Just months after the Ontario Hockey League sent 41 players through the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, evaluation on the 2015 draft class gets ramped up and all signs are pointing towards another spectacular Ontario League group. Generational talent Connor McDavid (Erie Otters) headlines the group of OHLers that will spend the next 10 months chasing their dreams of being drafted into the National Hockey League. McDavid is surely set to reach new levels of publicity and analysis but the Otters’ exceptional forward is joined by some special competition including 2014 OHL Rookie of the Year Travis Konecny, Dylan Strome (the younger brother of Islanders’ prospect Ryan Strome) and Lawson Crouse, a budding power forward ready to breakout.
The following ranking is a preliminary grouping based on live observations over the past two seasons. Not included in the rankings are import players (see Sarnia’s Pavel Zacha and Barrie’s Rasmus Andersson) expected to challenge for Top 10 spots.
1. Connor McDavid, LC, Erie Otters
It has been well-documented and publicized how special of a player Connor McDavid projects to be. He has been a phenom dating back to his minor hockey days and if there was any one player deserving of the exceptional status that Hockey Canada has handed out four times now, it’s certainly Richmond Hill native, Connor McDavid. The most highly-anticipated prospect since Sidney Crosby in 2005, McDavid is unquestionably worthy of all of the hype given the specialness to his game. As a player, McDavid is neither overly flashy or arrogant in his approach but rather, it’s his elite hockey sense, attention to detail and team-first attitude that makes him and his teammates a constant threat.
McDavid has an innate ability to read his opponents and exploit the smallest of errors. Besides being average-sized, McDavid excels in every other possible area of the game. He’s surprisingly strong and is downright fearless in his attacks, never holding back against larger defenders. His calm and poised demeanor radiates confidence throughout the lineup and the ease at how he executes everything on the ice is astonishing. Skating is considered lethal not because of blazing speed but moreso because of a well-balanced stride and strong edge work - used to cut in and out of traffic. Deft puck skills use timely disguises, deceptive delays and merciless in-close control allowing McDavid to draw in defenders and maintain possession under the tightest of physical pressure. Special players possess special talents that sometimes can’t be justified or quantified. A skill that is sometimes referred to as the “it factor”, McDavid has it in spades.
The Erie Otters offensive leader has a knack for executing plays that few can explain and his ability to step up in pressure-filled situations is a rare talent that only star players retain (the it factor). As if McDavid’s special talents on the ice weren’t enough, he is also an exceptional student taking home the CHL’s 2013-14 Scholastic Player of the Year award with a 92 percent average.
McDavid stands alone atop not only the OHL class but all draft eligible prospects around the globe and unseating him will …well … take a miracle.
2. Travis Konecny, RC, Ottawa 67’s
Dating back to his Minor Midget days with the Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs, Travis Konecny has always been one of the hardest working and most determined players in his age group. I had the luxury of following Konecny for several years, keeping in close contact with his friends and family along the way – all of whom echo his passion as one of his best attributes. Konecny is a standout player in many aspects but it's his dynamic skating ability and lethal shooting arsenal that draws the most praise. His first few steps generate powerful bursts offering him the separation gear he needs to flank out wide and unleash a shot packed with one of the best releases I’ve witnessed. Even with his smaller stature, he wields a dynamic snapshot that explodes off of the blade generating elite velocity that finds the net with great accuracy.
Hailing from the small hamlet of Clachan in Southwestern Ontario, Travis Konecny is a humble but determined competitor and it shows in his early accomplishments. It was last year that Travis Konecny stated that he wanted to challenge Connor McDavid for the top spot at the draft, which is an admirable goal and shows his ambition to become the best possible player he can be. Following in McDavid's footsteps, Konecny was awarded OHL Rookie of the Year and will have the opportunity to be scrutinized alongside him as both eagerly enter their NHL draft years. Coming off captaining Team Canada to a Hlinka Memorial Gold Medal, Konecny showed his lethal scoring touch snapping home five goals and six points in five games.
3. Lawson Crouse, LW, Kingston Frontenacs
Teammate of the above-mentioned Travis Konecny during their Minor Midget days, Lawson Crouse is an intelligent and robust winger with an astute two-way dedication. His ability to play a number of roles is extremely beneficial and whether he’s starring on the penalty kill or driving the net with a purpose on the powerplay, Crouse is a true competitor that won’t stop until his mission is complete. Extremely attentive to detail, his ability to position himself and shield off checkers with his rangy size allows him to dominate in possession. Add in an effective battery of shots that can be unleashed from afar or in tight crease traffic with great success and you have a power forward that will eat up minutes. Book it, Lawson Crouse will be the breakout player from this year’s draft eligible OHL crop.
4. Mitch Marner, RC, London Knights
For anyone who follows my work, it will come as no surprise that Mitch Marner is ranked as highly as he is here. Sure, there is a case to be made for Dylan Strome to occupy this spot (something I debated in length) but Marner’s accomplishments on last year’s Knights team is worthy of this ranking. In fact, it was rookie Mitch Marner who showed up night-after-night as London’s most consistent and dangerous forward, showing up a bunch of savvy under-performing OHL veterans in most games. Undersized by NHL standards, Marner actually added some notable size and strength in 2013-14. His size is less concerning for me considering his exceptional ability to elude defenders with his great four-way mobility. Given Marner’s outstanding puck skills and creative vision, defenders are forced to respect the crafty playmaker’s abilities and provide him with more space than usual. With more space comes more opportunity to create scoring chances and that’s something Marner does at will. Considering the limited ice time Marner received in his freshman season and the accomplishments he was able to achieve (2nd in rookie scoring – 64-13-46-59), don’t be surprised when the Markham native becomes one of the OHL’s leading scorers in his upcoming draft season. Playing alongside fellow OHLers Strome and Knott, Marner rattled off a team-high seven points (2G 5A) in Canada’s Gold Medal Ivan Hlinka showing this past week. Again, no surprise here.
5. Dylan Strome, LC, Erie Otters
Great hockey bloodlines aside, Dylan Strome is a special talent and should battle Travis Konecny, Lawson Crouse and Mitch Marner for the second rated OHLer this season. Held to limited offensive minutes due to Erie’s outstanding forward depth last season, Dylan Strome is slated for a massive breakout draft season with more opportunities opening up for him. With a chance to land alongside Connor McDavid on the powerplay, it will be fun to watch Strome’s offensive totals explode this season. He is a natural playmaker with some of the best puck skills and vision of his age group but it’s his imagination and creativity that makes him a constant threat. Capable of playing in traffic because of a well-built frame, Strome shows a rare ability to send no-look passes with an impressive success rate. A prolific scorer for the Toronto Marlboros in his draft season (60-65-78-143), Strome will look to show scouts that his skating is improving (tends to have a heavy footed stride) and that he can become one of Erie’s go-to offensive catalysts.
6. Matt Spencer, RD, Peterborough Petes
Coming off a gold medal performance as Canada’s Alternate Captain at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, defenseman Matt Spencer showed scouts exactly why he should be considered a 1st round prospect. A responsible and well-rounded defenseman, Spencer is a blue-collared player who excels in the defensive end. A rangy, well-sized frame allows Spencer to use his wingspan and accurate stick checks to close down gaps quickly. Deceptive feet and extremely efficient at sustaining pressure while in movement, Spencer transitions from backwards to forwards flawlessly providing him with the skills to keep elusive attackers in check. A capable puck-mover who is developing more confidence at jumping into the rush, his offensive game is one area that remains relatively raw with some room to grow. Assuming Spencer can activate the underlying offensive skills more consistently, he could experience a big jump in his draft stock.
7. Mitchell Vande Sompel, LD, Oshawa Generals
A personal favourite dating back to his London Jr. Knights’ days when he would rotate from forward to defense as his team needed scoring, Mitchell Vande Sompel is a player to watch heading into the 2014-15 OHL Season. Few players are capable of immediately jumping into the OHL and making as much of an impact as Vande Sompel did last year with Oshawa. An excellent skater capable of finding open space while dangling with the puck, Vande Sompel was born to operate the powerplay. His ability to distribute the puck from the blueline and find open teammates is rare. The Generals likely didn’t expect him to become such an important part of their transition game so early but he forced their hand as he just kept getting better and better. Vande Sompel’s 0.43 points-per-game were highest among all Oshawa blueliners and he should drastically improve upon that number in 2014-15 as a vital member of a younger Gens squad.
8. Nikita Korostelev, LW, Sarnia Sting
Playing on the OHL’s last place team can be trying for a rookie but Sarnia’s Nikita Korostelev has to be pleased with his first season after scorching the net 17 times for 38 points (7th among OHL rookies). Blessed with an outstanding snap shot that features pin-point accuracy and the power to give goaltenders trouble, Korostelev is just beginning to tap into his scoring potential. His ability to receive pucks and unload a quick release in a fluid motion ranks among the best of his age group. He was able to immediately step into Sarnia’s top-six and add a much needed scoring punch but the rebuilding Sting will need him to continue to elevate his game more in 2014-15. Expected to garner prime offensive minutes alongside NHL 1st rounder Nikolay Goldobin, newly drafted import Pavel Zacha and the OHL’s leading defensive scorer in Tony DeAngelo, expect a notable improvement in Korostelev’s offensive totals. Look for Korostelev to improve upon his somewhat sluggish start-up gear and as he aims to establish himself as a true 1st round prospect.
9. Mitchell Stephens, RC, Saginaw Spirit
A treat to watch move about the ice, Mitchell Stephens’ fluid yet powerful stride is his best asset and it’s the reason he’s able to control the pace of the game. In a close second place, Stephens’ shooting ability is worth noting as well since he does have the ability to change the game with just one shot. He is a shoot-first player who excels at driving towards the net blowing past defenders with excellent first step quickness. There’s room to grow as a playmaker but it’s an area of Stephens’ game that is developing. Look for this streaking forward flying down an OHL rink near you but be sure to keep a close eye, as his shot occasionally leaves a vapour trail.
10. Brett McKenzie, LC, North Bay Battallion
Choosing the last spot in a Top 10 was a frustrating process and the internal debate came down to several players that were all worthy of a placement inside Top 10. In the end, Battallion forward Brett McKenzie holds down the last slot. McKenzie is a high-potential forward with a strong all-around package but he’s a prospect that’s still discovering his game and abilities so there is certainly room for movement in his 10th ranking. Sparked by strong skating and prominent puck skills, McKenzie shows flashes of becoming a strong possession player but it’s his consistency that needs some rounding into form to make him a true threat. With some offensive minutes opening up in North Bay, McKenzie will have the opportunity to mold a role for himself and is definitely a player worth watching.
The Next Best:
Jeremiah Addison, LW, Ottawa 67’s
Mackenzie Blackwood, G, Barrie Colts
Douglas Blaisdell, LD, Kitchener Rangers
Kyle Capobianco, LD, Sudbury Wolves
Travis Dermott, LD, Erie Otters
Vince Dunn, LD, Niagara IceDogs
Sam Harding, RC, Oshawa Generals
Graham Knott, LW, Niagara IceDogs
Justin Lemcke, RD, Belleville Bulls
Hayden McCool, LC, Niagara IceDogs
David Miller, LC, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Dante Salituro, RC, Ottawa 67’s
Blake Speers, RC, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
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