With the pandemic taking a toll on the world last year, junior hockey took hits all over the world but the Ontario Hockey League faced the worst of it. The OHL was the only major junior league in Canada - and the world - that was unable to get their product on the ice last season.
The main concern was how COVID-19 robbed last year’s draft eligibles of their chance to shine. The next issue stems from the inability to get a read on which players emerged in their draft minus-one season. We all know about Shane Wright but what about names like Pano Fimis or Ryan Abraham?
It only makes sense to start at the top of the draft with the aforementioned Wright. The Kingston Frontenacs’ forward is the certified No. 1 prospect that the 2021 draft didn’t have. Wright may be the best prospect since the Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews drafts in 2015 and 2016 respectively - a true franchise player.
We’ve seen Wright somewhat recently as he captained the Canadian squad at the World Under-18’s in the spring where he put together a tidy 14 points in just five games. He even had to deal with an injury, but still finished with the team lead in points and second at the event despite missing two games.
Wright is a true dual-threat center who checks every box from being a high-level transition player and play driver to possessing a wicked shot and excellent vision and playmaking. The Burlington, Ont. native was on pace to challenge John Tavares’ record for an Exceptional Status player in his 15-year-old season. After missing his age-16 season, he is going to tear the OHL up this year and it may look unfair at times.
The 2020 first overall pick in the OHL draft, Ty Nelson is looking to change the fortunes of the North Bay Battalion as he takes his place on the team's blueline. The biggest knock on the young defender is that he is a bit undersized at just 5-foot-8. He has plenty of time to grow but the undersized label is likely to be abused in evaluations throughout the year.
What should be focused on with Nelson is his game-breaking ability. When the puck is on his stick, Nelson has the ability to not only transition the puck up ice but he has the skill and intelligence to be a true difference-maker offensively. He plays with a great deal of deception to create space for himself, opening lanes to drive the slot of find teammates in open ice. Finding out where Nelson's defensive game is at when playing against OHL competition will be something worth following.
The Niagara IceDogs will once again be a team scouts love thanks to forward Pano Fimis. Playing with a boatload of confidence, Fimis affects the game at both ends of the ice. Despite coming in at just 5-foot-11 and about 160 pounds, he is more than willing to throw his weight around and get himself into the action. Pair that physicality with some slick hands and smooth playmaking and you can see why IceDogs fans are so enamored with their newest budding star.
Fimis will need to add a bit more strength to his frame, but there is plenty to be excited about. If he can gain some strength and improve his shot just a bit, Fimis could be a true difference-maker this season. Fimis has the hands to score from in tight, but finding some intermediate scoring with his shot will be what to watch for if he is to take the step into first-round conversations.
Gavin Hayes already possesses a strong frame at 6-foot-1 and 172 pounds, but it’s his work ethic and drive that makes him a player to watch. Hayes is determined to never lose a puck battle and set his opponents open in open ice or along the boards. His shot is quite good and should be a threat as he takes a spot in the Flint Firebirds’ top-six for the next few seasons. He is a bit raw and seems to be able to just pull off a lot of the moves he makes but with some refinement and maturity, he should be one of the more entertaining OHLers eligible for the 2021 NHL draft.
Windsor Spitfires’ forward Ryan Abraham is a name that hasn't been spoken of enough as we approach the new season. He was effective for the Americans at the Hlinka-Gretzky tournament this past August, taking home the player of the game award in both of the first two contests.
Talked about as a playmaker and skilled passer primarily, Abraham has an underrated scoring touch. His compete-level rarely wanes, making him a coach’s favorite when the game is on the line. He competed in the Erie invitational showcase in June and was among the leading scorers despite being a year or two younger than most.
The Sudbury Greyhounds hope they have another high-end draft prospect in David Goyette. The Saint-Jérôme, Que.-born center plays a highly intelligent game predicated on being in the right spot at the right time and making the smart play consistently. He takes unique lines through the neutral zone which makes him unpredictable as an attacker. What makes him unique is his ability to make plays at high speed. He is able to change the passing or shooting angle with his quick and deliberate puck skill and body control that isn’t generally seen in players his age.
With no OHL action last season, the league's presence felt dwindled a bit during July's selection process. That shouldn’t be the case this year. The league is going to produce a strong class of first-year eligibles and they should also be boosted from having a number of overaged players making the mark they were unable to in their lost draft year. After a year without play, the OHL should be a focal point at the 2022 NHL draft.