An (extremely) early look at the top 2021 OHL draft prospects

OK, yes, I admit: it’s way too early to be looking at the top prospects for the 2021 OHL draft. Like, seriously, we’re discussing Grade 8 kids here.

But that’s what makes hockey scouting so much fun: you get to see how kids develop over a couple of seasons, not just one or two.

Last week, I put out a piece looking at 20 prospects for the 2020 OHL draft that caught my attention. A couple thousand people read the piece, which was shocking to me. Seriously, why do you guys care so much about guys not eligible for the NHL draft until 2022?

I’m fortunate enough that, through my job and through other opportunities, I get to watch top talent from an early age. For example, once I get back from the NHL draft combine at the end of May, I’ll be in Oakville for the Draftday Prospect Showcase in Sixteen Mile Sports Complex in Oakville, where I do video for various tournaments. There’s also the World Selects Invitational coming in a few weeks, and while I won’t be at it, it’ll be a great opportunity to follow many of the top prospects you’ll read about below.

Let me be clear: once again: this is not a mock draft. You would be doing yourself a disservice if you took this as an actual draft listing. What I’m doing here is outlining prospects I’ve watched and written notes about over the past few months, while taking discussions I’ve had with scouts in consideration.

I don’t feel like wasting much more of your time, so here’s 15 prospects worth keeping an eye on for the 2021 OHL draft (and, ultimately, the 2023 and 2024 NHL drafts, too).

Noah Cochrane, D (Barrie Jr. Colts): I remember seeing clips of Cochrane during the World Selects Invitational last year and the only thing that really amazed me was his speed. But at the OMHA championships in March, Cochrane was the best player on the ice in Barrie’s bronze medal effort over the York-Simcoe Express, scoring a nice end-to-end goal to make it 3-0 in the contest. Cochrane moved better than any defensemen I saw in this age group and was the most aggressive two-way player in general. Barrie has a good team and Cochrane has been a driving offensive force from the point for the Colts, something he’ll need to continue being if Barrie is going to make the OHL Cup next March.

Callum Ritchie, F (Oakville Rangers): Every few years, the Oakville Rangers are one of the toughest teams in Ontario to beat. The 1997-born team was absolutely dominant during the 2013 minor midget season, with the 2018 team also having quite the season. The 2005-born Rangers are one of the top teams in minor bantam, having finished with a 62-6-5 record this season, even though they eventually lost to Hamilton in the OMHA finals. One of the best players on the team was Ritchie, a physical two-way forward with a knack for winning faceoffs and can dominate puck control on most shifts. He was a game-changer for the Rangers during the two championship series games and two regular-season contests I watched him play, doing a good job of controlling the puck up and down the ice with impressive energy.

Luke McNamara, F (Toronto Titans): You’ve probably seen videos of what the small, speedy forward is capable of online, and McNamara looks like a truly intriguing prospect at a young age. A fluent skater that spends a lot of time in front of the net, McNamara has nice hands and puts solid power behind his wrist shot despite not being that big of a kid yet. In 2015, McNamara led the Shanahan/Warrior tournament with nine goals and 14 points with three game-winning goals, showing very early signs of greatness. McNamara’s skill is among the best in his age group and doesn’t waste many opportunities, so watch for him to score quite a bit this year.

OAKVILLE, ONT. – York-Simcoe Express defenceman RJ Schmidt (#19) before the OMHA Minor Bantam bronze medal game at Sixteen Mile Sports Complex on March 17, 2019. (Steven Ellis/The Hockey News)

RJ Schmidt, D (York-Simcoe Express): More of a playmaker than a shooter, Schmidt has been one of the better defenders for the York-Simcoe Express and isn’t afraid to join the rush when called upon. The left-handed shooter is patient with the puck – he doesn’t dump and chase, but will rather take the puck back in his zone if he sees it as the most effective option. His passes are quick and slick, and he can run a strong power play. Watch for Schmidt to become one of the more noticeable defenders in the SCTA.

Angus Macdonell, F (Toronto Marlboros): The Marlboros will once again be one of the most feared teams in the GTHL – shocking, I know – and Macdonell will be one of the main reasons why. Macdonell has high-end top speed and can hold his old physically in battles in front of the net, an area he spends a lot of time in. Macdonell already has a powerful wrist shot and moves the puck well with extra space on the power play. Macdonell, the team captain, is an impressive playmaker and doesn’t let others boss him around. An exciting prospect, no doubt.

Carson Rehkopf, F (Toronto Jr. Canadiens): Another high-skilled forward, Rehkopf is a wizard with the puck. It seems to spend a lot of time on his stick and he has the offensive tools in his arsenal to make quick, clean passes and shoot quick and powerful wrist shots. A strong winger who uses his size to push kids around, Rehkopf makes it a habit to rush to the net and doesn’t like to be much of a bystander. A pure goal-scorer, Rehkopf could end up becoming one of the highest-skilled players of his age group.

Anthony Romani, F (Toronto Jr. Canadiens): Romani, one of Rehkopf’s linemates on Toronto, is a dangerous two-way forward who seems willing to take abuse in front of the net to help his team and likes to chip in rebounds from in close. Romani does a nice job of picking angles with an above-average wrist shot and is one of the better passers on the Jr. Canadiens. He isn’t a great skater, but he’s good enough to put himself in scoring areas and grabs a lot of points as a result.

Andrew Claughton, G (York-Simcoe Express): Goalies are very tough to predict, but I liked what I saw from Claughton at the OMHA’s. Claughton has a very quick blocker and makes many spectacular glove hand stops and he moves very well from post to post. Claughton was very good in York-Simcoe’s semifinal contest against the Bulldogs, which the Express eventually lost and is typically among the top goalies at any given tournament. It’s early, but I like his development so far.

Declan Waddick, F (Sun County Panthers): In 2018, Waddick was easily the most impressive forward at the OHF Peewee AAA championship, leading the Panthers to a championship with eight goals and 13 points in eight games. Waddick speed and puck control abilities allow him to break through the middle of the ice without fear of getting crushed by bigger defensemen, but the right winger also doesn’t hesitate to take his game to the perimeter. I have only seen Waddick a few times, but his stick-handling abilities are memorable for a kid his age.

Brock Cummings, F (Mississauga Rebels): Another star from the World Selects Invitational, Cummings had five goals and six points in eight games last year with the East Coast Selects team. Cummings is a big kid with great hands and high top speed that wins most of his one-on-one battles and doesn’t fail on many breakaway chances. One of the more dangerous forwards in the GTHL, Cummings is used in all special team situations thanks to his go-go-go mentality of always being on the attack. Cummings will be capable of scoring a lot of goals in his career.

Owen Davy, G (London Jr. Knights): I can’t find his listed size, but I know that Davy takes up a lot of his net and fills a good amount of the crease for is age. Davy is very athletic, often finding the opportunity to make a big save in a tough situation or a quick scramble in front. A lot of shots do tend to go up high on him, but as he grows and learns to utilize his size, especially with his already-strong rebound control, he won’t have many flaws in his game. Davy was playing AA just two seasons ago, so it’s cool to see how he’s developed in the years since.

OAKVILLE, ONT. – Hamilton Jr. Bulldogs goaltender Ben Rossi (#74) before the OMHA Minor Bantam Championship game at Sixteen Mile Sports Complex on March 17, 2019. (Steven Ellis/The Hockey News)

Ben Rossi, G (Hamilton Jr. Bulldogs): Rossi was one of the major standouts of the OMHA championships, leading the Bulldogs to the title over a stronger Oakville team. Rossi was a standout with the Bulldogs Peewee AAA team at the 2018 Ontario Winter Games, leading the team to gold in the high-paced tournament. Rossi moves from post-to-post quickly and has impressive rebound control for his size and age. Rossi obviously isn’t a big kid yet but he does a good job of limiting his angles and his glove hand is as quick as it gets for a minor bantam goaltender. Look for Rossi to be one of the first goalies chosen two years from now.

Gabe Runco, D (Hamilton Jr. Bulldogs): Runco was one of the more noticeable players on the Bulldogs this season, moving the puck quickly and with confidence. Runco has a nice set of hands that he uses often and it’s not uncommon for him to chip in and score a pretty goal. The raw skill is there, but the refinement is still needed: he puts himself out of position at times trying to rush the puck and can be caught waiting too long to make a play at points. But overall, I like what I’ve seen from him. A

Mitchell Brooks, F (Burlington Eagles): One of the common traits you’ll see of kids this age is that they have electrifying energy and love to get involved with the puck around the net. That’s exactly what Brooks is: a fiesty ball of speed and skill, mixed in with an impressive ability to put pucks in the net. Brooks was Burlington’s best player at the OHF championship series and had a solid four goals and six points with Pro Hockey at the 2018 World Selects Invitational. The left winger was one of the best players in the SCTA this past season and will represent the league at the Draftday Prospects Showcase in Oakville next month, where he should be one of the more dangerous scorers.

James Petrovski, F (Toronto Titans): Petrovski played with the major bantam team this year, which is a good sign given that the Titans went on to win the OHF bantam championships in early April. He wasn’t much of an offensive threat for the Titans, but he also didn’t look out of pace playing against older, stronger competition, either. Petrovski is an impressive skater that’s quick to win puck battles and is tough to take the puck off of due to his skating. Petrovski isn’t eligible until the 2024 NHL draft due to being a December 2005 baby, but that will give him an edge when he’s eventually drafted. Assuming he plays a year up again, Petrovski will be given plenty of opportunities to play meaningful hockey for a Titans team that will factor into the GTHL title race next season.

An early look at the top 2020 OHL draft prospects

My girlfriend thinks it’s weird that I follow junior and minor hockey.

“You watch and evaluate a bunch of 15 year olds? What’s wrong with you?”

Yeah, I know, it does seem weird, but she doesn’t understand what it’s like to watch the next generation of young superstars a few years early… OK, I sound like a hipster now.

The 2019 OHL draft completed last week – albeit, with a large array of technical issues on the league’s end – and thus, the attention has switched over to the best 2004-born prospects for the 2020 OHL selection process. The Ontario Hockey Federation just had its major bantam championship last week, with the Toronto Titans beating the Toronto Jr. Canadiens 6-1 in the final.

I’m not going to claim that I followed the bantam level all year, because, in reality, I went to like 10 games total. In fact, I think I saw more minor bantam games than major bantam. But I did watch a ton of video, talked to scouts and coaches and combined notes that I took at games myself (full disclosure: while I do write about prospects from time to time for The Hockey News, I follow these levels of hockey for fun in my free time).

Anyways, I’ll keep it short: I wanted to get my thoughts out on some of my favourite prospects heading into the 2019-20 minor midget season in Ontario. One name that’s missing? Lane Hinkley of the Vaughan Kings. He’s from Moncton, and my understanding is he’ll head to the QMJHL draft, but correct me if I’m wrong. Hinkley is one of the best 2004-born skaters I’ve seen due to his quick feet and great transition from backwards to forwards. His experience playing a full season up will be an advantage for him moving forward, so enjoy him while you can, Toronto-area scouts.

Let’s get at it.

IMPORTANT: This is, by no means, a proper ranking. This is just a list of players I’ve seen play that will garner some attention a year from now.

Adam Fantilli, C (Toronto Jr. Canadiens): It’s still a while until the 2023 NHL draft, but the fact that Fantilli, a late 2004-born prospect, was such a dominant player at the minor midget level (playing kids nearly two years older than him) is a sign that he’s no ordinary prospect. The early favourite to be picked first next April, Fantilli is a smart kid that likes to drag defenders to the boards before making a quick move to put himself back into the slot. The Red Wings were so confident in the mid-sized forward that they played him in most situations, often finding a way to get involved on the scoresheet. Fantilli was a top 20 player in the GTHL this year, and that’s saying something given that he’s younger than the rest of the crowd. There were rumors of Fantilli leaving the GTHL to play in the United States, but sources close to Fantilli have said the plan is for him to play with the Toronto Jr. Canadiens next year.

Mick Thompson, F (Toronto Jr. Canadiens): No, he’s not the Slipknot guitarist, but Thompson is the definition of a player that works hard. Not a big kid, Thompson does have a physical side to his game that allows him to battle against stronger competition and his skating gets him where he needs to be to make plays. On a Toronto team that was on the top of the GTHL all year long, Thompson showcased his tremendous wrist shot and seemed to find passing lanes out of thin air. He’s got great hands and is always digging for pucks, typically making most of the scoring chances for his teammates.

Kocha Delic, F (Toronto Titans): Delic was easily one of the best players at the recent bantam AAA OHF championships, leading the Titans in scoring with four goals and 11 points in just seven games. Delic creates chances on every shift and has tremendous speed to separate him from his opponents. His mix of speed and size makes taking the puck off of him a challenge and he isn’t afraid to get rough to get the puck on his blade. Delic fights very hard and even on off nights, Delic shows that he’s a skilled player that brings his A-game to every battle. Very few players will impress as much as Delic will next season as he hopes to help his team start the year with a championship at the Titans Early Bird event a few months from now.

Hayden Simpson, F (Toronto Titans): He really thrived when playing alongside Delic this year, but Simpson is a kid worth watching on his own. Simpson had eight points in eight games at the OHF’s, but it was his hard-nosed game that really kept scouts watching. Simpson is fast, aggressive and doesn’t like to lose, and is truly a kid you want on your team if winning is your type of thing because of how much he gives on the ice.

Mason Chen, D (Toronto Titans): While Delic was the one earning most of the attention on the Titans this season, Chen was one of the most impressive two-way defenders in the GTHL with a nice mix of speed and smarts. You can rely on Chen to get the puck out safely and can kill penalties with ease, but his biggest asset is his ability to change the pace of the game with the puck on his stick.  A power play specialist, Chen will put a lot of pucks in the net next season.

Aaron Andrade, F (Mississauga Senators): Andrade plays with a good mix of speed and skill and has enough energy to last a full game without really slowing down. He’s a tremendous passer that isn’t afraid to send a puck through tight angles to make a play. A star with the Senators this year, Andrade played a lot on the power play this year and will likely contribute a lot of offence with the man advantage next season.

Harrison Ballard, F (Mississauga Senators): Ballard left the Don Mills Flyers after his bantam season – Don Mills, of course, won nearly every championship possible this season and never lost in regulation – but he showed tons of promise with the Mississauga Senators program while also earning some games in minor midget. Ballard, a dual citizen of Canada and the United States, is an athletic winger that’s full of energy and is one of the main offensive catalysts for the Sens along with Andrade because of the pace he plays at. Ballard plays a physical game and should be a threat to jump to the OHL right away after getting drafted.

Cedrick Guindon, F (Eastern Ontario Wild): The Eastern Ontario WIld were the class of the field of the OEBHL this year, with Guindon leading the way with 96 points in 29 games and an additional 15 at the Bantam AAA championships. A high-energy player with a fantastic wrist shot for his age, Guindon also played with the Rockland Nationals U18 midget AAA team, recording two goals and an assist in a game in early October. Guindon does so much right: he’s very aggressive on the attack, he knows how to put himself in a dangerous scoring situation and he doesn’t back down from a physical challenge.

David Goyette, F (Eastern Ontario Wild): Guindon’s main man on the Wild, Goyette finished the OHF’s with 14 points in eight games, with two multi-goal games to go along with a four-point effort against the Elgin Middlesex Chiefs earlier in April. Goyette had quite the regular season, totaling 43 goals and 94 points in 30 bantam games before embarking on a 23-point run in eight playoff games. He was also a huge performer with the Hawkesbury Hawks midget AAA team, scoring three goals and adding four assists for seven points in eight games as an underager. Goyette has become a very quick player that spends most of his time buzzing around the net, and if he continues to develop at the pace he has, he’ll be a huge pickup at next year’s draft.

Dalyn Wakely, F (Quinte Red Devils): Wakely was a dominant player for Quinte at the OHF’s, tying Guindon for the tournament lead in points with 15. Like most of the players on this list, Wakely earned a call-up to minor midget this year, recording an assist for the minor midget team during the playoffs. Wakely does a nice job of forcing defensemen to turn over the puck and his wrist shot is among the best in the ETA. Wakely’s play will remind you Francesco Pinelli’s in the way he’s relentless, making plays rather than waiting for them.

Nathan Poole, F (Oshawa Jr. Generals): A big centreman, a lot of people have raved about Poole’s abilities against other kids his age. Poole was called up by the Oshawa Generals minor midget team for three games this season, scoring twice. Poole also showed his playmaking abilities as a member of the Pro Hockey Selects at the World Selects Invitational last year, posting five assists and seven points. Poole is a good skater that can throw big hits and rarely loses one-on-one puck battles, including against bigger minor midget kids. Oshawa figures to be a contender next year, and Poole will be a major contributor once more.

Dominic DiVincentiis, G (Toronto Jr. Canadiens): DiVincentiis has been the backbone of the Jr. Canadiens that has been the team to beat in its age group from Day 1. A quick agile goalie, DiVincentiis was one of the top goaltenders for the Draftday Hockey Selects U14 team at the World Selects Invitational last spring and kept the Jr. Canadiens in tough battles throughout the year. Even though he plays for a dominant team, DiVincentiis is still projected to be one of the top goalie prospects chosen at the OHL Draft next April.

Liam Eveleigh, D (Waterloo Wolves): Eveleigh isn’t going to wow you with flashy offensive moves, but his play at the OHL Cup was enough to get people to notice what he can do in his own zone. Everleigh showed a tendency to get aggressive and engage in physical bouts, no matter who it was he had to match up against. A strong skater, Eveleigh was an important blueliner for Waterloo despite being the youngest defender on the team, and scouts really complimented his willingness to engage in the play.

Isaiah George, D (Toronto Marlboros): George is a talented two-way defender from Oakville, Ontario that does a great job of engaging in the attack. George is very smooth and calculated when dishing out a pass – he never rushes the play like other kids his age tend to do. A skilled playmaker, George tends to shy away from the physical play, but can hold his own. He seems determined at all times to get the puck on the opposing net, which is typically a good thing for a hockey player, don’t you think?

Paul Ludwinski, F (Toronto Marlboros): With two game-winning goals for the Marlboros, who eventually lost to the Toronto Titans 6-1 in the finals, Ludwinski is making a case to be selected early next spring. Ludwinski was consistently one of Toronto’s best players at the OHF’s after recording points in all but one game, a 1-1 tie with the Elgin Middlesex Chiefs to kick off the tournament. Ludwinski plays with urgency – he doesn’t like to wait around to watch the play develop. Instead, he forces turnovers at a high rate and is known to sneaking up on a slow-moving defenseman in order to steal the disk. Ludwinski will once again be one of the Marlboros’ best players.

Ryan Struthers, F (Halton Hurricanes): A big, speedy centre, Struthers always has his head moving in order to find a teammate on the rush due to his solid playmaking sense. Struthers’ isn’t a big-time goal scorer, but his speed and ability to get creative with the puck will catch your eye. He’s a project guy – he likely won’t go that early next April – but he’s the type of player that does enough things right with the puck that you wouldn’t be afraid to give him significant ice time.

Noah Van Vliet, D (Toronto Red Wings): While he wasn’t used in important situations, Van Vilet spent the year playing with the Red Wings’ minor midget team, holding his own quite well as a mobile defenseman. Van Vilet puts is active with the puck and puts a lot of shots on net, but you’ll like how responsible he is when sending out a pass and defending in his own zone.

Boe Piroski, G (Sun County Panthers): Piroski was one of the better goalies at the Draft Day Prospects Showcase in 2018 and he carried that momentum into the regular season with the Panthers in Alliance action. Piroski was very busy in net for the Panthers this year as his team generally struggled, but he showed impressive lateral quickness to prevent goals from cross-ice passes in my viewings. Piroski has good size, he doesn’t put himself out of position often and he doesn’t struggle with rebounds.

Seth Kirou, D (Don Mills Flyers): The 2004 Flyers aren’t going to be as good as the 2003 team, but Kirou will make watching Don Mills worth watching. Kirou has explosive acceleration and starts and stops with ease, with and without the puck. Kirou gets a lot of shots on net and isn’t afraid to jump in the play because he knows he has the tools to get back. Kirou isn’t a big kid, but he does a good job of playing physical when required.

Ty Nelson, D (Toronto Jr. Canadiens): If you like speedy, skilled defensemen, Nelson is your guy. He isn’t a big kid, but Nelson has incredible raw talent with fantastic speed and a great ability to start and stop quickly. Nelson has major confidence carrying the puck up the ice and his wrist has impressive velocity. There’s so much to like about his game, and if he adds size and learns to use it effectively, he’ll be a top-five pick by the end of the season.

The Jack (Hughes) of all trades

This story was originally published in the World Hockey Magazine.

The legend of Jack Hughes has been one that hockey scouts have been following for some time now. He’s no ordinairy prospect: he is one of the greatest prospects to come out of the United States in some time.

If you’ve gotten this far into the magazine, you know how good Hughes is. Jack is part of a talented hockey family that already saw Quinn get drafted by the Vancouver Canucks, while his younger brother, Luke, committed to the University of Michigan for 2021 at the age of 14. But of the trio, Jack looks like the best of all, especially after his play with the United States National Development program over the past two years.

The Ontario Hockey League declined his bid to earn exceptional status before his actual minor midget season, prompting him to join the USNTDP after dominating the GTHL with 159 points in 80 games in 2106-17 one of the greatest minor midget seasons ever (Connor McDavid had 209 points in 88 games and was granted exceptional status a few years earlier).

Last season, he put up 116 points with the program, just one point shy of tying the record Auston Matthews set during his time with the program. The difference? Hughes did it as a 16-year-old, one year younger than Matthews when he achieved the record. To even get that high, you have to beat out the likes of Phil Kessel, Clayton Keller, Jack Eichel, Patrick Kane, the Tkachuk brothers… you get the point.

Hughes’ last tournament before heading off to the World Juniors was a Five Nations tournament overseas in early November. How’d he do? Oh, he just led the entire tournament with 15 points in four games. No biggie. When you look back at highlights from the tournament, it seems as though there’s no true weakness to his game: he’s faster than a Mercedes F1 car, he stickhandles the puck like he has a magnet in his stick, he seems to be able to score at will and makes everyone around him better.

But that’s from a scouting perspective. What makes Hughes the training centre in Oakville, Ontario. You may have seen his videos on Instagram, where he shares clips of players he’s worked with to his nearly 17,000 followers. Among some of the players that have worked with
him in the past include Taylor Hall, John Tavares and Phil Kessel, just to name a few. The Hughes brothers have been training with Ninkovich as well. He has been training Jack for over four years now as a sports performance coach, while also assisting his parents in organizing his off-season training regimens.

SE) When you watch him play, what traits about his game do you notice the most?

DN) His compete level is second to none. What (makes him) stand out from his peers, though, is his spatial awareness and ability to read plays. He has an instinctive understanding as per which areas of the ice he can be creative (and dangerous) with the puck, as well as the ability to read and join a developing play. In a sense, it’s his hockey IQ. His style of play is very deceptive and on one-on-one’s, he is very hard to read. It also helps that his mother, Ellen Hughes, is a skating instructor and a former player, as his edges were always his strong feature.

SE) In the time that you’ve worked with him, what can you say he has improved on the most?

DN) It is a collection of things. Many people contributed to his success — mainly his father Jim
and mother Elle. I usually quote, “it takes a village to raise a child” proverb. What I personally focused on, aside from the obvious, is his lower body mechanics to include injury prevention, his stability, shot mechanics and lateral power.

SE) If you were to ask him, what do you think he would say he needs to work on going forward?

DN) Interestingly enough, we held him back in many respects as we didn’t want to force capacity style of training at a young age. His ceiling for power and strength is very high and we
barely (started last year) have tapped into that. As any player that age, he can get stronger and his shot can get better. He is way ahead of his development curve in some respects, yet has room in other areas as they were not prioritized. After all, he is only 17
years of age.

Jack has a high understanding of the game and is very self-critical. I know he looks to improve details on a game-to-game basis, as the real tests are yet to come in the NHL.

SE) Jack is known to be a very strong skater, but what is it that really stands out with him?

DN) I would describe him as shifty/deceptive, a puck roamer, playmaking style. A word that also comes to mind is a waterbug. His skating with or without the puck is hard to read for the opposing defenders. Every time he is on the ice, he is making things happen. He is built for the new NHL brand of hockey. A Patrick Kane, Mitch Marner-hybrid would be a fair comparison. I also worked with Connor McDavid at his age, and can tell you that they have a very similar development curve.

SE) You’ve gotten to know Jack as more than just a hockey player, but as a person too. What is he like?

DN) I met him as a boy, but now he demands respect with his professionalism and attitude towards the game and his surroundings. It is a lot of pressure that not many would be able to handle. So, in many ways, I admire him too. But he is not only a hockey player, I know him as a genuine, fun and a good-hearted kid I enjoy working with. If you knew his parents, you
would understand it can not be any other way. They are an example family and I am proud to be a part of their circle.

SE) The entire Hughes family have shown talent. What is it that makes Quinn, Jack and Luke as good as they are?

DN) Well, you have three brothers, and that is a good start as the competitive environment is there. I would say it’s the love for the game. Not just playing the game, but understanding the concept and a process behind it. Obviously, there is a genetic component since both parents played and work in hockey, but their curiosity to learn, understand and get better could not be forced upon them. They breathe hockey.

The Top Prospects from the Canada Winter Games

With the Canada Winter Games taking place every four years, the event serves as a great showcase for the next crop of young talent ready to play Canadian major junior hockey. It just so happened that this group featured two of the best prospects to come from the country since Connor McDavid, which is no small feat.

The tournament featured 13 teams made up of all the provinces and territories in Canada, with the top 15 and 16 year olds going to battle in Red Deer, Alberta. The two teams that were expected to go all the way, Ontario and Quebec, found themselves battling for gold in the end, with Quebec taking the 4-3 victory for the top prize on February 22nd.

Given that I live in the Greater Toronto Area, I used this tournament as a way of judging the top Ontario-based players against other strong teams, and was impressed with what I saw. It was also the first time I got to watch certain top players from places like Manitoba, Quebec and Alberta, all who had some very talented players among their ranks.

So, I decided to take a look at 20 players that really impressed me over the week-long event in no particular order. Check out my Twitter account at @StevenEllisNHL for insight and videos of other prospects that caught my eye, too.

Zachary L’Heureux, C/LW (Quebec): I can’t say I knew much about the QMJHL prospects in this tournament, but I can say with certainty that L’Heureux was among the best players in the tournament, period. The stats don’t lie: he had two hat-tricks in the opening two games and a goal a minute into the third game against Ontario. Even though he didn’t light up the scoresheet against Ontario, I still believe it was his most well-rounded performance, with the projected top-10 pick at the QMJHL draft throwing a few big hits, backchecking extremely well and, of course, opening the scoring early in the game.

His willingness to pursue loose pucks and try and create offensive through the middle of the ice was noticeable, allowing him to spring others or put himself in a position for a breakaway. I believe he played both centre and left wing in the tournament and was given opportunities on the power play. His speed was very impressive, using the space around him effectively with a quick stride that some of the bigger players couldn’t contend with. In short bursts, he’s almost impossible to catch.

Justin Robidas, C (Quebec): You’ve likely heard of his dad, former NHL all-star and QMJHL defenceman of the year Stéphane, but Justin already looks like one of the more promising players from Quebec for the 2021 NHL draft. Robidas had two goals against Ontario in a game that saw him buzzing all over the ice, perhaps having the best performance out of anyone on the team. Robidas also had three assists against Team Nova Scotia and scored the first goal of the tournament for Quebec against New Brunswick, only to get outshined by L’Heureux early on.

Robidas is a strong three-zone forward that does a fantastic job of backchecking and is often the best player for his team, even when they struggle. When you least expect it, Robidas positions himself in a way to intercept a pass due to his ability to stop and start quickly and his tenacious attitude towards getting the puck on his stick. His acceleration is tremendous and can produce wicked wrist shots at a high rate.

Matt Savoie, C (Alberta): It’s no surprise that Savoie was among the best players in Pool B, and with the Albertan expected to go first overall in the WHL draft (assuming he gets approved for exceptional status), fans and scouts alike got to see what makes him so good. Savoie, Dylan Guenther and Kai Uchacz all had two goals and seven points heading into the semifinals, but it seemed like every time Savoie touched the puck, magic was about to happen.

I don’t like using the word “elite” to describe a prospect, especially someone who is so far from their NHL draft season, but it’s hard to ignore the phrase when describing Savoie. His speed and vision when dealing with the puck is second to none and he scores highlight reel goals on a nightly basis. The release on his shot is deadly and you can throw him on the power play, either on the point or on the wing, and he can find a way to blow a shot past a goalie. Savoie entered the tournament as a hot gun after posting 63 points in 27 games with the Northern Alberta Xtreme Midget Prep squad and he only helped add to the lore that his 14-year-old season. Mark my words, he’ll be a superstar in the NHL in his 2022 draft season.

Shane Wright, C (Ontario): The Savoie vs Wright battle for the 2022 NHL draft is going to go down as one of the best match-ups in the history of the sport. Wright, the star player from the star-studded Don Mills Flyers lineup, outpaced Savoie in the offensive department, scoring six goals and eight points heading into the big match with his Alberta rival.

It is worth noting that, despite Wright applying for exceptional status earlier in the season, he still not officially a 2019 OHL draft prospect on the basis that he hasn’t been approved yet.

In that big match, Wright led the way with a three-point performance, while Savoie only mustered two, even if it’s easily argued that Savoie looked more impressive with the puck. Still, Wright is the type of player that would go No. 1 in most drafts and there are many reasons why.

Wright has so much downright skill that most players a year older can’t keep up. Wright is a strong skater that can’t be pushed around much and is very dominant when in control of the disk in the offensive zone. He seems to have no issue starting a breakout play and doesn’t look for the easy pass that the opponents are expecting, but rather the one that will generate a scoring chance. The puck seems to always find its way to Wright and often touches it more than anyone else when on the power play. He could add a bit more strength to his shot, and he’s not overly aggressive, but his quick hands make up for a lot of that.

You’re going to be hearing a lot about Wright in the future, so it’s best to get started now. While his OHL fate is still unknown, it’s clear that Wright has the pure talent to make the jump full time next season. Given that he was in the top 10 for nearly the entire Canada Games, Wright proved he can compete with older competition and not only be good enough to warrant a spot, but is better than the rest of the competition.

Brandt Clarke, D (Ontario): I kind of feel bad for Clarke, who would be the top prospect for the OHL draft if it wasn’t for a superstar taking the top spot. Clarke is going to be one heck of a two-way defenceman in the NHL some day and he took his ability to dominate with him to Alberta and didn’t disappoint.

Clarke was hard to ignore at any point in the tournament. By far the best offensive defenceman in the tournament, Clarke showed patience with the puck and wasn’t willing to pass the puck just to make a pass. He would often do most of the work to get past opponents while drawing wingers to him, only to set up someone like Brennan Othmann near the side of the net. Clarke is willing to jump into rushes and rarely stays out of position long due to how fast he gets back to his own zone. Simply put, when you watch him, you get the idea that he’s just a really smart passer.

While it was obviously a different tournament, Clarke was the best all-around defenceman at the Whitby Silverstick Tournament in November, showcasing his mobility and power play quarterbacking abilities. Clarke will play top-four minutes in the OHL next year, which is saying something about the skill this kid has.

Brennan Othmann, LW (Ontario): Othmann had 10 points after two games. You would think that would essentially be all you need to know, but I think the tournament acted as somewhat of a tell-tale sign of what his season has shown to be. Nobody will argue that Othmann isn’t a gifted offensive talent, as seen by how strong of a regular season he had with the Flyers.

It can be argued that Clarke was a big catalyst in many of Othmann’s goals, but the fact of the matter was that Othmann was a man on a mission early on in the tournament. But in the game against Quebec, Othmann was almost non-existent. He took a penalty and had a few giveaways while not engaging enough in the play.

But that wasn’t the case throughout the rest of the tournament. With 15 points heading into the finals, Othmann’s ability to put pucks in the net was a clear sign of his talent. And while the likes of Wright and Clarke may have had more consistent tournaments, Othmann was perhaps the most dangerous player around the crease. Othmann had numerous breakaways in the tournament, tallying a few goals along the way, and he seemed like one of the fastest first-stride forwards on any given shift.Othmann is a clear top-15 pick for the draft this year and is perhaps the best left winger available at the moment.

Jacob Holmes, D (Ontario): I haven’t had a chance to see the York-Simcoe Express this year, so I can’t say I knew much about Holmes heading into the tournament. But my-oh-my, I liked what I saw. Holmes seemed to be engaged in every shift he took part in and was a very good passer that battled for every puck he could get. Ontario seemed to rely on him heavily as a two-way defenceman that brought a hard point shot with him and strong decision making when he decided to let go of the disk. Holmes was very hard to take the puck off of and while he wasn’t the fastest skater, he wasn’t caught out of position much throughout the tournament to have to worry about it.

Holmes will enter the draft as quite the underrated prospect. A lot of people seem to think he’ll fall to either the late-second or early-third round, but I believe Holmes has enough potential to be a real steal. On paper, there appeared to be better options than Holmes for Ontario, but given the lack of ETA players on the roster, it’s clear that they made the right choice bringing him.

Joshua Roy, C/LW (Quebec): Considered by many to be the top prospect for the 2019 QMJHL draft, Roy and L’Heureux couldn’t be stopped at any point for Quebec. Roy’s passes are very crisp and his wrist shot was among the quickest of any goal scorer in the tournament. His decision making with the puck (deciding whether to pass or shoot) was outstanding and he did a great job of protecting the puck from bigger opponents. Roy is good at fighting along the boards to win puck battles and is a strong skater, both going forwards and backwards.

In terms of 2021 NHL draft prospects, Roy is among the most dangerous offensive threats, entering the tournament in Alberta with 88 points in 42 games with the Lévis Chevaliers. Roy’s game is well-rounded enough and his offensive output is at a superb enough level that it’s easy to expect that he’ll be a top-five pick at the 2021 NHL draft.

Benjamin Gaudreau, G (Ontario): I can’t wait to watch Gaudreau at the OHL Cup in March, especially with how good he has played all season long. The top goalie prospect for the OHL draft, Gaudreau was stellar throughout the tournament, outside of a bad start to Quebec in the first meeting between the two teams. For the most part, Gaudreau did a good job of using his big frame to square up to chances and never really gave up on plays.

Instead of playing minor midget for a second year, Gaudreau has spent the year playing major midget with the North Bay Trappers, which has exposed him to older competition. He hasn’t had an issue with that this year and his maturity was evident in Alberta after allowing a few tough goals. Gaudreau has good athleticism to allow him to make up for mistakes when he over-commits to a play and his rebound control, for the most part, is strong. He has a great base to build around in the coming years and should be an OHL starter before you know it.

Jack Campbell, C (PEI): Teams participating in Pool C of the tournament didn’t get much attention as the quality of the teams were much lower than the likes of Ontario, Quebec, B.C., Alberta, etc. But after the round-robin portion of the tournament, Campbell emerged as the tournament’s top scorer, posting three goals and eight assists for 11 points in his first six games before finishing as the tournament leader with 17 points. And while it is worth noting that he played double the games and weaker competition than the rest of the top five in scoring, Campbell was consistently one of the most noticeable players on the ice on every shift. The PEI bantam AAA MVP from 2018 has a good release on his wrist shot but he really shined when setting up Cameron MacLean and Connor Keough.

Zach Dean, C (Newfoundland): While Dean plays with the Toronto Nationals of the GTHL, he is from Newfoundland, meaning that he will be a product of a QMJHL team come spring time. Dean has a lot of potential to excel in major junior over the next few years and showed that he can be very creative when dishing out the puck, making him perhaps the most noticeable playmaker in Pool C. In fact, he looked out of place, with Dean showcasing the skill level you would expect from someone on Ontario or Quebec. Dean had eight assists and nine points in the preliminary round, tying Campbell for the lead in the passing category.

BURLINGTON, ONT. — Toronto Nationals forward Zachary Dean (#14) slides into Mississauga Senators goaltender James Norton (#32) during GTHL minor midget action between the Mississauga Senators and the Toronto Nationals at Iceland Mississauga on December 6, 2018. (Photo from Steven Ellis/World Hockey Magazine)

Dean is an excellent skater who won a lot of battles due to his quick stride and could deke himself out of a matchup in the middle of the ice. Dean is versatile in the fact that he isn’t just a superb passer, but he can get physical to win battles when his stick work isn’t enough. Dean looks like a potential top-five pick for the QMJHL draft and his strong 200-foot game will allow him to excel in major junior.

Trevor Wong, F (British Columbia): Wong wasn’t as successful as Logan Stankoven in the scoring department for B.C., but he was surely one of the most noticeable players for a team that went from potentially playing for a medal to battling for seventh place due to a third-period collapse to Alberta on the final day of the round robin.

Wong, who was selected in the first round of the WHL draft by Kelowna last season, is the reigning CSS bantam MVP after leading St. George’s School to the title last year with 64 goals, 77 assists and 141 points in 30 games. Wong’s biggest strength is the accuracy of his passes, which seem to never miss their target, but his wrist shot has just enough velocity to be deadly often. His motor seems to keep going all game and has a tendency to sneak up on his opponents to intercept the puck. Wong will be a solid major junior player next year and while his time with B.C. may not have gone fully to plan, he was definetly a solid contributor to a team that needed as much offensive help as they could get.

Samuel Schofield, C (Northwest Territories): Schofield, a 2002-born centre from the Northwest Territories, seems good enough to join the Swift Current Broncos next season, but could his size be his downfall? With six goals and 12 points, Schofield was among the top scorers at the end of the tournament after generating a lot of the team’s offence. Despite standing at just 5’6, Schofield proved to be a dominant player that can fly around the competition like Lewis Hamilton does in F1 and he has some really good hands that allowed him to tally some goals. Schofield has a lot of pure talent, but he can be pushed around a bit. Still, a very impressive performance out of Schofield.

Nolan Allan, D (Saskatchewan): Allan, a Prince Albert Raiders prospect, was the most impressive player for me on Saskatchewan who I, admittedly, didn’t follow a whole lot after their first few games. Allan was one of the better defencemen for the Western Canada Selects at the World Selects Invitational last spring and was the right choice for the Raiders at #3, with the current Saskatoon Blazers midget player expected to make the jump to a full-time WHL role next year after seven games with the team this season.

Allan had four goals for Saskatchewan and was always playing against the top match-ups each game without slowing down. With very little time off for teams in the tournament, Allan had no issue playing big minutes and throwing his body in front of pucks, and he obviously had a knack for finding the net. Allan wasn’t the most physical player, but there aren’t many downsides to his play.

Carson Lambos, D (Manitoba): Manitoba doesn’t really produce many Grade A prospects, but Lambos is far from a typical young defenceman. Lambos seems to be among the best defencemen at every tournament he plays at and has quite the motor to buzz around all game long. The Manitoba team captain has already played in five games with the Kootenay Ice after the team selected him second overall and was the clear choice for the CSSBHL top defenceman award last spring, and while his attitude can get in the way at points, he’s got too much talent to be overlooked.

Lambos didn’t produce much offence with just four points to his credit, but he had many chances from the point and often outpaced his own teammates when rushing the puck due to his outstanding top-end speed. Lambos has an edge to his game that can throw off opponents, yet is rather strong positionally and recovers nicely to make a pass after a big hit. WHL teams will have a tough time adjusting to his play next year.

Max Joy, D (Nunavut): Face it: there may not be a better name in hockey than Max Joy. But on the ice, there’s a lot to like from him. Obviously, Nunavut was heavily outmatched throughout the entire tournament, but Joy was a key member of the blue line and didn’t look out of place against faster competition. The Iqaluit native has had a good year with the Notre Dame Argos Midget AAA team this year. Joy was counted on to play important moments for his province, who fielded a team in the tournament for the first time ever. Joy’s best bet may be to aim for a U SPORTS deal in the future, but for now, the small, speedy defenceman will continue his strong play in Saskatchewan.

Josie Cote, RW (Nunavut): Nobody stood out for Nunavut like Cote did, a 16-year-old with the Ontario Hockey Academy in Ottawa. Cote had four goals and five points for Nunavut, including two in the team’s first ever victory at the tournament against Yukon and the first two of the game in a 7-2 loss to Newfoundland later that same day. Cote played some significant time on the power play and was often placed near the blue line to fire one-timers when given the opportunitiy. His speed was impressive for Nunvaut and despite being a smaller forward, Cote wasn’t afraid to get physical.

Peter Reynolds, C (New Brunswick): When Ontario played New Brunswick at the start of the tournament, Reynolds seemed to be one of the only players who could do anything with the puck for his team. That was a rather consistent trend throughout the tournament, but given that he’s one of the top Atlantic prospects for the QMJHL draft, that’s understandable. The Boston College commit has spent the past few years playing in the United States and is the top scorer on Shattuck St. Mary’s U16 team with 6 points in 44 games this year, so it will be interesting to see if he’s willing to break off the commitment if chosen early in the coming months.

Reynolds has impressive offensive upside and doesn’t have issues with skating himself out of trouble with the puck. While his defensive play leaves a bit to be desired, Reynolds did a good job of displaying his speed against stronger teams, especially against Ontario after recording four points in a 10-4 loss. The team lacked overall depth, but Reynolds led the way for New Brunswick with seven points,

Cameron MacLean, F (PEI): While MacLean obviously didn’t get as much fanfare as the other two big 2004-born forwards, MacLean held up his own quite well with PEI and has entered the discussion as a prospect to watch out for heading into the 2020 QMJHL draft. With seven goals and 10 points, MacLean hovered around the top 10 in scoring all tournament long and was dangerous for PEI every time he was given the chance to take the puck up the ice. MacLean spent a lot of time roaming around the crease and even threw a couple of solid hits along the way, too. MacLean still has a lot to learn and develop, and given his age, that’s not a concern. Some of the areas that he didn’t really excel in were his backwards skating and his consistency from shift to shift, but the raw tools are there.

Jacob Squires, D (PEI): For a defenceman with good size, Squires is an impressive skater that isn’t afraid to draw a check if it helps out his team. Smart with and without the puck, Squires held his own for PEI, even when his team was busy dealing with shots in their own zone, which happened often. Squires finished with three goals and six points for his province, who would go on to finish ninth when the final seedings were determined. I liked how willing Squires was to take the puck from his own zone down the ice to attempt to generate offence and he was the right choice to man the back end on the power play. Squires will likely go somewhere between 70th and 85th in the QMJHL draft, and while he is far from a sure thing at this point, he’s a project player worth taking a chance on.

Side note: I have some cool career news to share later this week.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

Dreaming of A Canadian National Development Team

Note: a version of this article was originally found in the June edition of the World Hockey Magazine.

Why would Team Canada create a development team? They care too much about the CHL, and I can’t see them wanting to copy an idea from USA Hockey, even if it does seem to work for them.

But with 60 CHL teams, and players essentially limited to their local areas, (Toronto-born kids don’t go to the WHL unless they’ve been passed over or placed on waivers, for example). Somehow, there never seems to be enough roster spots for talented players, and kids will dart to Junior A in hopes of getting a chance at playing in the NCAA.

Canada has something that makes them special: an abundance of talented hockey players. They could afford to take the cream of the crop and put them on a team together and take on some of the nation’s best Junior A clubs. Heck, even an exhibition game or two against an OHL team would be exciting… maybe.

Imagine what Quinton Byfield could have done in the OJHL with the Newmarket Hurricanes, especially after scoring at nearly three points-per-game in the GTHL, as well as grabbing two points in his lone OJHL contest. Could he have become an even more explosive player had he played older competition a year earlier? Perhaps.

So, here’s the idea: choose the best 15-year-old minor midget players from across Canada, place them on one team that plays in one league (the BCHL, for instance) with older competition, but not players that will physically dominate them. Give the players more chances to develop against older, faster and stronger competition, and give them the tools to be dominant players heading into their respective CHL drafts (with the exception of the WHL players, but this could benefit them significantly).

Here’s something I’d change: make it start at the U15 level. There is always questions about who, if any, should be considered for CHL exceptional status, and 15 year olds Matthew Savoie from Alberta and Shane Wright are the two latest players to apply for it. At this point, it looks very likely that both will earn the honour of carrying the status next fall.

Then, they could either keep the program together and have an exceptional Under-17 World Hockey Challenge team, or send players to their draft teams and let them show what they can do. Heck, enter them in a U16 tournament overseas. Canada doesn’t have a U16 team or a U17 squad, so this could act as an official entry into tournaments for those age groups.

BURLINGTON, ONT. — Oakville Rangers goaltender Noah Pak (#31), Burlington Eagles forward Ethan Micheli (#7) and Oakville Rangers #17 watch a shot during SCTA minor midget action between the Oakville Rangers and Burlington Eagles at Appleby Arena on November 26, 2018. (Photo from Steven Ellis/World Hockey Magazine)

What’s one of the benefits? In some cases, minor midget and midget teams will have openings to allow other players a chance to prove themselves and potentially earn their way to the next level in a way that may have not been possible before.

The downsides are understandable. There’s likely no chance for the players to dominate and take over, something the best players typically get to.

But if you take them out of the equation and have them play against better competition, not only will they be better prepared for major junior, but other players could get opportunities to be better players because some of the major stars wouldn’t be in the system anymore.

Am I being crazy for thinking this would be a viable option? Am I putting too much credence on putting a team together for tournaments and other events? My preference would be to have these players play together until the end of hte U18 World Championships, but that’s also not easy.  

In fact, I’m not sure it would be something that would be as useful at the U18 level. But what if Canada started playing at U16 tournaments? What if they sent this team to showcase events across North America? What if they got to play a super-schedule that gave these players a chance to prove themselves against older competition on a nightly basis before making the jump to major junior?

There are many logistical issues with this idea, and I get it. Which CJHL league would you align with? Would they play in different leagues at different times? Would it make sense to have one team per major junior area (Team Ontario, Team West, Team East)? It’s safe to assume Ontario would have a large portion of the roster if they chose to have just one team, which wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. Maybe the format of Canada Winter Games that will be taking place soon, with one team per area with the big Olympic-style event acting as the championship, is the way to go for a season-long format that’s fully backed by Hockey Canada.

I truly wouldn’t want to be in charge of whittling down the talent to make just one roster.

I’ve talked to scouts about this, and I’ve had varied reactions. Some believe it would be an interesting idea and something they’d support. Others think it could potentially hurt some star players that would get more ice time acting as a star player for their team. But even then, those same people said they wouldn’t mind Hockey Canada trying it out for a season and seeing how it goes.

If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. If it does, Canada could have an interesting new pathway for the next generation of superstars that doesn’t involve getting 100 points against a bunch of kids who don’t have a future in the sport (many will, of course). The talent pool is huge, and while it could be seen as unfair to give special treatment to some kids, especially if there’s a financial aspect to it. But imagine keeping this team together for a couple years like the Americans and having them be as good, if not better, in international events, featuring many important scouting showcases.

Call me crazy, but I’d love to see it. I have no scientific proof that this would work because there’s never been something like this on this big of a scale at such a young age. But it’s something that could have good results for some of these players, and we’d get rid of the exceptional status rule altogether.

Best 15-16 year olds in the country. One team, playing Junior A against older, stronger, faster competition.

Worth the try? I think so.

The Importance of Growing the Women’s Game

Jed Leicester for YIS/IOC

I recently engaged in a conversation on Twitter about women’s hockey where one user asked why people would watch a “less entertaining” version of the sport. A prominent women’s hockey contributor then said that what makes a level of hockey interesting is up to interpretation, but that many people don’t give it a chance due to women’s hockey involving women.

Someone else then brought up the argument that the NWHL suffers the same issue that the ECHL does in the way that “the product sucks” and that a ” shitty product produces shitty demand”.

Sure, compared to the NHL, most levels of hockey will feel vastly inferior. That’s fine.

There is definitely a lot of people that won’t watch women’s hockey because of gender, but it is hard to deny the skill difference. Overall, a lot of people will agree with that, especially when you see Canada’s women’s team losing to midget teams in Alberta. But this can be attributed to physical difference more than anything, and that’s understandable. That doesn’t take away from the fact that professional women’s hockey players are damn good.

So, let’s look at a tournament that just recently took place among the top prospects in the world. A ton of people will watch the World Juniors, but are those 11-2 games between Slovakia and Kazakhstan really the gripping action that people get excited for? Are the World Juniors really that much better than the U20 Four Nations tournaments or the World Under-18 Hockey Championships that proceeds it?

It’s hard to judge what the public thinks because a large majority of hockey fans don’t even know those tournaments exist. I absolutely love the World Juniors, but I’d argue that, in most years, that the Spengler Cup is a better tournament. But, of course, people ignore it because of the ads on the jerseys or the fact that it’s a bunch of former NHLers instead of legitimate stars, I think that if they got past that, they’d see just how incredible of a tournament it is each year.

I don’t subscribe to the belief that anything below the NHL isn’t worth watching, something that seems to appear during the Spengler Cup or World Hockey Championships. Hockey isn’t even my favourite sport, but I will watch hockey at nearly any level. In person, I’ve covered the NHL, AHL, ECHL, CWHL, World Juniors, World Cup of Hockey, OHL, OJHL, WHL, OUA, GTHL, SCTA, ETA, Alliance, PWHL and probably a few more levels I’ve completely forgotten about. Some of my favourite hockey have come from arguably the lowest level out of all: the minor midget level, looking at players preparing for the OHL draft.

Why? Because the hockey is competitive and the kids have a lot on the line. Their whole career can be dictated about what they do when they’re 15 (well, they can mess things up at any age, but the OHL draft season is some of the most pressure a player can face). There’s a big focus on skill and physicality typically isn’t much of a talking point.

One commenter mentioned that women’s hockey suffers from the fact that it’s not as physical as other levels of hockey. That is true, and while there have been little scuffles between Canada and USA, it’s nothing compared to the amount of physicality seen at an AHL or ECHL game. But if you really go to a hockey game to see someone get concussed, do you truly care about hockey? I like hitting in the game and I’m OK with fighting, but they’re just part of the game. I don’t follow a level of hockey for the physical side of it, just like I don’t go to a game to see how good a team is at making shorthanded line changes. It’s just another aspect of the game.

Also, the fact that women’s hockey players wear cages (which helps teams save money on insurance, by the way) makes them look smart, in my opinion.

If physicality is important to you, fine. But then you’re missing out on truly skilled hockey. Why is it that some of the best hockey players rarely engage in physical bouts? Maybe, just maybe, getting pucks on net results in more scoring chances. The top NHL stars aren’t typically the ones leading in the hits category, are they?

And that’s why women’s hockey is so pure.

But pure hockey isn’t enough to get people to keep going to your games. The truth is that not enough people support women’s hockey at this point in time. It’s no question that the sport has grown exponentially over the past decade, especially with two professional leagues that continue to rise in North America and have earned support from NHL teams and major media outlets.

But the fact of the matter is that there is a lot of room to grow.

My whole thing about women’s hockey is that there is a catch 22 when it comes to growth. For it to thrive, it needs more teams actively being competitive. But how do you convince young girls from Russia, Germany, China and other areas to take part if two teams dominate?

But on the flipside, you can’t have Canada and the United States stay stagnant because that doesn’t grow the game, either. If you’re at a lopsided hockey game, would you rather see a team score a crazy amount of goals or just slow down and play defensively the rest of the way? That’s not any better. The game doesn’t need to stop growing in one area just to let others catch up.

So it’s tough. Dominance isn’t good, but staying still isn’t, either.

But how do you grow the game globally? That’s the issue. There needs to be more money flowing to programs in Russia, Switzerland, Norway, Japan, wherever. But having the necessary funding in the first place is tough, especially if there isn’t a lot to be made (this goes for men’s and women’s hockey programs). I’ve talked to some smaller hockey programs who have said they would love to spend more money to grow their women’s hockey programs but they barely have enough to fund their men’s teams that typically have larger player counts. And in a lot of cases, it’s simply just that: there are more men in most countries that want to play hockey than women.

The women’s game is more global than ever, especially with teams like India and Lebanon investing in programs. It will take time to grow those teams, but that’s a very promising situation. There needs to be money involved in the growth, and to make money, you need people to watch and support the teams.

How do you do that? You need to get the sport out in front of as many people as possible. The best way to do that? Get games televised at a more consistent level. But that’s also the problem.

I watch a ton of endurance sportscar racing — I’m talking races like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Bathurst and even some of the more obscure ones, like the 24 Hours of Dubai and 25 Hours of Thunderhill. Every time, there will be people that will ask why bigger networks aren’t covering it or why the networks that are showing the races are just moving the races among their different channels.

The simple fact of the matter is that TV networks like money, obviously. But there needs to be a solid enough of a market to sell the product to in order for them to consider doing it.

Let’s be real with ourselves: if we’re looking at Canada only, the country is really fickle when it comes to supporting teams outside the NHL, especially in the Greater Toronto Area where the market is quite saturated. There’s a reason why, outside of the NHL, games involving other leagues, whether it be junior, minor pro, etc., is rare to find on TV. Heck, the World Juniors are very popular in North America, yet other great events, like the Under-18’s and World Championships, are ignored by a large majority of fans.

So, if you’re not the NHL, fighting for television space is a tough task, no matter what league you’re from. Women’s hockey may have it even harder due to the pre-conceived notions that the sport isn’t as good as the men’s side. Again, that’s all due to personal opinion, but it’s something that will take a lot of work to get people to change their opinions.

I know a ton of people would have loved to see the Under-18 Women’s Hockey Championships aired on television, even if just for a game or two. But with the tournament being in Japan, the games were in the middle of the night, which makes airing the tournament in North America a bit of a challenge. Had the men’s World Championship played their games in the middle of the night in Canada or the United States, good luck attracting any form of a viable fanbase to support it (let me be clear: this would be an issue for any international tournament, not just a junior women’s event). I’m glad the games were at least streamed online for free in high quality, with replays available for free immediately after the game without any rights holders taking them down after.

And there are definetly more people gravitating towards watching women’s hockey on a more consistent basis. Nearby me, the Toronto Furies (albeit in a terrible location for fans to get to), the Markham Thunder and the junior-level PWHL all are rather close to me. Part of how you grow the game at these levels is streaming games online, and while the CWHL does that, I think the promotion of the live coverage is quite poor by the league and teams involved. I know a few of the production teams that stream the games and I still can’t tell you off hand where the games are available, and I watch a TON of hockey (including cell phone streams of games in Mexico and Argentina).

The fact that the games are streamed is perfect, and while I know that teams would rather fill up the stands, you need to get the fans excited at home first. That’s the same thing about junior hockey: imagine how many more people would be exposed to leagues like the OJHL and BCHL if it didn’t cost $250 for a streaming package with below-average production in many rinks and inadequate quality control?

I think the inclusion of some of the top women’s hockey players at the NHL All-Star Game was huge, because a large portion of fans following the event likely haven’t watched the sport since the Olympics (and even then, the gold-medal game was quite late at night). That’s the type of exposure that needs to happen on a more regular basis. I can’t speak to how much the NHL has offered to help the NWHL or CWHL, but regardless, showing what some talented players are capable of is fantastic for future growth and didn’t hurt the NHL in any way. So, truly, it was a win-win.

I think having players such as Kendall Coyne Schofield and Brianna Decker take centre stage during an important time for the NHL is absolutely huge for women’s hockey. Not only did they show that they were fantastic hockey talents, they showcased to a mainstream hockey audience that there are some quality women’s hockey players not named Natalie Decker or Hilary Knight. Not that that would be a surprise to those who follow the sport year-round, but the more players that can take centre stage, the better.

I cover junior hockey. I know how great the hockey can be. Same goes for the World Hockey Championships and men’s level international hockey. There’s a reason I don’t watch the NHL solely: there’s some incredible hockey all around the world. But convincing people to watch something else is a battle I’ve given up on trying to fight.

I feel for the women’s hockey fans and writers who continue to cover the sport with enthusiasm, yet often see their sport seen as a novelty by the masses. It’s not fair. Good hockey is good hockey. I’ll watch a bantam hockey game just because the action can be fantastic. You don’t need the best of the best at both ends of the ice to have a fun, exciting hockey game.

There are some people doing some great work to grow the game. Melissa Burgess, for example, created the Women’s Hockey Media Association, a group I’m pleased to be a member of, that is working to build media standards when it comes to leagues such as the CWHL and NWHL. The treatment of the CWHL, where media weren’t allowed in the media box for the CWHL All-Star Game and were left in the dark on a variety of other issues, as a black eye for a league that needs more exposure, not less. Other writers I enjoy following include Leighann Strollo, Nathaniel A. Oliver, Kirsten Whelan and Hannah Bevis, among others.

To keep the game moving, we need to keep talking about women’s hockey, and not in a human interest kind of way. Those stories are great, but that shouldn’t be everything you read about the sport. Talk about the players as if they’re hockey players and not a charity case, because they are truly hockey players.

This post isn’t to say you’re stupid if you don’t follow women’s hockey, and it isn’t even to tell you to watch it, either. It’s to point out that growing the game is a tough task, but we’re on the right path to future growth. The first women’s hockey tournament at the Olympics took place just over 20 years ago, and since then, there’s been very impressive growth.

I don’t think women’s hockey fans are looking for leagues like the CWHL or NWHL to get as much attention or focus as the NHL. I don’t think any league will ever come close to that. But what they do want is respect and for fans to take it seriously, because the players sure as hell do.

A future where young girls can see themselves making a career out of hockey, or at least achieving a high level of success in order to further inspire other young kids to participate, is a future we should all be looking to help build.

The infuriating play of Mads Søgaard

I don’t want to sound like a hipster, but I was a fan of Frederik Andersen’s play before he was drafted to the NHL the first time.

And before George Sørensen stole some hearts at the World Juniors, I was singing his praises at the Under-18’s and World Junior A Challenge.

Oh, and I think that Sebastian Dahm is quite underrated.

So, naturally, it made sense that I quickly started to follow the career of Mads Søgaard after I watched him play for the first time back in 2017 before becoming Denmark’s third goalie as a 17-year-old at the 2018 World Juniors.

I was singing his praises before he got the nod as the team’s top goalie at the World Juniors this year — he is one of the top goalie prospects, after all. So, yes, I definetly received critical comments after he was ripped apart by Canada to open up the tournament in Vancouver.

Denmark never recovered, scoring just three goals in the entire tournament (all three coming in a single game against Kazakhstan). In the end, Denmark was relegated. I won’t go deep into that because I already have, but the player I continued to watch, and become quite disappointed in, was Søgaard.

Mads Søgaard is a highly-rated goalie prospect for the #NHLDraft, but he has not had a good tournament. #WJC2019— Steven Ellis (@StevenEllisNHL) January 4, 2019

Fast forward to this past week, where Søgaard played quite well for Team Cherry at the CHL Top Prospects Game. When he left the net at the halfway point, Søgaard allowed just one goal in a game that saw his team lose 5-4.

He obviously wasn’t the reason his team failed in the second half of the showcase, and, like I said, he played quite well. But one play in particular scared me just a little bit.

Late in the opening period, Søgaard over-committed on a scoring opportunity by Brett Leason when the rising NHL prospect missed the net off of what became an empty-net opportunity. He didn’t score, but I was still disappointed with Søgaard.

This is the clip I was talking about last night where Mads Søgaard over-committed on a chance by Brett Leason.— Steven Ellis (@StevenEllisNHL) January 24, 2019

Why would I be disappointed in such a minor play in a game that truly doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things?

Because it’s something I’ve noticed quite a few times when watching him play.

Case in point: the goal that resulted in Denmark getting relegated to Division IA of the World Juniors just over 30 seconds into the second relegation game.

1-0 Kazakhstan on the first scoring chance. Sayan Daniyar with the sneaky little move after Sogaard was out of position. #WJC2019— Steven Ellis (@StevenEllisNHL) January 4, 2019

And of course, it happened a few times against Canada, too.

After he scored the first goal, Morgan Frost’s assist to Owen Tippett gave #Canada an early 2-0 lead at the #WorldJuniors.

🇨🇦 Follow our #WJC2019 live blog ➡️

(Via @StevenEllisNHL)— Sporting News Canada (@sportingnewsca) December 27, 2018

🇨🇦 Oh, captain! 🇨🇦

Maxime Comtois scores to start the 2nd period and #Canada expands the lead over #Denmark to 4-0 in the #WorldJuniors.

(Via @StevenEllisNHL)— Sporting News Canada (@sportingnewsca) December 27, 2018

22 minutes into his first #WJC2019 game and Morgan Frost has a hat-trick. 5-0 Canada. #WJC2019 #Flyers— Steven Ellis (@StevenEllisNHL) December 27, 2018

The third clip there is slightly different because Søgaard wasn’t caught out of his crease, but him putting his right pad down when he did made it tougher for him to slide over for the pass anyone could have seen coming.

But otherwise, all the clips have a similar theme: Søgaard is caught out of position far too often against strong competition. Nobody will doubt how good of a season he’s having with Medicine Hat in the WHL, and he is still a no-brainer to become one of the first goalies drafted in June.

But if he’s going to thrive at the next level, he needs to utilize his size to his advantage. He’s 6-7, damnit. He moves around the ice like he’s trying to make up for a lack of size, which clearly isn’t an issue.

A goalie the size of Søgaard, as rare as they are — if he makes the NHL, he would tie with Ben Bishop and Mikko Koskinen as the tallest goalie ever to play in the league — shouldn’t be fighting himself to position himself right for a shot. It can simply be attributed, on many plays, to his big legs

One goalie I have become a big fan of the past few years is Jett Alexander. While he does play in the OJHL — a Jr. A hockey league below the WHL, where Søgaard practices his craft — his physical growth is something that very few goalies have to go through during their hockey career. On the day he was drafted to the Mississauga Steelheads back in 2015, Alexander was listed as 5-8. Now? He’s 6-5. For any hockey player, that size increase is something really tough to overcome, especially if you’re in the key development portion of your career.

Yet, Alexander has no issue when it comes to his positioning. You rarely find himself chasing after loose pucks or rebounds and his big frame allows him to make smaller movements and save energy when needed, something that has become very evident given how quick his arms move to make some pretty spectacular saves.

When you look at a big goalie, Alexander does so many things right. Søgaard obviously does, too, or else he wouldn’t be such a popular prospect. But this one thing… this thing that really bothers me more than it should, has hurt him more times than it should at this point.

But it really can burn him. Even in the past month, he’s been caught out of his crease, seemingly giving up on the play before the opposition can finish making a move. I really want him to just sit back, relax and read the play better before going all out in a desperate attempt to keep the puck out. He’s got the size to stiffle shooters, but he can’t keep giving them opportunities to make moves without him attacking back — he’s got a long reach that he never seems to use enough, after all.

I’m not kidding when I say I like this kid. If Denmark is going to thrive in the international hockey scene, especially with Andersen starting to creep up in the age bracket, they’ll need
Søgaard to be their saving grace. Heck, he could be the top goalie to ever come from the nation when his career comes to an end.

But when you see his positioning at times taking him out of plays, you have to wonder how good he would be if he was seven inches shorter. Could he improve on his speed from post to post? Absolutely. Should he refine how he attacks cross-ice one timers? Yup, because that’s where he finds himself down too early and too low. He has the frame that most shooters will struggle with if he could at least stand up just a split second longer.

Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill or whatever the saying is, but I truly think Søgaard needs to work a little harder on maintaining his position in the crease. If he can control his size, I don’t think he’ll have a problem in the NHL.

He is still young, after all.

A Danish Disaster

BUFFALO, N.Y. -Team Denmark defenceman Lasse Mortensen (#14) falls in front of Team Denmark goaltender Emil Gransoe (#1) during a game between Canada and Finland at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship at KeyBank Center on December 30, 2017 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo from Anders Marshall/Euro Hockey)

It wasn’t supposed to end this way.

Denmark was on top of the hockey world during the exciting 2015 World Junior tournament, beating Switzerland in the round robin to stay in the top group, something very few teams had been able to do in the years before them. The fans went nuts when they beat the Swiss, who had quite the tournament in Vancouver this year.

They did just enough to make it to where they are today, beating the likes of Finland and Switzerland (Denmark came second in Group A at the 2017 World Juniors) to keep their hopes alive in the past few years. But their luck truly dried up with just two NHL draft prospects on the roster this year, and it showed as the team couldn’t score or keep pucks out of their own net — the 14-0 loss to Canada was somewhat telling.

To show how bad Denmark’s tournament was, here is how many goals that the team that got relegated scored (in the years where two teams were relegated, just the lower-ranked team) in the entire tournament over the past decade.

Denmark had three goals in one game this year, the fewest goals scored by a relegated team since 2004 when Ukraine only scored three goals and allowed 60 (Denmark allowed 34).

So, it was pretty telling when the Danes allowed two goals on two shots before the game was five minutes old. While Denmark certainly had more scoring chances, they didn’t get many high-danger opportunities, and only had two shots total in the first 13 minutes of play in the third period (Kazakhstan had zero in that time frame) before eventually losing 4-0.

Denmark only had seven players record points in the tournament. Jonas Røndbjerg, Malte Setkov and Andreas Grundtvig combined for the only three goals they scored in the tournament, coming all in one game.

Staying up in the top tournament is a very tall task for any newly-promoted team, but the Danes not only did it for 2015, but they lasted up until this year. But in Vancouver, they looked defeated from the get go. Yeah, a 14-0 loss to the tournament hosts can do that to you, but even though they even outplayed Russia and Switzerland at points, they looked like a team lacking an identity or any true passion.

They were lucky that the likes of Nikolaj Ehlers and Oliver Bjorkstrand were available to them at the 2015 World Juniors because, without them, they likely wouldn’t have been able to outlast the Swiss and stay up.

But the future isn’t looking so great for the Danes. In December, Denmark had a terrible time with their U18 team, losing 8-2 to Latvia, 8-2 to France and 10-0 to Norway. To put it in perspective: the talent pool isn’t that great for those other three nations. The Under-18 team has taken bronze at the past two World Championships, and just four players are eligible to return this year (Jonathan Brinkman, who had a point for Denmark at the World Juniors, can return).

Sure, it’s early, but some Danish fans are concerned.

Denmark has a few promising 2003-born prospects with Marcus Almquist, Philip Nolsoe and Magnus Rosenorn, but they are still a few years away. They don’t have a whole lot of talent coming up in the 2001/2002 age groups and will need to get creative when scoring.

Goaltending wise, Mads Søgaard didn’t get a lot of help in front of him, but considering how highly rated he is (and from what I’ve seen from him, he’s one heck of a goalie), he didn’t do the Danes any favours. On many occasions, he allowed goals that he surely should have stopped, including the two that got him pulled early against Kazakhstan.

But he’s still young, He can still represent Denmark again next year in Division IA, assuming he’s loaned out. But when you look at his progression, no Danish goaltender — including NHL star Frederik Andersen — has received as much attention as Søgaard is before the draft. He’ll be just fine. There’s Christian Elmose, who had so-so numbers at the U18s last year, Frederik Søgaard, who was a reserve player for Denmark this year as a 17-year-old, and Frederik Dichow, the guy tasked with playing most of Denmark’s U18 games this year. But none of them appear to be as good as Mads Søgaard, who looks destined to be their starting goalie going forward.

Losing this year was a sign that things aren’t looking good for Denmark, because even though they weren’t great, most people would have still predicted them beating Kazakhstan. Yet, that didn’t happen. They had an opportunity to keep things rolling, and they couldn’t even beat Kazakhstan, a team that got blown out in almost every game. Denmark simply couldn’t generate quality chances despite their many shot attempts and they didn’t have the speed or defensive skill to keep the puck away from their goalie.

So, we’ll see how the Danes move forward. The team does have eight players that can return next year, including Philip Schultz, which is huge. Don’t be surprised if Denmark returns to the top group for 2021, but that seems like an eternity away.

I truly loved watching Denmark play over the past few years. George Sørensen was an absolute blast to watch at the 2014 World Junior A Challenge and was an underappreciated part of that miracle team for Denmark a few weeks later. Ehlers was one of the best players to ever play for a team that just got promoted. That team made watching hockey fun in what still stands as one of the most exciting tournaments I can recall.

But those days are far behind them. Next year will be the fifth tournament since that eventful trip to Canada and despite winning a few games, there hasn’t been much progress. Røndbjerg may turn into a solid NHLer, but that’s about it on offence.

Denmark is such a happy country. I just hope their junior hockey team gives them something to smile about soon.

Some favourites from the OMHA AAA Showcase

OAKVILLE, ONT - Hamilton Jr. Bulldogs forward Jaxson Zurby (#15) during warm-up for a game between the Hamlton Jr. Bulldogs and the Oakville Rangers at Sixteen Mile Sports Complex on December 9, 2018. (Photo from Steven Ellis/World Hockey Magazine)

I wanted to try something different here.

If you’re reading this, you’re reading the first article on my mostly-unfinished personal site, something I’ve wanted to do for many years now but never bothered to get up. Think of this as my own personal portfolio site.

Anyways, I run the video scoreboard at Sixteen Mile Sports Complex in Oakville, home of the 2018 OMHA AAA Showcase in early December. The event started with a AAA midget all-star game, which I didn’t really take notes on. Afterwards, there were 10 games between the 10 teams involved: Brampton, Buffalo, Burlington, Grey-Bruce, Guelph, Halton, Hamilton, Niagara, Oakville and Southern Tier.

Let me be clear: these weren’t necessarily the best players overall in the showcase. I worked the video scoreboard for all the games on the main rink, so I could only watch the games involving them. And, of course, there’s no such thing as publicly-available stat sheets for games like these. So, I can’t verify any stats, but I can tell you which players I liked watching the most from the five-full games I saw.

Here are a few of the guys that really stood out to me at the event.

Matteo Giampa, F (Niagara North Stars, #19): I only got to see Giampa play in one game, Saturday’s match-up against the Guelph Jr. Gryphons, but it was easily one of the best games by any draft eligible players that I’ve seen this year. In that game, Giampa had three assists, including a beautiful give-and-go passing play with Zach Mambella. Late in the game, he split between two Guelph defencemen after starting with the puck in his own zone and created a breakaway, only to get stopped. His whole game is based on speed: his hands are quick, he almost always wins the battles to the puck and his wrist shot is rather quick, too. His speed makes him a first-round talent, but there were a few shifts where you would have liked to see him attack more aggressively.

Owen Wilson, D (Oakville Rangers, #49): Not to be confused for the actor famous for providing the voice for Lightning McQueen, Owen Wilson is a big 6'3, 195-pound defender that has impressive speed for a kid his size. Wilson isn't afraid to get physical and moves the puck fairly well. In a game against the Hamilton Jr. Bulldogs on the final day of action, Wilson scored on the power play to tie the game up at two. If he was to make it to the OHL, he’d be a good second-pairing power-play quarterback that can simply fire a shot through a brick wall. Wilson likes to rush the puck up the ice doesn't take himself out of position when throwing a hit, but not every hit is always well-timed. Still, very noticeable every time I’ve seen him this year and typically in a good way.

Eric Randall, G (Southern Tier Admirals, #40): Randall’s goaltending partner, Benjamin Bonisteel, may perhaps be one of the best goalies in the SCTA, but his effort against the Guelph Jr. Gryphons on December 9th was one of the best goalie performances of the weekend. The Admirals ended up tying Guelph 2-2, and while there was no shot count listed, Randall was the busier goaltender of the two. The 6’3 moves very quick and is quite athletic for a goalie his size and the Admirals wouldn’t have had a chance if it wasn’t for him. The Admirals aren’t a good team this year and Randall’s stats are far from impressive, but he has the ability to steal wins and is getting a lot of shots against this year, something that’s great for a young, developing goalie.

Jaxson Zurby, F (Hamilton Bulldogs, #15): I’ve seen Zurby in person twice this year and he scored both times, so that’s impressive enough. One play in particular at the OMHA Showcase really impressed me: against the Oakville Rangers on the final day, Zurby rushed behind the net after a faceoff, stealing the puck off a defenceman. He then quickly moved back in front of the net and jammed the puck past goaltender Noah Pak to score after some good momentum by his team. Zurby is a tenacious forward that brings a lot of energy to the table and, in this game in particular, he kept his pace throughout the game. He was tough to take the puck off of when shielding himself from defencemen and while he wasn’t the most creative player with the puck, he can get a good amount of power out of his wrist shot. I’d like to see how he plays later in the year while trying to escape Jacob Maillet’s shadow.

Adam O'Marra, C (Oakville Rangers, #22): O’Marra has played both centre and left wing for Oakville this season and had a couple of good scoring chances in his game against the Hamilton Bulldogs. Slick and crafty with the puck, O'Marra is smart when dancing around in the offensive zone and has a nice quickness to his game that would translate well to Junior A next year, which seems like a good fit for him at this point. There are times, like Giampa, where you would like to see him attack the puck more in the offensive zone and he can probably engage a bit more physically, but O’Marra has a lot of pure skill and factors into a lot of Oakville’s scoring chances during a game.

Joseph Blackley, D (Buffalo Regals, #4): Admittedly, I only saw him play for a few minutes against the Brampton 45s on Saturday, but it seemed like he was the only player on the ice during that time. Blackley is very quick and controls the puck very well, especially when skating backwards to get out of trouble. One of the best defencemen from the SCTA, is a great playmaker with impressive top speed and a good release on his shot, something he isn't afraid to unleash often. Whenever the Regals win, it seems like Blackley is involved in some way, and if he adds a bit of size to his game, he could be a very well-rounded defenceman going forward.