Mere hours remain until the puck drops on the long anticipated 2014-15 Ontario Hockey League season and like every other season start, the league’s young players are eager to prove that an off-season of hard work and dedication will pay off on the ice. The following outlines several players who could see a substantial rise in production and be considered potential OHL breakout candidates. While it’s expected that high-scoring OHLers from last season (Connor McDavid, Michael Dal Colle, Sam Bennett, etc.) take the next step offensively, this list is reserved for some of the less obvious names.
*All players have skated in the OHL leaving no rookies or first-year imports eligible for this list*
**Players are not ranked based on offensive output but rather a combination of their projected production and overall expected game impact**
20. Ryan Moore, LC (Windsor Spitfires; eligible for 2015 NHL Draft)
American Ryan Moore netted only five goals and 10 points in his first season with the Spitfires but his impact was felt in many other ways last season. The tenacious forward is an exceptional competitor and with his combination of speed, puck skills and playmaking ability, it won’t be shocking to see this 5-foot-7 dynamo surge up the draft rankings in his second season. With Islanders pick Josh Ho-Sang and rookies Luke Kirwan, Logan Brown and Markus Soberg expected to take up offensive minutes, Moore will need to prove that he’s worthy of top-six minutes. He’s a player I wouldn’t bet against breaking out this season…and if not, 2015 might be his coming out party.
2014-15 Projection: 65-19-20-49
19. Pius Suter, LC (Guelph Storm)
The Swiss import was used mostly in a defensive role with the Storm during their Championship season but with Scott Kosmachuk, Brock McGinn and Zack Mitchell moving on, Suter will adopt more offensive minutes and could thrive in a secondary scoring role.
2014-15 Projection: 66-18-33-51
18. Brycen Cianfrone, LC (Mississauga Steelheads)
Undersized centre, Bryson Cianfrone, looked great in pre-season action and it’s expected that he will elevate his play and set new careers as the Steelheads look to improve their offensive outputs. Under the right circumstances, Cianfrone could certainly flirt with 75 points.
2014-15 Projection: 68-26-43-69
17. Mitchell Vande Sompel, LD (Oshawa Generals; eligible for 2015 NHL Draft)
Few rookie defensemen had the impact that Generals’ blueliner Mitch Vande Sompel had last season after the offensive rearguard forced his way up the lineup with his stellar play. His coaches trust him in all situations and he should vastly improve on his 20 points in his draft year, approaching 40-50 points.
2014-15 Projection: 65-13-32-45
16. Dante Salituro, RC (Ottawa 67’s; eligible for 2015 NHL Draft)
All eyes were on OHL Rookie of the Year, Travis Konecny , last season but Salituro quietly enjoyed an outstanding sophomore year potting 22 goals and 59 points. The undersized offensive catalyst is an underrated prospect for the 2015 draft but he can change that quickly with another offensive surge. Look for Salituro to land in the 70-plus territory this season.
2014-15 Projection: 68-29-47-76
15. Kevin Lebanc, RW (Barrie Colts)
Zach Hall and Andreas Athanasiou are no longer with the club and that leaves an opportunity for Kevin Lebanc to assume a more prominent scoring role after posting 11 goals and 35 points as a mature rookie. Passed over in his first go-round with the NHL Draft, Lebanc will attempt to draw interest with his gritty yet rather skilled two-way game. He’s a very good defensive forward who could find himself as a serviceable bottom six checker at the next level.
2014-15 Projection: 67-20-33-53
14. Mitchell Stephens, RC (Saginaw Spirit; eligible for 2015 NHL Draft)
It’s been a good year for Mitchell Stephens after the young scoring pivot got his feet wet at the OHL level (57-9-12-21) and also represented Team Ontario at the World Under-17 Challenge registering a pair of assists. Stephens will adopt a larger role with Saginaw and his blazing speed and natural scoring instincts are surely to become a dangerous elements of the Spirits’ offense.
2014-15 Projection: 65-27-32-59
13. Graham Knott, LW (Niagara IceDogs; eligible for 2015 NHL Draft)
Selected in the 3rd round of the 2013 OHL Priority Selection Draft, Graham Knott flashed his promising upside as soon as he took the ice in last year’s rookie season. Lined up alongside Leafs’ Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony DiFruscia, Knott scored in his first OHL game and didn’t look back adding another 22 points in his first campaign. After winning gold at the recent Ivan Hlinka Tournament, where he picked up four assists in five games, Knott enters his NHL draft year full of confidence as a potential first round selection. The 6-foot-3 winger owns a fluid skating stride that features great length but also possesses some slick puck skills for a big man.
2014-15 Projection: 67-23-37-60
12. Hayden Hodgson, RW (Sarnia Sting)
It was a trade that sent Hayden Hodgson to the Sarnia Sting that has opened up an opportunity for the former Erie Otters’ fourth liner. Slated to become a key fixture on Sarnia’s offensive lines, Hodgson is could experience one of the more notable breakout seasons after a modest nine goal, 18-point season has many unaware of his potential talents. In Sarnia, Hodgson stands a good chance to lineup alongside one of (or both) Nikita Korostelev or import stud Pavel Zacha and the points should begin to add up flanked by these talented youngsters. Hodgson recently attended the Detroit Red Wings’ prospect tournament in Traverse City and impressed them enough to earn a spot on their main camp roster. When he returns to Sarnia he will be full of confidence and should help spark the Sting’s frontlines.
2014-15 Projection: 68-30-30-60
11. Nick Paul, LW (North Bay Battalion; Dallas Stars, 2013 - 101st overall)
Credit the Dallas Stars for stepping up and selecting power winger, Nick Paul, in the 2013 draft after the young forward posted a dozen goals and 28 points in his rookie season. The Stars invested in Paul’s raw potential knowing that he may take few years to fully blossom but all indications are pointing towards it being a shrewd investment. Unfortunately for Dallas, Nick Paul is now turning heads in the Ottawa Senators organization after he was dealt to Canada’s Capital in the Jason Spezza trade on the nation’s birthday. After doubling his goal production and nearly posting a point-per-game in the Battalion’s long playoff run to the OHL Championship series, Paul is ready to launch himself onto the OHL’s scoring race leaderboard.
2014-15 Projection: 68-36-36-72
10. Nikita Korostelev, RW (Sarnia Sting; eligible for 2015 NHL Draft)
It’s a bit of an understatement but the Sarnia Sting have a youth movement emerging and it’s likely going to benefit Nikita Korostelev, Sarnia’s 2013 1st round selection. Pencilled in for top line duties in his sophomore season, Korostelev is ready for the added responsibility and will be looking to use the youthful enthusiasm that surrounds the Sting to his advantage. Known for his scoring prowess and ability to strike quickly, Korostelev put up four points (two goals, two assists) against the London Knights in preseason action on September 6th and looked to be developing dangerous chemistry with 1st overall import pick, Pavel Zacha. Both Korostelev and Zacha are preparing for their draft seasons and if Nikolay Goldobin doesn’t return from San Jose Sharks, these two offensive talents will be counted on to carry the Sting’s offense.
2014-15 Projection: 64-34-28-62
9. Jesse Barwell, LC (Mississauga Steelheads; eligible for 2015 NHL Draft)
Dating back to his Oakville Rangers minor midget days, Jesse Barwell has always been a player who has caught my eye. Blessed with an intelligent hockey mind and slick offensive hands, Barwell is a player who can make teams pay if allowed too much time or space. He was a bit inconsistent in his rookie campaign but with the Steelheads looking to add offense, Barwell should earn more offensive minutes, specifically on the powerplay where he thrives, and that should inflate his totals. Mississauga is a squad that I expect to surprise as they ride the electrifying talent of 1st round pick Mikey McLeod and sneaky-good sophomore Jesse Barwell. It’s bold but I could see Barwell experience a similar breakout as Robby Fabbri experienced last year, when he quadrupled his goal totals and nearly tripled his point production.
2014-15 Projection: 66-21-42-63
8. Lawson Crouse, LW (Kingston Frontenacs; eligible for 2015 NHL Draft)
Under the watchful eye of NHL scouts, potential top 10 candidate, Lawson Crouse, will certainly be playing under pressure but his industrious work ethic will help him persevere through the demands of his draft season. Not only did Crouse step into an OHL lineup as a rookie and pot 15 goals and 27 points but he also accomplished this while taking on more responsibility in the defensive zone. As the season progressed, Crouse flourished and actually finished the regular season on a three game point streak (which included a four-point game) before helping Canada to Hlinka gold with a pair of goals and assists in August. Crouse may not “explode” offensively but I do expect him to approach point-per-game production and continue to garner more defensive responsibilities. Those added duties along with his bourgeoning offensive game should make him an irreplaceable member of the contending Kingston Frontenacs.
2014-15 Projection: 68-31-33-64
7. Andrew Mangiapane, LW/C (Barrie Colts; re-entry for 2015 NHL Draft)
Despite being passed over at the 2014 NHL Draft, Colts’ buzz-saw forward Andrew Mangiapane was still invited to the Arizona Coyotes camp and that experience will serve him well as he prepares for a huge sophomore season. The undersized Mangiapane was a shrewd free agent signing by the Colts and on most nights last season, he was the team’s best player. He’s an ultra-competitive two-way forward with the speed and puck skills to create offensive chances at ease. Like the other two Colts who made this list, this member of the 2013-14 OHL First All-Rookie Team (along with Lebanc and Lemieux) will be looking to carry the offense in Barrie this season and he should see his numbers rise considerably.
2014-15 Projection: 68-35-40-75
7. Brendan Lemieux, LW (Barrie Colts; Buffalo Sabres, 2014 – 31st overall)
After graduating the talents of Andreas Athanasiou, Zach Hall and defenseman Aaron Ekblad, it’s safe to say that the times are changing in Barrie and opportunity knocks for Brendan Lemieux, who finished tied for third in team scoring with Ekblad (65-27-26-53). Competing in a competitive Eastern Conference will require the third year forward to ramp up his offensive output and lead the charge for the Colts. His aggressive in-your-face game will need to be balanced perfectly in order to stay out of the box and on the ice scoring goals. That might mean that Lemieux will need to pull back his desire to play like his super-pest father Claude Lemieux at times. Expect Lemieux to draw top powerplay duties where he has the opportunity to thrive as a net-front presence and a combatant in the cycle game.
2014-15 Projection: 65-35-40-75
6. Justin Bailey, RW (Kitchener Rangers; Buffalo Sabres, 2013 – 52nd overall)
Coming off an outstanding Sabres training camp, Rangers winger Justin Bailey is starting to fill out his enviable 6-foot-3 frame and his scoring game appears to have reached the next level as well. In two years of injury riddled seasons, Bailey has yet to find the consistency and momentum needed to crack the point-per-game mark but assuming he can avoid landing on the sidelines, expect this sharp shooter to approach 40 goals and clear 75 points. With the Kitchener Rangers icing a young squad, Bailey will be expected to assume a leadership role and could become a viable trade target for OHL contenders looking to add some scoring punch for a playoff run.
2014-15 Projection: 62-42-33-75
5. Ryan Kujawinski, LC (Kingston Frontenacs; New Jersey Devils – 2013, 73rd overall)
Hampered by hand and knee injuries in 2013-14, Ryan Kujawinski is looking to rebound onto the scene in a similar fashion as he did in his rookie season following a trade to Kingston from Sarnia. Due to the limited games he played, many forget that Kujawinski posted nearly a point-per-game last season scoring 23 times and gathering 41 points in 45 games. Armed with a good shooting arsenal and savvy playmaking skills, look for Kujawinski to approach 80 points in his fourth OHL campaign.
4. Jason Dickinson, LW (Guelph Storm; Dallas Stars, 2013 - 29th overall)
Some might contend that Guelph’s Jason Dickinson actually broke out last year with his 26-goal, 78-point outburst and to some extent, he did. However, as Jason Dickinson enters the 2014-15 season without the likes of Scott Kosmachuk, Brock McGinn and Zack Mitchell ahead of him on the depth chart, I fully expect Dickinson to solidify himself as a standout individual talent. The big skilled winger has been somewhat underrated playing alongside a star-studded cast but his soft hands and offensive creativity will surely take him to another level as the Dallas 1st rounder chases a 100-point OHL campaign.
2014-15 Projection: 68-35-57-92
3. Vince Dunn, LD (Niagara IceDogs; eligible for 2015 NHL Draft)
Peterborough native, Vince Dunn, had a remarkable rookie campaign posting 33 points to finishing as the top scoring first year defenseman. Heading into his draft season, Vince Dunn is set up to explode in his encore performance as he looks to lead his IceDogs in defensive scoring, alongside fellow draft eligible blueliner Luke Mercer. Expectations are high in Niagara as the ‘Dogs look to become a contender in the East and much of that success will depend on how much offense can be generated from the backend. Dunn is an exceptional skater with an ability to jump into the rush and create offensive scoring chances as well as any forward. His rare offensive skillset isn’t compromised by a poor defensive game either as he shows to be more than capable in his own zone. Vince Dunn is my pick to have a huge breakout season and be one of Anthony DeAngelo’s lead challengers for the OHL’s defensive scoring title.
2014-15 Projection: 67-13-43-56
2. Mitch Marner, LC (London Knights; eligible for 2015 NHL Draft)
Playing in the shadows of a slew of NHL-draftees, Mitch Marner put in his time and excelled on a London Knights squad loaded with veterans. With Marner slated to receive more offensive minutes and increased responsibility it is expected that this dynamic pivot take over as the face of the rebuilding Knights. Several potential key returnees await their fate at NHL camps but even if Bo Horvat, Max Domi or Ryan Rupert return to London, Marner proved last year that he’s ready for top-line action and he won’t be held back. Entering his NHL draft season, Marner will be hungry to prove that he belongs as a Top 10 skater and should explode onto the OHL scene in a big way after leading Team Canada in scoring at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.
2014-15 Projection: 66-26-65-91
1. Dylan Strome, LC (Erie Otters; eligible for 2015 NHL Draft)
Sophomore players aren’t normally expected to take on a huge offensive workload but Otters’ forward Dylan Strome isn’t your “normal” sophomore. Drafted 2nd overall in the strong 2013 OHL Priority Selection Draft, Strome will be looking to solidify a Top 10 slot and unseat other top ranked OHL eligibles in Travis Konecny and Lawson Crouse. Riding shut-gun alongside expected 1st overall pick Connor McDavid certainly won’t hurt Strome’s offensive production but he will be attempting to show scouts that his own individual talent isn’t reliant on his superstar linemate. Primed with elite playmaking sense, Strome should experience a substantial improvement on his 10 goals and 39 points from his rookie season.
2014-15 Projection: 65-27-55-82
CJ Garcia, D (Barrie Colts)
A hole has been left on the Colts blueline by 2014 top NHL pick, Aaron Ekblad, and CJ Garcia may have the pedigree to help fill that void. He's a smooth skating two-way defenseman capable of spearheading the rush with a great first pass and he has shown that he can be a trusted defender.
Nick Betz, RW (Erie Otters)
The Mount Clemens native has improved slightly on his production in each of his first two seasons but coming into year three, Nick Betz could be playing alongside superstar Connor McDavid and that will expedite his offensive production.
Adam Craievich, RW (Guelph Storm; eligible for 2015 NHL Draft)
As a member of the OHL Champion Storm squad, Adam Craievich didn’t see a whole lot of action but he will certainly be provided with more chances to improve upon his six goals and 10 points.
Francesco Vilardi, LC (Plymouth Whalers)
Another prospect who will re-enter the draft, Franky Vilardi could find himself playing alongside incoming winger Sonny Milano and if that’s the case, his totals will rise significantly as the two build chemistry.
Blake Siebenaler, RD (Niagara IceDogs; Columbus Blue Jackets, 2014 – 77th overall)
Siebenaler was a standout at his position last year considering the first year defender transitioned into a new league but he’s capable of more points and that should come as early as this season.
Matt Mistele, LW (Plymouth Whalers; Los Angeles Kings, 2014 – 180th overall)
After a disappointing sophomore campaign that witnessed Mistele regress from his 34 goals and 60 points as a rookie to 18 goals and 37 points last season, he will be looking to rebound to his freshman self and he’s shown an extra jump in preseason action.
Jordan Subban, RD (Belleville Bulls; Vancouver Canucks, 2013 – 115th overall)
There’s nothing wrong with Subban’s 42-point campaign last season but the smooth puck rushing defenseman has another level and he will be looking to launch himself into the defensive scoring charts in his fourth season with Belleville.
Zach Bratina, LW (North Bay Battalion)
Arriving midseason in the Blake Clarke trade, Zach Bratina maintained his 0.50 points-per-game pace with the Battalion. After an invite to the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect camp, it’s time for Bratina to use the positive momentum and emerge as a consistent scoring threat in North Bay.
Thomas Schemitsch, RD (Owen Sound Attack; eligible for 2015 NHL Draft)
The Owen Sound Attack don’t have a ton of high-end scoring punch but second year 6-foot-3 defenseman Thomas Schemitsch will become a well-known name in the league and rise up the draft boards with his evolving offensive potential.
Kyle Capobianco, LD (Sudbury Wolves; eligible for 2015 NHL Draft)
The Wolves 7th overall pick in 2013 wasn’t able to find the back of the net in his first year of action but he did add 11 assists and, most recently, was a standout in preseason action tallying one goal and six points in preseason action. Yup, he looks ready to breakout.
Trevor Murphy, LD (Windsor Spitfires)
Far from a polished defender, the slick skating offensive defenseman will look to improve on his eight goals and 29 points as the Spitfires main PP quarterback after the graduation of Lightning prospect Slater Koekkoek.
The 2014-15 OHL season commences on Wednesday, September 24th. Be sure to follow the McKeen’s Hockey Youngblood series as Brendan Ross (@RossyYoungblood) continues to break down the happenings inside the hockey prospect world.