone and will be behind them before they know it. The balance also allows Senyshyn to win battles along the boards and to establish position in front of the net. The only downside in Senyshyn’s skating is his agility and edgework. He could work on maintaining his speed while making sharp cuts, and changes in direction to be even more dangerous. This area of his game is not that bad, it just doesn’t live up to the speed and power that he shows. Senyshyn plays a very straight forward power game. He goes to the net hard both with and without the puck. He plays gritty and digs in the corners and in the front of the net. Senyshyn has a lethal arsenal of shots. His wrist shot and snapshot are both extremely powerful and feature good releases. His stickhandling is decent, but he’s more likely to beat a defender with his speed than with his hands. Its an area of his game that certainly can get better. Senyshyn makes smart, simple passes of the puck in the cycle game, keeping possession, but is not one to make a creative pass through a small opening. He’s much more of a goal scorer than a playmaker. Defensively Senyshyn works extremely hard. He backchecks effectively and gets involved in battles in his own end.
Blake Speers, Centre, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds: A third round pick of New Jersey, Speers is another player who can really skate. He has great top end speed and acceleration, along with a very quick first step. This helps him to win both short races for loose pucks, and to get in quickly on the forecheck. He can also vary his speed and attack defenders to the outside, or slow up to create passing lanes or get room to get a shot off on the rush. Speers adds outstanding agility and edgework making him very slippery and elusive to defenders. He can use this skating skill both off the rush and in the cycle game. Blake Speers has very good stick handling ability and a wide variety of moves that can help him get around a defender. He protects the puck very well and can make a wide variety of moves with slick hands. Those hands help him to finish in close to the goal. Speers also has an accurate shot and a good release, though he could stand to use it more often. His passing skills are extremely good, as he has excellent vision and the ability to thread the puck through the tightest of openings. A little undersized, Speers will try to play a gritty game, but again this is where he needs more strength going forward. His versatility is a major asset as Speers can play all three forward positions, though he spends most of his time at left wing. Speers has very good hockey sense. He makes smart plays with the puck and darts into open areas, looking for the give and go immediately after dishing it off.
Christian Fischer, Right Wing, Windsor Spitfires: A USNTDP player and 2nd round pick of the Arizona Coyotes, Fischer has committed to playing in Windsor this year. He has very good size, and knows how to use it. He plays a power forward style, driving the net, getting in quickly on the forecheck, and battling for loose pucks along the boards. Fischer has the soft hands to finish in front of the net, but also has a powerful wrist shot and quick release. His one timer is also extremely powerful and effective. Fischer has good hockey sense and finds the openings in the defence to get his shot off. When playing the cycle game, he protects the puck extremely well, using his body and positioning to shield the puck from defenders. Fischer has decent passing skills, but he isn’t one to often thread the needle through an extremely tight lane to set up a teammate. Instead he finds openings and makes the smart, safe play to keep possession and keep the cycle going in the offerensive zone. He plays a straightforward north-south game, and don’t expect Fischer to show off a wide variety of dangles or make too many highlight reel type of plays, but he is effective when playing that power game. Fischer is a very good skater. He has a long and powerful stride. This generates good speed, but it is his quickness and acceleration that really put him on another level. Fischer also has the strength and balance to fight through checks, to win battles on the boards, and to take punishment but still make his way to the front of the net. His agility and edgework is decent but could even be a little bit better. He plays his gritty, physical game in all three zones.
2016 Draft Eligible Players to Watch
William Bitten, Centre, Flint Firebirds: Bitten had a solid rookie campaign, putting up 15 goals and 31 points for Plymouth. Now he is expected to be a big part of the team in Flint. He is a great skater, with good speed, but excellent agility and the ability to stop on a dime. Combine that with soft hands and excellent stick handling, and Bitten is difficult to contain off the rush. He’s also a non-stop worker who gets involved in board battles and scrums despite a lack of size.
Evan Cormier, Goaltender, Saginaw Spirit: Cormier is expected to take the reigns as the number one goalie in Saginaw this year. He has good size, coming in at 6’2″ tall at just 16 years old. Cormier uses the size well, cutting down angles and limiting the amount of net a shooter sees. He is good side to side and tracks the puck well. Cormier could use some work on his rebound control though.
Keaton Middleton, Defence, Saginaw Spirit: The younger brother of Kings prospect Jacob Middleton, Keaton Middleton possess the same great size coming in at 6’5″ and 215 pounds already. He uses his size down low, winning puck battles, clearing the front of the net, and being willing to absolutely flatten an opponent with a big hit if he gets the chance. He’s got a great slap shot but needs to work on the rest of the offensive tools.
Jacob Chychryn, Defence, Sarnia Sting: 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 vision, strong passing skills and a bomb for a slap shot and he has all the tools to be an offensive force. He has high end hockey sense and seems to make the right play most times. Chychrun is already developping a strong defensive game, playing shutdown defensive hockey and getting big minutes against top lines even as a 16-year-old last year. He has excellent positioning, good gap control, an active stick, and can play physical without getting himself out of position. His game is very comparable to Aaron Ekblad at the same age.
Jordan Kyrou, Centre, Sarnia Sting: Kyrou is coming off a solid rookie season, putting up 36 points for the Sting. He should get more offensive responsibility this year. Kyrou is a great skater and stickhandler. He can change directions on a dime and makes a wide variety of moves with the puck, allowing him to elude defenders, and find his way through offensive zone traffic. He has good vision and the ability to extend plays and wait for teammates to get open before feathering them a tape to tape pass. He can also score with a decent shot and excellent release. He must add some weight though.
Tim Gettinger, Left Wing, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds: Another huge (6’5″) prospect in this division. Gettinger dominates battles along the wall and is very strong off the cycle. He creates turnovers, by punishing opponents on the forecheck. He has the hockey sense to find openings in the defence and an excellent shot and release. When he gets the opportunity he drives the net. Adding a little more speed and playmaking skill in his second year would boost him way up boards.
Logan Brown, Centre, Windsor Spitfires: Another player with good bloodlines, he is the son of former NHLer, and current Ottawa 67s coach, Jeff Brown. Big and strong (6’5″), Logan Brown is a dominant player below the hashmarks. He has a powerful stride, protects the puck and takes it to the front of the net. Brown has the soft hands to finish plays in close to the net, and also has a powerful shot from further out. He uses his size and strength to protect the puck in the cycle game, extending plays and waiting for teammates to get open. He has the ability to put the puck on the tape, and make saucer passes to get it through traffic in order to set up teammates. Brown must learn to be more consistent game to game in his draft year, doing that could shoot him even higher on the draft board.
Mikhail Sergachev, Defence, Windsor Spitfires: Sergachev can do it all in both ends of the rink. He is good with the puck on his stick, showing stickhandling poise and great passing skill. He has a strong shot which he can use to score from the blueline. Sergachev has the skating skill to join the rush and create offense in transition, as well as recover defensively. He is also a big body on the back end who plays good defence with a physical edge. He looks like a first round pick at this point, though it is early.
2017 Draft Eligible Players to Watch
Gabe Vilardi, Windsor Spitfires: The second overall pick in the 2015 OHL Draft, Vilardi has good size and uses it to get in on the forecheck and cause problems for defenders. He uses his size to sheild the puck and maintain possession in the cycle game, and uses his powerful stride to fight through checks and drive the net. The power forward prospect also has a very good wrist shot.
Main photo via Kenneth Armstrong / Getty Images.