It’s that time of year again! A time when our thoughts turn to trades, roster turnover and of course, the National Hockey League draft. A time when trading away those picks in March seems so stupid ’cause look how amazing all these prospects look!
The reality is, only a handful of the 211 children drafted in a few weeks’ time will ever amount to anything in the NHL, but it’s a most exciting time nonetheless. And with the lead-up to the NHL draft comes the now-annual NHL Draft Scout series where I “sit down” with scouts from the different prospect regions around the globe to get an up-close and personal look at the best prospects they have to offer.
This year, we’ll be visiting the WHL, QMJHL, USA, Finland, Sweden, Russia and the OHL, which we start with today. Brendan Ross is the director of scouting for theScout.ca and joins us today to talk about the OHL and the league’s 2017 NHL draft crop.
Let’s get into it.
Christian: The OHL always seems to provide a steady crop of top prospects year in and year out, but this year’s “top prospect” crop seems a little thin with the exception of Gabe Vilardi and Owen Tippett. Is it safe to say this year’s OHL prospect crop features more depth options than flash?
Brendan: You would be correct to distinguish the OHL depth to be thinner and less “appealing” than in previous draft seasons. Gabe Vilardi is a nice prospect but in most years we’d be talking about him being selected in the backend of the top 10/middle of the first round rather than a potential top three selection. Him and Tippett are very nice players but neither have jumped out as players who have a good chance to become bonafide stars in the league.
Beyond Vilardi and Tippett, prospects like Nick Suzuki, Nic Hague, Isaac Ratcliffe and Robert Thomas all have appealing qualities and provide good foundations to develop into good professionals. It’s an OHL draft class where teams might dial in on one or two of a prospect’s standout qualities and hope they hit a home run when investing in them (Isaac Ratcliffe comes to mind).
C: Though they’re not surrounded by a ton of company, Gabe Vilardi and Owen Tippett are both immensely skilled individuals. Do either project as stars and which do you prefer?
B: Vilardi and Tippett both possess elements to their games where they could develop into star components. Vilardi, while not the most dynamic or quickest skater, manages the puck very intelligently and is the type of player who makes the game easier for linemates. His playmaking ability and knack for playing a strong possession game below the dots will be coveted elements, making him a potential player who can direct the offense. In that sense, he could use these abilities to establish himself as a go-to offensive team player.
Tippett may have the most intriguing skill set of all OHL draft eligibles in that he can absolutely fire the puck. His dynamic scoring skill set is a natural gift that teams are always seeking out. His Phil Kessel-esque style may tempt teams to bank on his upside.
Personally, I’ve wavered back and forth on who sits at the top of my list between Vilardi and Tippett. At the end of the day, it would really depend on which NHL team’s draft table I was stationed at to make my final decision. As an outsider looking in, Gabe Vilardi would earn the slight edge at this point in time simply because I trust his smarts more and he’s a player who seems to leave an impact more consistently on a shift-to-shift basis. Additionally, his center position adds some bonus points as well.
C: Nick Suzuki had a dynamite season statistically yet doesn’t seem to garner much love from the scouts. What type of player is Suzuki and why do you think he’s absent in discussions of elite forwards despite elite numbers?
B: It seems the general public is always seeking a “flash” element in its top draft eligibles and that might prevent the average follower from being drawn to Suzuki’s game – one which relies on his elite hockey sense and ability to process the game a step ahead of his competition. While capable of executing some highly skilled plays, Suzuki understands that his effectiveness begins with a great work ethic and intelligent puck distribution. He’s not the quickest skater so he won’t pop off the page immediately but after following him throughout a game, it’s easy to see why the offence runs through him.
Much like Bo Horvat in his draft season, Suzuki finds a way to leave an impact in all three zones despite ending up on nightly highlight reels – although, production follows him because he’s able to make players around him better by improving overall puck possession time. He’s a great passer who manipulates space very well, cutting and shifting off of contact into new pockets before finding his passing targets. He’s a late birthday and with his already strong hockey sense, don’t be surprised to see him land as a lottery pick – he is deserving of it. Suzuki earned some respect from the scouting community after logging an impressive stat line and that should help to establish himself as a top player, even if the independent scouting agencies are not giving him much love. There will be some NHL scouts who absolutely covet this player.
C: Nicolas Hague is considered by many as the top OHL defenceman in this draft. Do you agree and what are your thoughts on the giant 6’6 blueliner? Does he project as a top pairing guy in your estimation?
B: The top OHL draft eligibles – for the most part – all possess a similar trait in that they are smart, hard working types and Nic Hague falls firmly under this umbrella. He’s a player who has out-performed his expectations dating back to his OHL draft season. It’s not a particularly deep defensive group from the OHL with mainly Hague and Conor Timmins receiving most of the headlines, and rightfully so. He would slightly edge out Timmins in my rankings but both players offer up some intrigue. His 6-foot-6 frame will help him move up the professional ranks as he can rely on a massive wingspan to improve his defensive coverage. He’s a player who makes smart reads and can chip in offensively by utilizing his situational awareness to jump up and keep plays alive at the half-wall.
The Steelheads rearguard elevated his game to an impressive level throughout Mississauga’s run to the OHL final and that should bode well. He’s a player who’s starting to use his size and has even adopted more of a mean streak. In a lot of ways, he offers some similar elements as Logan Stanley last season, when the Jets moved up to grab the big defender. At this point in time, Hague projects as a strong top four option but there’s no counting out his ability to develop into a top pairing defender. Regardless, he should eat massive minutes in his NHL prime.
C: With brothers Ryan and Dylan taken in the top 10 of their respective drafts, Matthew Strome doesn’t haven’t the same fanfare surrounding him, but do you see him as a similarly high end prospect as his two older brothers were/are?
B: While a good OHLer, Matthew Strome is not in the same tier as either of his older brothers in terms of a projecting pro upside, mainly due to some of his glaring weaknesses. Another very smart player from the OHL draft class, Strome has displayed an ability to outthink his competition but he doesn’t possess the same enticing package as his older brothers. He has made strides in his skating, which was flat out terrible entering the OHL, but it still has a long ways to come before reaching pro standards. He possesses soft hands and the smarts to play a possession game yet he doesn’t have the puck on his stick as much as one would want. In that sense, he will certainly benefit from playing more years at the junior level.
C: Memorial Cup-winning goaltender Michael DiPietro seems to be the consensus best goalie in the draft. Taking goalies early is something most shy away from but is DiPietro good enough to be an exception to that rule?
B: DiPietro has been proving critics wrong his whole career and it’s probably smart for us to stop second guessing him as a pro goaltending prospect. Sure, he’s a smaller goaltender by NHL standards, but there are several stars in the big leagues who have succeeded despite their average height. There is no other goaltender in the OHL that battles or works as hard as DiPietro. His character level is off the chart and that radiates throughout his game, and throughout the lineup.
It’s been said before but DiPietro would be an excellent candidate to wear a letter even though he plays the goaltender position. There’s not a scoring chance thrown at him that he doesn’t exude 150% effort towards and that reflects in his success as a winning puckstopper, most recently at the CHL Memorial Cup. There’s no doubt that teams will look closely at his size as a potential flaw but he’s not a goaltender I’d bet against. DiPietro may or may not end up being the first goaltender selected. If he’s not, don’t be surprised to look back in five years and ask why he wasn’t.
C: The Flames draft 16th overall and aside from Suzuki and Hague, Isaac Ratcliffe and Robert Thomas are ranked in and around there, too. What are your thoughts on the two forwards?
B: Isaac Ratcliffe had a coming out season this year with the Guelph Storm and really started to re-showcase his attributes that he was drafted for in the first round a few years ago. It’s all about the long-term picture with Ratcliffe and teams will draft him accordingly, understanding that they may have to wait longer to unveil his massive potential. The London native always has been a very good shooter and that hasn’t changed; however, we haven’t quite seen his production match his potential in that area either (which should come next season). As he gets stronger and fills out his sizeable frame, we will start to see him emerge into a potentially dominating junior star. If he can learn to really drive the net and get inside defenders, he will become a more consistently threatening attacker. Furthermore, look for the team who drafts him to really emphasize improvement in his physical game, too. He’s the type of player who NHL scouts tend to lean towards and should be a middle of the first to early second rounder.
Robert Thomas has always been a player I gravitate towards – mainly because of his high skill level, instinctual smarts and ability to process the game quicker than his opponents. He gets knocked about his size and lack of strength yet he showed that he can rack up impressive points during his sophomore season. The Knights are grooming him in a similar way as they did with Mitch Marner and despite him not always receiving prime offensive minutes, Thomas was almost always the best forward on the ice on most nights. His game reminds me of a young Robby Fabbri in terms of how he sees the ice and is capable of creating chances off the rush, as well as in the zone as the team’s prime set-up man. His point-per-game production was outstanding but I fully expect him to explode and become a fixture in the top 10 OHL scoring race as soon as next season.
C: Which OHL draft eligible has been your biggest surprise this season?
B: Hands down – Owen Sound’s Jonah Gadjovich. The most improved play in the Ontario league, Gadjovich tripled his goal and point totals as a breakout player and legitimate trigger man. He really came into his own this season and seemed to compete with more assertiveness which in turn earned him more chances in the heart of the scoring triangle. He’s a player who offers up grit and strength on the puck as he can wear down defences low in the offensive zone. Gadjovich, a late birthday, will be one player I am most interested to see where he gets selected.
C: Who has been your biggest disappointment?
B: It’s likely not fair to describe him as a “disappointment” however Sarnia import Adam Ruzicka entered the league with astronomical expectations and then immediately struggled to acclimate himself to the North American game, falling from a potential lottery pick into the second round range by the end of the season. With that said, Ruzicka’s game improved steadily as the season unfolded and he became more comfortable as he found his role. Given his coveted size, Ruzicka failed to take advantage of it and that left me wanting more on most nights. He showed flashes of high-end ability yet he seemed to struggle with consistency on a game-to-game, and even shift-to-shift basis. There are some intriguing tools and if he figures it out in year two (whether that’s in the OHL or wherever), a team may get great value in the second round or later.
C: If you had to choose a most overrated and most underrated OHL prospect for this year’s draft , who would they be?
B: Most overrated – Tough designation because I don’t feel any player should be faulted for the expectations placed by others. With that said, Mackenzie Entwhistle is a player who I haven’t been as high on as the rest of the industry. He’s a solid two-way forward who brings an impressive work ethic but I tend to prefer players who display a standout pro-style trait and I have yet to see that in my viewings. He projects as a bottom six worker and if people keep that projection in check, then they shouldn’t be disappointed.
Most underrated – Alex Formenton of the London Knights has always been a personal favourite of mine. He was a late round pick (11th, 216th) by the Knights in his OHL draft year yet he landed in the 49th spot in my personal rankings. He’s developed into an intriguing prospect and given his smarts, instincts, skill and ability to attack confidently with speed, I feel he’ll be a big breakout candidate (and sleeper for the 2017 NHL Draft) as he gains more offensive minutes with London. He’s a player I would certainly consider any time after the first half of the opening round but is a player who offers great value if he slides into the second.
C: Lastly, who’s your favourite OHL draft eligible and why?
B: The top OHL prospects are always easy to select because Gabe Vilardi and Owen Tippett are fun to watch but if I had to choose a one player it’d have to be Robert Thomas. His playmaking style, ability to read the game and execute with skill, and work ethic are traits that should help him continue to earn opportunities as he moves up the ranks. I’d be remiss not to throw out honourable mentions for goaltender Michael DiPietro (Windsor) and re-entry defender Matt Timms (Peterborough) who are two of my favourite smaller standout OHLers.