Lighting It Up – July Edition

By Glenn Gawronski

With major junior training camps less than six weeks away, it’s time to catch up on some of the happenings around the world of junior hockey and look ahead to what may be on the horizon…

When we last left you, the London Knights were capping off their record breaking regular season with a Memorial Cup victory. One of the best junior teams to be assembled in recent memory, London simply outclassed most of the competition. This coming season will be a slightly different story, though.

The Knights will have a significant number of new faces in the lineup, so, despite having some solid returning players, there will be some major voids to fill both on and off the ice. They lose talent, experience, toughness, and character. Not only will London have to deal with new faces in the lineup, but they will also have to contend with a bit of ill will.

I’ve heard on several occasions that some opponents didn’t take too kindly to the way London won a few games last year. There were not so subtle accusations of running up the score or playing their top guys a bit too much. Sour grapes? Very likely. But you can be sure there will be teams really gunning for the Knights this season.

It’s a little too early for predictions, but it’s looking like Peterborough and Kitchener are shaping up as the OHL’s top contenders…

While I’m on the subject of the OHL, one player I’m really looking forward to seeing on the ice is John Tavares. Now that the commotion has died down regarding his inclusion in the 2005 draft, everyone can focus on his development. I’ve always subscribed to the belief that when a player is in the development stage, he will progress quicker and have a better chance of reaching his potential when he is challenged. As for Tavares, playing Junior A would have been good for him. But playing major junior will be better.

There’s no doubt that he has the tools and the skill level to be a terrific player. And mentally and emotionally he should be able to deal with the OHL. So why not have him elevate his game, push himself and find out as soon as possible what it takes to play at the next level? Playing close to home and for a solid team with a good reputation only makes the situation better…

As for the 2005 OHL draft, there are a few other prospects worth watching from the start. Saginaw forward Zack Torquato has an impressive skill level and very good instincts. He should be able to step right into the lineup and see significant playing time. The second choice overall, defenseman Marc Katic, is an exciting blueliner who only lacks top-notch size. A potential two-way player, I’m looking forward to seeing him in the transition game.

A lot was made of the Logan Couture situation, how he went from being a potential number one selection to being drafted in the middle of the first round. The drop, of course, was because of threats that he would go the college route instead of major junior. But the bottom line is that he’s playing in the OHL, which apparently was his first choice all along, and in regard to his long-term success, likely the best place for him. Plus you can do a lot worse than playing for Ottawa. They’re a top-notch organization with a commitment to winning and developing players. It may have been a bit of a gamble for the 67’s, but it’s one that will begin to pay off quickly.

One draft day roll of the dice, which may not work out, is Plymouth’s selection of defenseman Nick Petrecki ninth overall. He had top two or three potential, but, seemingly intent on playing college hockey down the road, he scared most teams away. But the Whalers still took a chance on him. Petrecki still appears headed to the NCAA, but something tells me that Plymouth will make another serious run at him…

One player who has decided to go the major junior route and not play college hockey is former Minnesota high schooler and US Development star Peter Mueller. The Everett Silvertips signing of Mueller is quite a coup for the WHL. This almost makes up for not being able to persuade Jonathan Toews to join the league. A potential top five pick in next year’s NHL draft, Mueller may start out a bit slower than expected, but once he adjusts to the pace and style of the game, look out…

It took far too long to happen, but it’s good to see Ted Nolan back in the game. He has a real opportunity to have some success with a very solid team in Moncton. One thing Nolan has always been able to do is to get his players focused and committed to the team game. Lack of effort will not be a problem for the Wildcats. And something tells me that Nolan is going to set out to really prove himself this season. Just this one season back in junior hockey may be enough to vault Nolan back into NHL consideration…

The USHL continues to make small steps toward its goal of being a realistic alternative for major junior calibre players. More and more prospects are really beginning to think about the USHL route as opposed to Junior A loops in Canada or even the CHL. Without getting into an argument over which is the better development path to follow, the numbers are starting to bear out the fact that the USHL is making strides. They may not he there yet, but they are certainly making noticeable strides.

As was discussed a couple of months ago, OHL-bound John Tavares was giving serious consideration to the USHL before the OHL revised its eligibility rules. Now we don’t think that he would have stayed in the league for longer than one year, but it would have definitely been a better level of hockey than he would have found had he spent a season in the OPJHL, for example.

Over the past several years, the USHL has improved their coaching staffs, brought in more highly skilled offensive players, improved the overall league depth, and added some real top-notch goaltending. Somewhere on the horizon will be expansion allowing the league to extend its reach and compete for even more players. But the league is moving slowly to avoid diluting the product.

The USHL might not be getting a ton of publicity, but the college coaches and recruiters, and more than ever, the NHL scouts know the quality of play…

It seems like everyone has come out with their comments on the top prospects for the 2005 NHL draft, so for what it’s worth, I might as well throw out some of my thoughts as well.

I’m still torn as to who the No. 2 pick should be. Some days I like Benoit Pouliot, other days Jack Johnson. With only one year of major junior experience under his belt, I’m just not comfortable enough yet with Pouliot. Based on what he showed this year, I know that shouldn’t matter. He’s a potential star in the NHL, but I would have really liked to have seen him after two or so years in the OHL. Johnson meanwhile is a prototypical two-way defenseman. If he doesn’t impress you with his strength and toughness, he’ll get your attention with his puck skills and mobility. There’s just not a lot separating the two.

Anze Kopitar is one of the early wild cards in the draft. It’s not unrealistic to think that five years from now, he may well be the second best player from the draft. Considering the comments of some of the scouts I’ve talked to, there are more than a few teams who view him as one of the top three or so players overall.

As far as underrated players go, I really like Ryan O’Marra, Chris Durand, Justin Abdelkader, and Radek Smolenak among the forwards and defensemen Matt Lashoff, Jakub Vojta, Marc Andre Gragnani, Nate Hagemo, and Joe Finley. I think that each of these guys could be better than advertised.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Futute. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.