Beginning in the Western Hockey League, things are as wide open now as they were at the start of the season. I still think there may be as many as six or seven teams with legitimate chances of getting to the Memorial Cup.
Thanks to a well-balanced offensive attack, Medicine Hat has been the Dub’s most explosive team. They have three lines that are capable of scoring, and when there are any breakdowns, workhorse goalie Matt Keetley (CAL) has been very solid. Their top scorer is Darren Helm, a player who has really surprised me with how quickly he has developed. Week by week he looks like a better prospect.
It’s been a similar season in Kootenay where Ryan Russell (NYR) and Adam Cracknell (CAL) lead a solid group of scoring forwards. The Ice have very good depth up front, but they lack that cornerstone defenseman who can control play. Veteran Taylor Dakers (SJ) has been very reliable in net, but he’s been forced to share playing time with rookie Kris Lazaruk, an extremely underrated prospect for the 2006 draft.
Justin Pogge’s (TOR) performance at the World Junior Championships came as no surprise to anyone who’s seen him regularly with Calgary. What he did on the international stage is no different than what he does on a nightly basis for the Hitmen. He makes all the routine saves and more than his share of outstanding ones. I haven’t been able to say this for quite a while, but I think that the Toronto Maple Leafs may have finally found a goaltender for the future. Calgary’s group of defensemen is pretty impressive, as I really like how they move the puck and contribute to the attack. But I do have some questions about the team’s offensive production up front. The Hitmen will go as far as Pogge can take them. And from what we’ve all seen, that could be pretty far. There will be more than a few 1-0 and 2-1 games in their future.
Goalie Dustin Slade has been Vancouver’s top player. He’s been reliable, steady and at times spectacular. Of course playing behind a veteran group of blueliners helps, but Slade has been very strong nonetheless.
Some of the individual players who have really stood out for me this year have been the Moose Jaw trio of Troy Brouwer (CHI), Dustin Boyd (CAL) and Kenndal McArdle (FLA), Saskatoon’s Devin Setoguchi (SJ) and Joe Barnes, and Vancouver’s Michal Repik. One of the draft eligibles that has really caught my eye is Everett forward Peter Mueller. He should be a top five pick in June. Other draft prospects of note are forwards Codey Burki (Brandon), Riley Holzapfel (Moose Jaw) and Sasha Golin (Portland), along with goalie Kevin Armstrong (Spokane) and Prince George blueliner Ty Wishart.
Despite what will be formidable challenges from the likes of London, Barrie and possibly a resurgent Kitchener team, I still consider Peterborough to be the top club in the OHL. The Petes have two very good scoring lines, a solid defense, and in David Shantz (FLA), a goalie who can win the big game for them. I was very impressed with how they upgraded the team toughness during the course of the season and as I said here before, the acquisition of Steve Downie (PHI) will be significant. He’ll provide intensity, passion and enough offensive production to warrant a ton of ice time. Peterborough will just need a way to keep him in the lineup and out of the penalty box.
In London, Rob Schremp (EDM) continues to show that he may be too good for this league. Things are too easy for him at this level. Sure he can work on his defense and physical play and I know there’s always room to improve any facet of your game, but at this juncture, I’m not sure how much more he can accomplish here. He’s definitely ready to test himself at the NHL level.
Evan McGrath (DET) has almost single-handedly carried the Kitchener offense. He plays in all game situations, he’s shown good leadership ability and he can play under pressure. I still think Kitchener will be a very tough team come playoff time.
Ranked seventh in the latest Central Scouting rankings, Barrie’s Bryan Little has been very good this year. The more I see of him, the more I think that his lack of size will not be an issue for him. He simply knows how to play the game. He competes, doesn’t back down from bigger opponents and he’s willing to take a hit to make a play. His leadership qualities have also shown through this season as he’s stepped up to the challenge and been able to handle the responsibilities.
One thing I’m always looking for is a prospect that makes gradual improvement in his overall game. A few OHL players who have really elevated their play have been forwards Michael Blunden (Erie, CHI), Chad Painchaud (Sarnia, ATL) and Matt D’Agostini (Guelph, MON) and defensemen Andrej Sekera (Owen Sound, BUF), Patrick McNeill (Saginaw, WAS) and Marc Staal (Sudbury, NYR).
Looking ahead to the 2006 draft, pay close attention to Oshawa’s Cal Clutterbuck, Brampton’s Luke Lynes, Ottawa’s Jamie McGinn and Saginaw’s Matt Corrente. I think these guys are a bit underrated at this juncture.
The Quebec League has the most dangerous trio in major junior in the form of Chicoutimi’s Maxime Boisclair, Stanislav Lascek (TB) and David Desharnais. Of the three however, Lascek seems like the only one with a legitimate shot at playing regularly in the NHL. The Sagueneen have a decent shot at reaching the Memorial Cup this year. They have enough offensive depth to relegate Marek Zagrapan (BUF) to the second line, and with Patrick Coulombe and Julien Brouillette on the blue line, Chicoutimi’s offense is top notch. I think they’ll be there in the end.
The Moncton Wildcats have really been on a run lately, keyed in part by the play of center Philippe Dupuis (CLB) and defenseman Keith Yandle (PHO). Look for forwards Martins Karsums (BOS) and Adam Pineault (CLB) to play bigger roles as the season winds down. The acquisition of blueliner Luc Bourdon (VAN) provides stability and reliability, two elements that will be even more important come playoff time. And goalie Josh Tordjman has been nearly perfect since coming over from Victoriaville. He just needs to get accustomed to seeing fewer shots on a nightly basis.
Another team playing their best hockey of the season is the Quebec Remparts. Alexandre Radulov (NAS), Angelo Esposito, Mathieu Melanson, and recent acquisition Brent Aubin have been carrying the offense and I really like the defense of Michal Sersen (PIT), Marc Edouard Vlasic (SJ), Joey Ryan, and Andrew Andicopolous. Quebec will need their second and third lines to pick up the pace and provide more support. But the potential is certainly there.
They haven’t been getting much attention this year, but Acadie-Bathurst has very quietly put together an excellent season. They have forward depth and balanced scoring and they’ve rebuilt their defense creating a nice mix of skill and toughness. Gabriel Bouthillette (ANA) has done a real nice job in net, showing good development since last season.
Some players who have impressed me particularly over the past several weeks or so have been Baie Comeau’s Alexandre Picard-Hooper, Cape Breton’s James Sheppard, Gatineau’s Claude Giroux, Lewiston’s Mathieu Aubin (MON) and Marc Andre Cliché (NYR), PEI’s Marc Andre Gragnani (BUF), and Val d’or’s Olivier Latendresse. And among the first time draft eligibles, I like Baie Comeau’s Francois Bouchard, Saint John’s Felix Schutz, Rouyn Noranda’s Hugo Carpentier, and Lewiston’s Eric Castonguay.
Taking a look at the USHL, the Des Moines tandem of Kyle Okposo and Trevor Lewis has been terrific this season. Ranked 13th overall in North America in Central Scouting’s latest ranking, Okposo has displayed his speed and puck skills, and played a pretty fair two-way game as well. I still think he has top 10 potential for June. Lewis meanwhile has been just as effective as Okposo, but is considered by most scouts to be a mid-late second round pick. I think that’s a bit low. He may not be an ideal skater, but he’s tough to knock off the puck and has that hockey sense which allows him to be around the play and anticipate where it’s going.
Sioux Falls has been the class of the league so far. Balanced scoring and solid team defense have been major factors, but the real story has been the play of goaltenders Alex Kangas and John Murray. They’ve shared the netminding duties this year for the Stampede and both have been outstanding. From the scouts I’ve spoken with, Kangas is thought to be the better prospect, but Murray isn’t all that far behind. If these two were in major junior, they would be getting a lot more attention.
Chad Costello leads the league in scoring, but hasn’t been able to win over the scouts yet. He has the puck skills and smarts, but two big strikes against him are his lack of size and his reliance on the finesse game. His Cedar Rapids teammate Phil Axtell is at the other end of the spectrum, with tremendous size and strength and good upside, but little production. After disappointing scouts for the past year or two, Axtell has finally started to play with more consistency. And in the process, NHL clubs are starting to look his way again. His skating however, is still a drawback.
Outside of Green Bay’s Eric Gryba and possibly Des Moines’ Jeff Petry, it’s not a particularly good crop of draft eligible defensemen. I do like Chad Morin, but I’d like to see better numbers from him. The top blueliners in the league seem to lack NHL size or have questionable NHL caliber skating. Guys like Eli Vlaisavljevich, Nick Schaus, Eddie Del Grosso, and Nate Prosser are talented players who will become excellent college level defensemen. But I’m not yet sold on their pro potential.
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