This Saturday, the Ontario Hockey League will hold their annual draft. Well, technically it's called the "Priority Selection" as in, if your team has a lot of money, you get priority in selecting the best players, but it's close enough to a draft. And as a huge fan of watching agents make teenagers lie through their teeth, it's one of my favorite days of the year.
I'm keeping the title "The Dirtiest Day in Sports" out of tradition,and just sheer affection, but things seem to have calmed down a little bit in recent years, at least on this side of the border. What happened to the good old days when Tyler Seguin was sending notarized letters to 19 teams saying he would never play in the OHL, and Tyler Toffoli was shopping around a commitment to Notre Dame that Jeff Jackson flat out denied publicly? Two things.
First, the OHL instituted a new rule allowing for compensation to teams that select a player in the first round that does not report. If a team makes an honest attempt to sign a player and he doesn't report, they can trade him and receive a bunch of draft picks as compensation. It's a lot like when you get food poisoning from a restaurant, and as compensation, they give you gift certificates to eat there again. The most famous case to date involves Kingston drafting Max Domi two years ago and then trading him to London. London has been dominant this year, and Domi has been a key piece in that. Kingston used those picks to build a stable of talented '96-born players in Roland McKeown, Spencer Watson, Sam Bennett, and Dylan DiPerna. It remains to be seen if that young core will actually translate to success on the ice, or if they'll just be shipped off to more monied clubs at deadline time for another set of draft picks to begin the cycle anew.
The other reason is that NCAA schools seem to have backed off a little bit in terms of recruiting Canadian players until the dust settles after the OHL draft. Only two Canadian players have a reported commitment to an NCAA school: Brampton G Ben Blacker to Western Michigan, and York-Simcoe F Adam Sinclair to Harvard . There's a lot more good American talent out there, and most times, it's just not worth the time, effort, and resources to fight that battle.
Before we get started, here's a couple great resources: The OHL's official draft media guide, and In the O Radio's pre-draft podcast. Lots of good information there, especially from Sean LaFortune on the In the O podcast. I'll crib his notes a few times throughout this.
The biggest story heading into draft day is that of '98 dfenseman Sean Day. Day became the fourth player to be granted "exceptional player" status by Hockey Canada, joining John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, and Connor McDavid. Day played with Detroit Honeybaked this year, but he appears to be everything but American. Day was born in Belgium, spent some time in Singapore, and it looks like he'll be playing internationally for Canada. He's been called one of the best skating defensemen in a long time.
The interesting twist is that it all indications are that Day will be the first exceptional status player not to be taken first overall in the draft. In fact, Day might have a bit of a wait on draft day. Ottawa has the first overall pick and is expected to take forward Travis Konecny, while all indications are that Erie will take forward Dylan Strome. Now it's being reported that Peterborough will take defenseman Matthew Spencer third overall.
Day was reportedly borderline to receive the exceptional status, not for his talent, which is immense, but because of rumored questions about his maturity. Ultimately, Hockey Canada seemed to give him the benefit of the doubt(the fact that Day could have played in the USHL next year may have been a factor), but it appears those concerns are a little bigger for the teams actually doing the drafting. The past three exceptional status players all went number one overall, and when you consider Day has the added value of being guaranteed to play three years in the OHL before being drafted into the NHL, it's kind of remarkable to see so many teams passing on him. It will be interesting to watch what happens to this process now that the bar for "exceptional" seems to be lowering.
For those of us south of the border, most of the intrigue on Saturday will be spent watching where the American prospects go. As per usual, the earlier a player is drafted, the worse sign it is, and the later a player is drafted, the better sign it is that it is a flier pick, made with the hope that someday circumstances might change.
The good news for American fans is that USA Hockey did an incredible job of signing most of the top prospects to the NTDP for next year. Here were their first seven commitments, followed by eight more that they released today. We also put together a list of reported commitments to the program. It's not impossible for a player to get out of a commitment to the NTDP, but USA Hockey has made it more difficult in recent years, so those commitments seem pretty solid. Among that group, Zach Werenski, Nick Boka, Matthew Tkachuk, Christian Evers, Jeremy Bracco, Luke Opilka, Luke Kirwan, Jordan Greenway, and Brendan Warren would all be top round selections if they had committed to the OHL.
While it hasn't been announced yet, defenseman Grant Gabrielle was receiving plenty of congratulatory tweets earlier this week on being given a spot on the NTDP. That's significant because that would bring the team to 9 committed defensemen. One possibility is that the program is expecting to lose one of those other eight defensemen. The other possibility that I've heard floated, is that with a relatively weak '96 group, and some really high-end '97 D, USA Hockey might bump one of those '97-born defensemen--Zach Werenski and Noah Hanafin seem the most likely--up to the U18 team immediately.
About the only so-called big name the NTDP didn't get was defenseman Troy Henley. Henley is a New Jersey-native, but played last season in Ontario and seems like a pretty good bet to continue playing there. Sean LaFortune on the In the O pre-draft podcast tabbed Kitchener as a possible destination.
One of the biggest names to watch will be Zach Werenski. Earlier this year, I called him the best 15-year-old prospect I'd seen since Cam Fowler. With no college commitment in hand, it seemed a foregone conclusion that he would be off to the OHL, but the signed commitment to the NTDP makes for a glimmer of hope. He would have had a shot at being the top overall pick if he had fully committed to the OHL. As it is, Sean LaFortune has some team taking him in the second round, even if only for the possibility of getting him for a year after he's done at the NTDP, similar to what Kitchener attempted with Jacob Trouba(though LaFortune said he thought Werenski was more impressive at this age than Trouba, and I agree, so yeah, we're not goofing around with this kid.)
The other one to watch is Harvard commit Jeremy Bracco. He was a player tabbed by LaFortune that could maybe be swayed from his current college commitment, although signing with the NTDP would seem to further complicate that. To give some insight into how some teams go about swaying these players, a few weeks back Bracco tweeted out how excited he was that Pittsburgh Penguin James Neal called him up, apparently out of the blue, to discuss hockey and likely put in a few good words for his former club, the Plymouth Whalers. It's also worth noting that it would be against NCAA rules for Harvard to do something similar with one of their many famous alums.
Another NTDP commit Dennis Yan, isn't on the list of eligible skaters. He's got dual-citizenship between Russia and the US. I'm not sure how the line gets drawn that he's eligible for the NTDP, but has to join the CHL as an import, but that's apparently what happened. Fellow Russian Ivan Provorov, who has played in the US the past few years and signed a tender with Cedar Rapids of the USHL, will have to wait for the import draft as well.
While this draft will mostly be '97 birthdates, there's still the possibility for teams to draft older players that aren't connected to any OHL team. I took a scan through the OHL media guide's list of eligible skaters/goalie(a player has to be on the list to be selected) and picked out the American non-97's that I recognized, which admittedly, is an extensive, but not necessarily exhaustive list:
'96 Michael Booth(Cornell), '94 Thomas Ebbing(Michigan State), '96 Patrick Grasso(New Hampshire), '94 MacKenzie MacEachern(Michigan State), '95 Aidan Muir(Western Michigan), '96 Dakota Joshua, '96 Laythe Jadallah, '95 Matt McArdle, '95 Jeremy Brodeur, '96 Chris Birdsall(Boston College)
That doesn't necessarily mean they'll be picked. MacEachern was snuck onto the list last year and went unselected. But that possibility is out there.
As far as '97s eligible to be picked with college commitments, there's almost too many list, but I'll give it a shot: Joe Masonius(UNH), Matthew Tkachuk(Notre Dame), Christian Fischer(Notre Dame), Brent Gates(Notre Dame), Tory Dello(Notre Dame), Donovan Ott(Cornell), Jeremy Bracco(Harvard), Adam Sinclair(Harvard), Carson Gicewicz(St. Lawrence), Nolan Aibel(Yale), Brendan Warren(Michigan), Zach Osburn(Michigan State), Nick Boka(was an MSU commit, now looking at other options), Tom Novak(Minnesota), Gordie Green(Miami), Christian Evers(North Dakota), Ben Blacker(Western Michigan)
.To give you some idea of just how young these kids(or perhaps just how old you are), there's a kid eligible this year with the first name 'Tiger'. Now it's certainly possible that name had nothing to do with the golfer, or that it was a nickname acquired later in life, but consider that he would have been born into a world where Tiger Woods was already a professional golfer, and just three months away from winning his first Major title.