With the major junior ranks now heading into the last week or two of the regular season, the last minute push for playoff spots has really intensified. Following are some of my notes from the three leagues.
All the talk in the Ontario Hockey League this season begins and ends with the London Knights. Without a doubt one of the strongest teams I’ve seen in recent memory, London is primed for a Memorial Cup. An already powerful team, they became even more dangerous with some key trade deadline deals. The bottom line is that the Knights organization, from top to bottom, may be the best in the CHL.
They have ownership/management committed to winning. They play in a state of the art facility and have exceptional fan support. London has been building up to this for the last year or two. It’s always good to see a plan come to fruition.
One element that has gotten a bit overlooked is the role that a strong scouting staff has played in developing a winner. The 2001 OHL draft is a perfect example of this. Most clubs still have a couple of players in their lineup from that particular draft with maybe another player or two scattered around the league. And what do the Knights have to show from that draft? How about Corey Perry, Dylan Hunter, Gerald Coleman, Danny Syvret, and Marc Methot. And fourth rounder Kyle Quincey is now in Mississauga. A strong draft can go a long way to vaulting a team into prominence. And London is hoping it will carry them to the Memorial Cup.
The Knights toughest obstacle may well lie within the OHL in the form of the Owen Sound Attack. The offensive production from the top four of Brad Richardson, Bobby Ryan, Patrick Jarrett, and Stefan Ruzicka has been second to none in the league. They may not have the overall firepower and depth that London possesses, but their top guys’ match-up pretty well. Former WHL forward Robin Big Snake has also been a factor this year, providing size, toughness and a surprising scoring touch.
The biggest thing that the Attack may have going for them is their confidence. They legitimately feel they can play with and beat London. If they get hot at the right time and their goaltending comes through in the clutch, Owen Sound will be quite a challenge.
Elsewhere, the Peterborough Petes have been a pleasant surprise. I simply didn’t expect them to have an offense this explosive. Daniel Ryder and Liam Reddox haven’t let their lack of size hold them back, emerging as skilled, dynamic players. I remember scouting Reddox when he was in Junior A a couple of years back. He was good then and even better now. He has progressed very nicely. And power forward Patrick Kaleta has made a name for himself as a tough competitor who works hard and creates room on the ice. Put him in the slot or in front of the net and he’s hard to handle.
After losing some real talented players over the past two seasons, Kitchener has quietly been rebuilding. They’re still a year or so away from fully realizing their potential. Draft eligible Patrick Davis, Jakub Kindl, Matt Lashoff, Mike Duco and Kevin Henderson along with ’06 prospects Justin Azevedo, Myles Applebaum and Jack Combs should form a fine nucleus over the next couple of seasons.
If Windsor forward Steve Downie were an inch or two taller, he’d be a legitimate first round prospect. He’s one of those guys that you just enjoy watching. He’s an intense player who’s always around the puck and always getting involved.
When heading up to Sudbury, most of the scout’s attention has been squarely on Benoit Pouliot. His consistency has been remarkable this year, as he always seems to put a point or two up on the board and his work ethic has been pretty steady as well. I expected his play to drop off as the season wore on, but it just hasn’t happened. The next time a NHL draft rolls around, he has top five potential.
As impressive as Pouliot has been, I’ve managed to pay pretty close attention to a couple of other draft eligible players in Sudbury. Defensemen Marc Staal and Adam McQuaid are a pair of intriguing blueliners who have the raw tools to be very good NHL players. They are both a bit raw at this point, but from everything I’ve seen from them, I’ve come away impressed.
Over in the Western Hockey League, I’m looking for a wide open playoff race with no less than a half dozen contenders for the league title. Although Kootenay and Kelowna have been at the top of the standings for a while, there’s not a lot separating the league’s upper echelon clubs from each other. The playoffs are going to be a wild ride this season.
Eric Fehr has elevated his game to the point where things look easy for him. He’s used his size, strength and natural scoring instincts to emerge as the league’s top goal scorer. Fehr has been unstoppable on the power play and he’s done a fine job of avoiding any prolonged slumps.
While I’m on the subject of the Brandon Wheat Kings, I’ve quietly been cheering for forward Ryan Stone. Combining toughness and intensity with pretty decent hands, Stone is a team player who does the little things well. After battling through some injury problems over the past couple of years, he’s finally showing how good he can be when he’s at full strength.
As far as I’m concerned, Vancouver’s Gilbert Brule has lived up to expectations this year. He competes, wins the one-on-one battles and knows what to do with the puck once he gets control of it. And not to take anything away from his teammates, but Brule is not surrounded by a ton of talent, making his scoring numbers even more impressive. Sure he’s not the biggest of players and his style will wear on him in the NHL, but I’d give him serious consideration as a top three selection in the next draft.
Andrew Ladd’s scoring may be down in Calgary, but I’m not too concerned. He’s still on track to become a physical forward with a scoring touch. Ladd’s even strength play continues to progress, inching him closer to the NHL.
Kootenay’s offense has really come alive in the past few weeks, keyed by the play of Nigel Dawes. It’s easy to look at his lack of size and discredit his long term potential, but be careful not to judge too quickly. He can skate, handle the puck at top speed and in traffic, and he knows how to finish. Learning to use his speed at both ends of the ice and in all three zones will be imperative for his success in the NHL.
In Quebec, it’s awfully easy to get caught up in the exploits of Sidney Crosby. When you’re able to score at a two-and-a-half point per game pace, you’re going to get a lot of attention. But believe it or not, there are some other pretty decent players in the Q this year.
Marc Antoine Pouliot is developing very well in Rimouski. He’s much stronger on the puck and he’s continued to round out his overall game. I’ve been a little hesitant to recognize Dany Roussin as a top prospect, but he’s beginning to win me over. His work ethic has improved and he has a high skill level.
Chicoutimi winger Maxime Boisclair is having a career year, but I still don’t see him as an everyday NHL forward. At best, he may become a power play specialist where his quick hands and deft touch may give him a chance. Teammate Marek Zagrapan has posted some pretty decent numbers, but the scouts I’ve talked with have some mixed opinions of him. I really like his upside but have to admit he looks like a risky prospect at times.
Over the past twelve months, Jim Sharrow has made tremendous strides in Halifax. He’s finally starting to put the pieces together. There’s still a way to go, especially in his own zone, but the progress in undeniable.
Look for Drummondville to be a stronger team next year, led in part by 2006 draft prospect Derick Brassard. He adapted quickly to major junior and has shown above average playmaking skills.
One way or another, Lewiston’s Alex Bourret always gets himself involved in the play. His blend of aggressiveness and natural ability is terrific. And anytime a prospect plays bigger than he is, he scores points in my book. Teammate Alexandre Picard meanwhile is awfully close to being NHL ready. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him step right in next season.