Yakupov tops among OHL’s 2012 NHL Draft prospects

By Jason Menard
Nail Yakupov - Sarnia Sting

Photo: Sania Sting forward Nail Yakupov heads another strong NHL Draft class coming out of the Ontario Hockey League (courtesy of OHL Images)

 

Last year, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins effectively ended the OHL's dominance atop the NHL Draft when he was selected first overall by the Edmonton Oilers. This year, the Oilers may start a new streak by calling an OHL player's name with the first pick for the fifth time in six years.

 

Nail Yakupov looks to join Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, and Taylor Hall as first-overall selections out of the OHL this season after going wire-to-wire as the consensus top-rated draft-eligible player this year. But far from being a one-man show, the Ontario Hockey League offers a tremendous pool of talent from which
NHL clubs will restock their rosters.

Up front, on the blue line, and between the pipes — in 2012, the OHL will look to bolster its claim as the top developmental league for the NHL.

1. Nail Yakupov, RW, Sarnia Sting

Yakupov is an elite goal scorer who will be a welcome addition to any roster. He's proven all year not only that he is a superlative goal scorer, but that he can do so consistently when he's in the lineup.

And there's the rub. Yakupov missed significant time this season due to a series of knee injuries and a concussion suffered in March. He only suited up for 42 of the Stings' games, but when he was in the lineup, he demonstrated a touch that can't be taught — netting 31 goals and 69 points.

In addition to great hands, Yakupov may be the best skater in the draft. The one knock on him is that he's more of a pure finisher than an overall offensive talent. He needs to work on involving his teammates more and setting up plays.

Over the past few years, teams have been hesitant about taking Russian players, especially at the top end of the draft. But Yakupov has shown a commitment to playing in North America, moving overseas at the age of 16 to play major junior hockey.

In the end, Yakupov should perform well at the NHL level. He's drawn comparisons to Pavel Bure — and while he's not likely to meet those lofty expectations, he should be an excellent NHL player one day.

2. Alex Galchenyuk, C, Sarnia Sting

While the NHL has spent a number of years worrying about getting players from the former Soviet Union overseas, this year's elite trio (including Quebec's Mikhail Grigorenko) may have clubs singing a different tune.

Galchenyuk is an interesting case. Born to a Belarusian father, Galchenyuk was actually born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father, Alexander Sr. played in the North American minor leagues and was a member of the Belarusian national team, but also played in the Italian, German, Swiss, and Russian leagues. The younger Galchenyuk lived the vagabond lifestyle of the his journeyman father before returning to the U.S. for good at 15 — and with the potential he's shown, the word "journeyman" will likely never be applied to him.

Some have Galchenyuk ranked higher than his Sting teammate Yakupov, but there's a huge risk as the 6-1 forward only played in eight games in total this season (injured after two games, but returned to play six playoff matches.)

He suffered a serious ACL tear in training camp and spent most of the season sidelined. This was to be his coronation year — one in which he could have passed his teammate atop the rankings. Now, teams have to determine whether his injury outweighs his combination of outstanding hands, vision, and commitment to two-way play.

The fact that Galchenyuk returned to play again this season is a testament to his work ethic, dedication, and drive. For teams that embrace risk Galchenyuk is an appealing prospect, and, should he fall a bit in the draft, he could be a steal. But if one of the teams atop the draft board look beyond the injury, don't be surprised to hear his name read aloud very early on.

3. Olli Maatta, D, London Knights

The first overall selection in this year's OHL import draft has markedly improved his draft standing with an incredible performance to date in the Knights' surprising run to the Memorial Cup finals. And in a draft year deep with blue line prospects, Maatta may have played his way atop many teams' defensive lists.

Not known as an offensive defenseman, Maatta has steadily improved upon that part of his game while not sacrificing the sound defensive play for which he's known. This year, he ended with 32 points in 58 games (he suffered a concussion early on in the World Junior Championships and missed some games upon his return to the OHL), but has been among the playoff scoring leaders with 23 points in 19 games. The Finn earns most of his points courtesy of his pinpoint passing and excellent on-ice vision,as opposed to honing a booming shot from the point.

Maatta has been consistent all year and that's how he projects in the future — consistent. He's not going to wow teams with flash and dash, but he will make the smart first pass, has incredible hockey sense, and is a mature player despite being among the draft's youngest prospects.

4. Codi Ceci, D, Ottawa 67s

Many will choose to place Ceci above Maatta on their draft lists and it's easy to understand why. The Orleans, Ontario native has transformed himself from a defense-first-second-and-third blueliner into a better-than-average two-way player who has displayed an unexpected offensive upside.

Central Scouting has Ceci ranked sixth, with Mattaa two spots behind among North American skaters; ISS has Ceci cracking the top 10 overall as the ninth selection, with the Maatta going 12th overall. But Maatta's playoff performance and style of game earns him the nod in this list.

That's not to say that whichever team selects Ceci is not going to get an outstanding prospect.  Ceci performed at almost a point-per-game pace this season, netting 17 goals en route to 60 points in 64 games. He also played well for Canada at the U-18 World Junior Championships. He performed in all situations for the 67's, killing penalties and effectively serving as a triggerman on the power play. He's also a solid puck distributor and has good size — even if he doesn't always use it to his best advantage.

5. Malcolm Subban, G, Belleville Bulls

The second in the emerging Subban dynasty (older brother P.K. is a mainstay on the Montreal Canadiens' blue line; teammate and younger brother Jordan is a player to watch next year), Subban has rested atop the goaltender draft lists all season long.

Injuries hampered him this season, but when he was between the pipes he showed the athleticism and ability that should result in his name being called mid-way early in the NHL Draft.

He's not as large a goaltender as teams have tended to draft as of late, but he more than makes up for that with this dynamic play and solid positioning. This year, in 39 games, he posted a 2.50 goals-against average behind a .923 save percentage en route to winning 25 games for the Bulls. Admittedly, he's a couple of years away from the pro ranks, but when you combine his work ethic with his physical abilities and confidence, he projects as a solid prospect for a long-term NHL career.

6. Radek Faksa, C, Kitchener Rangers

The native of Opava, Czech Republic, has a more NHL-ready frame than the top two prospects, tipping the scales at over 200 pounds already with still some room to grow.

And although he did perform at a better than point-per-game pace this season, Faksa's not known for elite offensive talent. Instead, he's a solid faceoff man who plays the game with a bit of an edge and is conscientious about his defensive play.

He doesn't have prototypical power-forward size, but that is the style of game that he plays. He uses his body well and has solid speed. Faksa's not a top-flight scorer but will use his size effectively to get into good scoring position and has a good, solid, heavy shot.

7. Brendan Gaunce, C, Belleville Bulls

Gaunce is a bit of a gamble this high in the draft. Likely a late first-round selection, Gaunce has shown an ability to put the puck in the net, with 28 goals in 68 games, en route to a point-per-game season with the Bulls.

Where Gaunce falls short is in terms of speed. He doesn't have NHL-caliber skating yet but is putting in the work to improve upon it. He is a true intangibles guy — he's an excellent face-off guy and is willing to work hard in the grittier areas of the ice. Gaunce's backchecking is solid and he's always a good bet to come out of the corner with the puck.

Although selected second-overall in the OHL draft, he hasn't progressed offensively as some have expected. He is expected to continue to develop that part of his game and projects to be a better-than-average third-line presence with the ability to step up into a lower-top-six forward role.

8. Matt Finn, D, Guelph Storm

Finn doesn't jump off the ice at you — which, for a blueliner, can be a very good thing. He does all the little things right and is rarely caught out of position.  Much of that is attributed to Finn's outstanding hockey sense.

At 6', he's not an imposing figure on the ice, but he uses his spatial awareness to ensure he's in solid positioning and feather perfect passes to his teammates in transition. In many ways, Finn is a similar player to Pittsburgh Penguins' draft pick Scott Harrington — a player who could be considered on the elite-end of the two-way spectrum, but not one to wow you with his offensive game.

Like Harrington, instead of showing up on the highlight reels, much of Finn's efforts will result in W's in the standings. There is plenty of room for smart blueliners on NHL rosters and Finn should have no problem carving out a steady career in a few years.

9. Slater Koekkoek, D, Peterborough Petes

Koekkoek's draft stock was hurt by a shoulder injury that limited him to only 26 games this season. But, in a year where many of this year's draft-eligible players have been injured, prior performance and projection should ensure that the Mountain, Ontario native hears his name called late in the first round or early in the second.

Koekkoek is a solid offensive-minded blueliner. He has an excellent shot from the point that combines heaviness with accuracy. He also has excellent on-ice awareness and translates that into effective passing and puck distribution.

He's served as the Petes' power-play quarterback, but doesn't project to that role in the NHL. Instead, he looks to be a solid puck-moving blueliner who will fit in nicely on a second or third pairing and won't hurt a club appearing on the power play.

10. Thomas Wilson, RW, Plymouth Whalers

Tom Wilson has plenty of room to grow — both literally and figuratively. Carrying only 200 pounds on his 6-4 frame, the Toronto native could easily pack on at least 20 pounds of muscle, which aids in his projection.

The knock against Wilson is that he's not a good finisher. What he does bring is size, potential for more size, and an already-displayed willingness to use it to full effect. He's a solid body checker and isn't afraid to play the role of enforcer. But far from being a stereotypical goon, Wilson can play a regular shift, is solid defensively, and can be a valuable energy-line player.

Wilson has adequate speed — considered good for his size — but his value won't be on the move, but rather it will come from within a 10-foot radius of the opposition's net. NHL teams always put a premium on size, looking for those big power-forward types to fill their roster. A poor man's Milan Lucic, Wilson needs to work on his offensive game to transition to the next level.

11. Tanner Pearson, LW, Barrie Colts

The hope for Pearson is that the old adage "the third time's the charm" will apply. Having been passed over in two previous drafts, the 19-year-old forward showed he's simply a late bloomer and has insinuated himself into the draft discussion this season.

Pearson dedicated himself over the off-season to improving all aspects of his game. In addition, his physical attributes improved wherein he packed on more muscle, picked up some speed in his stride, and translated improved confidence into increased production.

He finished the season with 91 points in 60 games, including 37 goals to finish third overall in the OHL, behind only Michael Sgarbossa (COL) and Tyler Toffoli (LAK).  That point production marked more than a doubling of last year's 42-point performance in six more games. In addition, Pearson's commitment to improving his defensive play reflected in his plus/minus stats — he went from a minus-12 last year to a plus-21 this season.

And when it comes to intangibles, Pearson has one that many of his draft-eligible compatriots don't — hunger. He's been down this road twice before and dedicated himself to ensuring that another draft won't go by without his name being called. In addition to appreciating the opportunity, he's also shown an understanding of what it takes to make it — which will go a long way in helping him transition to the pro ranks.

12. Daniil Zharkov, LW, Belleville Bulls

Zharkov was another prospect whose season was marred by an injury — he missed the start of the past season after suffering a broken collar bone in training camp.

But once he arrived, he found instant chemistry with fellow draft-eligible forward Gaunce, and was a key player for the Bulls, netting 23 goals and 36 points in 50 games. At 6-3 and 200 pounds, the left-shooting Russian also has solid NHL-ready size, with some room on his frame to pack on a few more pounds of muscle.

Zharkov is very talented and is a solid skater, but needs to bulk up to avoid getting pushed off the puck so easily. He's also a very streaky player — when he's good, he's great; but he can be known to disappear for long stretches, and his defensive play is not at a level where those offensive lapses can be overlooked.

13. Jarrod Maidens, C, Owen Sound Attack

The young man known as "Iron" Maidens capped off his first OHL season in style, scoring the game-seven overtime OHL championship-winning goal. All looked promising to start his draft-eligible campaign until a mid-November injury ended up shutting him down for the year.

Rumoured to be a concussion, Maidens' mysterious injury (mysterious only in its nature; not its veracity) may cause some teams to shy away from the young forward. But the team that casts its lot in with the Grimsby, Ontario native — should he remain injury free — may end up with the steal of the draft.

Maidens has mid-first-round talent and was pacing the Attack's attack this season with 12 goals and 23 points in 28 games prior to the injury. If he was four inches shorter, he'd be defined as a "super-pest", but instead he combines that zeal for aggressive hard-driving play with a 6'2 frame. Teams love players like that — especially when they combine the obvious goal-scoring abilities that Maidens has.

The biggest risk? A long-term concussion of this nature may scare many teams away. Forget Eric Lindros — some teams may be reminded of the example set by Eric's brother Brett when looking at the talented, tenacious forward. Maidens is the type of guy any team would want on their roster — the question is will he be able to stay there, assuming he's even able to return to the level he was at.

14. Scott Laughton, C, Oshawa Generals

The third-overall selection in the 2012 OHL draft (behind only Galchenyuk and Gaunce), Laughton's progression through the OHL has been slow, but steady. In his first season, the offensively gifted Laughton was cast, out of necessity, as a defensive stopper — finding himself stuck behind names like Jensen, Thomas, Jenner, and Lessio on a stacked Generals' roster last year.

This year, Laughton embraced the greater opportunity he received as a top-six forward and translated that into solid production — 21 goals and 53 points in 64 games, up from 23 points last year). And that year interning in a defensive role has only served to increase the Oakville, Onrario native's value by allowing him to develop those other skills that will serve him well at the next level.

In addition to improving his defensive play and awareness, Laughton has become an elite faceoff man and penalty killer. He's an excellent shot blocker and can play a shutdown role against the opposition's top forwards. He doesn't have great size, but what size he does have he's shown a willingness to use, racking up 101 penalty minutes.

What holds Laughton back is his skating. He's a solid skater in terms of having a good center of gravity and using his body to protect the puck. But he lacks that first burst and elite stride that players of his size need to succeed.

With continued development in skating and the benefit of his defensive tenure last year, Laughton could easily fit into a third-line role at the NHL level, bringing the added benefit of a little offensive pop.

15. Michael Houser, G, London Knights

Sometimes you wonder what it takes to get ranked. You could forgive Michael Houser for falling into that mind-set. After all, when all you do is win and you're amongst the elite in the CHL, it can be frustrating to see those efforts not translate into opportunity.

Although only ranked 16th by Central Scouting among eligible goaltenders, Houser has consistently beaten the odds, rising from an undrafted prospect to the OHL's MVP and in consideration for the CHL's top prize.

Ranked behind goalies like Jake Paterson, Frank Palazzese, Daniel Altshuller, and Matej Machovsky within his own league, Houser clearly outperformed them all. The bottom line is that Houser wins. He may do it in an unorthodox manner, but he's served as a solid last line of defense for a Knights team that has exceeded pre-season expectations all year.

Houser's not great at handling the puck, but he controls rebounds well and uses his athleticism well. His performance this year are reasons 1 and 1A explaining London's appearance in the Memorial Cup. He's been passed over before (in the OHL draft and the NHL draft), but his combination of ability and proven performance should ensure that a draft snub doesn't happen again this year.