The NHL wants a 24-team playoff? So what? Better than nothing

Remember precedented times? Remember meeting up with friends? Remember what it was like to go outside and not think you were instantly putting hundreds of people in danger?

Good times.

Back in April, I wrote about how I would be completely fine with the NHL moving on from 2019-20 and focus on having a safe, healthy return in the fall. The basis was mainly to keep the integrity of future seasons – keeping everything on schedule and allowing the NHL to work in unison (for the most part) with leagues around the world. Having the NHL operate on a different timeline than the rest of hockey would be a logistical struggle.

But that was me looking out for the big, old NHL and not the fans. And while I still stand by my belief that I would be completely fine with calling caput on the current season, there are “unprecedented times”. As this continues to drag on, we can’t keep looking at the NHL season like we would at any point over the past century. No matter what, the NHL season is going to have an unusual ending.

It’s understood that we’re getting close to a proper return to play plan. I’m not aware of the NHL’s financials and can’t claim to be an expert on how this is going to work for everyone’s wallets, but the NHL is a business. Money is important. The NHL isn’t going to make money sitting on the sidelines and waiting, and after NASCAR’s successful return to action over the pat few days, there’s evidence of a sport coming back and hitting things out of the park. It’s a bit different having one event on at a time where all fans of the sport is invested in it – a Vancouver Canucks fan likely isn’t dying to watch a matchup between the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets. But the NHL has an opportunity to really take control of the weeknight sports market, and that’s something Gary Bettman and the owners are enticed by (I don’t think I need a source to prove the NHL’s love of big paydays).

A 24-team playoff? All games limited to select venues? Setting the puck on fire to create real action? Force centers to take part in a karaoke sing-off to determine a faceoff winner? At this point, why not? The integrity of the 2019-20 season is gone. No matter what, there’s no saving the season and restoring it to what it was before. The Stanley Cup champion will always have an asterisk to some fans. Some good teams will miss out on the 16-team playoff format due to the play-in idea that’s been proposed. But again, that’s what makes the playoffs so much fun – look at the Blues last year, a team that was so off the mark just a few months before the post-season, but they won the Cup. Imagine Montreal or Chicago going all the way this year – that would be total bananas and a ton of fun.

We’ve been without hockey for over two months now. I almost completely forgot who the league’s top scorer was. If you had any momentum before the break (sorry, Philadelphia), it’s gone. But if there’s a chance for the world’s best hockey players to return, we, as fans, media, etc., should accept it. I’ve come to accept the oddities of the season, and let’s hope we never have to go through this again. 

I’ll embrace a return to action and, who knows, maybe we’ll get one of the greatest playoffs we’ve ever had. We can’t use the “players are tired” excuse. The playoffs that seem to drag on after the first round won’t feel like a marathon anymore. Every game will be must-watch action. It’s not like the league has any form of tradition when it comes to playoff formats – it’s been changed more times than I can count. Why 16 teams? Why not 20? Why not 10? Why not six and force teams to be near-perfect to get a shot at the Cup? We’re talking about an arbitrary number, and we know more teams equals more profit. If the NHL held a 12-team format into the salary cap era and then switched to 16, people would complain. Most humans like familiarity and tradition, so that’s understandable. But let’s not for a second think that a 24-team playoff is some god-forsaken idea created by Satan to punish us: sports leagues are businesses, and given that it would be practically unfair to just give the top 16 teams automatic playoff bids, you can’t blame the NHL for trying to earn as much TV revenue as they can when fans aren’t allowed in the rinks.

I’ll watch nearly any form of hockey. I don’t care if it’s Montreal vs. Toronto, Bahrain vs. Egypt or the Isobel Cup final – if it’s good, it’s good. It doesn’t need the best players to be entertaining. So here we are, with the chance to watch the world’s top players fight it out with more attention than ever before. Let’s do it.

One of hockey’s best qualities is that it can be unpredictable. Los Angeles rode the wave of Jonathan Quick and went from a team barely capable of making the playoffs in 2012 to a shocking league champion. The 2018 Olympics had some of the craziest action I’ve ever seen at a high-level event. So what’s another crank in the cog? Let’s embrace this. If the NHL returns, we’ll finally have hockey back.

That far surpasses whatever else we’ve been doing for the past few months, right? I know I’m ready.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

Projecting goaltenders can be challenging, but Yaroslav Askarov is the real deal

You’ve likely heard the phrase “goaltenders are voodoo”, and for good reason. It’s the toughest position to scout. For every Roberto Luongo, Marc-Andre Fleury and Carey Price – the goalies that lived up to the hype after getting selected early in the draft – there’s a Jamie Storr, Rick DiPietro or Al Montoya. Just for perspective, 22 goalies went in the first round from 2000-09 compared to seven over the next 10 years – and not a single one in the top 10.

So where does Yaroslav Askarov land?

I was recently asked on the daily show Gouche Live – a show I produced during my time at The Hockey News and still follow each day – if Askarov was the real deal. Besides, there’s a “big-name” goalie in each draft: last year, Spencer Knight became the touted goalie of the future for the Florida Panthers. Teams have typically veered clear of goaltenders in the first round in recent years – Spencer Knight to Florida at No. 13 was a bit of an oddity, with no goalie landing in the first round in 2018. Jake Oettinger was the lone netminder chosen in the first round in 2017 but there’s more hype for the likes of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Michael DiPietro and Cayden Primeau (a seventh-round pick) these days.

But if the 2020 draft was to commence today, there’s a very high chance that Askarov would be a top 10 pick. In other years, perhaps top five. That’s high praise for a young kid in a position where what you expect when you draft there rarely turns out to be a reality.

So what makes Askarov the “big-game” goaltender we’ve been talking about for the past few years? The “Dream Killer”, as my former colleague Ryan Kennedy dubbed him, was a standout at the 2018 Hlinka Memorial, leading his team to a bronze with a handful of incredible performances, highlighted by a 35-save shutout at the hands of the cantonment hosts from the Czech Republic (keep in mind, he was 16 at the time). A few months later, he was named to the U-17 World Hockey Challenge’s all-star team after one of the best outings seen out of a goaltender in recent years, posting a tournament-best 1.40 GAA and .948 SP en route to a gold. He capped off the dream season with a silver medal and top goaltender honors at the U-18 World Championship, giving Russia its best chance at the top podium spot despite facing a high-power Swedish offense in the final. Cap it off with a gold at the Hlinka-Gretzky last summer where he outperformed his performance from a year prior and you have a resume built on winning and leading his team to glory.

And before you say “it’s Russia, they’re always good,” it’s worth noting that it’s not a power-rich group this year. Askarov could end up being the only Russian taken in the top 15, and Rodion Amirov and Vasily Pomomaryov (playing in Quebec) could end up being the only others taken in the first round. Askarov continuously did a lot for a group that wasn’t high on star power, and he was rewarded a spot as Russia’s starting goaltender to kick off the 2020 World Junior Championship as a result. He struggled, but keep in mind the fact that he was playing against guys two years further down the development cycle. If, out of everything, that’s the only true black mark on his international CV, that’s quite fine.

I haven’t even gotten into his league exploits yet. Askarov made his KHL with SKA St. Petersburg this season at 17 and handled the pressure admirably in a 23-save victory over Sochi. Add in fantastic numbers in the VHL, the second-tier Russian league, and you’ve got someone performing at a high level before most kids his age get a taste above junior hockey. Overall, his stats outshine those from Vasilevskiy and Ilya Samsonov – considered two of the best Russian goaltenders to get selected from the past 20 years – at the same age.

Style-wise, Askarov has perfect NHL size at 6-foot-3 and his right glove hand is a tricky one to beat. Askarov has impressive rebound control and moves fluently post-to-post with minimal hiccups. Let in a bad goal? Askarov can bounce back and play his best hockey in the minutes after. He often gets aggressive with his poke check but can move quick enough to make up for a miscue. You’ll often hear that a goalie battles hard and doesn’t give up on a play, but he guards his net like it’s his kid: he’ll do whatever it takes to protect a lead and has the proper headspace to remain calm.

“Teams are always looking for goalies with a big-game mentality. Someone who takes every game like their job is on the line. Someone who can give his club a fighting chance, regardless of the game,” a scout told me last week. “Askarov exemplifies that better than anyone in recent draft classes.”

“How does that compare to someone like Carter Hart?” I asked.

“Hart is special, but Askarov is going to be Carey Price, Andrei Vasilevskiy-level good,” the scout replied. “I wouldn’t be shocked if he gives an NHL team a legitimate shot at a Stanley Cup by the time he’s 22.”

Only five goalies 22 or under played an NHL game in 2019-20, and Hart and Washington’s Ilya Samsonov were the only ones to play more than 10 games. But it wasn’t that long ago that 21-year-old Matt Murray led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup – and then a second Cup the following year. But for every Murray and Jordan Binnington, you’re looking at the Corey Crawford’s, the Tim Thomas’ and Jonathan Quick’s of the world.

So could Askarov do it? He’ll likely land on a team in much poorer standing than Pittsburgh was when they chose Murray 83rd overall in 2012, but it’s not out of the question. Again, Askarov has a reputation as guy capable of winning important games, and if he makes his full-time KHL debut next season and finds a way to shine, it’s not out of the question. That’s just projecting, but the fact that that’s even being talked about at a point like this for a draft with no current date says just how optimistic scouts are about Askarov’s game.

Heck, I’m ready to declare that Askarov will win the Vezina Trophy one day. I’m simply THAT confident in Askarov. Call it a hunch if you will, but I can’t recall a time I was this excited about a goaltending prospect. Now it’s up to Askarov to prove me – and many others – correct.

To go back to the lede, goaltenders are challenging to predict, and a large reason why is ice time. Askarov could have received more KHL backup opportunities with other organizations, but he’s aligned with one of the best in the country. SKA hasn’t rushed him and has given him chances to play at a high level without exhausting his development. But he is still just 18, and goaltenders have a lot of development to go. The KHL isn’t known to be kind to young prospects, no matter the skill level. Just ask Vasily Podkolzin what he thinks about his ice time this year. Igor Shestyorkin and Ilya Sorokin are two examples of highly touted goaltending prospects that followed the slow, but steady path, and both are set to make the NHL look silly next season. But neither prospect, despite how good they were at 18, drew as much interest at Askarov, and his ability to outshine older competition on a weekly basis can’t be ignored.

Of course, top goaltenders each year earn that distinction for a reason – and typically, that’s because they’re dominant. But being a dominant major junior goaltender is much different than being a strong contender in European pro, and, in many cases, prepares players better than in North America based on the competition level. Askarov still has a long way to go, but if he comes roaring out of the gate in the KHL, it’ll further add to the narrative of Askarov stepping up when the stakes get higher.

Usually, teams avoid goaltenders early due to their unpredictable nature. In this case, the only reason he won’t go early is because of just how deep the top 10 is shaping up to be in 2020. Price was the last goaltender to go in the top 10 and while it’s not a far cry to think that Jesper Wallstedt could reach that territory in 2021, the fact that Askarov could break that streak is quite telling. Even if Askarov falls down to 20th, that won’t be a knock on his skill. Teams know what they’re capable of, and there’s no shortage of clubs looking for the goaltender of the future.

So time to make way for future Vezina Trophy winner Yaroslav Askarov. Hold me to that assertion.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

Remembering NASCAR’s Trip to the Canadian National Exhibition

Today, the NASCAR Pinty’s Series accompanies the NTT IndyCar series to Toronto each July. I live near the track, so it’s an event I make sure to attend each year. It’s the only event on the schedule where IndyCar leaves the United States and there’s been no shortage of drama or action when the Pinty’s Series is involved. Along with the Grand Prix de Trois Rivières, it’s proof that NASCAR can produce incredible racing on a street course, and while getting the Cup cars today with nearly 40 entries would be a logistical challenge, it would be fun, nonetheless.

But at one point in time, NASCAR did make a trek up North to the Streets of Toronto – and the history surrounding it is quite fascinating. This is the story of the NASCAR Cup Series’ legendary trip to the Canadian National Exhibition – and the limited information surrounding it.

Located just outside the downtown Toronto core, Exhibition Place has a reach of nearly 200-acres. With transit taking you straight to the grounds, it’s easily accessible for local residents and hosts over a million people each summer. A month after the Honda Indy, the Canadian National Exhibition plays host to carnival rides, vast food offerings and even a big shopping centre – one where I tend to buy cheap hockey jerseys and obscure video games. Unfortunately, it was announced earlier this month that the CNE would not return for 2020 due to COVID-19 – just the second time the event hasn’t taken place in its 142-year history.

By the 1950s, stock car racing wasn’t new to Canada or Toronto specifically. Racing at Exhibition Place dates back to September 5, 1900, when the first race took place on a half-mile dirt track. According to Wheels.ca, a man named J. Short won with an average speed of 17.85 miles an hour or around 29 kilometres per hour. The Exhibition Grounds was used as a showcase facility for drivers to try and set records and there was even a race between a car and a plane in 1917 – not a fair match, as the car won the battle. It would have helped had the plane been able to move freely around the track.

The first race at Exhibition Stadium was held in April of 1952 with just under 8,000 fans braving the rain to watch Tom Forbes win the inaugural feature event. According to CanadianRacer.com, nearly 20,000 people turned out for the Canada Day event a few months later, with midget racing starting out a few days later on July 5.  On July 31 of the same year, the first NASCAR event – a 300-lap late model race – took place. It wasn’t the top division, but more so what we would consider the Xfinity Series today. Back then, admission for races were $1 for adults, which is about $10 today. Regardless of the time period, that’s crazy to think about these days.

Over time, more events were added to keep the action fresh and consistent. Racing wasn’t allowed on Sunday afternoons in Toronto at the time, so most races took place on Friday and Saturday evenings. Of course, the grounds also played host to the Canadian National Exhibition each summer, leaving the track out of commission at times. NASCAR returned for a handful of late model races over time, with NASCAR’s convertible series making a one-off appearance in 1956. Don Oldenburg won the event, which saw high attrition rates with just 14 of the 21 starters making it past the seven-lap mark.

The 1958 Jim Mideon 500 marked the 31st race of the 51-race schedule that year – and one of just two times the Cup series has ever come north of the border. In 1952, Buddy Shuman won a 17-car battle at a small dirt track called Stamford Park near Niagara Falls, but that’s pretty close to the United States border. By 1958, NASCAR had started to establish itself as a premier racing organization, so getting a race back then was a big deal.

Skipping to 1958, the track, better known as Toronto Speedway, was a third-of-a-mile oval on the Exhibition Place grounds, the same location of the current road track. Specifically, the track was housed right around where BMO Field is today, home of the Toronto Argonauts and Toronto FC – somewhere in the infield between turn five and turn nine and 10 today. 

Races would take place for a couple of decades, with the paved oval eventually forming in 1952. Early races would attract around 20,000 fans per event for just $1 admission, and even local radio stations would cover the races live. There wasn’t much competition for Toronto sports during the 1950s, especially in the summer, so sports writers gave special attention to events that we’d consider minor to this day. Eventually, NASCAR drivers were invited to take over in 1958, marking a historic event in auto racing in Canada.

According to local newspaper reports, around 10,000 spectators packed the stands at the small venue on July 18, 1958, designed to look and race like the famous Bowman Gray Stadium that still operates – and produces crash-filled events to this year – in North Carolina. It started off with three heat races for the 19-driver field made up purely of American drivers. The field had Lee Petty, Cotton Owens, Jim Reed, Shorty Rollins and Rex White, among others. But what people didn’t know they were witnessing was the start of a legendary career – the world was introduced to the driving styles of the King, Richard Petty. At 21, he was the youngest driver in the field, piloting the No. 142 Oldsmobile. He started the race in seventh, but was bumped out of the way by his father, Lee Petty, and was out of the race after 55 laps. Imagine that – it’s your first top-level race, you’re known as a talented up-and-coming driver, and your own dad takes you after becoming impatient. Richard was credited with a 17th place finish. The King went on to win seven championships and 200 race victories, so he turned out OK, I’d say.

The race itself took just 46 minutes to run, which wasn’t adnormal at the time. Rex White led the first 71 laps of the race, but Lee Petty led the final 28 laps and never looked back. It was Petty’s fifth win of the season and 35th of his career, en route to his first of three championship titles, while doing so at the age of 44. Now, granted, he was the only driver to race at least 50 events and back then the competition was very poor, but you can’t deny Lee’s impact on the sport as a racing pioneer. 

Lee won $575 for his troubles, with the race holding a purse of just $4,200. The event…. Wasn’t well received. In fact, in the Toronto Star column of the event, the Cup race had just a single paragraph compared to the 10 for the local short trackers. In John MacDonald’s article, he referred to the event as the “supposed highlight” of the race card, adding that “the spectators, enthusiastic about the regular stock car races, seemed bored by the late model cars” run by NASCAR’s best. Could it be because a fight in an earlier heat race for the local drivers provided more entertainment than the caution-free Cup series event? Perhaps, but it marked the final time the series raced in Toronto, with the top division never returning to Canada again.

But after the NASCAR event, plans started to get more complicated for the future of racing at the CNE. Late in 1958, the Toronto Argonauts football team signed a deal to use the infield space as a playing surface for 1959.  The track required some extra adjustments to meet the accommodations – most notably decreasing the size of the track to 28-feet wide. The drivers struggled to adjust to the narrower surface, with reports of widespread crashes plaguing the events the following season. The turns were widened by two feet later on to help combat the concern. In 1960, the track was finally given permission to race on Sunday’s, much to the delight of the organizers that tried for many years. Over the next few years, the track continued to see a variety of new events, with the series hosting major sprint, hobby and midget events often. In 1964, the super modifieds that dominated the track for over a decade were replaced with a stout late model series. It also played host to the USAC Midgets, which hosted the “Toronto 500” on a couple of occasions. In fact, Mario Andretti failed to make the main field for an event in 1965, so the competition was stout.

But as the years went on, race dates continue to drop and fans could start to see the beginning of the end. The oval at the CNE would remain open until 1966 when it was announced that the area of the speedway was to be replaced with a track-and-field coursr. There was some hope that the cars could run at the Coliseum just near where the track was located, nothing came out of it. All of a sudden, racing at the CNE was over – until the 1980s, that was. On July 20, 1986, the first Molson Indy housed a crowd of 60,000 people, with Bobby Rahal edging out Danny Sullivan and Mario Andretti for the first victory.

In the late 1980s, with the Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto Argonauts having had control of Exhibition Stadium, there was talk of bringing racing back to the 17,000-seat facility, The City of Toronto helped make it happen, and nearly a million dollars later, the facility welcomed back stock cars for the 1990 season. Weekly racing included the CASCAR Late Model Series, the return of midget and hobby stock racing and even endurance events, monster truck shows and demolition derbies. Two mainstays in the NASCAR Pinty’s Series, Kerry Micks and Mark Dilley, were among the competitors that raced in the late model series, with Randy Latour taking the title.

I wasn’t around to see races back then, but many fans took a liking to the track – but that wasn’t enough to save the rebirth of the facility. Advertising was scarce, with many events failing to host even 1,000 fans. There was still hope that racing could return in 1991 and 1992 as originally planned, but local fans started to complain – mainly about the noise, which is understandable given the fact it was close to some neighborhoods and increased traffic in the area didn’t help. In early 1991, after watching the track lose money due to poor attendance, the City of Toronto pulled the plug on what could have been a successful return of amateur racing to Canada’s largest city. There was an attempt to bring back racing in 1997, but to little interest – there’s next to no information about the return, and even diehard Canadian racing fans forgot it happened. At that point, stock car racing in the big city was dead – until CASCAR returned to the current IndyCar track in the late 1990s.

In July, the parking lots and local roadways around the grounds are populated by IndyCar, but in recent years, the NASCAR Pinty’s Series has been a highlight of the show card with close-quarters action and victories from some of the country’s top drivers, including Alex Tagliani, Kevin Lacroix and Andrew Ranger. It’s been a hot topic for debate – could NASCAR’s Cup Series race on a street course? There would be heavy logistical concerns with spacing, both in the garage and on track, but I’d love to see it – just not at the expense of the Honda Indy.

The Exhibition Stadium will forever be remembered as the original home of the Toronto Blue Jays before the MLB club moved downtown. But it’s great to think about NASCAR, and stock car racing in general, had such an important impact on the early days of sporting events on the CNE grounds. 

To read more about the event, check these links out:

http://racersreunion.com/community/forum/stock-car-racing-history/17015/rex-white-remembers-canada

https://theex.com/main/entertainment/stage,-talent-and-stunt-shows/the-ex-race

http://www.canadianracer.com/cne.asp

So, are you excited about the 2023 NHL draft yet?

I truly don’t know why you guys were so excited about my mini 2022 draft preview. I’m just going to assume you were all bored.

It’s one of the most popular articles I’ve posted on my own personal website and still, nearly a week later, is hitting impressive numbers. The draft is over two years away, but that hasn’t stopped you guys from looking ahead. So, thank you.

Some people tweeted me asking why so-and-so wasn’t included. First, it wasn’t a ranking, and I didn’t want to just name drop 20-30 players without much context. But, more often than not, it was because people were asking about guys that were eligible for the 2023 draft.

So let’s talk about the 2023 selection today.

The WHL was gifted with one of the most top-heavy drafts in the league’s existence: Connor Bedard, Brayden Yager and Riley Heidt. You’ve likely heard of Bedard’s name for the past 2-3 years by now, and for good reason. Bedard recently became the first WHL player to earn exceptional status and is set to take the Regina Pats to Western League supremacy. 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 – simply put, he’s the best recreation of Connor McDavid that British Columbia has ever come up with, and he’s special.

For Yager – who wasn’t too far off of earning exceptional status behind Bedard – some scouts think he could be the better prospect when all is said and done. 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 2019 OHL draft – 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. 

To finish off the tremendous trio, Heidt has an incredible skillset that allows him to get creative with the puck and take risks with a high degree of success. 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. Heidt will be a future star in Prince George, but 2020-21 will be about Heidt taking his game to a whole new level and show that he doesn’t need top talent around him to be a star.

Moving east, Adam Fantilli made a name for himself as one of minor midget’s best players as an underaged forward in 2018-19 and carried on to rip up the American prep scene this season. Had Fantilli not committed to the USHL’s Chicago Steel, he would have easily gone No. 1 in the OHL draft. Why? Obviously, with 15-year-olds, there’s still a ton of development left to go, but Fantilli is a physically dominant forward at 6-foot-2 and uses his strong frame to win puck battles essentially anywhere on the ice and fight off physical defenders. If he’s this far advanced at this age, who knows where he’ll be in another three years after putting a beating on other junior prospects?

Taking a flight overseas, it’s been a while since there’s been as much hype surrounding a Russian prospect Matvei Michkov – not even Andrei Svechnikov was this elusive. Born in late 2004, Michkov obliterated the Youth Olympic Games with nine goals and 14 points in just four games, the best in tournament history (Svechnikov had 10 points in 2016, for example). His 109 points in just 26 games in the Russian U-16 league gave him a 16-point advantage over Vladimir Khomutov for the scoring lead and second all-time behind Yegor Filin’s 136 points in 2014-15. When scouts are saying Michkov’s game – built around speed and pure skill – is a hybrid of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, you can’t get much better praise than that. A future 100-point forward in the NHL? Absolutely. Don’t be shocked if he goes No. 2 behind Bedard.

I tweeted earlier today how Slovakia’s national team has a potential to see a spike again thanks to some high-quality prospects coming through the system and at this point, Ondrej Molnar looks like a threat to go in the top five of the 2023 selection process. Small but speedy, Molnar’s 55 points put him first among U-15 forwards in the U-18 Slovakian league and second all-time behind Jozef Balej’s 56-point output (in five more games) in 1996-97. Molnar is a high-risk, high-reward goal-scorer that can take full control of a shift and often comes out with around 10 shots a game. Sure, the competition in Slovakia doesn’t match up with what we see in North America, but you can’t ignore what he has produced at this point.

Sticking in Slovakia, depending on who you talk to, Samuel Sisik and Daniel Alexander Jencko can both be considered the top Slovakian prospect. Sisik had 50 points in the Finnish U-16 league for the fourth-best output from a U-15 player in league history. Granted, his 1.67 points-per-game average is below all other forwards in the top 10, but for a Slovakian player to enter the Finnish system and put a beating on other kids his age isn’t something you can just ignore. In Jencko’s case, he had four fewer points than Molnar in 13 fewer games, in the U-18 league, on top of putting up 30 points in 13 games in the U-16 league. It’ll be interesting to see if Jencko ends up moving elsewhere in Europe to continue his development because he has nothing left to prove in his own nation – he’s ready to take on the continent’s top prospects.

The next David Pastrnak? Dominik Petr sure hopes so. A member of the famed Vitkovice system, Petr’s 98 points over two U-16 seasons is good for seventh among U-15 forwards, but he was one of the best players in the league when he was just 13. Petr’s stats hold up, but his ability to steal the puck off an opponent, go end-to-end and rush to be one of the first players back in his own one makes him such a tough player to play against. Like Slovakia, the Czech Republic needs help to ensure the nation has a good long-term future and there’s already enough hype around Petr to give fans some hope.

I put a lot of stock in the World Selects Invitational because, for the most part, it’s a way of pitting the best prospects in any individual age group early on. At the 2019 U-14 tournament, Nurmi led the tournament with 12 goals and 23 points (even though all eyes were on top 2024 prospect Aron Kiviharju) and was generally the best two-way forward in the tournament. At 13, Nurmi was already putting up impressive numbers in the U-16 league and eventually made the jump to the U-18 level this season, with his 18 points putting him behind Jesse Puljujarvi, Urho Vaakanainen and Patrik Laine among all-time best seasons by a U-15 player. The best part, he played the fewest number of games, so imagine what he could have done with more than 22 games under his belt.

Russia has had a tough time over the past two decades developing defensemen, but some Russian scouts are excited about Mikhail Gulyayev already – even comparing him to Mikhail Sergachev. Gulyayev is a confident puck-moving defenseman that plays a physical game and moves so well on his feet. Gulyayev’s 37-point, 1.37 PPG season with Omsk and Novosibirsk was the best by a U-15 defenseman in the Russian league ever and it’s clear he’s ready to tackle U-18 opponents in the near future.

I gave Calum Ritchie big praise in late April as the top 2021 OHL draft prospect and assuming he lives up to his full potential, NHL teams will be excited about him two years after that. Ritchie was dominant against kids a year older than him this season in short action and had no issue beating up on his own age group. Ritchie is a confident skater that goes above and beyond to get the puck where he wants it and doesn’t turn down any 1-on-1 challenge.

It’s still far too early to have a reasonable draft ranking for 2023, but with names like Kalan Lind, Nate Danielson, Quentin Musty, Noah Erliden, Luke Misa, Etienne Morin, Cam Squires and Koehn Ziemmer, the 2023 draft won’t have a shortage of high-end talent. Of course, there’s still enough time for things to drastically change and have someone shoot up the ranks or another fall down drastically, but there’s a reason why scouts have their eyes on 2023 already.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

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.