In a normal season, players from the CHL under the age of 20 (save for the odd player granted exceptional status like Joe Veleno) would not be eligible to play in the AHL due to the agreement with the Canadian Hockey League. However, 2021 has been anything but normal. While many draft eligible players from Ontario have gone overseas to play and advance their development, OHL players that were already drafted into the NHL have been granted the opportunity to play in the AHL while they await the start-up of the Ontario Hockey League. 28 players who would have otherwise been sent back to the OHL, have started their pro careers early. For many, the results have been terrific, and this experience has done wonders for their development.
As part of a seven-part series, I will be evaluating the performances of each of those 28 players.
Zayde Wisdom - Lehigh Valley Phantoms
Right Wing, 5’10, 200lbs
OHL Rights: Kingston Frontenacs
NHL Rights: Philadelphia Flyers
Statistics: 11gp, 6g, 4a, 10p, 4pim, +2
When we last left him:
An easy player to cheer for, Wisdom had a terrific draft year for the Kingston Frontenacs, causing him to sharply rise up the draft rankings over the course of the season. A fourth liner the year prior, Wisdom’s play alongside the exceptional Shane Wright and import Martin Chromiak, helped him move inside the top 75 on most draft lists prior to the draft (at McKeen’s, we had him 66th). Ultimately Wisdom would be drafted at the beginning of the fourth round by the Flyers. Last season in Kingston, Wisdom became the ultimate complimentary scoring line player. His well rounded profile and non stop motor made him the perfect player to pair with the aforementioned Wright. However, Wisdom was more than just a passenger. He had proven that he could drive the pace of play and create with the puck on his stick, just as effectively as he could recover dump ins, drive the net, and get himself open in that home plate area. The question was, what kind of upside does Wisdom have as an NHL player?
2021 McKeen’s Yearbook Grades: Skating: 55, Shot: 55, Skills: 50, Smarts: 55, Physicality: 55
Assessing his AHL play:
Wisdom has been nothing short of a revelation for the Phantoms this year in the AHL, emerging as one of their best players as an 18 year old. He has joined Cal O’Reilly and Ryan Fitzgerald to form one of the best and most consistent lines in the AHL this season. Playing with O’Reilly is great for Wisdom. A veteran of the NHL and AHL, O’Reilly has to be considered one of the AHL’s elite playmakers and he is doing his best to mimic the relationship that Wisdom has with Shane Wright in Kingston. Wisdom is also seeing significant time on the powerplay, playing the half wall and net front, although most of his production has come at even strength.
Here is the truth; you are not going to read about many negative things in this assessment of Wisdom. His play in the AHL has been profoundly positive.
With the puck on his stick, he is excelling. He is showing confidence in his ability to lead the charge and is creating chances for his linemates and for himself in transition. His agility and lateral quickness look more refined, as he is making defenders miss and avoiding stick checks while carving up the neutral zone. There have been some turnovers from trying to force things through multiple defenders (especially in the neutral zone), but the critical thing is that you see him working hard to get the puck back right away. He never quits on a play.
Without the puck on his stick, he is excelling. He is such an ox and is already so strong. He is proving to be a load to handle for many pro defenders in tight spaces, as he is dominating along the wall and forcing turnovers. He is also playing physical, using his size and strength to engage in all three zones and make his presence felt. He is driving the net hard. He is finding gaps in defensive zone coverage and getting himself in scoring position and earning those opportunities to hit the score sheet consistently. The effort is there in all three zones too. Basically, Wisdom is showing us that everything he could do well at the OHL level, he can do equally well at the pro level.
Going back to the question I posed earlier...what kind of upside does Wisdom have at the NHL level? I believe he is showing that many people he could be a top six NHL player and that his offensive skill set is good enough to play a scoring line role.
*Wisdom wears #14 for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms
By now, I think everyone has seen this goal, as it was featured on SportsCenter and went viral. Wisdom forces the turnover and holds off two Penguins defenders before finishing on the backhand. This play obviously shows off his strength and how difficult he is to knock off stride. It also shows that his skill level and hands might be better than many gave him credit for at the draft last year.
Here, Wisdom shows off the quality of his wrist shot and the quickness of his release. Hershey defender Rob O’Gara can’t handle the dump in and Wisdom pounces on his fumble, makes a sharp cut and builds speed with a couple crossovers to create separation. Then he wires one top shelf. The quality of Wisdom’s shot and his potential as a goal scorer is something that I have always felt was underrated.
Two great plays by Wisdom here along the wall. First the determined effort to keep the play alive, then once in the offensive zone, he makes a great no look drop pass to find Max Willman in the slot for the goal. Wisdom is more than just a high energy goal scorer.
In this clip, we see Wisdom draw a penalty with his tenaciousness, strength, and quickness. Martin Fehervary of Hershey is one of the better stay at home defense prospects in the AHL and a high end skater, but Wisdom forces him to take a holding penalty as he works the chip and chase. This is one of several penalty calls that Wisdom has drawn this year with how hard he competes for loose pucks and how hard he is to neutralize.
Nikita Okhotyuk...meet Zayde Wisdom. These two are extremely familiar with each other from playing against each other many times the last few years in the OHL. For those unfamiliar, Okhotyuk is (or was) one of the strongest and most physical defenders in the OHL with Ottawa. Here Wisdom uses the reverse hit and Okhotyuk hits a wall. Not many guys are capable of doing this against him and it shows you just how strong Wisdom is.
Here is the thing about this clip: these are the types of plays Wisdom is making on the regular at the AHL level. The neutral zone turnover is not great. He needs to get that puck in deep and not try to go through four defenders. However, he stays with the play, forces a turnover and then proceeds to go to work down low. The pass out does not result in a scoring chance, but this play was impressive nonetheless. And it was impressive because I could have found many similar clips to this one. Wisdom is just so difficult to pin down.
AHL Performance Grade: A
Continuing in the OHL:
Look out OHL. Honestly...good luck stopping the Shane Wright, Zayde Wisdom, and Martin Chromiak line when action returns. Wisdom has to be riding a serious confidence high knowing that he has proven that he can dominate shifts at the AHL level. Chromiak has played extremely well in the Slovakian men’s league this year. And Shane Wright...well he’s Shane Wright. This line could be not only among the best in the OHL, but the best in the entire CHL. Wisdom should be able to build upon his breakout season last year to become a point per game player, and then some, this season. Look for his value and reputation as an NHL prospect to continue to skyrocket.
Tyson Foerster - Lehigh Valley Phantoms
Right Wing/Center, 6’2, 194lbs
OHL Rights: Barrie Colts
NHL Rights: Philadelphia Flyers
Statistics: 4gp, 0g, 1a, 1p, 4pim, -4
When we last left him:
One of the 2020 draft’s biggest risers from the start of the year to the finish, Foerster ended up being drafted in the first round by Philadelphia. Foerster’s best asset is unquestionably his shot. He is absolutely lethal on the powerplay with his ability to fire one timers ala Ovechkin or Stamkos. Foerster is also a high level thinker and a player who navigates defensive zone coverage with precision in order to consistently get himself shooting and scoring opportunities. However, there are many aspects of his game that scouts want to see improve. The majority of his production last year came on the powerplay, so he will need to prove that he can be as consistently dangerous at even strength. That can be achieved by continuing to improve his quickness and strength on the puck. Scouts also want to see Foerster create his own scoring chances, rather than be just a triggerman. Goal scorers at the next level need to be able to score in many different ways and Foerster will need to round out his game to be successful at the next level.
2021 McKeen’s Yearbook Grades: Skating: 50, Shot: 60, Skills: 55, Smarts: 60, Physicality: 50
Assessing his AHL play:
Before we assess Foerster’s play so far this year, it is important to note that he suffered a pretty serious injury in his first AHL game. A fractured tibia kept him out for a month, and has limited him to only four games thus far. In those four games, Foerster is getting good playing time for Lehigh Valley, playing right wing on a scoring line and getting significant powerplay time. On the powerplay, he is taking up his typical spot on the corner of the umbrella, rotating back to the point when needed. The fact that he suffered such a serious injury (there were fears that it was more significant at the time), means that his grade and this assessment is most definitely incomplete.
Foerster is showing flashes of what he is capable of. The odd burst into the offensive zone with an attempt to cut into the middle to create a shooting lane. He is getting some scoring chances by getting himself open in the offensive zone, looking to use his big wrist shot. He is engaged and makes a concerted effort away from the puck, taking the body on the forecheck and working hard along the wall to keep pucks alive.
The effort has been there, but the results certainly have not been. Firstly, I believe that the Lehigh Valley coaching staff is doing him a disservice by playing him on the right side on the powerplay. He is a lot more effective on the off wing with the man advantage because of how good his one timer is. His timing looks off because of it. Additionally, the pace of play and how quick his decision making has to be seems to be negatively impacting his play. He is struggling to get shots off or accept passes in a way that is not typical of him in the OHL. The confidence just is not there yet and a lot of that probably has to do with his injury and late start to the year/time off.
Unlike his teammate and fellow 2020 draftee Zayde Wisdom, Foerster just does not look quite ready for the AHL level at this point.
*Foerster wears #71 for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms
It seemed only fair to start off with footage of Foerster’s injury. A sliding Steve Whitney takes out Foerster’s footing and he suffers a fractured tibia. As mentioned, it was initially feared that the injury was way more serious, so Foerster is fortunate that he was only out a month.
In this clip, we see Foerster’s only pro point to date. On the powerplay, he puts a weak wrister on net and it gets tipped in front. I mean, that is hockey for you. It does not have to be pretty. I am sure that is not how Foerster envisioned his first point looking, but it worked.
It is pretty tough to blame this shorthanded goal solely on Foerster. That pass from Derrick Pouliot was not a good one; into his skates and behind him. However, Foerster needs to find a way to get control and get that puck into the offensive zone. Overall, there are a bunch of clips that I could have used showing Foerster struggling to gain control or keep control of the puck. Again, this seems like a combination of a lack of confidence and difficulty with the pace.
As was stated, the Phantoms are using Foerster on the right side on the powerplay and he just does not look comfortable there. You can tell from this clip. Usually Foerster is geared up for the one timer on the left side, positioning his body to release quickly. Here, he accepts the pass nearly perpendicular to the goal and in the time it takes him to get into shooting position, shot blockers have clogged the lane and his shot gets partially blocked and dribbles toward the net. For comparison’s sake, here was Foerster’s heat map last year (courtesy the great Prashanth Iyer, found here).
It is obvious that Foerster has some things that he needs to work on. And one of those is becoming a threat from all parts of the ice (to improve his five on five production). However, he is a recently turned 19 year old kid getting his first taste of pro hockey. You would think that they would want to put him into situations that would make him the most comfortable and confident.
AHL Performance Grade: Incomplete
Continuing in the OHL:
Getting a small taste of pro hockey, even if the injury was unfortunate, can not be considered a bad thing for Foerster. The experience likely gave him a lot of information about the types of improvements that he needs to make to his game to be an impact offensive player at the next level. He can take that information back to Barrie and try to become a dominant force at even strength. The Colts will have a dominant powerplay, and the goal production will be there again for him. But we are all looking for him to continue to improve by learning how to create his own scoring chances, by becoming more consistent in driving the middle of the ice, and by increasing his physical intensity level (which he did appear to do in that small sample size in the AHL).
Mason Millman - Lehigh Valley Phantoms
Defense, 6’1, 176lbs
OHL Rights: Saginaw Spirit
NHL Rights: Philadelphia Flyers
Statistics: 8gp, 0g, 2a, 2p, 4pim, +1
When we last left him:
Millman had to be considered one of the most improved players in the OHL last year. Take away the first 11 games of the year and Millman was nearly a point per game defender. He's such a strong skater and he really gained confidence in his ability to lead the attack and play with more aggressiveness offensively. Millman isn't just strictly an offensive defender either. His defensive game really improved in 2019/20. Because of his strong mobility, he defends in transition quite well and shows great gap control. The will and effort to engage physically improved too, although he needs to continue to get stronger to be a little more consistent when it comes to tying up attackers near the crease and to win those one on one challenges along the wall. Overall, Millman appeared to be a prospect who was truly trending in the right direction and beginning to look like a very savvy selection by the Flyers in the fourth round in 2019.
2021 McKeen’s Yearbook Grades: Skating: 55, Shot: 55, Skills: 55, Smarts: 50, Physicality: 50
Assessing his AHL play:
Millman appeared to start slowly at the AHL level, but he is really starting to find his game and the Lehigh Valley coaching staff appears to be taking note of that. He is still not playing much on special teams, but his time on ice has increased in each of the last four games for the Phantoms. As he earns the trust of his coaches, look for him to get more time on the powerplay, especially with Lehigh Valley struggling so mightily with the man advantage (12% on the season).
The best way to describe Millman’s play so far would be...quietly effective. Initially, he was having some trouble with turnovers in his own end, but he is starting to gain confidence in his ability to use his feet to escape trouble and to create cleaner exits. He is also starting to be aggressive in playing deeper in the offensive zone, pinching to keep pucks in and extending his rushes deeper across the blueline. He has such great instincts in this regard and is great at slipping behind coverage to make himself available for passes into the slot. Millman is also doing a great job of getting his shots on net and is generating good second chance opportunities because of it. He is certainly not at the level of confidence with the puck that you would witness in the OHL, but it is only a matter of time before we see greater production from him if his ice time continues to climb.
Defensively, he is standing out in a positive way. He is still occasionally getting trucked by a larger forward who has built up speed entering the zone and he is unable to prevent them from recovering a dump in or get to the net. However, for the most part, he is winning his challenges in the corners and along the wall by engaging physically and holding up opposing forwards until support arrives. His mobility and quickness is proving to be a great asset for him as he takes great routes to dump ins and is able to prevent opposing teams from setting up their offense by keeping his feet moving and initiating clean exits. That is classic modern day defense. The best offense is the best defense. You don’t have to defend much if the other team can’t set up their attack and you can consistently keep them on their heels.
*Millman wears #8 for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms
One of the things that Millman had to work on as a defensive player is being more aggressive to step up earlier when defending in transition. Here he lays an absolutely punishing hit on a Wilkes-Barre player as he tries to gain the offensive zone. The hit neutralizes the attack and Lehigh Valley goes the other way on a three on three. Don’t expect these kinds of hits from Millman very often, but seeing him increase his aggressiveness and his physical intensity at the AHL level is very encouraging.
Face value, this is not really a play worth talking about. Lehigh Valley forces a turnover. Millman gets a weak shot on net from the slot. Meh. However, I do think that this play shows how Millman’s confidence as an offensive player at the AHL level is growing. As mentioned, he has such great instincts as a goal scorer for being a defender and is very aggressive in pinching or jumping up into the slot area if he thinks he can get a scoring chance. The shot was not great, but the read and the intentions were.
Love this aggressive take by Millman as he goes end to end and makes a great pass to Cal O’Reilly in the slot. If that is a faster or stronger player than O’Reilly, that one might be in the back of the net because the scoring chance was there for the taking.
This play was from early in the season and it is one of the only bad turnovers that I could find from Millman in his time in the AHL. Using the middle may have been the right choice in another circumstance, but he obviously underestimated Hersey’s forecheckers and he is lucky it did not end up in the back of his net. The good thing is, he has limited these types of plays lately by using his quickness to create those lanes. Now, he is keeping his feet moving in that situation and moving the puck up the wall.
AHL Performance Grade: B
Continuing in the OHL:
When he is returned to the OHL, it will be Millman’s blueline to run in Saginaw, a team that will possess a fair amount of offensive firepower. No more Bode Wilde. No more Ilya Solovyov. The first powerplay unit will be his to run and he will receive all the ice time that he can handle. As mentioned, in the second half of the 2019/20 season, Millman was one of the higher scoring defenders in the league and a realistic expectation is that he carries on that level of play. He should emerge as one of the OHL’s highest scoring defenders and a serious candidate for the Max Kaminsky as the defender of the year. At this point, Millman is emerging as one of the most underrated defensive prospects in hockey.
Jack Quinn - Rochester Americans
Right Wing, 6’0, 176lbs
OHL Rights: Ottawa 67’s
NHL Rights: Buffalo Sabres
Statistics: 7gp, 1g, 2a, 3p, 8pim, -3
When we last left him:
The 2019/20 season was a terrific one for Quinn and it resulted in a meteoric rise for him up the 2020 NHL draft rankings. Selected 8th overall by Buffalo, Quinn is an exceptional goal scoring prospect, as his 52 goals last season would suggest. In Ottawa, he was so consistent because of how he can score in many different ways; one timing pucks on the powerplay, creating scoring chances in transition and shooting in full stride, driving the net and getting inside position near the blue paint. However, Quinn is also a polished two-way player who is consistently relied upon to protect leads late in games and match up against the opponent’s best. His work along the wall and his positioning and anticipation in the defensive zone are strengths. A late bloomer and late birthday, Quinn was not without his critics who questioned if his age advantage aided his production and artificially inflated his future potential as an NHL player. A mediocre performance at the recent World Junior Championships certainly did not help sway the opinion of those who felt he was over drafted (of which, I am definitely not one of them as we, at McKeen’s, had ranked Quinn inside the Top 10 for 2020).
2021 McKeen’s Yearbook Grades: Skating: 55, Shot: 60, Skills: 60, Smarts: 60, Physicality: 50
Assessing his AHL play:
The Rochester Americans have been trying their best to both shelter Quinn to bring him along slowly, but also put him in a position to build confidence. He has seen inconsistent time at even strength, bouncing around the team’s top three lines, but has seen consistent powerplay responsibility and is earning the vast majority of his scoring chances on the man advantage.
One might ascertain, based on his single goal on the season and the fact that he is tied for 14th on the Americans with only nine shots on goal through seven games, that he has struggled mightily. While I would agree that we have not seen the best of Quinn, compared to what he is capable of, I would not add the term “mightily” to describe his struggles. He is still doing Quinn things. He is engaging physically. He is winning battles along the wall by keeping his feet moving allowing the Americans to maintain or gain possession. He is playing fairly well defensively, engaged on the backcheck. He is doing the little things to help his team try to win hockey games.
However, offensively, he has been disappointing...at least when you factor in that he is the most recent eighth overall selection and he is older than the majority of 2020 draft selections already finding success in the AHL. On one hand, he is actually getting some good scoring chances. He is just struggling to finish. Similar to what I said about Arthur Kaliyev (another talented goal scorer), Quinn seems to be gripping his stick too tight and overthinking his scoring opportunities. This is resulting in shots fired wired or delayed releases (and subsequent blocks) as he tries to make the perfect shot. Additionally, Quinn is struggling to get to the net as consistently and as successfully as he did at the OHL level. Defenders are angling him off and he is being kept to the perimeter too much, something that he has worked hard to improve at over his OHL career.
At the end of the day, Jack Quinn is a highly intelligent player. He may be a little older and as such, expectations are greater, but growth is non linear. His path is not the same as some other players. He is your classic late bloomer and he needs to be given the time to get accustomed to the AHL level, just as it took him time to get accustomed to the OHL level. The fact that many are already writing him off is discouraging.
*Quinn wears #25 for the Rochester Americans
In this clip we get to see Jack Quinn’s first pro goal (not counting his tremendous shootout goal from earlier in the season). While on the powerplay, first, he delays a little too long on an initial shot attempt and it is blocked causing Rochester to almost lose possession. But they keep the puck in and Quinn gets a great cross ice feed for the one timer. This is definitely a Quinn style goal.
The Rochester Americans capitalize on a bad change by the Syracuse Crunch and break in on a three on one. Quinn pushes out wide to create a clean passing lane and then makes a great feed to Andrew Oglevie for the tap in. Definitely a pretty first primary assist for him.
Jack Rathbone meet Jack Quinn. Quinn’s ability to win battles behind the net and along the half wall is a highly undervalued part of his game. And he is so successful because of how willing he is to engage physically.
This clip demonstrates what I was talking about Quinn struggling with finishing off his scoring chances. It seems like he is either rushing to get shots off or he is taking too much time and overthinking placement, trying to be too precise. Quinn pounces on a loose puck and tries to get it through but the shot is blocked as he doesn’t get everything on this wrister, firing blindly after the turnover.
This is a really terrific sequence from Quinn. Three shot attempts in a 30 second span. He makes a strong read to push laterally to get open for a shooting chance, filling an open lane. Then he identifies that one of his defenders is caught so he rotates back to the point and then makes a great move at the blueline to create another scoring chance. Finally he rotates down deep behind the net and gets a wrap around chance on the backhand. As Quinn begins to get accustomed to the pace and strength of the pro game, these are the types of shifts I would expect from him more often.
I read an article by the terrific Patrick Williams recently that talked about Quinn’s transition to the pro game. In the article, Rochester head coach Seth Appert talked about how Quinn needs to learn that some plays that he would have done in the OHL just can’t be done at the pro level. This is one of them. Quinn hangs on to the puck way too long here and this casualness leads to a turnover and a breakaway (that Jett Woo thankfully flubs).
AHL Performance Grade: C+
Continuing in the OHL:
Upon returning to the OHL, I would expect Quinn to return to his dominating form for the Ottawa 67’s. With no Marco Rossi in the fold this year, more eyes would be on Quinn and he would be expected to be the offensive leader for the club. Taking on this leadership role would be great for his development and facing off against each team’s best every night would also push him to be better. Look for Quinn to pair with OA Mitchell Hoelscher, his center last year, to become a deadly one-two punch and for him to be among the league leaders in goals yet again. Hopefully Quinn is able to continue to improve his vision and playmaking ability too, to continue to round out his offensive profile.