OHL Prospect Report – Mark Popovic

By Bob Chery

The 2000-01 season was one of challenges and responsibilities
for the St. Michael’s Majors’ Mark Popovic. Without a doubt it
made him a better all-around player, although it did not
necessarily provide him with the ideal conditions to best
display his considerable talents.

The first responsibility hoisted upon his shoulders came in the
off-season when he was named team Captain, an honour not often
bestowed on young players who are in their NHL draft-eligible
year. New coach Dave Cameron made it clear that he did not think
a major overhaul of the roster was necessary, but rather the
style of play employed by the club would have to be altered.
Step one in that process was to have Popovic lead the way in
buying into the new system.

Although Mark was tied with Ottawa’s Jon Zion for the
league-lead in scoring among OHL defencemen six weeks into the
season, Cameron’s philosophy of defence, defence, and more
defence would make that result impossible to maintain as the
season wore on.

In looking at the St. Mike’s roster, it would appear that the
coach had little choice. There were only two NHL draftees on the
roster, forwards Adam DeLeeuw, a 6th-round pick of the Red Wings
in ‘98 and Darryl Bootland, an 8th-round pick of the Avalanche
in 2000. The absence of 1st-round talent like a Spezza/Ott or
Boyes/Alexeev combo would ensure that the Majors would have
trouble scoring goals.

On the blue-line, Popovic along with 19 year-old Chris Boucher
would be the only 3rd-year players until an early season
acquisition of stay-at-homer TJ Reynolds added some valuable
experience to the mix. Reynolds and Boucher would become regular
partners, leaving Popovic to be paired with one of two rookies,
Drew Fata or Kevin Klein. Rather than having some degree of
offensive licence by being paired with a veteran such as a
Foster or a Carkner, Mark would often have to play conservative
and trouble-shoot when the rookies encountered some distress in
their own zone.

The goaltending also lacked experience, being entrusted to a
pair of NHL draft-eligibles, Peter Budaj and Andy Chiodo,
further entrenching the defence-first philosophy that was to be
employed throughout the year.

Mark took some time off from the team in mid-December and early
January as he cracked Canada’s blue-line for the World Junior
Championships. As a WJC rookie he may have benefitted from being
partnered with one of the returning veterans, Barrett Jackman or
Steve McCarthy, but they were paired with youngsters Jay
Bouwmeester and Dan Hamhuis instead. Popovic and Nick Schultz
were left to hold the fort as the 3rd defence pair, and did a
solid if unspectacular job.

After a trip to Montreal in January for the OHL/QMJHL All-Star
Game, February saw Popovic attend the Prospects Game in Calgary
where his individual abilities were highlighted in the Skills
Competition:

3rd in the puck-control
1st in the 60-foot dash
6th in the 150-foot dash
3rd in the full-lap
7th hardest shot
With all of the extra-curricular games and tournaments out of
the way, focus now shifted to the regular-season stretch run and
the playoffs. St. Mike’s would battle for Conference supremacy
right down to the last week of the season, where they would
ultimately finish 3rd, two points behind champion Belleville and
one point behind runner-up Sudbury. The Majors’ significant
improvement from 18 wins and 42 points last season to 35 wins
and 80 points this season should’ve garnered Coach-of-the-Year
considerations for Cameron. The improved fortunes of the club
can be traced to the 93-goal reduction in goals against from the
previous year. Offensively the team realized a modest ten goal
jump in productivity, but in the 20-team OHL that offensive
output exceeded only the four teams that failed to qualify for
the playoffs.

Despite the modest offensive numbers of the team, Popovic
factored in 22% of the club’s goals, a percentage better than
all of the other top draft-eligible defencemen in the OHL
including Gleason (20.3%), Krajicek (17.7%), Colaiacovo (16.2%)
and Bell (15.7%) To illustrate one contrast, if Popovic
maintains that percentage while playing for a loaded Erie
line-up, he scores 53 points in the 62 games that it took
Colaiacovo to net 39. If Colaiacovo maintains his percentage
while playing for the offensively challenged Majors, he scores
31 points in the 61 games that it took Popovic to net 42.

The playoffs were an extension of the regular season for St.
Mike’s. They won two hard-fought, seven game series’ against
both the Peterborough Petes and the Sudbury Wolves, relying on
team defence and especially timely goaltending. Offensively they
barely mustered 2.5 goals per game (37 in total for the 14
games.) By the time the Conference Finals rolled around, 90
games of heavy ice-time at even-strength, penalty-killing, and
power-plays didn’t leave much in the tank for Popovic, and the
Majors were quickly dispatched by the Ottawa 67’s in four
straight games.

Mark provided yeoman’s work for the Majors throughout the
season. He put team goals ahead of individual ones, providing
full value for the captain-C adorning his jersey. He got his
nose dirty, willingly did the grunt work, but it was like
watching a Scott Niedermayer being asked to play like a Scott
Stevens.

Next on the agenda is the NHL Draft, and NHL teams have some
serious questions to ask themselves.

In junior hockey it is the coach’s job to win games. Dave
Cameron did his job with flying colours. Winning hockey games
translates into more revenues for the team’s owners.

Down the list of considerations for junior teams, but of primary
importance to NHL teams is player development. Nobody combines
winning hockey and revenue-generation in the OHL better than the
Ottawa 67’s. Brian Kilrea does his job and Jeff Hunt must be
delighted with the box-office receipts, but NHL teams that draft
a Boynton, Zultek, or a Mark Bell in the 1st-round are perhaps
less than enthused.

As a one-shot deal, the year was a good one for Popovic. First
and foremost an offensive talent, the other areas of his game
that required improvement, namely his defensive zone work were
upgraded. He still has some rough edges, but he’s not nearly the
adventure that he was last year while playing in his own end of
the rink.

But NHL scouts have to look forward. The two remaining years of
junior eligibility are very important. A player can strengthen
his game under ideal circumstances that are not available at the
NHL or even the minor-league level. He can take some chances
against competition that is smaller, slower, and less
experienced than what he will encounter as he moves on up the
ladder. This is the level at which one can refine and enhance
one’s game.

If offensive defencemen are the runners while the defensive
defencemen are the strongmen, junior hockey
is the six-minute mile and the 300-pound bench-press, the AHL
the five-minute mile and the 400-pound press, the NHL the
four-minute mile and the 500-pound press.

While a Tim Gleason will have licence to work on his stronger
attributes in Windsor, skating and carrying the puck, leading
and joining the rush (in addition to tending to his defensive
responsibilities) will Popovic enjoy the same ideal conditions
with St. Mike’s? Or will his appreciable offensive skills take a
back-seat to more defensive zone responsibilities, producing a
player without an upper-echelon dimension, but rather two
average ones? A player that is neither a four-minute miler, or a
500-pound bench-presser?

These are the questions that NHL teams should be asking
themselves, and perhaps asking the St. Michael’s Majors
organization. The answers they come up with will impact their
decisions on draft day.


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My final OHL rankings.