In this week’s Prospect Faceoff, two sets of draft-eligible players go to head-to-head in critical games for their respective teams. In the OHL, two of the most improved players will see game action against each other. In addition, polar opposite defensemen lead their teams in a pair of NCAA games this weekend. Finally, two prospects with future college commitments including one player traded during Monday’s NHL trade deadline.
Mathew Barzal (Seattle) vs. Paul Bittner (Portland) – WHL
Two of the WHL’s top prospects will matchup this weekend, as Seattle and Portland meet up in an important U.S. Division game. One player is working to regain momentum for Seattle, while a big-bodied power forward in Portland has benefited by playing alongside one of the WHL’s leading scorers.
As the first overall pick by the Seattle Thunderbirds in the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, Mathew Barzal has long been considered as a top prospect and has been billed as a potential top 10 skater for the upcoming NHL Draft. Barzal, despite a laundry list of prior accomplishments, still has work to do to overcome a freak injury as scouting pundits have moved him down in their rankings. Barzal kicked off his season by helping Canada win a gold medal at the 2014 Ivan Hlinka Memorial U18 tournament. Transitioning to the WHL, Barzal had his bid to become one of the WHL’s top scorers derailed by a freak knee injury in November. Since returning in late January, Barzal was held scoreless in his first four games back, but has managed 26 points in just 14 games since then. To date, Barzal has been trusted in all situations and has posted 12 goals and 32 assists in 35 games. Despite missing nearly three months, Barzal is only four points behind Seattle’s leading scorer and has regained some of the momentum he carried coming into the season.
On a loaded Portland Winterhawks team, fellow draft-eligible Paul Bittner is working through a maturation process. Posting just six goals and three assists in his first 15 WHL games this season, Bittner has since been on a point-per-game pace. Playing with Nic Petan (WPG) and Oliver Bjorkstrand (CBJ) has certainly been a boost. While his 6’4” frame will garner some attention, his improved work defensively has been crucial as Bittner currently ranks seventh in WHL plus/minus at +37. Bittner’s 29 goals and 28 assists in 56 games have him well positioned to be drafted this June. As such, he was invited to the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game and was ranked 19th by NHL Central Scouting in their midterm rankings.
Timo Meier (Halifax) vs. Loik Leveille (Cape Breton) – QMJHL
In the QMJHL, there are two players who have skyrocketed up draft boards this season. In Halifax, one player who had long been under the radar attempts to escape the shadows of his impressive list of teammates. For Cape Breton, one defenseman in particular has come on strong after finally gaining some stability.
Halifax Mooseheads forward Timo Meier has been trusted to play alongside some of junior hockey’s best players. He’s frequently played with former teammate Jonathan Drouin (TBL) and current teammate Nikolaj Ehlers (WPG), and even enjoyed a game alongside of Connor McDavid at the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game. But Meier is deserving of his own recognition as a dangerous scorer and creative playmaker. The Swiss native played for his home country at this season’s World Junior Championship on a line with Kevin Fiala (NSH), and was named one of his team’s best players after scoring six points in six games. After returning from the tournament, Meier continued on a 27-game point streak where he put up 51 points, the third longest streak in Halifax history. Meier has 40 goals and 40 assists in just 53 games, and his 20 goals with the man advantage rank him second in that category in the QMJHL. Meier was ranked as the 12th-best North American skater by NHL Central Scouting, and is expected to continue to climb up the draft rankings as the season draws to a conclusion.
Cape Breton Screaming Eagles defenseman Loik Leveille has been an important member of his team this season. After being traded twice in his first two QMJHL seasons, Leveille has been lauded as a key defender for a Screaming Eagles team trying to secure a playoff position. Known as a defenseman loaded with the size and tools necessary to compete on a nightly basis, Leveille has injected a new-found offensive dynamic to his game. In January, his three goals, 10 assists, and +13 showing resulted in him being named as one of the QMJHL Stars of the Month. He currently has 11 goals and 35 assists in 60 games, good for fourth on his team in scoring and fifth among all QMJHL defenseman. NHL Central Scouting ranked the late ’96 birthdate at #91 for the upcoming draft, a number that may continue to rise should he help get Cape Breton into the second season.
Christian Dvorak (London) vs. Alex Lintuniemi (Ottawa) – OHL
Two teams who sit third in their respective conferences will match up against each other in a critical game in the standings for both teams. The London Knights head up to Ottawa looking for a road win thanks to a much improved forward. Meanwhile, the 67’s turn to an import defenseman as the team tries to maintain home ice advantage in the playoffs.
One of the OHL’s most improved players, Christian Dvorak continues to earn accolades and hit milestones as his career season continues. Dvorak, an Illinois native, came up through the Chicago Mission program before choosing the London Knights over the Wisconsin Badgers last season. That year was mired with injuries and personal struggles as Dvorak toiled on London’s bottom two lines, posting only 14 points in 33 games. This season, however, Dvorak has taken a major step forward and has Arizona Coyotes fans salivating at the thought of a potential “dynasty line” with fellow Coyotes’ prospect Max Domi. Dvorak has twice been named OHL Player of the Month following a 26-point December and 28-point January. Dvorak currently ranks third in OHL scoring with 40 goals and 63 assists in 59 games.
Alex Lintuniemi has been the unquestioned leader of the Ottawa 67’s defense this season, having already surpassed career highs in goals and assists. Lintuniemi is a Los Angeles Kings prospect, taken 60th overall in the 2014 NHL Draft, and has been a feisty contributor on both sides of the puck. Lintuniemi spent significant time away from the 67’s this season, including a long stint at the Kings training camp. His other adventure led him to the 2015 World Juniors where Lintuniemi suited up for Finland, displaying his penchant for agitating his opponents. Now in his second season in the OHL after being selected second overall in the CHL Import Draft, Lintuniemi has provided an improved offensive game after adjusting to the league last season. He leads the 67’s in scoring by a defenseman with six goals and 25 assists in 52 games.
Mike Reilly (Minnesota) vs. Sam Jardine (Ohio State) – NCAA
Defensemen are often overlooked when considering their importance to their respective teams. This weekend, two NCAA defensemen from the 2011 draft go head-to-head. For Minnesota, an offensive dynamo takes hold of special teams and leads the nation in two categories. Meanwhile, an underrated defenseman is trying to salvage a rough season at Ohio State.
Playing on a team with his two older twin brothers, Mike Reilly has been nothing short of impressive for the No. 12 Minnesota Golden Gophers. It’s not often that a defenseman is in the Hobey Baker discussion, but Reilly is right in the mix. Reilly not only leads Minnesota in scoring, but he’s ahead of all NCAA defenseman in scoring, with six goals and 31 assists in 32 games. The Columbus Blue Jackets prospect has been a key contributor on the power play, as his 20 points with the man advantage is tied atop all NCAA players with Jack Eichel (2015). With Minnesota fighting for a bid into the NCAA Tournament, the 2013-14 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year will be asked to log significant minutes and continue his offensive production.
Sam Jardine has been a model of consistency for the Ohio State Buckeyes. The junior defenseman has not often been on the scoresheet, but has provided the type of defensive hockey that teams covet. Among the NCAA leaders in blocked shots, Jardine has started to round out his offensive game this season. The Chicago Blackhawks prospect now has two goals and eight assists on the season, passing his career high in goals and only four assists behind his 2013-14 campaign in nine less games. Like Reilly, Jardine comes from a hockey family – his brother Clayton is a senior for Merrimack.
Dakota Joshua (Sioux Falls) vs. Maxim Letunov (Youngstown) – USHL
Speaking of Ohio State, future Buckeyes commit Dakota Joshua is finishing up his second USHL season with the Sioux Falls Stampede before he leaves for Ohio next season. Before arriving in Sioux Falls, Joshua was known as a one-dimensional player who had work to do in order to take the next step. He posted a respectable 38 points in 55 games, and was rewarded at the 2014 NHL Draft when the Toronto Maple Leafs selected him in the fifth round. This season, Joshua has been trusted with significant special teams ice time and has maintained his scoring touch, putting home 14 goals and 18 assists in 39 games, good for second in Sioux Falls scoring.
One half of a dynamic duo in Youngstown with 2015 draft hopeful Kyle Connor, Maxim Letunov has been in the news lately. Part of a recent trade that saw Zbynek Michalek dealt to the St. Louis Blues, Letunov will now join an impressive crop of young talent in the Arizona system. The Coyotes would be wise to let Letunov grow and develop into his frame, but his offensive production certainly can’t be ignored. After scoring 43 points in 60 games last season, Letunov has been a force in the USHL in 2014-15. Through 47 games, Letunov has 22 goals and 31 assists, good for third overall in scoring in the league. He made a verbal commitment to Boston University for next season, though with his trade there may be some uncertainty as his CHL rights are owned by the Swift Current Broncos of the WHL.
Brendan Collier (Northeastern) vs. Matt Grzelcyk (Boston Univ.) – NCAA
Fresh off their Beanpot tournament victory, Boston University split a pair of weekend games against familiar foes in the Northeastern Huskies. The Huskies won 6-5 on Friday, with 11 players picking up at least one point. An Evan Rodrigues hat trick paced Boston in the loss. Brendan Collier was held scoreless in both games, finishing with a -1 rating on Friday and even the next night. Matt Grzelcyk picked up two assists in the first game, and followed that up with a one goal and two assist effort in a dominating 6-1 win to revenge the prior night’s loss.
Tommy Vannelli (Medicine Hat) vs. Sam Steel (Regina) – WHL
The Medicine Hat Tigers and Regina Pats played a tightly contested defensive game, one where an unlikely hero emerged in Medicine Hat’s 2-1 win. Ty Stanton picked up a pair of second period goals for the Tigers just six minutes apart that held up as the deciding goals. Tommy Vannelli missed the game due to a broken finger. Marek Langhamer stopped 27 of 28 shots to earn his 24th win, marking a new career high. Daniel Wapple was equally impressive for Regina, stopping 38 of 40 in the loss. Sam Steel was on the ice for Regina’s lone goal but did not register a point and finished +1 on the night.
Cole Cassels (Oshawa) vs. Jordan Subban (Belleville) – OHL
In a game where the Oshawa Generals were widely expected to win, the Belleville Bulls and goaltender Charlie Graham showed their mettle in a 4-1 victory. Graham was the story of the game, stopping 51 of 52 shots to pick up his 21st win of the season and first star honors. Bulls defenseman Jordan Subban opened the scoring with his 24th of the season and later added an assist in a third star effort. For Oshawa, Cole Cassels was held scoreless and finished a disappointing -3, as he was on the ice for all three Bulls goals at even strength goals.
Valentin Zykov (Gatineau) vs. Ivan Barbashev (Moncton) – QMJHL
The Gatineau Olympiques have been waiting for the newly acquired Valentin Zykov to break out in a big way and he did just that this weekend. In a 7-3 Gatineau win, Zykov earned first star honors after scoring two goals, adding one assist and finishing +3 on the night. Fellow Russian linemate Yakov Trenin also registered three points. In a reversal of fortune, Ivan Barbashev was -3 and did not register a point for only the second time in 11 February games.
Axel Holmstrom (Skelleftea) vs. Jakub Vrana (Linkoping) – SHL
Skelleftea and Linkoping skated in a tightly contested game, with Skelleftea coming out ahead, 2-1. SHL veterans Daniel Widing and Janne Pesonen scored for Skelleftea, with Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Oskar Sundqvist adding an assist on Widing’s goal. Linkoping’s lone goal was scored by Broc Little. Both Axel Holmstrom and Jakub Vrana were held scoreless in the game.
Follow Dave Hahn on Twitter via @