2018-19 OHL Central Division Preview

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Akil Thomas
ST CATHARINES, ON - NOVEMBER 25: Akil Thomas #44 of the Niagara IceDogs skates during an OHL game against the Mississauga Steelheads at the Meridian Centre on November 25, 2017 in St Catharines, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects. It’s that time again, major junior hockey is back and we’re here to preview the new season for you. All three leagues are kicking off this week. With that in mind, we continue our division previews today as we make our way around the country.

You can check out all of this year’s Top Shelf Prospects articles here.

Check Out the OHL East Division, OHL West Division, and OHL Midwest Division Previews here.

2018-19 OHL Central Division

Top Three Contenders in Projected Order of Finish

Niagara IceDogs

The IceDogs have loaded up as management has made it clear that they are looking for a Memorial Cup this year. The offence is stacked and features names like Akil Thomas, Ben Jones, Ivan Lodnia, Kirill MaksimovPhilip Tomasino, and Matthew Philip. Last year’s starting goalie Stephen Dhillon returns. The defence doesn’t have a lot of star power but Liam Ham, Elijah Roberts, Daniel Bukac, Nathan Allison, and Billy Constantinou combine to provide the IceDogs a solid group.

Barrie Colts

The Colts have also loaded up, as they also look to challenge for the title. They added a pair of 2018 NHL Draft picks in goaltender Maksim Zhukov and Matej Pekar. The first overall pick of the 2017 OHL Draft, Ryan Suzuki, is looking at a breakout season in his draft year. Pekar and Suzuki are joined up front by last year’s team-leading scorer, Lucas Chiodo, Zach Magwood, Jason Wilms, and Jaden Peca. The defence features a pair of NHL draft picks in Tyler Tucker and Joey Keane. Overage player Justin Murray will provide veteran leadership on the blue line. The team is looking for Victor Hadfield to take a step forward in his second year.

Sudbury Wolves

The Sudbury Wolves have been stuck in the abyss of the OHL for several years now. Quinton Byfield and David Levin are a pair of former first overall picks and have found some chemistry in the pre-season. Alexey Lipanov and Blake Murray should give the team a solid second line as well. Kirill Nizhnikov and Darian Pilon provide depth. The defence features Emmett Serensits, Zack Malik, and Jack Thompson as young up-and-comers. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen joins the team and will cover a lot of mistakes from the defence corps. While they are probably another year away from making a run at a league title, this is a year the Wolves start to improve.

 

Players to Watch

Matej Pekar, Centre, Barrie Colts

The Buffalo Sabres drafted last season’s USHL Rookie of the Year. Pekar is a two-way centre. He has excellent vision and hockey sense, anticipating where his teammates are going to be before hitting them with a tape-to-tape pass. He has the ability to fit the puck through tight areas and can make difficult saucer passes. Pekar also has a good wrist shot with a quick release but needs to use it more. He is willing to work hard at both ends and has even been an offensive threat on the penalty kill. Pekar gets his nose dirty and goes to the tough areas of the ice but needs to add upper-body strength.

Maksim Zhukov, Goaltender, Barrie Colts

A Vegas Golden Knights prospect, Zhukov has decent size, but likes to play deep in his crease. He has excellent athleticism, especially in his lateral movement as he gets from post-to-post extremely quickly. He is also quick to recove and stop rebounds. Zhukov could use a little refinement in his technique and rebound control though. He is very raw at this point. He is also excellent at playing the puck, starting the transition by moving the puck to his defencemen.

Ryan MacLeod, Centre, Mississauga Steelheads

Drafted by the Edmonton Oilers, McLeod is an outstanding skater and this helps him to be a very good two-way player. He is one of the fastest players in the OHL. He has a long and powerful stride and gets up to top speed with excellent acceleration. McLeod has outstanding edgework and agility. He can change directions on a dime. This ability to make quick cuts can drive defenders nuts. His speed and ability to close space quickly also helps him defensively. McLeod has the power to fight through checks and still get to the front of the net. He has excellent balance, and wins battles along the boards and establishing his position in front of the net.

McLeod also has very good vision and passing skills. He can create off the rush, using his speed and stickhandling ability to get past defenders. He can make quick cuts to beat them or take them wide off the rush. McLeod uses his ability to change the pace as a weapon, beating defenders by quickly accelerating or creating lanes by slowing down. This skating helps him to make plays as a quick move creates space to get a pass through. Working down low, he can also control the puck, slow down the play and set-up plays when his teammates get open.

Owen Tippett, Right Wing, Mississauga Steelheads

Tippett could make the Florida Panthers this year, but would greatly improve the Steelheads if he returns. He is a pure sniper and extremely dangerous off the rush. If defenders back off to respect his speed, he can use his excellent wrist shot or snapshot and beat goalies with a quick release. Tippett’s shot is amongst the very best in the OHL. He is dangerous anytime he finds open space to get a shot off. He also shows the ability to find soft spots in the defensive zone, and get open to let off a one-timer. Tippett also has excellent hand-eye coordination and can tip in shots from the point. He is not afraid to battle down low and fight for the key space in front of the opposition’s net.

Tippett improved his playmaking skills last season. However, there are still times where he can stand to slow things down and hold on to the puck just a little longer before rushing a play. He has also improved his puck protection and work down low in the cycle game. Tippett is good at fighting off defenders and creating time for teammates to get open in the cycle. Once he has a little patience to continue working the cycle a little longer, he should be able to get even more assists.

Ben Jones, Centre, Niagara Ice Dogs

Another Vegas prospect, Jones is an effective playmaker. He sees the ice well and opens up passing lanes to set up scoring chances through use of his skating and stickhandling. He can create enough space from a defender to be able to make the play. Jones makes the smart, simple play but it is very effective in maintaining possession and creating offence. He can sometimes try to force things with his stickhandling and that can lead to turnovers but did a better job of limiting that tendency this year. Jones has a very good wrist and snapshot. They also feature excellent releases which can fool opposing goaltenders.

Kirill Maksimov, Left Wing, Niagara IceDogs

Another Oilers prospect, Maksimov combines excellent skating ability with good hands and the ability to control the puck in tight spaces. He can make plays with the puck while moving at top speed. This ability is difficult to defend when he is carrying the puck in transition. He has decent vision and passing skills which allow him to take advantages of the openings that his skating and stickhandling can create. Maksimov can get the puck to an open teammate to set up a scoring chance.

Maksimov is just as good a goalscorer as he is a playmaker. His wrist shot is strong and accurate and features a good release. He also has an efficient one-timer. Maksimov’s soft hands also allow him to score in tight.

Akil Thomas, Centre, Niagara IceDogs

Drafted by the Los Angeles Kings, Thomas is a speedster, he can absolutely fly. He reaches that top speed in just a few strides thanks to his excellent technique and acceleration. Thomas adds strong edge work and very good agility. He is very dangerous off the rush, as he can beat defenders in a variety of ways. Whether it is with quick movements, or with changing speeds, he is able to get by his man and weave through traffic. Thomas has a low centre of gravity, which gives him good balance but could improve this even more by adding muscle in the coming years.

Thomas maintains that top speed with the puck on his stick. Defenders must back off or risk getting beaten to the net. Thomas is a smart player taking advantage of this time and space to create passing lanes to teammates and set up scoring opportunities. He can also create space with very good stickhandling ability. At times, he can make too many moves and run out of space, but this is something he seems to be doing less of as the season has gone on. Thomas can also make plays on the cycle game. He controls the puck well down low and has the vision and passing skills to find open teammates. Thomas is poised with the puck and keeps his head up. He also plays the point on the Ice Dogs power play, excelling in the role of quarterback.

Alexey Lipanov, Centre, Sudbury Wolves

A Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, Lipanov is a smart player, who sees the ice very well and can complete a tape-to-tape pass through a tight opening. He has the stickhandling ability to extend plays and keep control of the puck down low, waiting for a teammate to get open and make that pass. Lipanov almost always makes the smart play with the puck, putting it in good areas for the recipient to be able to make a play as well.

Lipanov has an accurate wrist shot, as well as a quick release. While it could be a little bit harder going forward, that should come with more muscle on his frame. It is hard enough at the junior level and can be a weapon in the offensive zone. However, he does not seem to use it as often as he should. Lipanov defers to being a playmaker instead of a goal scorer in the offensive zone. He can be even more dangerous and keep defenders honest by taking that shot more often.  He also has a good one-timer, but again it is a weapon that he does not use often enough.

Ukka-Pekka Luukonen, Goalie, Sudbury Wolves

Luukkonen was drafted in 2017 by the Buffalo Sabres. At 6-foot-4 tall, he has the ideal size that NHL teams are currently looking for. He also gets out well, cutting down angles and taking up a lot of the net. Luukkonen has strong legs, giving him an excellent push off the post. He gets side-to-side extremely quick. Luukkonen keeps his shoulders square to the puck when moving across the crease, and when tracking rebounds.

He is very good down low, with very quick legs. Luukkonen is a butterfly goalie who gets in-and-out of his stance extremely quickly. With his size, he still has his shoulders above the crossbar, even when playing in the butterfly. Luukkonen is also very athletic, which helps him to make highlight-reel saves on those rare occasions that he finds himself out of position. He has a decent glove and blocker to take away the top of the net. They can get even quicker though. They aren’t bad, but they aren’t at the elite level his legs are currently at. Luukkonen is part of the modern group of goalies who have very good puck handling ability.

 

2019 NHL Draft Prospects to Watch

Ryan Suzuki, Centre, Barrie Colts

The first overall pick in the 2017 OHL Draft is the brother of Montreal Canadiens prospect, Nick Suzuki. Last year, He put up 14 goals and 44 points in 64 games. Suzuki uses outstanding skating ability to create space and generate chances. He can beat defenders wide and accelerate to the front of the net with his speed. He can also change directions, or change speeds to open up passing and shooting lanes. Suzuki sees the ice very well and processes the game quickly. He understands where teammates are headed and can make a tape-to-tape pass through tight areas.

Suzuki also has a good release on his shot but needs to add some upper body strength in order to generate more power. He is a tenacious player who battles hard along the boards in all three zones. This is another area of his game that would improve with added upper body strength.

Philip Tomasino, Centre/Right Wing, Niagara Ice Dogs

Tomasino is an outstanding skater. His first step and acceleration are excellent. His top-end speed is also extremely good. Cap this off with excellent agility and edgework and he is very dangerous off the rush. Tomasino combines this skating ability with the hands to make plays at top speed. His speed can create space and opens up passing and shooting lanes. Tomasino is more of a playmaker than a goal scorer at this point though. He will need to improve his wrist shot and release if he wants to change that.

Yegor Postnov, Right Wing, North Bay Battalion

Undrafted in 2018, the Russian forward heads to the OHL looking for more exposure before the 2019 draft. He used to be a defenceman and has converted into a forward a couple of years ago. Postnov is a pass-first player who looks for lanes to set up teammates. He works off the half-boards, especially on the power-play and tries to run the play. He has a very good wrist shot, but he does not seem to use it enough. Postnov plays a bit of a perimeter game and will need to get out of that tendency to attract the scouts.

Blake Murray, Left Wing/Centre, Sudbury Wolves

Murray put up 21 goals and 44 points in 57 games for the Sudbury Wolves last season. Murray is a natural sniper, with a strong wrist shot and excellent release. He is willing to shoot the puck if given the slightest opportunity. He creates space with a quick first step and excellent acceleration. Murray has the size to take the puck to the front of the net and is not afraid to go to the dirty areas to score goals. He gets in quickly on the forecheck and causes turnovers.

Murray has very good hands and stickhandling ability. He is able to make quick moves on defenders in order to open up passing and shooting lanes. He is also strong at protecting the puck and extending plays. Murray handles the puck while moving at top speed. He needs to improve his upper body strength, as well as improve his work away from the puck.

 

2020 NHL Draft Prospects to Watch

Filip Reisnecker, Left Wing, Mississauga Steelheads

Reisnecker is another prospect coming from the emerging hockey nation of Germany. He was born in the Czech Republic, but holds a German passport and has been playing his hockey in Germany. Already coming in at 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds at 16 years old, Reisnecker is said to play a power game. He is a player to follow in Mississauga this season.

Brandon Coe, Right Wing, North Bay Battalion

Coming in at 6-foot-3 at just 16 years old, Coe is known as a future power forward. He has good speed and gets in quickly on the forecheck, pressuring opposing defenders and causing turnovers. When he gets the puck, Coe loves to drive the net and has the soft hands to finish in tight. He uses his body to protect the puck and can play a puck possession game in the cycle.

Quinton Byfield, Centre, Sudbury Wolves

The first overall pick in the 2018 OHL Draft, Byfield is being talked about as a potential challenger to Alexis Lafreniere for the top prospect in the 2020 NHL Draft. Byfield has everything that teams want in a prospect. The big centre (6-foot-4 at just 16-years-old) is a tremendous skater. He skates extremely well, not just for a big man, but compared to all players. He also has the hands to make moves with the puck while travelling at that speed. Byfield can be a goal scorer, with an excellent wrist shot, quick release and a very good one-timer. He also has the soft hands to finish in close to the net.

Byfield is also an excellent playmaker. He has the vision and hockey IQ to anticipate where his linemates will be and to set them up for scoring chances. Byfield uses his size to protect the puck and extend plays. He can also play a physical game, getting in quickly on the forecheck and forcing turnovers which he quickly turns into scoring chances. He is also already well-developed in his own end of the ice, playing a strong defensive game. Byfield is a potential franchise player for the Wolves and a huge reason for their projected turnaround.

 

Check Out the OHL East Division, OHL West Division, and OHL Midwest Division Previews here.

 

Main Photo:

ST CATHARINES, ON – NOVEMBER 25: Akil Thomas #44 of the Niagara IceDogs skates during an OHL game against the Mississauga Steelheads at the Meridian Centre on November 25, 2017 in St Catharines, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

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