NASCAR is the first sport to come back – and I’m not sure how I feel about it

I never thought I’d be advocating for NASCAR to not host races, but here I am.

I, like the rest of you, miss sports. That’s an understatement, especially when your livelihood revolves around it.

I made it clear that I think the NHL should just call it quits on 2019-20 and focus on coming back strong in 2020-21. And now, I’m left wondering if NASCAR is making the right decision by becoming the first sport to return to our television sets.

Frankly, that doesn’t sound like a sports fan – why would I not want something to come back? I’m just worried that maybe NASCAR is coming back too early before the world is ready for it. On one hand, NASCAR can use any promotion it can. As much as I’ve loved watching the iRacing events as an iRacer myself – and, apparently, a million people a week seem to agree – it’s far from the real thing and not a proper replacement.

But it’s going to be so weird having the sport come back in the way it is. I’m not going to any of the races (obviously), but after NASCAR’s conference call with media members on Thursday, it feels like there are more things you can’t do than you can. And that makes sense and I’m glad NASCAR is taking safety seriously.

But it just doesn’t feel right. Going back racing is a great way to bring normality back in the fold, but everything else is still on lockdown. We can’t go to the races. We can barely go to the grocery store. Does it really make sense to have nearly 40 teams at a track, cramming in three races in just a handful of days to make up for all the lost time? Don’t get me wrong, I’m absolutely pumped for on-track action to return. But what if a driver gets sick? What about Martin Truex Jr. and his girlfriend Sherry? Is he going to have to give up seeing her for months at a time now to continue racing due to her prior health issues? Are whole teams going to be wiped out because of one guy getting sick along the way, and potentially passing it on to more people? Is the risk of a potential fallout of NASCAR being the first sport to return, only to get people sick in mass, worth taking the chance at this point?

I’m glad I’m not the one making the decision and I know NASCAR has taken it’s time and done the due diligence to make this happen. But racing in front of empty grandstands in shortened one-day events just feels like a cheap way of trying to fall back in the regular routine. Fans are robbed of the full experience I got to witness at Daytona in February, and while the odds of seeing packed grandstands again this season are lower than me winning the lottery this weekend, watching a race in front of nobody feels wrong.

When NASCAR, and the rest of the sporting world gets its sanity back, fans won’t be welcome across the board. That has to happen to limit the spread as long as possible, and most reasonable people have accepted that actuality. I’m not saying that’s the issue – I’m saying that returning so soon when people can barely leave their own homes doesn’t click with me. I’ll watch the races and be so glad they’re back, but I fear for what could happen if someone does fall ill through all of this.

We need the world to go back to normal, but I just hope this doesn’t backfire on NASCAR. I hope they get this right because the last thing the sport needs is another black eye after losing one of racing’s brightest young sports to an absolutely stupid move on his part. There’s a lot to be excited about when the series returns to Darlington, including the returns of veterans Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth. So the last thing NASCAR needs is a scandal involving a mass spread of an illness that put the world and economy on edge for months just so we can go back to watching something non-essential like auto racing.

This is an opportunity to bring the sport back to the mainstream in a way we once saw before that fateful Sunday in February of 2001, so let’s hope NASCAR gets this right. I trust NASCAR is taking all the right steps to ensure safety, and as someone with friends in the garage, I hope everyone leaves the track without feeling ill.

There’s so much on the line with a return like this, so you can’t blame me for being worried.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

The 2022 NHL draft is going to be wicked

So, the 2020 NHL draft is going to be awesome. Like, the best since the 2003 draft. There is going to be a magnitude of stars drafted and franchises are going to have a reason to celebrate after the season came to an abrupt end.

But 2022 is going to be even better.

Disclaimer: there’s always hype around every draft. The 2019 had Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, two dynamite offensive threats. The 2018 draft had a star-studded defender in Rasmus Dahlin. The year before that, Nico Hischier was supposed to turn around the New Jersey Devils.

But 2022 is truly going to be something special.

I wrote about what I dubbed the “Three-Headed Monster” back in November – Shane Wright, Matthew Savoie and Brad Lambert. Two of them applied for exceptional status in the CHL (and Wright actually received it), while the third became one of the youngest pro players in a top European men’s league, ever. Give the piece a read – all three are going to be superstars and capable of becoming high-end game-changers in a way few players manage to do every few years.

But the trio doesn’t include Rutger McGroarty, a kid many independant scouts believes is a top three prospect for 2022. And when you look at the fact that he had 82 goals and 160 points in midget (no midget player came remotely close to catching McGroarty’s goal count), there’s a good argument for it. If you know me, you know I hate using the term “elite” to describe prospects because it’s so overused, but there’s no better way of describing his ability to put pucks in the net. He’ll be an instant NHLer once he’s taken in 2022, so I wouldn’t count too much on him honoring his University of Notre Dame.

The trio doesn’t include Seamus Casey, an unbelievable puck-mover set to lead the USNTDP to glory from the blueline. Casey fell just short of two points-per-game on average in the NAPHL, but through it all, his 11 goals put him top 10 in the league, regardless of position. He’s a natural two-way defender with incredible speed, stick-handling abilities and defensive awareness. He’s projected to be the first defenseman off the board in 2022 and will be an instant power-play contributor once he reaches the NHL.

The trio doesn’t include Juraj Slafkovsky, who had one of the best seasons in Finnish U-18 league history. Better than Kakko and Mikael Granlund, and not too far behind Eeli Tolvanen and Sebastian Aho. At 6-foot-4, he’s got great size for a kid his age and has continuously proven himself to be a dangerous scoring threat at all levels. If anyone is going to take the charge and help fix Slovakian hockey, it’s going to be Slafkovsky.

The trio doesn’t include Frank Nazar, who had one of the best seasons by any midget-aged player last year with 127 points in 55 games. He controls the puck with pure confidence and scores highlight-reel goals on a near-nightly basis. The University of Michigan commit has speed to kill and wins most of his 1-on-1 battles, and if this is the quality prospect available to you midway through the top 10, you can’t go wrong.

The trio doesn’t include Jack Devine, a standout with the USNTDP this past season and one of the best Americans in the age group. Devine has an impressive skill set that allows him to be one of the best players on the ice most nights thanks to his well-rounded style allowing him to excel at most situations.

The trio doesn’t include Conor Geekie, arguably the most impressive U-16 player in the Manitoba midget league. You may have heard of his older brother, Morgan, the Carolina Hurricanes prospect with four points in his first two NHL games. Conor already looks like a better prospect at the same age, adding a dynamic two-way presence to a strong frame that allowed him to dominate the Manitoba bantam scene before a successful transition to midget this past year. Get ready for his exploits in the WHL next season.

The trio doesn’t include Tristan Luneau, who, not only was the best U-16 defensemen in Quebec AAA hockey, but was one of the best defensemen against older competition, period. His game-to-game consistency is unmatched and you won’t find many players with the confidence to rush the puck through pressure like Luneau.

The trio doesn’t include Russian sensation Ivan Miroshnichenko, the most impressive player in all levels of international junior hockey this past season. Now he’s going the Andrei Svechnikov route in Muskegon, and, frankly, scouts see a lot alike in the two players. Svechnikov went second overall in 2018 – so just think about that comparison for a second and you’ll realize how deep this draft really is.

The trio doesn’t include Ty Nelson, the small, but super skilled defender that went No. 1 to the North Bay Battalion in early April. He has great offensive tools, is almost always winning foot races and while he’s not the biggest body – he stands 5-foot-8 – he moves the puck up the ice as well as, if not better than, anyone his age. In terms of puck-moving and skating abilities, there are some similarities between Nelson and current NHLers Jared Spurgeon and Ryan Ellis.

The trio doesn’t include Maddox Fleming, Simon Nemec, David Goyette, Cruz Lucius, Isaac Howard, Jack Hughes (the other one) or Paul Ludwinski. To most of you, these are just names. You’ll forget about most of them for another year and re-visit them once you have a clearer understanding of where your team sits heading into the 2021-22 season. The 2020 draft hasn’t even happened yet, but scouts are already exuberant over the 2022 edition.

Prospect watchers and fans of terrible hockey teams are in for a treat the next few years – the talent is coming.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

An early look at the 2021 OHL Draft

A year ago, I took an extremely early look at the 2021 OHL draft. For the most part, it just focused on a handful of players that impressed me at a tournament in Oakville, plus a few other viewings I had throughout the season while waiting for minor midget contests.

Honestly, I expected about 10-20 people to read it and that’s it. It wasn’t meant to be an early ranking, but more so just the players that caught my attention. But here we are 12 months later and the piece has nearly 5,000 hits – not a ton, but given the subject matter, I’m completely shocked.

So, it’s time for an update. Fortunately, I’ve seen many Oakville Rangers games being from Oakville, and with the team considered one of the top clubs to beat (especially if rumors of potential additions of high-quality players materialize), it’s going to be a big year for a club that already looks stronger than the 1997-birth year group that put on a show in 2012-13.

Compared to the NHL draft, where most scouts have followed the players for 4-5 years at the least, it’s tough to judge the OHL’s top prospects a year in advance. They’re still quite young – the oldest kids turned 15 over the past four months – and many still have a lot of growth to do, physically and mentally. But through talking to scouts and using my own notes, here’s a look at 30 prospects for the 2020 OHL draft you should keep an eye on (and please remember, this is not a mock draft or a ranking of any kind and I’m not including players I’ve seen nothing from – sorry ETA players):

Calum Ritchie, F (Oakville Rangers)
“The real deal.” “He’s going to change an OHL franchise for the better.” “Best of the best.” Those are all terms used to describe Ritchie’s play this year after proving he’s one of the best 2005-born players in the country. I was at one of his two minor midget games with the Rangers this season and watching him pull off an incredible no-look deke around a defender to score was one of the highlights of the season for me. He had no issue being among the best players against older competition and his creativeness with the puck is superb. Ritchie is confident with the puck and dependable in his own zone – a guy who should have no issue instantly transitioning to the OHL when the time comes.

Luke Misa, F (Oakville Rangers)
Another member of the dominant Rangers squad, you can’t count Misa out of the No. 1 pick discussion. While there has been more attention placed on Ritchie the past few years, Misa was nearly a goal-per-game player in his five games with Oakville’s minor midget team and showcased his smart decision-making with the disk on his stick. Misa’s game is built around speed, but the Rangers relied on him to play a smart defensive game and he rarely flubs the puck when he’s under pressure. Oakville is set for a championship run in 2020-21, so Misa will have many opportunities to showcase what he can accomplish.

Noah Cochrane, D (Barrie Jr. Colts)
Cochrane was one of my standout players when I wrote about the 2005 age group a year ago and nothing has changed. Cochrane played a year up with the Barrie Colts’ minor midget program and was the team’s best player on many nights, trailing Charlie Fowler for the team lead in points by a defenseman. Cochrane loves to engage himself in offensive rushes and there are a few clips out there of him stealing the puck for a breakaway chance. Physically, Cochrane can hold his own, but his true strength lies in how he handles the puck – whether it be shooting with his quick, dangerous wrist shot on the power play or the way he sets up forwards at a high pace. He’s easily in the running for the first overall pick in 2021 and a good successor to Ty Nelson as the OHL’s top defensive draft prospect.

Cameron Allen, D (Toronto Nationals)
Physicality, puck smarts, a hard shot and a two-way presence. Allen has everything you’re looking for out of a modern-day defenseman and will be the Young Nats’ most important player in 2020-21. But still, it’s Allen’s ability to keep plays simple with minimal mistakes that makes him so fascinating. He can be flashy and make big plays, but his bread and butter is how he doesn’t keep his teammates guessing what he’s going to do and doesn’t take big risks.

Ben Lalkin, F (Mississauga Reps)
You must be doing something right if the NHL, TSN, Pavel Barber and other high-profile hockey names have posted about your dangles as a 14-year-old. And soon, more people will be exposed to Laklin’s all-around game that will make him an early selection next April. Laklin took his two-way game to a whole new level in 2019-20, adding physicality and defensive smarts to an already impressive offensive package. His footwork is advanced for his age and he has no issue getting into scoring situations thanks to his high-end speed.

Angus Macdonell, F (Toronto Marlboros)
Explosive. Quick. Fiesty. Are we talking about an action movie or a top draft prospect? 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. Macdonnell is one of the highlights of the strong Toronto Marlboros program heading into 2020-21, with the mid-sized forward using his speed and stickwork to inflict pain – offensively, of course. Macdonell is always engaged in the play and uses his assets to his advantage when fighting for pucks. He’s easily one of the most intriguing prospects for the draft and one of the top names to watch in the GTHL.

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. It’s worth noting that just three players outscored Romani at the U-13 World Selects Invitational two years ago, and two of them were high-profile prospects Connor Bedard and Alex Weiermair.

Anselmo Rego, F (Vaughan Kings)
A highlight prospect out of the Vaughan Kings program, Rego is a confident puck-mover with great hands and a shifty skillset. Rego is a true team-player that would rather set his teammates up than force a play he might not come out on top of, and that’s the type of thing you like to see out of a young prospect.

Luke McNamara, F (Toronto Jr. Canadiens)
A strong kid who isn’t afraid to throw the body, McNamara was one of my favorite prospects at the DraftDay Prospect Showcase in Oakville a year ago. He plays every shift like he has something to prove, but he does it unselfishly. Your best bet of stopping him is to land a big, crushing hit because McNamara has the skill and speed to blast by you if you’re not playing aggressively.

Luke McNamara (Photo from Steven Ellis)

Mitchell Brooks, F (Toronto Titans)
A former member of the Burlington Eagles, Brooks made the move to the Titans last season and didn’t disappoint. At first glance, Brooks plays like a pure offensive-minded forward, but he’s trusted to play the penalty kill and can handle himself admirably in his own zone. Much of his game is still raw, and there’s still work needed to manage his consistency, but there’s a reason scouts have followed his game closely for a while now: he makes everyone around him better.

Luca Pinelli, F (Toronto Jr. Canadiens)
The younger brother of Kitchener Rangers forward Francesco Pinelli, Luca is a highlight machine. Using his impressive skating to his advantage, Luca often is the one creating the offense for his line and has a lethal, desirable wrist shot that he unleashes often each night. If he’s anything like his brother, Luca is going to be an instant scoring threat in the OHL.

Conor Thacker, D (Oakville Rangers)
A cornerstone of the powerhouse Rangers team, scouts love how Thacker sees the game, both in action and in anticipation. A strong kid at 6-foot-2 and just under 200 pounds, Thacker is tough to take the puck off of and skates well for being one of the bigger kids in the age group. A modern-day mobile defenseman by definition.

Nick Lardis, F (Oakville Rangers)
A small, but super skilled prospect, Lardis Lardis always looks like he got launched out of a rocket based on how quick he moves. Lardis uses his speed to create scoring chances and he sees the game at a high pace, allowing him to outsmart defenders while playing a speedy game. Lardis doesn’t lose many 1-on-1 opportunities and he has the puck skills to make things happen with the disk. If he adds some size to his frame, he’s going to be a dominant offensive player some day – and, of course, he’s still young, so that’s not a concern right now.

Colby Barlow, F (Toronto Marlboros)
Big kids typically have an advantage at this age and Barlow has a dominating presence about him. When he’s at full speed carrying the puck, getting in front of him is just asking for a death sentence. Barlow has a powerful shot and can switch from a wrist shot to a slap shot with ease, and while scouts would love to see him improve his puck-moving decisions while under pressure, his raw skillset is impressive at this point.

Colby Barlow (Photo from Steven Ellis)

Jaxon Priddle, F (Lambton Jr. Sting)
First off, he’s got one of the best names of the draft. But more importantly, he’s got his skillset is going to be what really gets people talking down the line. A primary scoring threat for the Sting, Priddle has good on-ice awareness that allows him to capitalize on breakaways and create open space for himself. Each shift, he’s Lambton’s best player, so it’ll be interesting to see what numbers he can produce if a high-scoring OHL team picks him up next year.

Chase Thompson, F (North Bay Trappers)
You don’t typically see a lot of Northern Ontario representation early in the draft, but Chase Thompson’s play with the North Bay Trappers midget team this season is worth mentioning. Playing against bigger, older teenagers, Thompson engaged enthusiastically in physical play and when he gets on his game, he’s hard to contain. If you give him extra room on the power play, he’s going to make you pay. His skating needs a lot of work, though, but if it can catch up to his hard work ethic, there will be something tangible to work with.

Bronson Ride, D (Oakville Rangers)
The younger brother of Oakville Blades Jr. A defenseman Declan Ride, Bronson has a good pedigree behind him and has the size all scouts desire in an OHL-ready prospect. Just for reference, Declan is 6-foot-6, and Bronson is already the same size – if not a little taller. Ride has always been among the best defensemen in the age group, using his big reach and physical play to his advantage. His skating could use a bit more step, but Ride moves well for his size and has the basics needed to be an all-around monster some day. It’s worth noting that Declan is committed to Miami University in the NCAA, so Bronson could consider the school route, too.

James Petrovski, D (Toronto Titans)
A physically dominant defender, even the most skilled, smaller forwards struggle to find a way around Petrovski. Petrovski is a pure athlete: he moves well, he doesn’t seem to slow down as the game progresses and he hates to lose. Petrovski can run the power play and racking up assists isn’t new to him, so there’s some good offensive potential here.

Declan Waddick, F (Sun County Panthers)
Waddick is a well-rounded prospect that does everything asked with him with some form of success. Scouts love how smart he is at reading the play, allowing him to play at a high pace and ahead of his opponents. A “student of the game”, as one scout said, Waddick keeps in constant contact with his teammates on the ice and can be seen directing plays – often with a high degree of success.

Matthew Wang, F (London Jr. Knights)
It’s one thing to be a quick skater, but it’s another to know how to correctly harness that power to your advantage. That’s what Wang can do – when playing a strong defensive club, Wang takes the game to the perimeter and makes space for himself and his teammates. Throw in his hard shot, namely his slapper, and you have a smart, offensive-minded forward who can be a game-changer at the minor midget level.

Charles Vanhaverbeke, D (Clarington Toros)
Vanhaverbeke is tough to keep up with, both with and without the puck. Vanhaverbeke is no stranger to rushing the puck down the ice and sometimes looks for passes as if he’s the fourth forward on a scoring chance. He’s always on the lookout for a potential scoring chance against and doesn’t spend a lot of time waiting for something to happen: if Vanhaverbeke sees an opportunity to make a play, he’ll do it.

Christopher Brydges, D (Quinte Red Devils)
Brydges is well ahead of much his age group in terms of two-way play among defenders, often being a driving force to Quinte’s scoring chances. Brydges skates with confidence and always has a set plan in place, but he can adjust to mistakes and keep up with the fastest forwards in the league.

Ben Rossi (Photo from Steven Ellis)

Ben Rossi, G (Hamilton Jr. Bulldogs)
Rossi was a standout at the OMHA championship a year ago and his stock has only risen since then. In fact, when scouts talk about the Bulldogs, Rossi is nearly always one of the first names mentioned. Rossi moves from post-to-post quickly and has impressive rebound control for his size and age. Rossi 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.

Cal Uens, F (Quinte Red Devils)
With a last name like Uens – the names Randy and Zachary may ring a bell – people are going to pay attention. Strong in his own zone, Uens is a reliable two-way player with good speed and an impressive breakout pass in his arsenal. Uens always has his head on a swivel, looking to set someone up and create high-danger scoring chances.

Tristan Bertucci, D (Toronto Marlboros)
A power-play star, Bertucci doesn’t waste his passing opportunities and rarely makes a bad read with the puck. When setting someone up, he can be elusive in the fact that he often makes you think he’s going to do something else completely, allowing Bertucci to stay one step ahead of most of the kids his age.

Taeo Artichuk, F (Markham Majors)
Whoa, talk about exciting. Every time Artichuk touches the puck, you notice. Not a big kid at 5-foot-6, Artichuk has unmatched speed and can deke past even the best defensemen in the draft. Seriously, give him the puck and try stopping him. Like you’ll see out of most undersized, but skilled forwards, Artichuk does have some deficiencies in his defensive game, but that’s something coaches can continue to help him with. Get ready for some highlight-reel clips over the next few years.

Connor Haynes, F (Markham Majors)
A strong kid with a good release, Haynes isn’t going to blow you away with a high top speed, but he has the rounded skillset to make up for it. A smart playmaker, Haynes is creative when moving the puck and doesn’t miss many of his downward feeds. Haynes could learn to shoot more, but he’s got a great base to work with.

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.

Owen Davy, G (Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs)
It’s challenging to project goalies at this level, but Davy has a nice base to build around at this point in his development. Davy is very athletic, often finding the opportunity to make a big save in a tough situation or a quick scramble in front. A strong post-to-post puckstopper with good size and rebound control, Davy can also send pucks out with crisp passes and likes to get aggressive with poke checks. Davy was playing AA just three seasons ago, so it’s cool to see how he’s developed in the years since.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

Previewing the 2020 WHL draft – a special one at that

Just over two weeks after the OHL concluded its annual minor midget draft, the WHL is set to become the second major junior league to make selections while the hockey world waits for any bit of positive news about what’s next.

The WHL does things a little bit differently, though: instead of selecting 2004-born kids like the OHL and QMJHL, WHL teams select players out of the 2005 bantam-aged group, allowing the club to get a head start on the fututure. It’s a year scouts have been waiting ages for – this is one of the best, if not THE best, draft class the WHL has had in quite some time. Three players applied for exceptional status: Connor Bedard, Brayden Yager and Riley Heidt. And while Bedard was the only one that earned the title, the fact that three players were even in consideration (and in Bedard’s case, he’s the first to ever get accepted) shows just how high-end this draft class is.

Many believed Matthew Savoie deserved the prestigious honor a year ago, and with a prior commitment to the University of Denver, there were rumors the Winnipeg ICE would look elsewhere to make the No. 1 pick. But it worked out, and Savoie had a solid partial rookie campaign as an underaged player. But now, the WHL has three superstars to prepare for. Bedard is the only one with a direct path to full-time junior status, but we’ve been waiting about it for a long time.

Just how good is Bedard, Regina Pats fans? I hate throwing the word “elite” out to describe a player, especially at this age, but that’s a no-brainer for one of the best prospects to ever come out of western Canada. He’s just 14, but Bedard had 43 goals and 84 points in just 36 games against U-18 competition, good for first in league scoring. His shot is so dangerous, whether it’s a far-range slap shot or an in-tight wrist shot. Bedard has a quick release and his superb skating allows him to create his own scoring chances with minimal difficulty. There’s isn’t a player in this age group that you want to leave alone less then Bedard because he’ll make you look like a fool – and he’ll have no issue doing that against even older competition in the WHL this season.

My former The Hockey News colleague Ryan Kennedy had a great write-up on the future superstar last week, but Ken Campbell had an in-depth look at Bedard back when he was 13.

Of course, we’re going to get the inter-draft politics with players telling teams where they’d prefer to go. Love it or hate it, it’s a staple among junior hockey drafts. For example, rumors surrounding where Yager and Heidt – the consensus No. 2-3 picks for the draft – will land have swirled around the community in recent days. There’s even rumors about a minor hockey program getting moved as part of everything, Welcome to major junior, where the actual selection process is mostly decided beforehand.

For Regina, Prince George and Moose Jaw (the teams with the top three picks on Wednesday), the excitement surrounding this draft couldn’t be higher. After talking to scouts and following players myself, I put together a list of 15 players (including Bedard) that you should acquaint yourself with before the draft begins on Wednesday at noon ET. For the full draft order, click here.

Before I start: I follow Ontario-based prospects more than those out west. These players are from my own viewings and talking to scouts. I TRULY recommend you pick up the WHL draft guide from DraftGeek for a deep dive on this year’s top western prospects. It’s just $5 and worth every cent.

Brayden Yager, C (Saskatoon Contacts, SMHL)
Last summer, one Western league scout told me “I have full confidence Yager will be a better NHL player than Bedard.” I asked him the same question last week – same response. Why? “He’s got the flash – maybe not Bedard-like, but special nonetheless – but he’s beyond polished for his age. He could have been an impactful top-six player in the WHLer as an underager. It may just be a hunch, but it’s a strong one.” It’s too early to know how true that will become, but Yager is special. Watching him dangle Shane Wright – granted exceptional status for the OHL 2020 before putting on one of the most impressive rookie seasons we’ve ever seen – with ease at the PEP high-performance camp last year was incredible. It’s a shame he didn’t get exceptional status, but given the fact that Bedard is the only player in WHL history to attain it, impressive the junior hockey overlords is easier said than done.

Riley Heidt should have no issue becoming a superstar in the NHL someday. (Photo from Steven Ellis).

Riley Heidt, LW (Saskatoon Contacts, SMHL)
Yager’s left-hand man in Saskatoon, Heidt, like Yager, applied for exceptional status to no avail. Heidt makes everyone around him better thanks to his reputation stout playmaker and he’s willing to take risks (with a high degree of success) to make a play happen with the puck. The chemistry that he and Yager have shown in recent years is something any team could ask for, so it’s a shame we won’t see them together again next season unless a trade occurs near the top of the draft order. Just to show how incredible the 2023 draft is shaping up to be, Heidt may just be a fringe top-five candidate already, but with Bedard, Yager, Adam Fantilli and Matvei Michkov in the fray, it’s no surprise why. But some have Heidt going ahead of Yager this week, too, so we’ll see.

Tanner Molendyk, D (Yale Lions, CSSBHL)
Molendyk is the top defenseman of the draft class and his 2019-20 campaign made it clear why. With 55 points in 27 games, Molendyk was the only defenseman in bantam to record over two points a game – good enough to earn the top defensemen honors in his league. But is that a blessing or a curse? Dating back to 2015, previous winners Luke Zazula and Jackson van de Leest have gone undrafted and Kaiden Guhle’s long-term potential has been a subject of debate ahead of the NHL draft this season. That’s just an observation more than anything, especially since Moldendyk’s mix of speed and creativity with the puck is among the best I’ve seen at this age level in some time. I have full confidence in Moldendyk becoming an impactful top-four defenseman in the NHL some day.

Lukas Dragicevic, D (Delta Green, CSSBHL)
Scouts liked him as a forward, but now they love the draft-riser as a defenseman. Dragicevic converted to a blueliner this season and finished behind Molendyk with 52 points in the CSSBHL in addition to five points in four games against 2004-born kids at points this season. Dragicevic is always looking to make a pass and can make passes to his forwards at a high speed and his forward nature makes him an obvious candidate to join in on the rush. He still needs to improve his defensive consistency and decision-making with the puck in his own zone, but what a boost for someone changing positions this late in the running.

Matthew Wood, C (West Vancouver Warriors, CSSBHL)
One of the better pure goal-scorers in the draft, Wood is coming off a 40-goal campaign with West Van – good for second in the CSSBHL. It helps that Wood already has good size for his age at 6-foot-0, allowing him to power his way through defenders and create his own scoring chances. Wood has the skill to win most 1-on-1 battles and he loves to shoot the puck often – and with a wicked wrist shot in his arsenal, the team that drafts him will look for him to use it often. He’s one of the most physically mature kids in this group and should have no issue making the transition to junior hockey in two years.

Grayden Slipec, C (West Vancouver Warriors, CSSBHL)
Need a forward with an incredible playmaking skillset? Slipec’s your man. Slipec is a quick skater that plays the game at a high pace, both with and without the disk, forcing mistakes and using his quick hands to get him out of tight situations. His skillset is among the best of all bantam-aged players and he’s a human highlight reel with the puck. You’d love to see him improve his defensive play, but whichever WHL team that drafts him will push Slipec to improve on it because he’s got nearly every other aspect of his game rounded out at this point in his development.

Austin Zemlak, D (OHA Edmonton, CSSBHL)
“He’d probably have one of the hardest shots in the WHL if he played right now.” That’s a glowing assessment from a scout who told me last summer that Zemlak wasn’t close to being a top-10 pick for the 2020 draft. A smart offensive defender, Zemlak is no stranger to end-to-end rushes and he’s not afraid to lay someone out with a big hit. Sometimes, he’s almost too fast of a skater, leaving him prone to missed passes, but he’s added some extra control to his step and you can’t help but love watching him move the puck. Still a raw talent, but one with high-end potential.

Kalan Lind, C (Swift Current Broncos, SBAAHL)
No need to brag, but Kalan Lind’s 120 points in 27 games is the sixth-highest point total in Saskatchawan bantam AA history, and his 227 points over 82 games are the most ever. Not too shabby for the younger brother of Vancouver Canucks prospect Kole Lind. Yes, he was quiet in his 10-game midget stint but he proved he can be a scoring machine against kids his own age and has a dynamic skillset that allows him to play any role that’s needed of him. But for as skilled as Lind is, he’s known to get a little too feisty and takes some inopportune penalties, with his 90 penalty minutes placing him eighth in the league. If it’s any consolation, Ryan Getzlaf had 189 penalty minutes in 41 games in 2000-01, and he turned out quite OK.

Sam Oremba, F (Regina Monarchs, SBAAHL)
Speaking of bantam AA, you can’t forget about the league’s top scorer, Oremba. With 75 goals and 133 points, only Chris Durand (135 points in 2001-02) finished with more points – but he needed 30 more games to achieve that. A strong skater that never stops moving, Oremba is dominant with the puck and, as you can tell from his output, he puts pucks on net at a high rate, rarely leaving a shift without a scoring chance. He’ll put up big numbers in the WHL and teams will love his competitive edge – well, whatever team picks him, at least. Everyone else will hate playing against him.

Mazden Leslie, D (Lloydminster Bobcats, AMHL)
After finishing as the Alberta bantam top defenseman in 2018-19 thanks to a 50-point campaign, Leslie made the jump to midget this past season and didn’t look out of place against older, stronger competition. Leslie loves to play a physical game and can rush the disk end-to-end without difficulty – but he’s still prone to making mistakes without the puck in his own zone. Still, Leslie exudes confidence and enjoys laying out his opponents and has the makings of a top-pairing defender in the WHL someday.

Matteo Fabrizi, D (Yale Lions, CSSBHL)
Fabrizi was one of the biggest risers for the draft this season and having a 6-foot-3, 222-pound frame means he was hard to miss out on the ice. More of a shutdown defender than some of the other top blueliners in this draft, Fabrizi is an intimidating presence on the ice and is known to throw big hits on occasion. Fabrizi’s game is centered around his smart defensive play, but he’s got some budding offensive potential still. He’ll be relied on to play heavy minutes next season before going the junior route in two years.

Zach Bensen, C (Yale Lions, CSSBHL)
“Easily one of the most improved kids in the draft class,” said one western-based scout. “So talented, but still waiting on his growth spurt,” said another. Listed at just 5-foot-5 and 126 pounds, Bensen is still quite small for his age but he did everything in his power to prove he’s a legitimate scoring threat. He went from putting up 19 points in 28 bantam games a year ago to 86 in 30, scoring at a goal-per-game and showing his value as a shifty, two-way forward. Bensen is reliable in his own zone and he has great speed to boot, so counting on him to produce – especially in a league where small players tend to thrive – is a safe bet.

Ryker Singer, C (Lloydminster Bobcats, AMBHL)
Scouts seem split on Singer’s high-end potential. Many had him as a top-five threat heading into 2019-20, but most have him falling closer to the second round at this point. Why? He had a strong season woth Lloydminster in Alberta, but he didn’t see a big jump in his offensive production, going from 41 points in bantam a year ago to 51 in two more games. Scouts love his punishing phyiscal play and he’s got a well-rounded power-forward playing style, but he’s going to need to take a big step in his development next season to show that he’s ready for the next step. Regardless, scouts like his potential.

Oliver Tulk, C (Delta Green, CSSBHL)
When the game matter the most, Tulk shows up to play. In two bantam pool games at the CSSHL championship, Tulk led all players with 10 points in just two games before the tournament was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tulk plays at a high pace and is creative with the puck, especially when he’s looking to make a play to setup a linemate. Tulk uses his quick speed to avoid checks and his shot is deceptive in the way that he let’s off a powerful wrist shot when you least expect it. A lot to like in his game.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

Despite everything going on, I’ve enjoyed 2020

I lost my dream job near the end of March. The world feels like an even more apocalyptic version of the Hunger Games. Going outside is a dangerous task. The economy is in shambles.

Yet somehow, I’m staying positive through it all. I don’t like being negative. I always have something to look for, whether it’s a junior hockey game, a video game event with friends or a NASCAR race on the weekend. I almost feel like there’s not enough time in a day, and I love that.

In fact, regardless of all the turmoil, I still can say this is one of my all-time favorite years. If you told me a year ago that the only race I would attend in 2020 (after seeing more races in 2019 than ever before) was the Daytona 500, I’d be very, very confused. And with this pandemic not slowing down anytime soon, that’s what 2020 is shaping up to be – and through it all, I still consider 2020 to be a great year.

Thinking back, if this event was held just a few weeks later, I wouldn’t have had the chance to finally make it.

Alongside my love for hockey, racing has always been something so important to me – specifically NASCAR. I have always wanted to go to the Daytona 500, something I’ve never missed in my 23 years as a fan. And when the opportunity presented itself to travel with good friends Eric Beaudoin and Caitlin Patrick to the World Center of Racing, there wasn’t a chance that I was missing it.

I hadn’t been to a NASCAR Cup Series race since 2003, so you could guess how exciting it was to think I finally had a chance to visit my dream venue.

Thousands of dollars and months of planning later, I finally had the chance to make it out to Daytona Beach, Fla. It was everything I could have asked for – minus the break-ins nearby our safe-but-also-kind-of-scary-with-gunshot-sounds-nearby AirBnB. A city full of major racing fans, NASCAR stores everywhere you go and restaurants based about the sport we all love – you can’t go wrong. Oh, and the Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwich lived up to the hype, but White Claw definitely did not.

But more importantly, I finally got to realize how incredible of a place Daytona is. You can’t appreciate the size of the track until you first arrive in the infield and make your way onto the front stretch. We had hot passes, and Eric was working for teams in two of the races, so we had an up-close look at everything going on. That opened up the experience in ways nothing else could. I’ve toured various tracks around Canada, but being at Daytona International Speedway was something I’ve never experienced before.

The original Riley Daytona Prototype is the greatest racecar to ever exist

With the hot pass, we had access to the pit stops throughout the week. Getting to watch the duels between the pit stalls of champions such as Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick was one of the coolest things I’ve gotten to do at a sporting event. Of course, I’ve been up close to NASCAR Pinty’s drivers, but this was something special. Yeah, we got a little too close to the pit wall and was told to move aside, but we still got closer than the average fan.

Friday rolled around and we finally got to see a points-paying race at Daytona – and oh boy, it didn’t disappoint. I wanted to see two things that weekend: a flip and a close finish. We got both in the truck race, including one of the tightest finishes in the history of the truck series. We had grandstand seats for it, and getting to see the whole track was an amazing experience. The Xfinity race the next day fell a little flat, but it was cool seeing 2017 Pinty’s Series champion Alex Labbe leading late in the race (and we happened to sit beside some Oakville residents, too. What are the odds?).

Finally, Sunday rolled around. The real deal. With Donald Trump visiting the race, there was a weird air around the whole event. We got to the track early, around 7:30 AM, and after Eric Beaudoin finally grabbed his hot pass for the 500, we entered the track. Security was tight, but we were there early enough and brought next to nothing, so we were fine. We got to hang out and chat with drivers, media, etc. and truly take in the full experience. We spent a few hours on the front stretch, sitting and waiting for the festivities to kick off – all while having snipers pointing guns at us from above. You know, the usual. The security was something I’ve never seen at any event before, but with a full crowd forming in the stands, you can tell the whole thing was special.

When Trump finally arrived, I’ve never heard a louder sound from a crowd in my life. Love him or hate him, it was a spectacle on top of a spectacle. We weren’t too far off from the President, so guns were pointed towards us by Homeland Security agents. That whole experience is something I won’t forget.

Then came the actual race. It rained for a bit and delayed the start – something NASCAR truly had to dread. Having the President of the United States at the sport’s biggest event was enough to bring in mass attention (even if he left before a single lap was turned), so a rain delay wasn’t ideal. They eventually got the race started and it was like something out of a movie.

Until it poured rain again and we were stuck soaking for hours, with no real timetable to return.

The race eventually finished on Monday afternoon, and in the final laps, my favorite driver (at the time), Kyle Larson, had a chance to win. Of course, he screwed himself out of a good finish due to mistakes on track, but it was still shaping up to be an incredible finish between Ryan Newman, Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin.

And then, it happened. The crash that made headlines around the world for days. Easily the most horrific impact I’ve ever seen in person. I can still hear the sound from that crash in my head today. People started screaming and crying from above the garage area where we watched the final few laps. We made our way down to the pits, and crew and media members were getting forced out of the pits. Early reports were dire. The car was blocked off. The No. 6 team was upset. The post-race celebration, once a sight to behold, was mute and over within minutes.

3 for Dael at all times

We spent the next hour at iHop across the street, waiting for a final word as to what happened to Newman. Fortuantely, we got word that he was alive – and walked out of the hopsital on his own just days later – but it was still full of uncertaintey. The fact he survived helped take a bit of the edge off everything and meant we were heading home still satisifed at what we saw. Remove the horrible accident and you have one of the closest finishes in Daytona 500 and one of the best stage races we’ve ever seen at a superspeedway. Can’t complain about that.

Away from the track, spending time at Daytona Beach was incredible, especially at night. We didn’t actually swim, and I don’t care for beaches, but pushing back against the quiet waves was… relaxing. For all the craziness at the track, it was nice to have a bit of a break away from the track in such a happy place.

I couldn’t have asked for much more from going to an event, other than someday hoping to go with my dad. It’s sad to think that I won’t likely get to go to a race again this season, especially with how jam-packed this summer was going to be. I miss that week in Daytona, and with everything going on in the world, 2020 has just been… weird. But regardless of everything going on in the world and especially with how our lives have changed for the worse, I’m staying positive, spending time writing hockey articles for fun and spending tons of time on iRacing. For as terrible of a year as 2020 has been, especially with losing my job, I’ve stayed happy.

And looking back at the Daytona 500 is a big reason why.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

An NHL return would just be tainted at this point

Obviously, I’m a diehard hockey fan. I’ve worked in the sport in some capacity for nearly a decade. Without hockey, who knows what career path I would have picked. Hockey means so much to me.

But at this point, I’m ready for the NHL to just hang up the laces for 2019-20. It’s dead. It’s gone. Move on. Unordinary circumstances got in the way and there’s nothing that can authentically save the season – just artificially.

We’ve been in quarantine for over a month and by now, most people have accepted we’re not going to see sports in the ways we used to prior to March. Even before the official shutdown, it felt weird showing up to Scotiabank Arena in Toronto to interview players in what was essentially an unused changeroom for the Toronto Raptors – but calling it an oversized closet might be more accurate. This was my first year covering the sport for an entire season, so the potential demise of the season would be a bittersweet end to a season in which I finally achieved a life goal of mine.

We’re waiting for a ticking timebomb. I can’t see a way the NHL returns in any meaningful capacity. I get the idea of doing a 24-team playoff or just skipping to the final 16 right away, but it’s going to feel forced. I may be the only person who wants a shorter NHL playoff – the MLB has it right the way they do it. It keeps you hooked for weeks with little to no downtime. The NHL would never follow such a format, playing nearly every night, but the idea of a shorter = better playoff is something I’ve felt for years.

How do you do that in the NHL? Revert to a best-of-three, best-of-five and best-of-seven format for the final two rounds. Or, heck, even have a best of three Stanley Cup final. Are you the best team? Prove it as quickly as possible. The NHL and its 31 team owners would never agree to such a thing, but you’re lying to yourself if you say you’re fully engaged for four rounds of hockey dragging over three months – especially when the Memorial Cup and World Hockey Championship also take place in the spring.

Maybe that’s a knock on our attention spans (but, hey, some of my favorite sporting events take 24 hours to complete), but it’s hard to think that the NHL could possibly do the right thing in this case. And we’re not talking about them specifically screwing up something simple – a return anytime soon would endanger lives. If the league was to return in, let’s say, October and finish out the playoffs, it would need to be quite condensed to finish the season before 2021 hits. And what happens to all the contracts that expire on July 1? And what about players like Alexis Lafreniere, Quinton Byfield and Tim Stutzle? Do they just go back to their respective junior/European pro clubs and waste part of their development playing in a league where they don’t have much more to gain? Forget about a shortened 2020-21 season, how will moving the expiry date of 2019-20 hurt 2021-22? And beyond? How does that trickle down to the leagues around the world that have already kiboshed their seasons?

There are more questions than answers, but that’s bound to happen when only a handful of people on the planet have a realistic idea of what’s next. We’d all love for sports to return back to normal as soon as possible, but we know that’s not happening. Are fans willing to wait a little longer to get sports back if it means keeping everything in check? Would a return to empty stadiums in August make much sense?

While it’s admirable the NHL hasn’t called quits on the season, it’s truly hard to think of the possibility of 2019-20 finishing in any significant amplitude. Nobody benefits from the season getting cancelled, but we could have a chance at regaining normalcy in the event that 2020-21 can start on time. The campaign started off tainted with the slew of coach firings for undesirable conduct and regardless of what happens, it’s something the league will want to put far into the past.

I want hockey back as much as any of you, but I’d rather be realistic about the situation. There’s no easy way of getting things back on track without having an adverse effect on the future. Do we sacrifice the season – and thus fail to crown a Stanley Cup champion without a labor dispute for just the second time – in order to keep everything else intact? Maybe, but at this point, I don’t have much hope for the season returning anytime soon.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

Congrats on a great career, Andrei Markov

Andrei Markov retired today. At 41 and coming off a shortened season in the KHL, it’s not exactly surprising. But it’s sad for someone who considered Markov to be one of his favorite players, and one who deserved more attention for his career than he received.

For 16 years, Markov established himself as a leader on one of the NHL’s most storied franchises – a Montreal Canadiens team that hadn’t tasted glory in a very long time. He instantly made a threat, playing key minutes as a rookie before truly emerging as a top-pairing defenseman at 24, his third year in the league. For an undersized, low-risk, high-reward sixth-round pick from 1998 to leave Russia to play such an important part of the team’s attempts at returning to glory, that’s huge.

I don’t think I played any NHL video game more than NHL 2004, considered by many to be one of the best games in the series (and with the best soundtrack, no question). I had a dynasty team mode with the Canadiens, and at the time, it was the game that really sparked my interest not only in the depth of the league, but the league itself. I could always rely on Markov to put up significant points each season, and with a bit of luck along the way, Markov helped lead the Canadiens to a Stanley Cup in 2005-06 – taking the Conn Smythe home in the process. I quickly became a fan of him for his on-ice performance after, and the rest is history.

Of that 2003-04 Habs team, only Ron Hainsey, who skated in just 11 games that year, remains. And he’s on his last legs as an NHLer as it is, so that could quickly change. That season doesn’t feel that long ago, so it’s sad.

There were rumors last summer that Andrei Markov was looking to return to the NHL, specifically Montreal. But if you had seen him in the KHL, you’d know there was no realistic chance of it. Some fans were calling for the reunion to happen, but he wasn’t at his full game when the Habs let him go originally – let alone at 40 years old with a couple of so-so KHL campaigns and a history of knee issues under his belt. The Canadiens must have thought the same, electing to pass on one of the best defensemen the franchise has had in the past 20 years.

But let’s look back on the happy days. The days when he would help set upt Sheldon Souray on the power play back when the Canadiens were unstoppable with the man advantage. Or how, when healthy, he had no issue hitting 50 points a season. Or how he was a mentor for a young P.K. Subban, helping his talented two-way partner win the Norris Trophy in 2012-13. Or how he played nearly 1,000 games with a single franchise, something few players can say these days.

Markov didn’t get the respect he often deserved in Montreal, whether it be due to his injury history or the fact the Canadiens didn’t achieve much success in the playoff department. But for a former sixth-round pick to play top-four minutes for nearly his entire career in one of the biggest hockey markets in the world… that’s special.

It’s been a few years since North Americans got to see his career in action, and what a career it was. Markov won three top-tier Russian league titles, including a KHL championship with Kazan in 2017-18, World Championship gold in 2007-08 and had consecutive NHL all-star game appearances in the late 2000s. It’s easy to forget about just how good he was during his heyday: With 572 points in 990 games, only Hockey Hall of Fame member Larry Robinson (883) had more as a defenseman in the 110-year history of the franchise. only Francis Bouillon (507) played over 500 games for the Canadiens during Markov’s 16-year run in Montreal and P.K. Subban had 294 fewer points as the second highest scoring defender. Among all positions, only center Tomas Plekanec (581) had more points overall than Markov. Only four defensemen (Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Gonchar, Dan Boyle and Zdeno Chara) had more points on the blueline from 2000-2017, so that’s incredible company to be apart of.

We’re not talking about a Hall of Fame career here, but we’re talking about a very strong one that may have not received as much attention as it deserved. Markov was never one of the best defensemen in the league, but he held the fort in a way very few consistently could during his career. Markov is hanging up the skates without a Stanley Cup or an Olympic gold medal, but he’s doing so with an incredible resume to his credit.

Thanks for everything, Andrei Markov.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

Like Shestyorkin before him, Ilya Sorokin is ready for the prime time

It’s been 9,831 days since the New York Islanders last won a second-round playoff series. For a franchise credited with one of the greatest dynasties in hockey, that’s unacceptable.

But for the past 2,116, there’s been some hope. That’s when the Islanders made Ilya Sorokin a third-round pick at the 2014 draft, giving the team it’s long-term future between the pipes. Maybe a little longer than the team hoped for, with nine goalies dressing at some point for the club with favorable results, for the most part – minus the playoff success part.

Islanders fans deserve better, and when May rolls around, Sorokin is expected to sign his first NHL deal at the age of 24 – but to some fans, he might as well be 30 at this point given how long they had to wait. But the wait was totally worth it: KHL advanced stats are hard to come by, but Sorokin’s 26-10-3 record with a .935 save percentage is a step down for him during his time with CSKA Moscow. With a 134-64-22 record and 44 shutouts in 244 games, only a handful of goaltenders have come close to matching Sorokin’s body of work – most notably, Sorokin’s good buddy and New York rival Igor Shestyorkin of the Rangers.

Sorokin is a dazzling prospect that gained some extra interest ahead of the trade deadline. Reports suggested the Chicago Blackhawks were close to acquiring Sorokin to help bolster the team’s long-term depth. Robin Lehner was moved at the deadline, seemingly opening a spot for Sorokin, but the Islanders held on to the young Russian instead. And Sorokin has incredible potential and his athletic build and incredible reflexes remind scouts of a young Sergei Bobrovsky – other than his tumultuous campaign in Florida this season, that’s a good player to be compared to. The Islanders knew Sorokin had the potential to become a starting goalie in the NHL, and they’re closer to that reality.

Of course, signing Sorokin makes the contract situation for Thomas Greiss a bit more interesting. During his tenure in Uniondale/Brooklyn/Jupiter/wherever the Islanders play next, Greiss has emerged as one of the league’s most reliable backup goaltenders with a 101-60-17 record in 193 games. Greiss is a pending UFA and one many teams will want in on – he’s 34 with a lot of good hockey left in him. The Islanders already have Semyon Varlamov locked up for another three years. and part of that term for was to use him as a mentor for Sorokin, a fellow Russian.

If I had to make a (not-so) wild guess, the club will try and follow what the New York Rangers did with Shestyorkin, a close personal friend of Sorokin’s. Let him adjust to North American pro by letting him dominate in the minors – and if the Bridgeport Sound Tigers are anything like they were this season, they’ll need the help. Then, call up Sorokin when he’s comfortable and move Greiss at the trade deadline. Teams will be lining up for a veteran backup for the playoff stretch, so they can maximize on Greiss’ trade value if he keeps up his hot play. The Islanders can then use Semyon Varlamov as a mentor and get more out of their four-year, $20-million investment and, boom, it’s a win-win for all involved.

What’s nice about Sorokin is that he isn’t some fresh-faced kid with limited experience that you need to keep on a leash. He has played in parts of eight KHL seasons, has led the league in shutouts in consecutive seasons and has represented Russia internationally in some form since 2014 – in short, he’s accomplished for his age. This season, seven goalies under the age of 25 either shared or assumed starting duties in the league, and had he stayed healthy near the end, Shestyorkin would have joined the club. In Shestyorkin’s case, he was dominant in the AHL and deserved every opportunity he got in the NHL. But with Alexandar Georgiev and Henrik Lundqvist already with the main club, gaining experience was a challenge. That changed mid-season when the Rangers finally gave Shestyorkin a chance and he proved he’s ready to be the goalie the team always (OK, maybe for just six years) dreamed of.

The Islanders that same opportunity with Sorokin. The club should still factor into the playoff hunt in 2020-21 and if there’s a chance on getting a maximum return on Greiss later on (assuming the team can sign him), there’s a great opportunity for the Islanders to come out as true winners. Sorokin is the man tasked with guiding the team to glory once again and all signs point towards him living up to the hype, but he hasn’t arrived yet. Give him a bit of a chance to learn the North American game and lifestyle and when he’s ready, promote him to the spotlight.

The kid has a bright future. Now it’s time for him to show us all why.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

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.