Coming into this season, the consensus top three players for the 2007 Entry Draft were the Ottawa 67s Logan Couture, the Quebec Remparts’ Angelo Esposito, and Halifax’s Jakub Voracek. Well, there are many reasons why the game is played on the ice and not on paper and the arrival of several other contenders to the throne promises to make the 2007 NHL Entry Draft on June 23rd in Columbus one to remember.
And while two of the top three OHL prospects are over the moon playing with each other on the same line for the high-flying London Knights, one spent the better part of the season under the weather, battling through – and finally succumbing to – mononucleosis.
Yet, despite a sub-standard season so far, Couture remains at the top of the pack. When healthy, he still dominates in a way unlike the others and does so with a far less talented roster around him. Those who count out Couture this early do so at their own risk, because he is a top-flight talent who is just now starting to round back into his superlative form. As dynamic as some of these other players have been, Couture still has that aura of potential about him to which scouts are drawn.
Here is a look at the projected top-10 OHL draft-eligible players.
1. Logan Couture, C, Ottawa 67s – Despite all the hand-wringing going on about Couture’s precipitous fall during the first half of the 2006-07 season, one has the feeling that when that first name is announced on the podium in Columbus, Couture will be the one making that trip up the aisle.
Couture battled through a bout of mononucleosis that forced him to miss 10 games this season. What gets lost in the translation is that Couture actually persevered through several games prior to finally sitting out. His performance was literally only half-speed, and he’s only now starting to round into peak condition. And he appears to be making up for lost time.
In just 12 games in December, Couture scored a league-leading 11 goals in the month and tallied 23 total points. Overall, he’s accounted for 41 points in 31 games – not what was expected after an outstanding rookie season that saw him net 64 points in 65 games, but certainly admirable under the circumstances.
Blessed with outstanding vision, superlative hockey sense, and a willingness to compete that goes above and beyond the norm, Couture’s early season challenges will probably in retrospect be seen as nothing more than an aberration. But beyond his offensive prowess, Couture’s all-around game is really what gets hockey fans’ – and scouts’ – tongues wagging. Comparisons to Steve Yzerman and Ron Francis have been earned and he continues to display the on and off-ice maturity that speaks of a future captain.
A solid second half of the campaign will find him rocket back up to the top of the charts to reclaim the mantle of top prospect that he’s worn for a couple of years now.
2. Pat Kane, RW, London Knights – Kane was a much-ballyhooed recruit out of the United States Development Program and the Hunter brothers scored a coup bringing him north of the border to play in the OHL. After a somewhat sluggish start to the season that saw him overshadowed by the dynamic play of his linemate Sam Gagner, Kane has developed into the dominant offensive force that he was expected to be. His play at the World Junior Championships, where he was a driving force behind the U.S.’ bronze-medal performance confirmed his ability to come up big in big games. Even an 0 for 2 performance in a semi-final shootout against the eventual-champion Canadians couldn’t diminish his stellar campaign.
Kane has been amongst the OHL leaders in scoring all season long. Currently he finds himself third behind Belleville’s Tyler Donati and Oshawa’s John Tavares with 28 goals and 47 assists for 75 points. However, it is worth noting that while league-leader Donati has nine more points than Kane, he has also played nine more games. Tavares is ahead of Kane by six points, with five games in hand.
Although known for his offense, Kane has shown a marked commitment to developing his defensive game. And while it could be argued that he should be at the top of this list, but the fact that Kane is a late ’88 birthday does skew the final results. As one noted junior hockey watcher commented, “I think late birthdays should be graded differently,” he explained. “Often the extra year of experience inflates their numbers.”
While the numbers may be slightly inflated due to that experience, Kane’s potential and dynamic hands aren’t. If he continues his development at this pace, one would not be surprised if he was the top pick overall – and a top-five status is almost assured.
3. Sam Gagner, C, London Knights – He’s been the Stealth Bomber of this upcoming draft. Developmentally, Gagner has flown under the radar – even overshadowed in London by the arrival of his higher-profile linemate. But once he stepped onto the John Labatt Centre ice, he grabbed hold of the spotlight and refused to relinquish it.
Gagner was a surprise OHL scoring leader for most of the season and currently finds himself tied for fourth with Plymouth’s Evan Brophey (CHI). But, like Kane, he’s missed several games first to a brief injury, but more recently as a result of his involvement in the World Junior Hockey Championship. In 33 OHL games, Gagner has tallied 21 goals and 50 assists for 71 points.
The son of former NHLer Dave Gagner, Sam was a bit of a surprise making the Canadian Junior squad as a 17-year-old. And while he didn’t see a tremendous amount of ice time in the later games, his solid all-around play was noticed.
Gagner has displayed outstanding on-ice vision, the knack for the timely goal, and he has taken on a position of leadership on the Knights. Although a rookie, he has played like a seasoned veteran and has shown a willingness – and an ability – to be introspective about his game and what he needs to do to develop it. As a coach’s son, he is literally a hockey sponge who loves to play the game. Like Couture, his chest appears ready-made to wear the “C”.
4. Mark Katic, D, Sarnia Sting – The 5’10 blueliner entered this season with high expectations. And while he’s had a solid season, he hasn’t torn up the OHL like expected. In 43 games, Katic has only accounted for four goals from the blueline and has added 22 assists. While these numbers are solid, they aren’t a marked improvement over last season’s totals of five goals and 34 points in 51 games.
Katic is a solid skater with an ability to make beautiful passes. He understands the defensive aspect of the game and knows when to step up into an offensive role. However, he has had some injury concerns in the past and that, along with the fact that he hasn’t progressed as expected, could be acting as an anchor on his ratings this season.
However, the NHL is still a league that puts a premium on sweet skating, puck-moving rearguards. Katic fits that bill and simply needs to show the potential that had him residing in the same lofty stratosphere as Couture not all that long ago. You can’t teach natural talent and puck sense, and Katic has both.
5. Nick Spaling, C, Kitchener Rangers – Spaling has enjoyed a solid season with the Kitchener Rangers this season. In 44 games, the 18-year-old has 17 goals and 23 assists. The 6’0 center has been solid, but not spectacular, showing the steady play and improved performance that is appealing during one’s draft-eligible year.
Spaling has shown that he has the wheels to compete at the next level. In fact, his skating ability and general speed is probably the strongest part of his game. Combine that with a steady contribution each game and the team that drafts him will always be certain of what they’re going to be getting night in and night out. The question scouts have is how much better can he get?
6. Josh Kidd, D, Erie Otters – The third-year Otter has really stepped up his production this season. In only 41 games the blueliner has accounted for eight goals and 12 assists. Of course, he’s been throwing his weight around a little more too – to the tune of 80 PIMs.
And when you’re 6’5 and 220 pounds you have plenty of weight to throw around. What you see is what you get. Kidd is big, tough, solid in his own end, and unspectacular – in a good way.
He’s not going to be the waterbug defenseman leading the rush, but he is going to provide you with solid, defensively responsible minutes, and he’s not going to be pushed around. Like all blueliners of his size, he’ll have to match his better-than-average size with more-than-adequate speed if he hopes to progress. In fact, in many ways he’s the opposite of the aforementioned Katic, and come draft day it may just be a matter of team’s needs not just in the position, but in the style of player they’re looking for to fill that position. If you want grace and offensive upside, go Katic; if you’re looking for a rugged, stay-at-home type, then Kidd will be your man.
7. Nick Palmieri, RW, Erie Otters – Along with Kidd and the recently acquired Zack Torquato (who just missed the cut on this list), the Otters have a trio of potential early-round choices, which – as in the case with the Kane/Gagner duo – helps to inflate their individual profiles. After all, all ships rise with the tide.
But oh what big ships they are. Palmieri, at 6’2 and 215 pounds could develop into a solid power forward. He has shown this season increasingly soft hand, accounting for 16 goals en route to 30 points in 34 games. Matched up with Torquato, Palmieri has an excellent chance of seeing his – and Torquato’s – draft status rice markedly.
Palmieri is a good solid player who has shown a willingness to get involved at both ends of the ice. After a solid rookie season last year, he has come back to an Otters’ club in dire need of leadership and has performed admirably. Continued progress, solid play, and excellent size make Palmieri an intriguing prospect for the upcoming draft.
8a. Jeremy Smith, G, Plymouth Whalers
8b. Trevor Cann, G, Peterborough Petes – Between Smith and Cann there is very little to choose from. They are roughly the same height, although Cann has a substantial weight advantage over the lanky Smith. In addition Cann is probably the bigger name, having been a last-minute addition to Team Canada’s WJC selection camp when it looked like London’s Steve Mason might not be able to overcome his injuries.
Cann has been dynamite this season, posting at 19-18-3 record in a whopping 42 games. He’s been peppered with shots, but has posted a respectable 3.49 GAA behind a stellar .913 save percentage.
Conversely, Smith hasn’t seen the same amount of rubber. Sharing duties with Washington Capitals’ draft pick Michal Neuvirth, Smith has only appeared in 22 games. However, the one thing that’s truly stood out in Smith’s favor is that although he’s paired with an NHL-drafted goaltender, the club loses nothing when Smith is inserted between the pipes. Their overall statistics and performance has been nearly identical, which bodes well comparison-wise.
Smith has posted an excellent 2.43 GAA and a 13-5-1 record, along with a .925 save percentage. While these numbers seem to sway the argument in Smith’s favor, one must understand that while Smith’s Whalers are fighting for the overall OHL crown, Cann’s Petes are just treading water. With the trade of marquee Petes like Steve Downie (PHI) and Daniel Ryder (CAL) – appropriately in this case to Plymouth – it will be up to Cann to ensure the club stays competitive, which is a pressure Smith doesn’t have.
With only a couple of inches, but miles of rubber between them the choice isn’t yet clear.
10. Akim Aliu, C, Sudbury Wolves – Aliu took home the fastest skater crown at the recent Top-Prospects Skills Competition. After a rocky start to his OHL career, Aliu has found comfortable surroundings in Sudbury and his career has flourished.
At 6’2 and 220 pounds, Aliu has the requisite body to survive in the NHL and if he can keep improving his already impressive speed and skating abilities, then he could be a force to be reckoned with at the next level. Aliu has already, unfortunately, learned about the intense media scrutiny that can come with Canadian hockey players and he often carries himself with a demeanor that suggests the weight of the world is on his shoulders. Fortunately, he’s able to shed that weight on the ice and fly up and down the wings unencumbered.
Following a less-than-stellar rookie season that was challenging for non-game-related issues, Aliu has rebounded in Sudbury, becoming a key contributor for the Wolves’ attack and accounting for 29 points in 31 games, paced by 12 goals. He’s also shown a willingness to use his size to his advantage, racking up 63 points.
Just missing the cut: Stefan Legein, Brett Maclean, Arron Alphonso, Zack Torquato.
Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.