We are entering an interesting time in major junior. As top-end teen players become better prepared for the pro game and inexpensive entry-level contracts make them a better roster option than “middle-class” NHLers, the big names in the CHL tend to be the younger ones. Sure, you’ll still find overagers putting up gaudy stats in all three circuits, but for the future stars of the NHL, it’s better to look younger.
The OHL may not have the first-round breadth it usually does in this year’s NHL draft, but the high-end talent is still there, headlined by Barrie Colts center Ryan Suzuki. The younger brother of Montreal Canadiens prospect Nick Suzuki, Ryan has bolted out of the gates as one of the OHL’s leading scorers and confirmed why the Colts took him with the No. 1 pick in the 2017 OHL draft. “He’s one of the smarter players I’ve ever seen play in these parts,” said Barrie GM Jason Ford. “With those guys, they get acclimated to the craft and the game becomes easier for them.”
While Suzuki is just 17, Ford says he’s a “seasoned 17” due to his experience and confidence. Suzuki won silver with Canada Red at the world under-17s last season and gold with Canada at the Hlinka-Gretzky tourney in the summer.
He also saw his first OHL playoff action last spring when the Colts, led by overager and Ottawa Senators free agent signing Aaron Luchuk and future Carolina Hurricanes lottery pick Andrei Svechnikov, advanced to the second round before falling to Kingston. “Having Luchuk there, with his knowledge of the league, was very helpful,” Suzuki said. “And Svechnikov is obviously a special player.”
Despite the fact the Colts lost a lot of talent over the summer, the ascent of Suzuki – plus high-end imports Matej Pekar (Buffalo) and Maksim Zhukov (Vegas) – have kept the good times rolling. Coach and former NHL star Dale Hawerchuk has the Colts living up to their name with high-octane play. “The biggest thing is keeping your feet moving,” Suzuki said. “It’s all about stops and starts when you’re skating, no curling, no cheating.”
Suzuki is more of a playmaker than a finisher, but it’s something he wants to even out during his draft year. He’s a projected top-10 pick. “I know I can score, but I can be too unselfish at times,” he said. “I have a good shot, I need to use it more.”
At six-foot and 171 pounds, Suzuki also knows he must get stronger. Fortunately, he’s a student of the game. “When he’s not on the ice, he’s a sponge,” Ford said. “He learns what to do and what not to do.”
Based on his trajectory, Suzuki is going to get better as he continues to process the game at a high level. It’s amazing to think what kind of points he’ll put up in the OHL next year – if he isn’t too busy in the NHL.
In Quebec, we know left winger Alexis Lafreniere will be back in Rimouski next season, because he’s not eligible for the NHL draft until 2020. The Oceanic left winger has an October birthday, so his main competition in the draft will be OHL phenom Quinton Byfield of the Sudbury Wolves. But keeping Lafreniere on the right path is the mission this season. “Next year is so far away,” said Rimouski coach-GM Serge Beausoleil. “We’re trying to control what we can control and see the moment in this present game, this present shift.”
Lafreniere burst onto the scene as a rookie in the ‘Q’ last year, putting up 80 points as a 16-year-old after Rimouski snagged him with the first overall pick in the QMJHL draft. Only the older Filip Zadina scored more points as a rookie (82). Over the summer, Lafreniere suited up for Canada at the Hlinka-Gretzky tournament and scorched the field with 11 points in five games (Suzuki was second on the team with eight points) en route to gold. “It was unbelievable,” Lafreniere said. “When you get the chance to play with all the best players your age in the world, with and against them, it’s a great experience.”
The challenge now for Lafreniere is to hone his skill set and round out his game, particularly in the defensive end. “We have to treat him like the other players,” Beausoleil said. “He’s our MVP, but we have to challenge and push him. At the same time, we will not put him in a box, we want him to be creative.”
Beausoleil loves that his young star has an open mind when it comes to learning. For Lafreniere, seeing is believing. In the summer, he got to train with NHLers such as Antoine Roussel and Cedric Paquette. “I saw that every day, on the ice or in the gym, you have to work hard,” he said. “Their work ethic was impressive.”
Lafreniere grew up in the Montreal suburb of Saint-Eustache, about 30 minutes outside the city. The minor midget Saint-Eustache Vikings played at a rink near his home, so Lafreniere spent a lot of time watching the older kids he wanted to join someday. Once he suited up for the Vikings in 2016-17, Lafreniere laid waste to the Quebec minor midget circuit, leading the league with 83 points in 36 games.
When the QMJHL’s 2017 draft came around, Lafreniere was the clear-cut No. 1 pick, but his destination wasn’t so obvious: Rimouski won the lottery despite having the third-best odds and hadn’t even missed the playoffs the year prior (in fact, their most recent championship was in 2015). Luckily for all involved, dealing with a hyped-up prospect isn’t new for the organization. “We had a guy named Sidney Crosby here,” Beausoleil said. “So we have some experience that’s useful, for sure.”
In the WHL, NHL prospects such as Cody Glass (Vegas) and Jaret Anderson-Dolan (Los Angeles) will push the pace, while top 2019 draft hopefuls such as Kirby Dach and Dylan Cozens vie for position. But goalie Ian Scott may have one of the most dramatic impacts on the season as he has rounded into impressive form with the Prince Albert Raiders.
Scott, drafted 110th overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2017, has been a constant in Prince Albert for several years and is in his third season as the starter. But until recently, his numbers were pedestrian. Entering 2018-19, the 6-foot-3 native of Calgary had never reached .900 with his yearly save percentage and the Raiders hadn’t won a playoff round. “It was tough, but that’s where the mental side of the game comes in,” Scott said. “It’s just a matter of staying focused.”
Scott got a nice boost this past spring when he joined the AHL’s Toronto Marlies once his season in Prince Albert was finished. He got into one game before the playoffs began, but the real education came in being around Marlies goalies Garret Sparks and Calvin Pickard, who had led the team to a record season. Sparks ended up steering the team to its first Calder Cup title.
Scott spent the summer working on his mental game and bulking up. “I feel bigger in the net and stronger,” he said. “That helps my confidence.”
So far, he looks like a different goalie. Through 13 games, Scott had a .945 save percentage and just one loss, as the Raiders blasted out of the gates to first place. And lest you think he’s just benefitting from a good team in front of him, please note only two WHL goalies have faced more shots than Scott.
While he wasn’t invited to Canada’s world junior camp in the summer, Scott did get the nod for Team WHL’s entry in the CHL’s Canada-Russia series in November. A good showing there would improve his chances of getting the call for the holiday classic.
Even if he doesn’t make it to the world juniors in Vancouver, Scott has turned a corner in his young career and a deep run in the WHL playoffs is not out of the question. While goaltending is the trickiest position to get a beat on, Scott has faced adversity in his development and come out stronger for it.
Like all the stars in the CHL, his future is bright.