The Ontario Hockey League has been one of the premier pipelines for NHL development over the past couple of decades, particularly down the middle of the ice. From Eric Lindros to Joe Thornton, and more recently, Mike Richards, Ryan Getzlaf, and surging second-year center Tyler Seguin, the league has produced countless blue chip NHL centermen.
The top 10 centers from the OHL this year, naturally, feature a lot of offensive potential, but are also well-rounded players that should all likely see time in an NHL uniform in the future.
Ryan Strome had a coming-out party for Niagara in 2010-11 in which he eclipsed 100 points in 65 games to lead the team in scoring. His offensive production was more than enough to warrant the Islanders selecting him fifth overall, but it's his complete skill set that's going to make him a nice complement to John Tavares within the next year or two.
This year, Strome seemed to prove there's not much more he could learn in junior. In just 46 games, the Mississauga native scored 30 goals and added 38 assists. He was also plus-37 on the talent-laden team. Though he only finished fifth in team scoring due to playing just 46 games, he was consistently the most dangerous forward on the IceDogs all season. That's carried into the playoffs, where he currently leads the team in scoring with 23 points in 17 games.
The same can be said during the World Juniors. Part of the reason Strome missed so many games was due to his selection for the Canadian World Junior Team, in which he finished sixth in scoring for the tournament with nine points in five games, tied with Mark Stone (OTT) for the team lead.
Strome is eligible to return to Niagara next season, but should have a fairly good shot at making the Islanders. There's not much more he has to prove at the junior level.
At the beginning of the NHL season, it appeared unlikely that Mark Scheifele would appear on this list after his meteoric rise with Winnipeg over the course of the pre-season. Scheifele looked like he belonged and became a fan favorite. While he slowed down during the seven regular season games he appeared in, scoring just one goal, he still didn't look completely out of place. However, the Jets felt it was best both for his development and their own interests to send him back to junior.
Finishing the regular season with 63 points in 47 games for the Colts, he proved there's not much else he can prove in junior. He was a leader all season long for Barrie, and when they needed a timely goal, he was there to put the puck in the back of the net. In the deciding playoff game in the second round against the Ottawa 67s, after Sean Monahan scored what looked to be there series winner with just 25 seconds left, Scheifele replied 16 seconds later to send the game to overtime. Although the Colts lost, Scheifele's big-game heroics were not.
Since being eliminated, the 6'2 pivot has been sent to St. John's to join the Ice Caps in their quest for the Calder Cup. Regardless of whether or not he gets a chance to play for one of the best teams in the AHL all season long, he'll at least gain some valuable experience, which will should his push for a full-time roster spot on the Jets next season.
After a 2010-11 campaign in which he eclipsed a point-per-game, Ivan Telegin found another gear this past season, posting 64 points in just 46 games, playing behind Mark Scheifele as the Colts number two – at times 1B – center. He even outscored the Jets first-rounder through two rounds of the post-season.
Telegin's individual performance this season had him recognized in HF's first annual Prospect Awards. He was not only named the Jets' prospect of the year, but was also honored as the fastest skating prospect in the organization, and the club's breakout prospect this past season. At 6'3 and near 190lbs, Telegin is a big-bodied pivot, and though he hails from Novokuznetsk, Russia, he is by no means a prototypical flashy Russian. He doesn't mind going into the dirty areas of the ice, and scores many of his goals banging away in front of the net.
He will attend Jets training camp next September, and will likely compete with Colt teammate Mark Scheifele for a roster spot. If Telegin doesn't make the club, he can be sent to the Ice Caps in the AHL, whereas Scheifele's only other option is the OHL.
The shifty Russian center had another great season for the Spitfires. One of the Bruins top prospects, Khokhlachev registered 69 points in 56 games to finish second in team scoring. He can play the wing but his primary position is in the middle of the ice, and while he brings a lot with his offensive game, he has trouble keeping up with the play defensively, though he has been improving.
Khokhlachev was the youngest player in the draft last season, and as such, still has a lot of time and room to improve his game; he's still maturing, and it had been noticeable this past season. The Spitfires have the 15th overall pick in the Import Draft, but with two imports already on their team, Khokhlachev could be dealt to another team. With the Bruins depth, it's unlikely he makes the team out of training camp, so it will be either Windsor or another OHL team for the 18-year-old come next October.
The third and final Russian in the top-10 list of centers, Namestnikov could perhaps have the highest ceiling, or at least that's what Tampa Bay General Manager Steve Yzerman hopes after selecting him in the first round of last year's Entry Draft.
In 63 games for the London Knights this past season, his second with the club, Namestnikov posted 71 points to finish second in team scoring. A slick offensive center with an above average wrist shot, he actually became more of a playmaker this season, often hooking up with Seth Griffith to find the back of the net – his 49 assists led the team. In 16 playoff games, the Russian native has 15 points, and has been a fairly integral part of the team's playoff push, but if the Knights have any Memorial Cup aspirations, it's players like Namestnikov that are going to have to step up their game another notch.
He'll need to work on his strength and physical game before making the transition to the NHL, but there's no doubt that he possesses the skill to be a top-six center in the league down the road. With injuries and age catching up on Vincent Lecavlier, Namestnikov could make the Lightning out of training camp next season, though it seems unlikely at this point.
Unlike the two Russians ahead of him on this list, Rakell is already a well-rounded center. He doesn't possess the offensive talent as Namestnikov or Khokhlachev, but at 6'0 and pushing 190lbs, he's a big-bodied pivot who is effective in the dirty areas, and doesn't mind going to the net. He's also a strong two-way player with adept hockey sense.
Of course, there is offensive potential there. In 60 games this past season with Plymouth, he eclipsed a point-per-game, scoring 28 goals and adding 34 assists for 62 points. He was also a big part of Plymouth's playoff run, adding 12 points in 13 games. He'll most likely remain in Plymouth next year where he'll be an integral part of what should be a contending team. He'll also get the chance to defend his country's World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia.
Though he went undrafted, Michael Sgarbossa has not let it affect him. He quickly signed with the San Jose Sharks after attending their training camp in 2010, and has continued to excel. In fact, this past season he took home the OHL scoring title – the first Sudbury player to accomplish the feat in 33 years – finishing the season with 102 points in 66 games.
Playing with his third team since entering the OHL, he has seemed to find a home with Sudbury. After notching just 20 points in 26 games with Saginaw last year, Sgarbossa went on to score 62 points in 37 games for Sudbury that same year before blossoming into one of the league's premier centers this season.
He'll be turning pro next year, where it should be interesting to see how he handles the transition. At 5'11 and just 171lbs, he needs to add muscle before being able to handle the rigors of the NHL and AHL game.
The physical center, who made a name for himself with his bone-crushing hits at the World Junior Championships this past Christmas, brings much more to the table than just physicality. Yes, he has a knack for big, timely, open-ice hits, but he has developed into a complete player over the past few seasons.
He is the Generals go-to player in key face-off situations, and his solid two-way play has earned rave reviews from scouts and coaches alike – it was one of the main reasons he was selected as a bottom-six forward for the World Junior team. Of course, he can also put the puck in the net; in 43 games for Oshawa this past season, he scored 22 goals and added 27 assists. He missed time toward the end of the season with a concussion, but returned for the post-season, where, despite recording 11 points in just 6 games to lead the team, his Generals were eliminated in the first round.
He's eligible to return to junior against next season, and though he has an outside shot at cracking the young Blue Jackets roster, it's likely he gets sent back to junior where he'll get another shot at the gold medal with the Canadian juniors.
On a mediocre Greyhounds team, Flyers draft selection Nick Cousins was a standout this past season. In 65 games, he put up 88 points to lead the team in scoring by a whopping 32 points. A dynamic forward that can provide offense on his own, Cousins is a threat to score every time he steps on the ice.
His two-way game is also improving, and while he hasn't quite filled out his 5'11 frame yet, his play has drawn comparisons to current Flyer Scott Hartnell. If he adds muscle over the course of the next couple seasons, he could be an imposing threat to play against, particularly with his ability to create offense. In the meantime, he'll return to the Soo next year where the core – Brett Findley, Ryan Sproul (DET), Michael Schumacher (LAK), and of course Cousins – will be a year older and in a better position to compete.
Judging by McKegg's statistics from the first half of the season, one might be hard-pressed to include the Leaf draft pick in a discussion of the top 10 centers in the league, but most of that can be attributed to the team he played on, the Erie Otters. The Otters finished with just 10 wins all season long, and despite their lack of offensive support, McKegg was able to produce at near a point-per-game pace for 35 games.
After a mid-season trade to the always-strong London Knights, McKegg took off. In 30 games, he scored 19 goals and totaled 41 points. He's known for his creativity with the puck, but like most young players, he needs to get stronger before contributing at the NHL level. He'll hope to do that this off-season as he'll be turning pro next year, where he'll likely skate with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL.