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.
2018-19 OHL Midwest Division
Top Three Contenders in Projected Order of Finish
NHL Training Camps will need to play out, but the Knights could have three top 10 picks, and four first rounders from the recent NHL Draft in their lineup. Brady Tkachuk, Adam Boqvist, Evan Bouchard, and Liam Foudy are all property of the Knights if their NHL clubs send them back to the OHL. The Knights are also waiting on a decision on Alex Formenton. Add in forwards Matvei Guskov, Connor McMichael, Nathan Dunkley, Billy Moskal, and Lucas Rowe and this could be the best offence in the OHL. The defence also has Alec Regula and Jacob Golden. In net, Jordan Kooy was a Vegas Golden Knights draftee.
The Storm have been rebuilding for several years. That retool is finally starting to show signs of bearing fruit. The team’s offence is especially deep with Isaac Ratcliffe, Cam Hillis, Tag Bertuzzi, Nate Schnarr, Alexey Toropchenko, and Liam Hawel all as legitimate NHL prospects. Support is provided by Cedric Ralph and Barret Kirwin. They also get plenty of offence from the backend with Ryan Merkley, Dmitri Samorukov and Owen Lalonde leading the way. Last year’s starting goaltender, Anthony Popovich is back.
Owen Sound Attack
The Attack are also hoping to get their best player back from NHL Camp. Nick Suzuki is currently competing for a spot with the Montreal Canadiens. Aidan Dudas and Maksim Sushko will also be big parts of the offence. Markus Phillips leads the defence and the team hopes to get Trenton Bourque back as an overage player, while Brady Lyle will also take on a big role. Talented young goalie Mack Guzda takes over as the starting goalie. The potential is certainly there for the youngster but as with any 17-year-old starter, questions remain.
Players to Watch
Cam Hillis, Centre, Guelph Storm
A Habs draft pick, Hillis is an excellent playmaker. He has very good vision, and the ability to make a pass to teammates through tight openings. His ability to change speeds and his shiftiness with the puck opens up passing lanes off the rush. He anticipates the movements of his teammates and can quarterback things on the half boards on the power play. Hillis also creates offence through the forecheck. He pressures defenders and causes turnovers. Once he gets the puck, he can find an open man cutting to the front of the net.
Hillis scores most of his goals in tight to the net. He has soft hands and can finish in tight. However, his wrist shot and snapshot need work. He can stand to add upper-body strength. Hillis could also use a quicker release on his shot. Lack of strength is also an issue for Hillis as he can be knocked off the puck on the cycle, and can be knocked down in front of the net.
Ryan Merkley, Right Defence, Guelph Storm
Drafted by the San Jose Sharks, Merkley has the skating and passing skill to start the transition game. He is a talented puck handler who can carry the puck out of his own end and lead the transition game. Merkley is also able to make a long home-run pass in transition. He can also quarterback the play from the point. Merkley has great vision and passing skill. He can thread tape-to-tape passes through tight areas, and set up teammates for scoring chances.
Merkley also has an excellent point shot and loves to let it go from the point. His slap shot is powerful and accurate, and his wrist and snapshots also have quick releases. Merkley has a knack for opening up shooting lanes and getting his shot on net through traffic. He also keeps his shots low, allowing teammates to set up screens, get tip-ins, and pounce on rebounds.
Merkley’s defensive game is the big question mark. He must get stronger, as well as improve his positioning and decision making in the defensive end. Most concerning is the fact that he does not seem to show the same intensity in the defensive end that he does in the offensive end. He can appear to cheat at times, trying to generate offence. Other times he has the “controller disconnected” moments, where he seems to be watching the play happen instead of being involved. Coaching this out of him will need to be a priority for his NHL club.
Isaac Ratcliffe, Left Wing, Guelph Storm
Ratcliffe was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers. He combines great size, with excellent skating ability. Ratcliffe has very good footwork for his size, with a powerful stride that gives him good speed and acceleration. He can drive to the net and creates havoc when he gets there. Ratcliffe has decent edgework and agility, especially given his size. He can be elusive in the offensive zone. He also has very good balance and is difficult to knock off the puck when playing in the cycle or battling for loose pucks in the corners. Ratcliffe is good at establishing his position in front of the net and maintaining that spot.
Ratcliffe protects the puck well and has good stickhandling ability. He is strong down low and works well in the cycle. While he is not a huge playmaker, he does make smart plays with the puck and keeps it moving to open teammates. He could stand to add muscle to his frame and play a more physical game. This would make him even more effective going forward. He is not one to throw a lot of big hits, but he does use his frame to protect the puck and win battles. Ratcliffe does have the hockey sense to find open spaces to take a pass from a teammate on the cycle. If he sees an opportunity, he is willing to take the puck to the net.
Riley Damiani, Centre, Kitchener Rangers
Drafted by the Dallas Stars, Damiani is an undersized forward who skates well with good speed, acceleration, agility and edgework. He is a strong stick-handler who combines this with his skating in order to create space and open up passing lanes. Damiani sees the ice well and is a good playmaker with the passing skills to put the puck through tight areas. He has an accurate shot but needs some work on his power and release.
Adam Boqvist, Right Defence, London Knights
Drafted 8th overall by the Chicago Blackhawks, Boqvist is an outstanding skater. He has excellent speed and acceleration in both directions. He also has tremendous edgework and pivots allowing him to transition from offence to defence quickly and vice-versa. His agility is also top notch, and he can change directions on a dime. This skating becomes the foundation for an excellent two-way game. He is able to rush the puck up the ice, or pinch at the blueline and still get back defensively. His strong skating also allows him to cover a ton of ice and to maintain excellent positioning.
Boqvist also has the outstanding vision and the ability to thread the needle on passes. He is a very aggressive player, willing to join or lead the rush and to make pinches at the blue line. Boqvist has a tremendous shooting arsenal. He gets a lot of power on his wrist shot and has a quick and deceptive release. He also has a great slapshot and one-timer from the point. Boqvist understands how to keep his shot low, and on the net, leading to tip-ins and rebounds for teammates.
Boqvist is smart in the offensive zone. He walks the line to create passing and shooting lanes. He is poised with the puck and has the patience to wait for plays to open up. Boqvist almost always seems to make the smart play with the puck, whether on the point or in transition.
Evan Bouchard, Right Defence, London Knights
Drafted 10th overall by the Edmonton Oilers, Bouchard has an absolute bomb of a slap shot. His slap shot and one-timer are already NHL calibre. He also has an outstanding wrist and snapshot. Bouchard has a real knack for getting his shot on net, despite heavy traffic. He is poised with the puck on his stick and makes subtle moves to open up passing and shooting games. Bouchard also understands how to keep the puck low, allowing teammates to get deflections, tip-ins, and rebounds.
He has also really improved his passing this season. Bouchard is far more accurate and consistent than last season. He can quarterback the play from the point and can also lead the rush. He has very good vision and anticipates the developing play. Bouchard finds open teammates and makes smart plays with the puck, especially in transition. Bouchard is willing to play a physical game on the defensive end of the ice. He uses his size and his reach to keep attackers to the outside and away from the danger areas of the ice.
Alex Formenton, Right Wing, London Knights
An Ottawa Senators prospect, Formenton is an outstanding skater. He has an excellent first step, very good acceleration, and his top-end speed is amongst the best in this draft class. He can absolutely fly out there. Formenton also has very good edge work. He can change directions quickly and turns on a dime. Formenton could improve his lower body strength though. This would help in being stronger on the puck, as well as winning more battles along the boards. Formenton could stand to be stronger on the puck in working the cycle game.
Formenton uses his skating as his key offensive weapon. He gets in quickly on the forecheck, pressuring defenders and creating turnovers. Formenton can also get behind the defence on a breakout and can take the long pass to create a breakaway. When he has the puck on a rush, he can take the puck to the outside on a defender and cut to the net. If the defence back off to respect his speed, he can use the defender as a screen and fire a shot on net. Formenton has a very good release on his wrist shot and good accuracy. However, he can stand to bulk up and get even more power on it. His one-timer is decent, but can still be improved. Formenton isn’t the type of player to create his own shot, but if set up by a teammate he can score goals.
Liam Foudy, Centre, London Knights
Drafted 18th overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets, Foudy is an elite skater. He is incredibly fast and reaches top speed quickly, with very good acceleration. Foudy’s ability to change speeds is a weapon in one-on-one situations. He can beat defenders to the outside and cut to the net. As they back off to defend, it opens up passing and shooting lanes. Foudy also has excellent edgework and agility. He changes directions on a dime. His stride is powerful, and Foudy has good balance. He is strong on the puck and wins battles.
Foudy has a decent arsenal of shots. His wrist shot is good and has a decent release. It improved last season and should continue to get better as he adds upper-body strength. His snapshot is also effective. Foudy scores most of his goals in tight to the net. He has the speed to generate breakaways and the soft hands to beat goaltenders. He could stand to get to the net more without the puck though. While he is willing to take the puck to the net, he needs to be willing to get there without the puck and take the physical pounding to create offence.
Foudy is strong on the cycle and protects the puck well. With good stickhandling, Foudy is willing to weave past a defender or make a quick move to open up a passing lane. Once a play is available he has the skill to make passes through tight areas. However, he still could work on being more consistent.
Brady Tkachuk, Left Wing, London Knights
Drafted fourth overall by the Ottawa Senators, Tkachuk plays a power game, doing his best work down low and in tight to the net. He loves to take the puck to the front of the net, and you can often find him at the top of the crease when he does not have it. He is very hard to knock off the puck and has the quick hands to make plays in tight or control the puck on the boards. T Tkachuk is not afraid to play a physical game and is very good on the boards and in front of the net. He can pounce on rebounds and tip in pucks. He also has a good wrist shot and a quick release.
His hockey sense and passing ability are even better than his brother Matthew. There has been some talk that Tkachuk may convert to centre, but he has been used almost exclusively at left wing while at Boston University and at the WJC. His game does seem to project more as a winger than a centre. He gets in quickly on the forecheck, pressuring defensemen and creating turnovers in the offensive zone.
Aidan Dudas, Centre, Owen Sound Attack
Drafted by the Los Angeles Kings, Dudas is a pure sniper. His wrist shot is amongst the best in the OHL. He generates a ton of power, has very good accuracy, and has a quick release. He can even vary his release point to fool goaltenders. Dudas is very dangerous when he can use a defender as a screen off the rush. He also has the soft hands to get tip-ins and to bury rebounds in front of the net. Dudas is a hard worker. He is willing to battle for his spot in front of the net, as well as fight for loose pucks along the boards. His feet never stop moving during a shift and this is a big advantage for the diminutive forward.
Dudas can also play the role of playmaker. He is a very good stick handler. Dudas combines this with his agility and elusiveness to make defenders dizzy in one-on-one situations. He can control the puck and wait for a play to develop. When an opening appears, he has the vision and passing skill to take advantage, making a tape-to-tape pass to a teammate. With all this skill, there still seems to be something missing from Dudas game though. He sometimes tries to be a bit too fancy and creative and this can lead to getting himself caught in a bad situation or turning the puck over. There are times when Dudas simply needs to move the puck quicker and not try to beat every man on the ice.
Markus Phillips, Left Defence, Owen Sound Attack
Another Kings prospect, Phillips can score from the point with a very good slap shot and a strong wrist shot. His slap shot is especially effective as a one-timer. With the puck on his stick, he has the poise to control the play and walks the line to open up passing and shooting lanes with his lateral agility. Phillips also has a very good wrist shot and excellent release. He can sneak down from the point to let it go, as well as using it as a trailer on the rush.
Phillips strong skating and puck handling skills allow him to lead the rush. He has good vision and can make a strong pass to a teammate on the rush as well as quarterback the power play from the point. Phillips transitions the puck quickly, avoiding forecheckers in his own end and skating out of danger. He also has the ability to start the rush with a good first pass or make a long breakaway pass to a teammate.
Nick Suzuki, Centre, Owen Sound Attack
Recently traded to the Montreal Canadiens, Suzuki is a good but not great skater. He has a quick first step and good acceleration but can improve his stride and have better top-end speed. He uses that acceleration and first-step to chase down loose pucks and gets in quickly on the forecheck, throwing hits or pressuring defenders into turnovers. Once he gets the puck, he uses his agility and edgework to create space and open up passing lanes.
He also has good stickhandling skills and can beat defensemen one-on-one with quick cuts, and changes of pace and then driving to the net. Suzuki could stand to be a little stronger, to improve his balance, and protect the puck better in the cycle as well as battle along the boards at higher levels. He does very well in these areas in junior hockey, but he should add muscle before he heads to the next level.
2019 NHL Draft Players to Watch
Petr Cajka, Centre, Erie Otters
Cajka generates good speed through quick acceleration and a smooth stride. This helps him to play a 200-foot game. He has an excellent wrist shot and a quick release. Cajka makes space to get his shot off, by backing defenders off with his speed. He is also a smart player, who makes strong passes to teammates. He has the vision and anticipation to create scoring chances when the opportunities arise. Cajka works hard in his own end, supporting the defence down low. He has also shown ability in the faceoff circle.
Tag Bertuzzi, Centre/Left Wing, Guelph Storm
The second overall pick in the 2017 OHL Draft, Bertuzzi put up just 11 points in 41 games in his rookie season. The son of Todd Bertuzzi and cousin of former Guelph star Tyler Bertuzzi, Tag plays the same aggressive style that the family is known for. He is hard on the puck in front of the net and battles hard in the corners. He also has a hard wrist shot. Bertuzzi is dominant below the faceoff dots, controlling possession in the cycle game and taking the puck to the front of the net.
Michael Vukojevic, Left Defence, Kitchener Rangers
Vukojevic is known for his defensive game. As a 16-year-old, he became a steady and reliable defender as an OHL rookie. He is solid in his own zone, with the size (six-foot-two) to play a physical game and clear the front of the net. He reads the play well and is rarely out of position. Vukojevic uses his long stick to cut down passing lanes, especially while killing penalties. He has a decent slap shot but must work on getting it through traffic and on the net. He also shows a good first pass out of the zone. Vukojevic has not shown a lot of offensive ability to date but would rocket up draft boards if he did.
Matvei Guskov, Centre/Wing, London Knights
Guskov scored four goals at last year’s Under-17 World Hockey Challenge, and another two goals as an underage player at the IIHL U-18 World Championships. He is a hardworking and gritty player who is not afraid to battle along the boards or in front of the net in both ends of the rink. Guskov also has strong puckhandling skills and the ability to finish plays in tight to the net. He also has a good arsenal of shots, with above average ability in his wrist shot, snapshot and slap shot. He needs to work on his faceoffs.
Connor McMichael, Centre, London Knights
McMichael is a good skater, with very good top end speed along with solid edgework and pivots. He is more of a playmaker than a shooter, with his excellent vision and hockey IQ allowing him to make the correct play. He needs to bulk up in order to add power to his wrist shot, and also be tougher along the boards and in battles for pucks. McMichael may not get a lot of time on a stacked Knights team, but given the success of players like Formenton and Christian Dvorak who were in lesser roles in their draft years, scouts will pay close attention to the Knights.
2020 NHL Draft Players to Watch
Jamie Drysdale, Right Defence, Erie Otters
The fourth overall pick in the OHL Draft, Drysdale is one of the best two-way defenders in his age group. He has very good speed in both directions, as well as the agility and edgework to make quick pivots and transition from offence to defence and vice-versa. Drysdale can rush the puck up the ice, making plays and setting up teammates. He can also get back in his own end and his agility, smarts, and quick stick make him very difficult to beat off the rush. Drysdale is also good at walking the line in the offensive zone and creating shooting and passing lanes for himself. He can play the role of power-play quarterback.
Antonio Stranges, Centre, London Knights
Stranges went in the second round of the OHL Draft, as most predicted that he would play for the US NTDP before heading to the University of Michigan. Instead, the London Knights took a risk on Stranges, and it has paid off as he committed to the team. Stranges has outstanding edgework. He uses his quick cuts and changes in direction to make defenders look silly. He pairs this with very good puckhandling skills. Stranges does a lot of things well. He can score goals with his excellent shot but can also play the role of facilitator and make plays for his teammates.
Main Photo: LONDON, ON – FEBRUARY 1: Evan Bouchard #2 of the London Knights skates with the puck against the Kitchener Rangers during an OHL game at Budweiser Gardens on February 1, 2017 in London, Ontario, Canada. The Knights defeated the Rangers 6-1. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)