Now that the major junior ranks have reached the mid-point of the season, here’s a brief look at some of my thoughts on the Ontario and Quebec Leagues. For the fans of the Western League, sorry, you’re going to have to wait until my next column.
They may not be that impressive on paper, but the Barrie Colts have been a real force in the OHL’s Central Division. The Atlanta Thrashers are very pleased with the continuing development of forward Bryan Little, as he’s moving ever so close to being NHL ready. Little has almost reached the point of not being able to accomplish much more at the OHL level. This year he has really been able to help elevate the game of the players around him. Support guys such as overage Hunter Tremblay and Richard Clune have been particularly effective on the power play while undersized Kris Sparre and Vladimir Nikiforov keep putting points on the board. And Andrew Marshall’s contributions on the blueline have been invaluable.
Netminder Andrew Perugini has been a workhorse in goal and is finally starting to attract the attention of NHL scouts. He isn’t blessed with great size, but he has really improved positional play, and you have to like his poise and composure.
Former USHL standout John Murray has been an integral part of Kitchener’s solid season. The undrafted goalie has been overlooked for the past couple of years, but he’s now emerged as arguably the OHL’s most dominant netminder. The Rangers seem to feed off of his play and he’s helped lift the overall confidence level of the team. Draft eligible forward Nick Spaling has been very good at times and has improved his draft ranking. So too has defenseman Yannick Weber, a skilled puck mover who can quarterback a power play. Veteran defenseman Jakub Kindl (DET) has been effective at both ends of the ice and he’s really stepped up his overall game this year.
As we’ve said before, the London Knights don’t rebuild, they reload. After losing a ton of talent over the last year or two, London again finds itself near the top of the standings. The dynamic duo of Patrick Kane and Sam Gagner has simply been unstoppable. I don’t want to hear about Kane’s lack of size or lack of breakaway speed. He is a big league talent with exceptional vision, anticipation and hockey sense. He has an above average skill level and he’s a threat every time he’s on the ice. One scout commented to me earlier this year that he simply couldn’t believe how smoothly Kane adjusted to the OHL. He hasn’t just solidified his first round status. He’s a potential top five pick.
In terms of production and overall play, Gagner and Kane are very similar. Gagner is a bit bigger and stronger on the puck, while also possessing good hands and hockey sense. It’s realistic to expect both of these guys to be top ten draft picks in June.
The Plymouth Whalers top six forwards may collectively be the best in the league, or at least the biggest and most physical. Their top two lines are very difficult to match up against and, when the Whalers are on the power play, they’re simply overpowering. Evan Brophey (CHI) has done an excellent job of pacing the attack and serving as the setup man. James Neal (DAL), Tom Sestito (CLM), Jared Boll (CLM) and Dan Collins (FLA) have been solid, while underrated defenseman Steve Ward has logged a lot of ice time. Plymouth may have the best netminding duo in the league with Washington draft pick Michal Neuvirth and draft eligible Jeremy Smith. They’ve shared duties and posted virtually identical numbers. Smith may have emerged as the OHL’s top draft eligible goalie.
By the time the season is over, Saginaw could have as many as a dozen players in double figures in goals scored. They’ve been winning with terrific offensive depth and balance. I’ve been particularly impressed with Tom Pyatt (NYR) and Jan Mursak (DET). The Spirit dealt a piece of their future when they sent Zack Torquato and draft picks to Erie in exchange for Ryan O’Marra (NYI). This definitely makes Saginaw stronger for the second half of the season. And Nigel Williams’ (COL) decision to jump to the OHL is looking better all the time. As good as Saginaw has been, just wait until goalie Ryan Daniels (OTT) finds his groove. He’s played decent hockey so far, but he’s capable of playing even better.
Speaking of Torquato, I’m really not sure how excited he was about going from a top five team in Saginaw to the leagues worst in Erie. But it was a welcome change of scenery and will turn out to be a real blessing in disguise. With the Otters, he’s now playing on the first line and the top power play unit, while killing penalties and generally getting a lot more ice time than he was in Saginaw. He’s also being given the opportunity to take on a leadership role. Considering it’s his draft year, the trade may be the best thing for Torquato.
While I’m on the subject of draft eligible players, it’s shaping up to be a pretty interesting year in Ontario. That is, at least as far as the forwards are concerned. Kane, Gagner and Ottawa’s Logan Couture headline the group. While it’s still pretty early to begin slotting guys in for the draft, it’s safe to say that these three will be off the board in the top ten picks. After the big three, there is a noticeable drop-off. But there is still some intrigue. Among the next group of players is Kitchener’s Spaling and another very solid prospect in Oshawa’s Brett MacLean. Torquato and new Erie teammate Nick Palmeri have some upside while Ottawa’s Arron Alphonso and Mississauga’s Stefan Legein are underrated wingers with good skills. Overall, it’s a deeper crop than they’re given credit for. But it’s another story with the defensemen.
Erie defenseman Josh Kidd has size and toughness and is playing in all situations. He’s still pretty raw, but he has good tools to work with. Sarnia’s Mark Katic has top-notch skills, while Webber in Kitchener and Belleville’s P.K. Subban have some long-term potential. But there isn’t much depth behind them. I keep waiting for another player or two to step up, but it just hasn’t happened. One bright spot however is that the group of 2008 draft eligible defensemen is shaping up to be excellent.
One of the top stories in the Quebec League this season has been the play of the Lewiston Maineiacs, or, more exactly, the play of their goalie, Jonathan Bernier (LAK). He has simply been at the top of his game. One of the things I look for in a young player is if he has the ability to make things look easy. Bernier is not only able to stop the puck, but he makes it look so natural. It’s almost effortless at times. He has the luxury of playing behind a pretty solid defense led by Chad Denny (ATL), but Bernier has been exceptionally strong. He has that rare ability to get inside the heads of opposing forwards and throw them off their game.
While Bernier’s performance may have been expected in Lewiston, I have been pleasantly surprised at the play of draft eligible forward David Perron. He has an above average skill level and the raw tools to play at both ends of the ice. He has definitely helped his draft stock. At the start of the year, I said he’d have to prove me wrong, and so far he has.
Cape Breton’s position near the top of the league standings has less to do with starting goalie Ondrej Pavelec (ATL) and more to do with a terrific trio of overage players. Pavelec has posted decent numbers, but he hasn’t been at the level I had expected. But 20-year-old forwards Cam Fergus and Paul Alexander McIlveen and defenseman Jean-Claude Sawyer have been outstanding this season. Savage has also had a positive impact on the development of Philadelphia prospect Oskars Bartulis. He’s learning to pick his spots better and he’s playing with a lot more confidence and composure this season. Minnesota draft pick James Sheppard continues to develop, but he’s still several years away. He is the proverbial work in progress.
Val d’or has rather quietly put together a very good season. Center Brad Marchand (Boston) and overage winger Mathieu Roy have formed an excellent pairing, and the recent acquisition of winger Jerome Samson from Moncton makes the Foreurs even better. The goaltending situation has me a bit puzzled, however. I expected Alexandre Vincent (VAN) to have a career year this season. But instead, he’s been outplayed by rookie and top draft prospect Raffael D’Orso, and Val d’or is gearing up to bring in another goalie before the trade deadline. Defensively, getting Kris Letang back from Pittsburgh has really helped. He is an offensive force on the blueline and exceptional in the transition game.
One team to keep an eye on in the second half will be Acadie-Bathurst. They have two solid scoring lines, a couple of big-game players in Thomas Beauregard and Mathieu Perreault (WAS) and an underrated defense led by Mathieu Carle (MTL). But I have to admit that I’m not sold on their goaltending. They’re going to need another upgrade in net, or have to play more of a defensive style if they want to pose a serious threat.
Maybe my expectations were a bit too high, but I’m still looking for a surge in the standings from Quebec. It’s not that they’ve been playing poorly, it’s just that from glancing at their roster, they should be having an easier time of things. Inconsistency, especially in goal, has been a real problem. Kevin Desfosses has become their number one netminder, but I don’t know how far they can go with him. Brent Aubin is generating more than enough offense, while Angelo Esposito has shown flashes of his world-class talent. Center Felix Petit may be undersized, but he is a skilled forward who deserves more attention. And Ruslan and Roman Bashkirov are fun to watch. If the Remparts find a way to put the pieces together down the homestretch, they will be a very difficult team to play.
It may not be hard to tell from the record, but Rimouski is heading in the right direction. After all, this is major junior hockey where, with the exception of a few franchises, you sometimes have to build patiently for the future. They may struggle to get to 15 wins this season, but I think there’s at least six or seven future NHL players on the roster. Maxime Gratchev, Maxime Tanguay, Olivier Fortier and David Skokan will all be drafted in June, while prospects for 2008 and beyond include Patrice Cormier, Philippe Cornet and Jordan Caron.
Gatineau winger Claude Giroux has shown that last year’s performance was not an aberration. He is a legitimate NHL star in the making. He started out the season playing as well as anybody in the league. Giroux’s play had dropped off a bit in recent weeks but he’s still producing scoring chances.