Top 10 NHL draft-eligible OHL prospects for 2012

By Chris Roberts
Photo: Russian Nail Yakupov has a good chance of being the fifth OHL player in six years to be drafted first overall. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Many of the NHL’s top stars have come from the OHL including four of the last five players selected first overall. Last year alone, over a third of the first round selections came from the OHL, and in total, 46 OHL players were selected.

At the midway point of the season, a pair of highly skilled Russians stands out amongst the ranks of OHL draft eligible players. The list is also populated by a few talented defensemen and a twice-passed-up forward who is taking the league by storm. What’s perhaps most interesting is the fact that four of the top 10 are from outside of Canada.

1. Nail Yakupov, RW – Sarnia Sting
5’10, 170 pounds. October 6th, 1993

The undisputed top OHL draft eligible player and perhaps the 2012 first overall selection, Nail Yakupov has been an offensive dynamo for the Sarnia Sting this season. In just 26 games, the shifty Russian winger has 21 goals and 32 assists. He’s also a plus-21. Yakupov is a natural goal scorer, but his playmaking skills have been improving as teams try to figure out a way to stop him. Combined with his electric wrist shot, his playmaking ability makes him one of the top offensive threats in junior hockey.

And it’s not just his shot and vision that makes him so dangerous; it’s a combination of his other skills as well. The 18-year-old has the ability to stop on a dime, and with his above-average speed, he can change his pace in an instant and defenders honest.

He isn’t the biggest player on the ice; in fact, at 5’10 and just 170 lbs one might think he’s one of the smaller forwards, but he has broad shoulders and appears rather bulky on the ice. He also manages to get the most out of his size, using his body to fight to get to the scoring areas on the ice. Not surprisingly, Yakupov has drawn comparisons to Alex Ovechkin. Although it’s far too early to compare the two at this point, they may become more closely connected if Yakupov becomes the number one selection next June just as Ovechkin did eight years ago.

2. Cody Ceci, D – Ottawa 67’s
6’2, 203 pounds. December 21st 1993

In his third OHL season, Cody Ceci has emerged as one of the top eligible defensemen for the 2012 Entry Draft. Last year, he recorded 34 points in 68 games, but his stock has drastically increased due to his production this year. He’s already one point away from his point total last year, with 33 points in just 36 games. His offensive production has been a result of the much-improved confidence that comes with being a year older in junior hockey, but he also has a noticeably harder shot for the point and his decision making has been much improved.

He was invited to the World Junior evaluation camp, and played for team OHL against the Russians in the Subway Series – a game in Ottawa in which Ceci was one of the most impressive defensemen. If there’s one slight against Ceci it’s that he doesn’t use his 6’2 frame effectively enough and that he could be more of a physical presence, but that is something that can be worked in the next few years; other than that, he certainly has the tools to become a top pairing defenseman in the NHL.

3. Alex Galchenyuk, C – Sarnia Sting
6’1, 185 pounds. February 12th, 1994

Yakupov’s teammate in Sarnia is also of Russian descent, but was in fact born in the United States, and has been on record saying that he would likely play for the United States if chosen to represent them internationally. Perhaps he would have given the Americans a lift in this year’s World Juniors, but the problem with that is that Galchenyuk has not played a game since last season. He has been out with a torn ACL and in all likelihood will not play a single game this season.

There is no denying his talent; in his rookie season with Sarnia last year, he registered 83 points in 68 games, and if he was healthy this year, many suggest that he would be right up there with Yakupov in terms of scoring. He actually has a similar skill set to Yakupov, but is bigger and a more renowned playmaker – the two players actually complement each other quite well. Missing his draft eligible season will certainly hurt his draft stock but he is still likely to be a first round selection, and certainly has first-round talent.

4. Brendan Gaunce, C – Belleville Bulls
6’2, 205 pounds. March 25th, 1994

Gaunce is a big physical center that has the make-up of a power forward. He has been rising the 2012 draft ranks all season long and with due cause; he already has more goals this season – with 20 – than he had all of last year, and his 38 points in 36 games leads the team in scoring. He has become much more of a complete player this season, playing in all situations, and using his size to his advantage more often.

With the way that he has been progressing, there is a very good chance he could perhaps be the second player from the OHL selected in the 2012 Entry Draft – he is a much safer pick than Galchenyuk and may fit more of a need for some teams than Ceci would.

5. Tanner Pearson, LW – Barrie Colts
6’0, 192 pounds. August 10th, 1992

Despite having an impressive rookie campaign last year with 42 points in 66 games, Pearson wasn’t selected by an NHL team; in fact, it was the second year in a row he had been passed up in the draft. Maybe it was personal or perhaps he is just finally coming into his own; whatever the cause, the 19-year-old has been the top offensive player in the OHL all year long, and had 66 points in just 30 games prior to being selected to play for the Canadian World Junior team.

He has been dangerous coming off the wing all year long, and it has not just been a case of him feeding off of last year’s first round selection Mark Scheifele (WPG), as he was leading the league in scoring before the Jets even returned Scheifele to the Colts. He doesn’t mind using his size when he has to and has very underrated playmaking abilities. His rise has been meteoric as some scouts have talked about him as a possible first round selection in the upcoming draft.

6. Slater Koekkoek, D – Peterborough Petes
6’2, 183 pounds. February 18th, 1994

Koekkoek doesn’t have the offensive potential as Cody Ceci or even some of the other top OHL draft eligible defensemen, but the native of Mountain, Ontario is a big physical defenseman with a strong two-way presence. At 183 pounds, he isn’t one of the bigger defensemen in the league, but there’s no doubt that he’s one of the bigger defensemen his age, and he’s certainly got room to grow. He has a knack for stepping up and laying punishing hits on incoming forwards, something he showcased against the Russians in the CHL Subway Super Series as he was one of the most noticeable defensemen in the game.

His offensive game is blossoming, and he has almost equaled last year’s output already with 18 points in 26 games, but apart from his physical play he is very much a raw talent.

7. Olli Maatta, D – London Knights
6’2, 198 pounds. August 24th, 1994

One of the youngest players eligible for next year’s draft, Olli Maatta is also one of the biggest. The 6’2 defenseman is pushing 200 pounds and has a very solid frame. The product of Finland is in his first OHL season with London and has been one of the main reasons for the team’s success. He brings solid play in both ends, but it has been his awareness in his own end that has been most impressive. He’s a plus-14 so far this season, and appears calm and collected in almost all situations; his selection for the Finland‘s World Junior team is a testament to the fact.

He hasn’t been lighting it up offensively but he still leads the Knights defensemen in scoring with one goal and 16 assists in 33 games. He is perhaps one of the more complete OHL draft eligible defensemen at this point, but whether or not he can continue to progress throughout a 68-plus game schedule will largely affect where he is selected.

8. Malcolm Subban, G – Belleville Bulls
6’0, 178 pounds. December 21st, 1993

Although Brendan Gaunce has been leading the charge for Belleville for most of the season, it has been the younger brother of P.K, Malcolm Subban, who has largely been responsible for the team’s success. He had a mediocre rookie season in 2010-11, but this year he has emerged as one of the top netminders in the OHL. In 19 games, he has posted a 13-6 record with a 1.93 goals against average and .938 save percentage. He played just three games before missing all of October due to injury but since returning he has been red-hot; in fact, he went 9-1 in November while recording two shutouts.

His draft stock has been rising as much as anyone, and at this point, he is perhaps one of the top ranked goaltenders in the entire draft. The fact that he has an otherwise mediocre Belleville team sitting second in the East division should only help elevate his draft status.

9. Radek Faksa, C – Kitchener Rangers
6’3, 203 pounds. January 9th, 1994

Faksa has been impressive in his rookie season with Kitchener. He’s averaging over a point-per-game with 33 in 31 games. He had an average start to the season, recording 11 points in the first 14 games while suffering from penalty trouble, but with 22 points in his last 17 games and a selection to the Czech World Junior team, Faksa’s draft stock has been continually rising.

His offensive talent is what’s going to get him drafted, but the soon-to-be 18-year-old is developing his skills in other aspects of the game. He has been killing penalties for the Czechs in this year’s tournament and shows a feistiness which complements his offensive talents. He’s already a big-bodied powerful center with a knack for getting to the net, and considering he’s likely yet to finish growing, it wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see him selected in the first round of next year’s draft.

10. Matt Finn, D – Guelph Storm
6’0, 197 pounds. February 24th, 1994

His offensive consistency has been there all year long – he has 28 points in 31 games – but Finn’s problems have been in the defensive end. Up until the end of November, he was a plus-two on the season and one of the team’s more reliable defensemen, but since then, he has been a minus-10 in 11 games and has struggled largely in the defensive end. In those 11 games, he did record ten points, which is one of the reasons he’ll still be a commodity in next June’s draft, but the Toronto native needs to work on his defensive end consistency.

He does possess decent size and has worked on his conditioning quite a bit since last season. Because of that, he began the year in much better shape, something Guelph head coach Scott Walker is quick to note. Finn also has great poise on the blue line, particularly for a 17-year-old. His offensive production will be attractive to NHL teams in June, but he’ll need to work on his complete game consistency if he is to be selected in the first few rounds.