January 21, 2010 – It’s great to be here at the NHL All-Star festivities in Quebec City, with this year’s successful return of the NHL to this beautiful and unique Canadian city. Taking a look at tonight’s all-star game, we can see an intriguing matchup of young teams, with the Wales Conference being led by superstar Nordiques’ rookie and local fan-favourite John Tavares, league scoring leader Bryan Little of the Thrashers, and the man every Eastern fan outside of Philadelphia loves to hate: Flyers’ center Steve Downie. They’ll face off against a strong Campbell Conference squad led by the remarkable Columbus teammates Patrick Kane and Sam Gagner who together joined the Blue Jackets last year straight out of junior after appearing in their third consecutive Memorial Cup…
We’re looking into the crystal ball at the Penalty Box this week – it’s time for our first Ontario Hockey League report of the season; the OHL being one of the three major junior leagues in Canada and the main feeder of amateur talent to the NHL. The NHL draft doesn’t get nearly as much press in the United States as other drafts but to me is the most fascinating of all the “major” sports’ drafts. Even in this age of unprecedented informational access, there is still intrigue in the NHL draft due to the fact that there are so many sources to draw talent from all over the world, most notably the major junior leagues in Canada (Canadian Hockey League, comprised of three leagues: the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), and the Western Hockey League (WHL) – comprising 55 teams overall), United States Collegiate (NCAA), and top European leagues. Gems can also be found in lower junior leagues in the USA and Canada, Canadian University (CIS), and even directly out of high school, but the CHL (Canadian Hockey League) has produced the most draft picks since the NHL draft was instituted in its present form in 1969, with roughly 51% of all NHL Entry Draft picks being CHL alumni (and 42% of those being from the OHL).
The annual World Junior Championship (which I wrote about last year) starts later this month, on December 26th in Sweden, and features the best players in the world under the age of 20 – some already drafted, some not. The tournament barely makes a ripple in the United States but in other hockey playing nations, especially Canada, it is one of the biggest sporting tournaments of the year. Many of the players on the Team Canada and Team USA squads are made up of players from the CHL – today I’m focusing on the OHL and specifically the scoring race thus far, which features the names in my “Smooth Jimmy Apollo Lock of the Decade Prediction” above.
After nearly 30 games have been played this season, the top of the OHL scoring race is headed by two rookies both tied with an amazing 60 points. The fact that both are on the same team is remarkable – amazing seasons indeed for the two scoring stars and quite a bright future for both of them, as well as their squad – a league powerhouse. The two rookies are Patrick Kane and Sam Gagner of the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights. Kane and Gagner both joined the Knights for their first junior seasons this year and have been lighting up the league since week one, joining a team that has finished first in their division three years running, and only two years off a Memorial Cup championship (and once again are comfortably in first place). Kane and Gagner – from Buffalo, NY and Oakville, ON respectively - were both expected to contribute to the continuing success of the London Knights but even coach Dale Hunter has to be surprised at just how quickly they’ve arrived at stardom. Both are moving up the list of potential high draftees for the 2007 NHL draft and Gagner, the son of former Minnesota North Stars scoring center Dave Gagner, is currently ranked both number one in the current OHL rankings (as ranked by the official NHL Central Scouting Bureau) and number seven overall.
Here’s a handful of reasons why you – the diehard NHL fan - should care at least a little bit about the OHL’s scoring race: Jonathan Cheechoo, Raffi Torres, Derek Roy, Brad Boyes, Eric Staal, Jason Spezza, Kyle Wellwood, Mike Richards, Joe Thornton, Marc Savard, Wojtek Wolski – a random list of names who finished in the top ten of OHL scoring within the past ten years, which doesn’t even include other OHL notables like Rick Nash, Nathan Horton, and Dustin Brown – all superstars at the junior level and subsequent high NHL draft choices. This year’s list as of early December is intriguing as behind the pair of young Knights’ phenoms comes the Atlanta Thrashers prospect Bryan Little of the Barrie Colts, who is also currently second in the league in goals with 23 in 28 games. Back at the start of the season I wrote about the Thrashers’ lack of scoring depth and that since the team’s centers were woefully thin at the NHL level they should sign Little for this season. With Bobby Holik, Glen Metropolit, and Steve Rucchin as the top three centers on a thus-far successful team that is outrageously top-heavy in terms of scoring (with Marian Hossa, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Slava Kozlov scoring 48% of the team’s goals thus far), they certainly could use a scoring center if they wish to make any noise in the playoffs this year – Little could have been in the mix for NHL rookie of the year instead of CHL player of the year.
By far the most intriguing player comes in at the number four slot in John Tavares of the Oshawa Generals. Those of you outside of Canada need to know this kid, as strictly by his age alone he has already made an historic impact in junior hockey history. Tavares was drafted into the OHL as a 14 year old, after being granted official “Exceptional Player status” by the league (amidst some controversy, being at such a dramatically young age). Yet he proved himself worthy of the “title” - as a 15 year old rookie last year, he managed to finish ninth in the entire league in goals with 45 in 65 games (for a lousy team), and this year he’s leading the entire league in goals with 29 on a mediocre (12-12-3) Generals squad. The scary thing about Tavares is how good he is against players three and four years older than he is…and theoretically how much better he can become. Tavares is not even eligible for the NHL draft until 2009 but just yesterday was offered an invite to the Canadian World Junior selection camp, an incredible honour at any age but he could be just the sixth 16-year old to ever suit up for Team Canada (joining Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, Jason Spezza, Jay Bouwmeester, and Sidney Crosby). I’ll be seeing a few Generals games this January on my annual amateur scouting trip to the CHL – we’ll check back in on Tavares then and see how his progress has been and just how good he looks in person.
The defending OHL champion Peterborough Petes field the next two scorers, in centers Daniel Ryder and Steve Downie – Ryder is the younger brother of Montreal Canadiens’ forward Michael Ryder and is a top prospect of the Calgary Flames, drafted 74th overall in 2005. With 30 assists in 27 games and in his last year of junior eligibility, he might be a nice option to center Jarome Iginla in Calgary next year. Downie, a Philadelphia Flyers first round pick in 2005, is in the right NHL system – he’s a high scoring center with a very nasty streak (as evidenced by his 86 penalty minutes, good for third in the OHL) and is no stranger to playing against top talent – en route to last year’s Canadian Junior gold medal he drew the assignment to shadow (or frustrate) top Russian junior Evgeni Malkin and Downie was wildly successful in the 5-0 victory to clinch the gold.
The upcoming World Junior tournament will likely feature most of the players featured here (just yesterday Gagner, Little, and Tavares were invited to the Canadian camp while Ryder was a surprising – and disappointing - omission. Team USA was announced late last night.). The OHL has generally produced the most talent and looking at this year’s top scorers can give a generally good idea of who you might be talking about at the NHL level within four or five years.Feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.