2016 NHL Draft

Center Stage

Plenty of pivots to ponder at CHL’s Top Prospects Game
Steve Kournianos  |  01/28/2016 |  New York    

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Photo courtesy of Aaron Bell

New York (The Draft Analyst) — The Ontario Hockey League is truly one of the best amateur circuits at developing players for NHL stardom — as the rosters for 2016 CHL Top Prospects Game clearly demonstrate.

Twenty prospects  — exactly half of the invites — from the Canadian Hockey League’s biggest talent factory will play on Thursday’s all-star game, which pits NHL legends Bobby Orr and Don Cherry as opposing coaches in one of the draft year’s more anticipated prospects events. The lineup includes perhaps the best collection of centers available come June — four are from the OHL. The most notable being Mississauga Steelhead Mike McLeod and Windsor Spitfire Logan Brown, two big-bodied playmakers with skill who are their respective team’s top center. Will Bitten, a speedy pivot who plays for the OHL’s Flint Firebirds, was a key cog for Team Canada’s penalty killing unit at their gold medal-winning performance at the 2015 Ivan Hlinka. He took that success and seamlessly transitioned into a strong OHL campaign, leading his team in goals (21) and assists (26). Another two-way center, Mississauga’s Nathan Bastian, has spent the bulk of the season on the wing but is versatile enough to play both up the middle and on the flank. He’s also blessed with size (6’4, 208 pounds) but is equally adept at driving and dishing like the aforementioned trio. His 30 assists ranked him in the top 10 off all OHL draft eligibles.

The Western Hockey League is supplying Thursday’s event will plenty of skill from the center ice position as well. Brett Howden, who plays for the Moose Jaw Warriors, is a classic two-way pivot who plays a physical, in-your-face game and can cover a lot of ground. Moose Jaw teammate Noah Gregor has cooled off a tad after a white hot start, but he really stepped up on several occasions to man its top line and is the type of player who can be used in all situations. Additionally impressive is Gregor has shown no aftereffects from the broken collarbone that derailed his season last year. Rounding out the WHL centers is Sam Steel, a lightning-quick finesse player with top-center upside who is one of the WHL’s top scorers among draft eligibles with 45 points in 48 games.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the rosters:

Team Cherry

Forwards

C LOGAN BROWN (Windsor Spitfires, OHL): Gargantuan pivot with high-end puck distribution skills and a powerful skater who uses a long reach and quick hands to take advantage of opportunities. He’s  a big reason behind not only Windsor’s dramatic turn around in the standings, but his chemistry with Arizona Coyotes prospect Christian Fischer was evident from the onset. We’d love to see him play with a lot more bite and tenacity, thus making him an impossible player to wargame.

C/LW DILLON DUBE (Kelowna Rockets, WHL): Heady two-way forward who’s taken a leadership role on a Kelowna team not far removed from its deep Memorial Cup run from a year ago. And while the Rockets still boast an impressive arsenal of forwards, Dube is one of their top options, placing second in both goals (20) and points (46) and playing wing on their second line. He’s a complete player who can be tasked for any situation and put forth the extra effort to win.

RW VITALII ABRAMOV (Gatineau Olympiques, QMJHL): Dynamic Russian import with excellent speed and acceleration who as a rookie is destroying the QMJHL to a tune of 73 points in 48 games — good for second overall in the league. He’s only 5’9 but a solid 175 with exceptional balance for an undersized skill forward. He ranked 56th among North American skaters on NHL Central Scouting’s midterm rankings, which when combined with a very deep pool of European talent has him assessed as a 4th round pick or lower. We don’t buy it — this kid is out-of-your-seat electrifying and is one of the draft’s best pure offensive talents.

RW ALEX DEBRINCAT (Erie Otters, OHL): Getting deservedly picked to play at the World Junior Championship may have been the worst thing to happen to this diminutive super scorer, who was leading the CHL in goal scoring by a country mile for most of the season until a mid-December trip to Helsinki with Team USA and the mini-slump that followed thereafter (two goals in eight games since WJC). He’s still a ridiculously talented sniper with sick hands and an intense drive to succeed. DeBrincat reads the open ice like a pro and finds ways to go undetected within the most dangerous areas of the offensive zone. The injury he suffered at the WJC may explain the dip in production.

RW JULIEN GAUTHIER (Val-d’Or Foreurs, QMJHL): The drumbeat keeps pounding for this big-bodied sharpshooter with tremendous awareness and timing, as he leads the QMJHL with an astounding 0.94 goals-per-game average thanks to 33 goals in only 35 games. He’s always been known as a goal scorer, but his compete level and smarts have served him well in the defensive zone — a likely reason he was the only 2016 draft eligible on Team Canada’s recent WJC roster. He moves well with the puck, anticipates well without it, and at 6’4, 220 pounds, we think he’s closer to becoming an NHL contributor than some may think.

LW TIM GETTINGER (Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds, OHL): Another power winger with size who’s on a rebuilding Soo program in his draft year after playing an important role on their 2015 powerhouse. It’s been a rough season for both the Soo and the Ohio-born Gettinger, and the term “disappointing” can be applied to most of the roster. Still, Gettinger is a classic upside option, as he’s blessed with size (6’6, 202) and an unselfish penchant for playmaking and puck distribution. Therien lies the problem, however, as a kid with his height and the accompanying silouette should be far more engaged in the trenches in order to reap its benefits. He’s picked it up a bit as of late (six points in his last six games), but consistency has been a problem.

C NOAH GREGOR (Moose Jaw Warriors, WHL): Special teams specialist with no fear to work and create in crowded areas. Gregor plays on a very good Moose Jaw club, but he’s earned his way onto the top power play unit because he rarely makes questionable decisions and has the ability to get off a quick shot before the lane gets clogged. He had a tough 2015 due to a couple of injuries, but he’s bounced back with a strong pre-draft season. Gregor is third among WHL rookies in scoring with 20 goals and 23 assists.

LW MAX JONES (LONDON KNIGHTS, OHL): One way to silence critics is to take advantage of an opportunity, which is exactly what this tough and durable rookie power forward did when what seemed like half the Knights’ roster bolted for the WJC’s. Not a problem for the big fella, as he shook off a really poor start by slicing through OHL competition for what’s now going on three months straight. He’s a load to handle and can skate well, using leg drive and a wide frame to shield the puck as he rumbless past opponents. He had 36 points in a 31-game stretch, but the return of London’s firepower from Helsinki and the puzzling addition of 2015 New York Ranger (and left wing) Daniel Bernhardt has played a role in Jones’ drop in ice time and production.

RW JORDAN KYROU (SARNIA STING, OHL): Up-and-down playmaker whose flashes of brilliance grew longer in scope and scale until another slump has him trudging into the Top Prospects Game. He’s played on Sarnia’s second line for most of the season after showing chemistry with New Jersey 2015 first rounder Pavel Zacha a year ago. But a recnt move to the top line with Zacha and newly-acquired Travis Konecny should begin to pay dividends. Kyrou is very athletic and has his head up at all times, and you wonder why he hasn’t produced when you consider his passing ability, especially off the rush.

C MICHAEL MCLEOD (MISSISSAUGA STEELHEADS, OHL): We already talked about how special a skill set McLeod owns, and there was early-season talk that getting picked in the top five of the draft was discernible. Whether it was an immediate chemistry with fellow prosect Alexander Nylander, or a strong showing on fourth line duty at the CHL Super Series against Team Russia, McLeod gives you exactly what you want — speed, determination, vision and a very high IQ. We see a lot of Trevor Linden in his game, except the latter was a bit taller and a better finisher in Junior. But the leadership traits and ability to step up his game when his team needs a pick-me-up in addition to his skills with the “wow” factor makes it completely understandable if you believe you’ll see him as a top-line center in a few years.

RW TY RONNING (VANCOUVER GIANTS, WHL): It’s never easy being the son of an NHL player, let alone the offspring of one of the most prolific scorers in CHL history. But Ty Ronning has steadily made a name for himself after being considered somewhat of an afterthought among the 2016 draft’s elite. And while he may never produce the kind of Major Junior results like his father Cliff (197 points in 1984-85), he’s strikingly similar to his father in the way he can control the puck and fill the net with a deadly accurate shot. He’s listed at 5’9, 170 pounds and is carrying the Giants’ attack, which hasn’t been easy with star Tyler Benson dealing with injury issues (Ronning is Benson’s replacement on Team Cherry).

C SAM STEEL (REGINA PATS, WHL): Steel is a gifted offensive talent with incredible speed and the ability to make difficult plays off the rush. Regina relies on him heavily to man the pivot of its most important situations, and he continues to reward them for making him the second overall pick in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft. He’s dealt with and handled adversity throughout his life, and he’s taken to his leadership role with the Pats. With 17 goals and 28 assists, we think he’s lived up to the hype.

Defensemen

LHD JAKOB CHYCHRUN (Sarnia Sting, OHL): The best defensemen available for the 2016 draft has certainly played like it this season, logging top-pairing minutes for a good Sarnia team. Chychrun is a cerebral two-way defensemen with excellent mobility and instincts, and his mature build (6’2, 204 pounds) presents NHL GM’s with a subject who is ready both physically and mentally prepared for the rigors of the pro game. His production is about the same as it was last year (29 points in 42 games), but he’s healthy and played a selfless game throughout. His overall skill set is similar to both Aaron Ekblad and Naoh Hanifin, and is likely to make the immediate jump to the NHL as they did.

LHD KALE CLAGUE (Brandon Wheat Kings, WHL): You can argue that this silky-smooth puckmover’s chances to pile up points are hurt by playing behind the likes of a dominant post-draft defender like Ivan Provorov. And there was a period early in the year when Clague was Brandon’s cleanest and most reliable defender. He’s a little wiry (6’0, 178 pounds), but he makes up it with smarts and quick thinking in his own end. Clague is a very good skater and an accurate passer with authority, and a recent surge in production (11 points in his last 16 games) began when Provorov left for the WJC.

LHD SEAN DAY (Mississauga Steelheads, OHL): Once considered the flower of American hockey development, Day has had a lengthy war with consistency in what was supposed to be his coming out party. He’s displayed all the tools you desire in a defender – size (6’3, 230 pounds), mobility, a hard shot and skill, but he has not been able to marry them into a complete effort for any significant period of time. And it’s not like Mississauga is devoid of talent – three Steelhead forwards are competing with him in the Top Prospects Game. Day is dangerously slipping down the rankings, and a strong game in Vancouver would be a nice start to begin reversing the trend.

LHD SAMUEL GIRARD (Shawinigan Cataractes, QMJHL): Girard is a classic Quebec League playmaker who displays panache when he’s creating from the back end. Nobody can deny his mental agility, quickness or how gifted a puck distributor he is – he leads all CHL defensemen in assists with 43 in 46 games. And though he’s been criticized (not here) for being too small for the position (5’9, 170 pounds), we’ve seen him make up for his physical disadvantage with smart positional play and a very active stick. He’s the 2016 draft’s best power play quarterback despite owning an unimpressive shot.

LHD LUCAS JOHANSEN (Kelowna Rockets, WHL): He’s not putting up the overly-impressive offensive numbers you’d expect from a top pairing defensemen on a powerhouse like Kelowna, but he does lead all Rockets’ rearguards in scoring with seven goals and 26 points in 44 games. And even though he’s relied upon to help drive the advance up the ice, there’s a lot more than offense to Johansen’s game, as he is reliable, smart and owns an acute sense of when to attack the puck in his own end and quickly transition it. Lucas is the younger brother of Nashville Predators’ star center Ryan Johansen.

LHD MARKUS NIEMELAINEN (Saginaw Spirit, OHL): We’ve been somewhat critical of this Finnish import’s season, and our skepticism centers on decision making away from the puck. You can argue all day if poor choice-making is fixable as a prospect develops, which is why his mobility (he’s a graceful and fluid skater) and ability to thread the needle makes him worth the risk. He’s steadily improved in his own end since a terrible start because he uses his imposing frame (6’6. 210 pounds) to suffocate puck carriers and pin them without an escape option. He does, however, like to wander and “puck gaze”, which can create a sizeable gap between the goaltender and him. Like Day, we view him as one of those “upside” picks.

Goaltenders

G EVAN FITZPATRICK (Sherbrooke Phoenix, QMJHL): He’s had the misfortune of playing on a terrible team, especially defensively, and the results should be expected – Fitzpatrick has faced the most shots of any goaltender in the QMJHl (1231 shots in 39 games). And while it’s difficult to assess a Quebec League goalie on stats alone, his impressive .901 save percentage is indicative of a battler who handles the chaos extremely well. He has prototypical NHL size (6’4, 210 pounds) with cat-like quickness and pro-level agility.

G ZACH SAWCHENKO (Moose Jaw Warriors, WHL): Slowly climbing up our rankings (he was No. 136 for January) after putting together a string of consistent efforts over the course of the last two months. His net awareness has been impeccable, as he’s always playing his angles correctly and rarely provides the shooter with an opening that shouldn’t be there. His technical play is advanced in comparison with the majority of his peers, and he was recently names CHL Goaltender of the Week. Sawchenko has good size (6’1, 180-pounds) and is somebody to keep an eye on as the season progresses.