As the OHL season enters its final weekend, Leaf fans will get a chance to see two of their brightest prospect take center stage as Erie and London face off in a home and home series to determine first place in the Western Conference. Entering today tied at 103 points, the two-game series will determine who gets the number one seed and home ice throughout the OHL playoffs. In Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner, tonight’s game in London involves the best two prospects in major junior hockey and with first place in the balance, it’s no surprise that Sportsnet will be featuring it nationally.
The Otters have been in first place for most of the season in large part due to last year’s third overall pick Dylan Strome. Going into the draft last June, many Leaf fans were hoping Arizona would pass on Strome giving the Leafs a chance to draft him. With both Marner and Strome sitting right around two points per game this season, the debate over which is the better prospect has continued through the season and will likely go on well into their NHL careers.
More than Strome, the interest in Erie from a Leafs perspective should be Travis Dermott. In this season’s OHL Coaches Poll that was released just yesterday, Dermott was voted the best offensive defenceman in the Western Conference, an impressive feat considering he is up against Red Wings prospect Vili Saarijarvi who is quickly becoming one of the top blueline prospects in hockey. While that honor is great, Dermott is certainly more than jut an offensive defenceman, After a slow start to the season, Dermott has looked incredible since the World Juniors, and has shown the growth at both ends of the ice that Leafs management should be thrilled about.
Dermott is by far the team’s best defensive prospect and the way he’s played this season makes the decision to trade down from the 24th spot in the draft a little more palatable (I still maintain the decision to pass on Konecny is one the Leafs are going to regret). Since he’s turning 20 next December, Dermott is AHL eligible next season and there’s a chance he plays with the Marlies, but in all likelihood, he will be back in the OHL to work on his weaknesses and dominate with an eye towards being on Canada’s top pair next December.
Everyone knows who to watch for on the London Knights. Mitch Marner is the best the Leafs have and in the discussion for best prospect in all of hockey. Marner is tied with Conor Garland and Dryden Hunt at the top of the CHL with 1.6 primary points per game. After the experiment of playing him at center failed, he’s been spending most of his time on Christian Dvorak’s wing, forming the most dynamic duo in the OHL. Marner has all-world skill and the ability to embarrass lesser opponents, leaving many to assume he’s destined for the NHL next season. Lou Lamoriello said last week that as of right now Marner isn’t ready to make the jump, but if he is able to work on his physical growth over the summer it’s likely he’ll be with the Maple Leafs at least for the 9 game tryout next season. At the World Juniors, Marner showed that with time and space on the PP he can be the best player on the ice but he struggled 5 on 5 against better opponents that he’s used to in the OHL. Tonight’s game will be the start of a playoff run that will give us a very good chance to see what Marner can do as the competition improves.
While Marner gets all the focus, it’s easy to forget that there is another Maple Leafs prospect on the London Knights. JJ Piccinich, the 4th round pick from 2014, as had a very good rookie season in the OHL. He struggled early in the year as his transition from the NCAA to the OHL was made harder by a couple of lingering injuries. Piccinich hit his stride in December when a large group of his teammates left to represent their countries. Playing a bigger role, he was able to show some offensive flair to go along with the defensively responsible game she’s shown playing on the third line most of the season. With 30 goals this season, Piccinich has likely moved up the prospect depth chart this season from ‘career minor leaguer’ to ‘potential bottom-6 fringe NHLer’.
The Knights come into this game on an eight-game winning streak and have won 16 of their last 18 games. They’re the hottest team in the CHL and have put themselves in a position as the favorite in the OHL.
Draft Eligible Prospects
Since the trade deadline, the draft this upcoming June has become one of the key dates for Maple Leaf fans to get excited about. With six picks in the top-90 and a bunch more in the late rounds, games like tonight’s give us a chance to take a look at a large number of prospects that can do just about anywhere in the draft.
Matthew Tkachuk (LDN) – #1 NA Skater from Central Scouting. He could be drafted as high as #4, and is a definite top-10 pick.
Olli Juolevi (LDN) – He has been the hottest prospect on draft lists since December and is seen as some as the top defensive prospect in the draft. A lock for the top-10
Max Jones (LDN) – The Knights forward is one of the most polarizing players in the first round. He could be drafted anywhere from 10-25.
Alex DeBrincat (ER) – He has fallen in the rankings over the past few months, his tremendous goal total overshadows major issues in his game. He’ll be a worthwhile risk for a team drafting 25-35.
Victor Mete (LDN) – Overshadowed by Juolevi, Mete is a very good defensive prospect that will likely be a second round pick.
Taylor Raddysh (ER) – Another player that is being overshadowed by his teammates, Raddysh is a very solid winger that projects to be selected in the second round.
Tyler Parsons (LDN) – Probably the third best CHL goaltender in the draft, it’s hard to pin down where the young American will be drafted. He could go anywhere in the 2nd or 3rd rounds.
Jordan Sambrook (ER) – The two-way defender should hear his name called late in the 3rd round.
Cliff Pu (LDN) – He’s got a lot of skill but only shows it in flashes, he’s a long-term project that will likely go in the fourth round.
Nicolas Mattinen (LDN) – Another draft-eligible rookie defender on London, Mattinen is likely to be a late round pick.
Kyle Maksimovich (ER) – The undersized winger has put up a decent point total this season and will be a 5th or 6th rounder.
Christian Girhiny (ER) – He is one of the youngest draft eligible players this year and could go undrafted but someone might take a flier on him in the 7th
Draft Eligible in 2017 – Brett Neumann (ER), Robert Thomas (LDN), Vanya Lodnia (ER)
Draft Eligible in 2018 – Evan Bouchard (LDN)
What To Watch For
The game tonight will give us a good taste of what’s to come in what promises to be an incredible OHL playoff. The Western Conference is frightening, and whichever team survives the gauntlet will likely have Kingston or Barrie waiting for them at the other end. Between the two teams, there are so many draft eligible players that we may be watching more than just the three future Leafs (I am hoping Mark Hunter makes Sambrook a Leaf pick, while Jon has his sights set on Mete). With all eyes in Leafs Nation focused squarely on the future, tonight’s game will give us an opportunity to see a couple players that we know will factor into any success that is to come in Toronto. CHL hockey this time of year is always fun, and with the Leafs playing out the string, it’s fun to get some exciting hockey under our belts before we get fully invested in a Marlies Calder Cup run.