Round 2 of the OHL playoffs kick off this week. There might not be a more anticipated series in recent memory than this, as the 4th place Guelph Storm take on the 1st place London Knights. Regular season standings aside, both teams are absolutely loaded and primed for a Memorial Cup run. Problem is, only one team gets to advance. So a very good team is going home after this Round which is a shame but harsh reality. It should be a heckuva series that might take the full seven games to ultimately determine a winner.
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Guelph is a veteran team loaded with experience. Of their Top 9 scoring forwards, 8 of them are already 20 yrs old or will be 20 yrs old this year. On defence, 5 of their Top 6 defencemen are or will be 20 yrs old this year. Their goalie Anthony Popovich, also turns 20 this summer. Which means, they’re all in on this season.
The Storm are led by their captain Isaac Ratcliffe(2nd rd, PHI) up front who had 50 goals this year, along with midseason additions and Team Canada alum Nick Suzuki (1st rd, MTL) and Mackenzie Entwhistle (3rd rd, ARZ). Both Suzuki & Entwhistle had 30+ goals, as did veterans Nate Schnarr (3rd rd, ARZ) & Liam Hawel(4th rd, DAL) making them a dangerous team up front. Schnarr in fact, was their leading point getter with 102 points. They are not an overlay fast group but they are physical & aggressive forecheckers, who tend to create havoc in the opponent’s zone and cause a lot of turnovers.
Sean Durzi (2nd rd, LA) heads a much improved defensive unit that really came into their own in the 2nd of the season especially with the addition of another Team Canada alum Markus Phillips (4th rd, LA). Dmitri Samorukov (3rd rd, EDM) might be the most improved player in the league since the World Juniors. In total, 11 players have been drafted by NHL clubs. They’re big, they’re experienced, and they have 4 lines that come at you hard, along with a talented and aggressive defence.
G Anthony Popovich struggled a bit this year, but always seem to give the Knights fits. 18 yr old Nico Daws is a very capable backup if Popovich falters.
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Unlike Guelph, London has a nice mix of veterans, 2019 draft eligibles & 16 yr olds who helped lead them to a 1st place finish in the OHL. The Knights only have 8 players drafted by an NHL team, though two of them are Top 10 NHL picks, while another was taken 18th overall (Liam Foudy).
London’s strength is on the backend, where they are led by captain Evan Bouchard (1st rd, EDM) and Adam Boqvist (1st rd, CHI). Both put tremendous pressure on opposing dmen with their terrific puck rushing ability & offensive pedigree. Bouchard is easily the best Powerplay quarterback in the OHL, and Boqvist might be the best pinching in from the point. Boqvist scored 4 goals in one game vs. Windsor, and Bouchard already has 10 points in 4 games. Much of London’s success depends on those two not only on the offensive end, but also the defensive end where they both really struggled at times during the regular season. Against Guelph, they will be tested by the Storm’s relentless forecheck and need to be up to the challenge. Otherwise, London will have a tough time keeping up with Guelph’s potent offence.
Up front, London is led by Alex Formenton (2nd rd, OTT), Liam Foudy (1st rd, CLB), and undrafted overager and team leading scorer in the regular season – Kevin Hancock. Formenton is a possession monster who can beat you with his dynamic speed if you’re not careful. He’s always looking for that stretch pass behind the defence. Foudy is almost as fast and dynamic as him. Both need to do a much better job of finishing though. The key in this series will be secondary scoring from guys like Connor McMichael, Nathan Dunkley & Cole Tymkin. All of whom had excellent starts to the season but faded down the stretch. If they can chip in a few goals in this series, and the defence holds up defensively, London can win this series. Jordan Kooy (6th rd, VGK) will likely be in net after a solid Round 1.
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How they matchup
London went 7 for 13 (53.8%) on the PP in the 1st round against Windsor after finishing 9th in the OHL in the regular season. Don’t expect that to happen again against Guelph who had the 8th best PK this season.
Guelph went 5 for 12 (41.7%) in the opening round after finishing the season with the 3rd best PP in the OHL. London had the #1 PK unit in the league this year.
It should be an incredible series as these teams are evenly matched on paper. London really struggled defensively down the stretch, including two big losses to Guelph where the Knights were outscored by a total of 12-4. This series will come down to London‘s defence vs. Guelph‘s offence and it will probably take the full 7 games to decide a winner. Should be a doozy.
Guelph won the series 4-2 this season.
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Evan Bouchard was drafted in the 1st round in 2018 by the Edmonton Oilers. He became the first right shot defenceman the Oilers took in the 1st round in 11 years (Alex Plante). At the time, he was viewed as a future Top pairing, offensive defenceman capable of quarterbacking the Powerplay for many years to come. He had a monster draft year in which he put up 25 goals & 87 points, albeit as a late 1999 birthday. There were many people pushing for him to stay in the NHL full-time as a 19 yr old rookie, but ultimately the Oilers sent him back to the OHL. It was the right move in my opinion as I illustrated here.
Bouchard went on to play 45 games for the Knights in his draft+1 year, and scored 16 goals & 53 points. He also helped lead them to a 1st place finish in the Western Conference – their first since 2012-13. In December, he was also named an alternate captain for Team Canada at the World Juniors, who unfortunately had a disappointing 6th place finish. It was a busy year for the man they call “Bouch”, and that’s not counting the tough OHL playoffs he has yet to face. He got better in some areas as a prospect, but also has other areas he still needs to improve on as he turns pro.
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Bouchard‘s shot is elite NHL caliber. He generates tremendous power on his slapper, and he keeps it low and accurate. It’s why he is such a threat on the powerplay. His wrist shot is also deadly and accurate. He gets such good torque on it and has a quick release. His head is always up and he is so good at adjusting angles & changing delivery points that it makes it extremely difficult for defenders to stop. He also has this unique hybrid of a shot/pass where he almost lobs the puck at the net, but with such precision and at the flick of the wrist. It’s perfect for deflecting or throwing the goalie off altogether since it looks so non-chalant coming off his stick but has some real zip on it. I like to call it the “Sauce-Shot“. It’s a real weapon.
Bouchard’s puck moving & passing abilities really make him such an important player for the Oilers in the future, as he is elite at both. He has such great vision with his head always up he just reads the ice so well. He excels at making that first pass on a breakout. He is also fully capable of making that long stretch pass on the tape like he so often did with Formenton last 2 years, and will with McDavid in the future. His ability to carry the puck through the neutral zone in transition with speed and hit a streaking winger on the fly is exceptional. Because his shot is so deadly and well respected, he is more than capable of faking it and dishing a quick feed down low for a one-timer. If he were in Edmonton right now, he’d the best puck mover & passer on the team hands down.
Bouchard‘s poise and maturity are also exceptional. He handles himself like a pro on and off the ice, nothing seems to rattle him. He is such a calming influence it was no surprise he became captain of the London Knights during his draft year. Nothing seems too big a task for him he just takes it all in stride. He can settle things down defensively with the puck, and has the ability to bounce right back after he makes a bad play. Calm & cool under pressure should not be confused with lackadaisical & disinterested.
Bouchard’s skating is probably the biggest debate among pundits but in my opinion it is a strength. His top end speed is very good. Once he gets going he can really move. He has a slight hitch in his skating when he’s carrying the puck but he still does a very good of pushing the pace & shows enough agility to walk around guys. In the CHL Top prospects combine testing in 2018, he finished 2nd behind Noah Dobson as the fastest skater backwards ahead of guys like Ty Smith so that’s important as a defenceman. I think where he could improve is his first couple steps while accelerating. That explosiveness could certainly get better and could be an area of focus in off-season training.
Here are the highlights showcasing his strengths from the 2018-19 season:
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Like any prospect, Bouchard also has areas he can improve on as he turns pro and continues to work on his game.
Really, the only area he really needs to work on his on the defensive side of the puck. He needs to get better in all facets of that part of the game. His positioning needs work, how he attempts to block shots need work, how he attempts to box out guys and tie up their sticks need work. Basically, he almost needs a complete overall of his defensive game. That’s not to say he’s not a good prospect or can’t get there quickly. He just needs to really focus on getting better in his own zone to be a successful NHL‘er and he knows that.
That being said, I thought Bouchard held his own in his try-out with Edmonton earlier in the year. There were some hiccups along the way but he seemed to hold up well though wasn’t given a lot of minutes. His defensive reads need to improve but most importantly, I think just his overall intensity and competitiveness in his own zone should be the main focus. He needs to be tougher to play against & attack the puck carrier more aggressively rather than just watching them dictate the play to him. Do a better job of taking away passing lanes & making better defensive reads will certainly help. In London, he showed a bit more willingness to get physical, he took more penalties, and he showed more chippiness even after the whistle. More of that is needed as he moves on but he’s starting to making progress. Overall, he just needs more time to focus on being a complete defenceman because again, he’s already got the rest of his game figured out.
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There’s no doubt Bouchard will be able to contribute offensively in the NHL. In fact, you could argue he was fully capable of doing so this season despite getting sent back to the OHL. But the reality is, you have to be able to take care of your own zone first in the NHL as a young defenceman. Offence is great but if you struggle defensively, you’re hurting your team and the coaching staff can’t fully trust you. Despite some nice offensive flashes during his short term in Edmonton, the defensive inefficiencies in his game were apparent. Which is fine and totally expected from a 19 yr old rookie defenceman. The fact he still needs work defensively as he turns pro is not a shock either. It’s not easy to play defence in the NHL, especially as a teenager.
So moving forward to next season, it would be great if the Oilers could resist temptation and send Bouchard to the AHL to work on the defensive part of his game. Even if it is just for 25-40 games or so. Just don’t pencil him into the EDM starting lineup unless he shows drastic improvements over the summer. Edmonton is now in a great situation in that their farm team the Bakersfield Condors really have something special going on there. There is no rush to get him to the NHL now especially with guys like Caleb Jones, Ethan Bear & Joel Persson (all can play RD) all seemingly capable to step in to contribute right away. Let Dave Manson work with him defensively & help develop that side of the game. That’s what the AHL is supposed to be for. Otherwise, if you force him into the NHL you may end up with a Justin Schultz situation of having a guy playing who still isn’t ready and needs to work on the other facets of his game. Seems like a no-brainer to me.
Now, Former NHL GM Craig Button caused some hoopla earlier in the year when he listed his Top 50 Prospects and does not have Evan Bouchard among them. While I think that was absolutely ridiculous, David Staples of the Edmonton Journal did a great job of summarizing things here. There were some names on that list that simply should not be there, unless you think a defenceman taken in the 4th rd out of Minnesota-Duluth who had 4 goals & 23 points, is a better prospect than the most recent 10th overall pick in Bouchard. Clearly, Button had some other agenda here ripping into Evan and comparing him to Griffin Reinhart, which is nothing short of comical. But it was just his opinion which I disagree with completely (and often do), so take it with a grain of salt.
As far as NHL comps go, I stated before he was drafted, after he was drafted and continue to make the comparison. Evan Bouchard reminds me so much of a John Carlson who I had the pleasure of watching up close here in London years ago. Carlson was so mature and poised for his age, he never seemed to get rattled. He was also an excellent skater who had a big shot on the PP. Like Bouch, Carlson was also prone to costly mistakes defensively at times, but you could see once he got better at that part of his game he would blossom into a well-rounder star in the NHL. Another important note is, Carlson played in the OHL in his draft+1 year, then was sent to the AHL in his draft+2 year for more seasoning. He did manage to get some NHL games in late in that 2nd year. That seemed to work out ok for him. In fact, another bonafide NHL defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, got sent back to the OHL two straight seasons after being drafted and he turned out fine. I see Evan Bouchard following a similar path and ultimately becoming a star in Edmonton just like those two, as long as the Oilers remain patient with him.
A lot has been made of the lack of quality depth within the Edmonton Oilers prospect pool over the past few years. “The Cupboard is bare” was an all too familiar theme among pundits and social media last season, as Edmonton was ranked near the bottom of the NHL in terms of organizational depth outside of its NHL roster. However, after last season’s strong Draft results for the Oilers, what was once considered a weakness has now become a strength.
Edmonton is starting to reap the benefits of quality drafting under it’s current regime with the likes of Jesse Puljujarvi, Caleb Jones, Kailer Yamamoto, and Ethan Bear all cracking the lineup at some point over the last year. On top of that, guys like Tyler Benson, Cooper Marody, Cameron Hebig, William Lagesson, Stuart Skinner & Dylan Wells are all 22 or under playing in the minors currently while trying to develop their skills. That’s 10 quality prospects playing Pro hockey. Add a couple of talented players in Filip Berglund & Joel Persson who had really good seasons in Sweden, along with USHL players Phil Kemp & John Marino, and you’ve now got 14 prospects to get excited about.
It doesn’t end there either. Evan Rodrique and Ostap Safin are two excellent prospects currently playing in the QMJHL. Safin will be AHL bound next season, and Rodrigue the year after that. But this article will focus on the four OTHER prospects in the Oilers pipeline all playing in the OHL – Evan Bouchard, Kirill Maksimov, Ryan McLeod & Dmitri Samorukov.
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RD EVAN BOUCHARD – LONDON KNIGHTS (27-6-4-1)
Height: 6’3″ Weight: 194 lbs Shoots: R
15 GP – 5 goals, 13 assists, 18 Points
When you talk about EDM prospects the #1 player on most people’s lists is Evan Bouchard. “Bouch” as he’s known by many, is the RH Powerplay Quarterback of the future for the Oilers. He has terrific poise, a hard accurate shot, and is an excellent puck-mover. Plus, as mentioned he is a Powerplay specialist. One area he needs to continue to work on to get better is defensively. Evan can be guilty of puck watching at times in his own zone. He does a decent job at tying up opponents sticks but you’d like to see him be a bit more aggressive boxing out players & aggressively challenging shooters. He needs to bulk up a bit and be tougher to play against which is something you would expect him to do even more once he turns pro next year.
Bouchard currently plays for the London Knights who are one of the favourites to win the OHL title this year. They are loaded on defence led by Bouchard who plays regularly with Alec Regula (DET 3rd rd) at even strength, and Adam Boqvist (CHI, 1st rd) on the PP. London plays a fast paced style led by their Defence who like to routinely push the pace and jump up into the rush. Up front, they recently added OHL vet Kevin Hancock at the trade deadline to go with NHL draftees Liam Foudy & Alex Formenton. Hancock, has 32 goals and 66 points in 39 games so far. This year’s draft eligible Connor McMichael also plays in the Top 6. He has 25 goals in 37 games for London.
After starting the season in Edmonton, then getting sent back to London, Bouchard played for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship. His performance overall was a bit of a mixed bag as he showed flashes of brilliance, but also showed he needs to continue to work on his defensive intensity. Here’s examples of both:
Both clips show the strengths and weaknesses of the player pretty clearly. Bouchard has a very high offensive ceiling but is still young and needs to continue to get better in his own zone. He still projects as an eventual John Carlson type with experience & more consistency but Oilers fans need to be patient and let him develop at his own pace otherwise it may turn out like Justin Schultz did in Edmonton.
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LW KIRILL MAKSIMOV – NIAGARA ICE DOGS (24-9-7-0)
Height: 6’3″ Weight: 194 lbs Shoots: R
37 GP – 27 goals, 28 assists, 55 Points
Easily the most underrated and least talked about Prospect in the Edmonton organization, Kirill Maksimov is finally starting to gain recognition among fans as a big time scorer in the OHL. “Maksi” as he’s known by many, is the best natural shooter in the Oilers pipeline without question. His slapshot & one-timer are elite. His wrister which has almost no back swing is deadly and accurate. He is a threat to score every time he touches the puck in the offensive zone. He also have great vision and poise which allows him to set up his teammates if teams take away that shot. His 200 foot game is also a strength. He is physical and aggressive on the forecheck, he plays both PP & PK, and will sacrifice his body to make a play. Maksi is a hard-worker who keeps getting better.
The knock on Maksimov when he was drafted was his lack of speed & explosiveness. He has since worked extremely hard on getting stronger on his skates, something that EDM skating coach David Pelletier praised him for here. He can still be guilty of coasting at times but can really skate once he gets going. Acceleration and first step are better but can still be worked on. Something he should continue to focus on when he turns pro next year.
Maksimov currently plays for the Niagara Ice Dogs who are another popular choice to challenge for the OHL title this year. They are loaded up front with NHL draftees Jason Robertson (DAL 2nd rd), Akil Thomas (LA, 2nd rd), Jack Studnicka (BOS, 2nd rd), and Ben Jones (VGK, 7th rd). Their goaltender Stephen Dhillon is an OHL veteran who is very solid and capable of stealing a series himself. The defence will be the question mark moving forward. Are they good enough to get this team to the finals? Time will tell. As for Maksimov, check out these highlights from last season and pay attention to that one-time shot.
The future for Maksimov is in a Top 6 role at the NHL level. While he could fill in as a bottom 6 forward initially because of his strong defensive game, ultimately his career will make or break based on what he does in the Top 6. Simply put, he’s a scorer who plays better with talented centers. He’s not a driver so can be taken out of games unless he’s playing in an offensive role. He’s the perfect complimentary winger who a sports a legit NHL shot and release while maintaining a strong 200 ft game. Still a sleeper among pundits at this point of his career. Should be a LW as a Pro.
For a more extensive breakdown from earlier in the year, check out this article from The Cult of Hockey.
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C RYAN MCLEOD – SAGINAW SPIRIT (25-11-2-2)
Height: 6’3″ Weight: 208 lbs Shoots: L
35 GP – 13 goals, 29 assists, 42 Points
In today’s NHL, you need players who can really skate and Ryan McLeod might be the fastest prospect in the Oilers pipeline. Blessed with tremendous skating and agility, there is no question McLeod has the potential to be a solid NHL‘er. He has very good awareness, is defensively sound and can play in all situations. He has good offensive instincts but doesn’t always go hard to the net and still plays a bit of a perimeter game which can limit his effectiveness. His shot can be classified as good not great. He has a quick release and soft hands in close but tends to be more of a pass first type than a natural scorer.
McLeod currently plays for the Saginaw Spirit who loaded up at the trade deadline by acquiring he and former teammate Owen Tippett from Mississauga. He’s flanked by OHL vet Cole Coskey and this year’s draft eligible Cole Perfetti. They also have Bode Wilde on defence and a strong goaltender in Ivan Prosvetov. They’re in tough against some powerhouse teams in the OHL but they have a chance and should at least advance a round or two giving McLeod some much needed experience. Here’s a clip of him showing off his speed and soft hands:
McLeod is smart, fast & has an excellent 200 foot game. I just wonder about his hands at the next level. His shot is good not great. He could be a 15-20 goal scorer in the NHL eventually but seems destined to be a bottom 6 role player. When I watch him now I see so many similarities with a former Oiler Todd Marchant – a very solid, valuable #3 center who can win faceoffs and penalty kill while chipping in the odd big goal, which would seem to align up perfectly with Edmonton’s needs.
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LD DMITRI SAMORUKOV – GUELPH STORM (21-12-4-4)
Height: 6’2″ Weight: 180 lbs Shoots: L
33 GP – 3 goals, 17 assists, 20 Points
“Dima” as he’s known by many, is a very intriguing defensive prospect in that there are a lot of different tools in his toolbox. He is a very good skater who loves to rush the puck. He also has a cannon of a shot. He excels at retrieving the puck and making a good first pass out of his zone. He can also make that nice stretch pass tape to tape. Dima even has a little shake and bake in his game where he can walk a guy if they’re not paying attention. Defensively, he uses good positioning to keep guys in front of him and will sacrifice his body to block a shot. He also plays a lot on the Penalty kill unit. He hasn’t had a lot of Powerplay time in the past despite the big shot and does seem to be too tentative & unsure of himself when he does get an opportunity – something that can be worked on at the next level. Plenty to like about his game as he can be described as a “toolsy” player.
Despite the skill-set there are flaws in his game that need to be addressed. As mentioned, he has a cannon of a shot but really struggles with accuracy. If the hitting the glass counted as a goal he might have 50 by now. Also, the physical part of his game seems to have disappeared for long stretches. Dima has become more of a stick-checker defensively now than a punishing, physical defenceman even though he has shown flashes of that in the past especially in his draft year. His defensive awareness and play recognition appear to have improved over the course of this year which is a positive. Here’s that shot though when it does hit the target:
Samorukov currently plays for the Guelph Storm who absolutely loaded up at the trade deadline especially on defence. Markus Phillips, fresh off a Team Canada appearance was added. So was OHL vets Sean Durzi (TOR, 2nd rd) and Fedor Gordeev (TOR, 5th rd) giving Guelph a talented and experienced Top 4 D-core all of the sudden. That’s good for Dima as he has plenty of help, but it also takes away some PP opportunities and ice time. Up front they added Team Canada alums Mackenzie Entwhistle and Nick Suzuki too which means Guelph is going for it all this year. That will prove to be a great challenge for Samorukov who I feel needs to prove he can play tough, consistent, defensive hockey.
In the past, I have often referred to Good Dima vs. Bad Dima when describing his game as consistency seems to be one of his biggest weaknesses. I have personally witnessed games live where I thought he was one of the worst players on the ice. Questionable decision making, lackadaisical efforts and just not enough intensity. Then, there are other times where I think he looks fantastic and a looks like bonafide prospect. Take the World Junior Championship for example. Playing for Team Russia I thought he had a very strong tournament. I broke down his game versus Canada below:
Since coming back from that tournament, Dima has been very good. The defensive intensity appears to still be there and he looks fully engaged. It helps his team is loaded now as they make a run at an OHL title. He is certainly an intriguing prospect with some nice tools but ultimately if he does make it to the NHL after a few years of AHL seasoning, he probably won’t be anything more than a 3rd pairing guy. But, he can skate and move the puck so he has a chance. The skill is there but the big question still remains….does he have the will?
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So as you can see, there are plenty of prospects in the Edmonton Oilers organization to get excited about. Not all of them will make it obviously, and not all them will necessarily will be Top 6 or Top pairing guys. However, there are several prospects with interesting skill-sets that Edmonton doesn’t really have right now on their NHL roster which means some of these guys could end up being nice complimentary pieces. When you already have stars like Connor McDavid & Leon Draisaitl, sometimes that’s all you need. Cheap, young players on Entry-level contracts who can contribute and fill a variety roles. The cupboard is far from bare now folks. The prospect pipeline has now been built.