It’s well established that major junior leagues go through cycles in terms of NHL prospect strength and the most recent trend has been utter dominance at the top of the pile by the Ontario League.
The past four No. 1 picks overall come from the OHL – Taylor Hall, John Tavares, Steven Stamkos and Patrick Kane – and all four scooted right onto their teams’ respective rosters with success. But glance at the 2011 rankings and you’ll find a ‘Big 3’ bereft of OHL talent – Sean Couturier is reppin’ the Quebec League, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins hails from the Western League and Adam Larsson is holding down Europe (and more specifically, Sweden).
So is the OHL tapped out? Hardly.
How’s this for a stat? Of the five players who went straight from the 2010 draft to the NHL and stuck around after nine games, each one came from the OHL. Along with Hall and Tyler Seguin, you have Jeff Skinner (running away with the rookie scoring crown right now), Alexander Burmistrov (already killing penalties in Atlanta) and Cam Fowler (fourth among freshmen in average time on ice).
For me, an interesting storyline this season will be just how high Niagara’s Ryan Strome climbs. In the initial rankings put out by International Scouting Services, the 6-foot-1, 183-pound center was a pedestrian 34th overall and 10th among OHL prospects. That, of course, was before he began laying waste to the competition. Strome is currently tied for second in league scoring with 31 points in 20 games and lit up YouTube with his offensive dynamism against Plymouth recently. He’s a fiery competitor and a deft hockey mind with the hands to back it up. My initial thought is: Will Strome be this year’s Seguin?
Eventually the No. 2 pick overall out of Plymouth, Seguin came on the radar late, but bolted up the charts thanks to a great 2008-09 playoff run and a magical 106-point campaign last season.
Scouts don’t necessarily see Strome going that high, but they are bullish on the IceDogs star.
“He’s really rising,” said one scout. “I think a pretty good comparable would be Skinner.”
The Canes pick, you may recall, was slotted as a mid to late first-rounder last season, but the sense out there was some team would fall in love and snatch him earlier. Carolina was that team at No. 7 and they’re already reaping the rewards.
So here’s the question: If a player dominates the OHL and doesn’t have size, skating or defensive issues, shouldn’t that put him pretty high up in the rankings? After all, the circuit has proved as recently as this season that it can churn out NHL players – and high-caliber ones at that.
Of course, the fact the Fab Five of 2010 are out of the OHL right now throws a wrench into the competitive flow. How many points would Skinner or Burmistrov have right now if they were back in Kitchener or Barrie? Now, it’s true both the QMJHL and WHL also lose prospects each year, but the current trend is for those players to be smaller overagers who don’t factor into NHL teams’ plans as quickly. Evander Kane (WHL) and Dmitry Kulikov (QMJHL) were exceptions to the rule in 2009, but otherwise those circuits have received at least one more year of service from their top prospects.
And just to be clear, I recognize that all three leagues bring valuable players into the NHL and that, at this point, it doesn’t matter that Eric Staal (OHL) went second overall and Ryan Getzlaf (WHL) went 19th overall in 2003 – you’d be happy to have either on your team. But in grading prospects, it’s interesting that the flashiest player in the most prospect-heavy league of late isn’t amongst the “Big Three.” Is the cycle finally turning, or will there be a major market correction as the season goes on? That may be Ryan Strome’s decision to make.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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