The Year of A Dozen Players: the OHL's impact on the NHL draft proves exciting playoff hockey is ahead

Here is a look at the impact the Ontario Hockey League has had on the first round of the National Hockey League Entry Draft over the past 20 years:

Annual Number of 1st Round NHL Draft Picks from the OHL

Over the course of two decades the OHL has not been able to get more than 11 players picked in the first round – could this be the year? As it currently stands, 12 of the top 30 NHL Draft Prospects on the North American Skaters list are from the Ontario Hockey League; Matthew Tkachuk, Jacob Chychrun, Alexander Nylander, Olli Juolevi, Michael McLeod, Mikhail Sergachev, Max Jones, Logan Brown, Nathan Bastian, Alexander Debrincat, Logan Stanley and Timothy Gettinger. 

Each of these players are apart of an exciting team that are just weeks away from the OHL Playoffs. Draft stocks can be raised and lowered during playoff hockey, if these dozen players can remain in their respective positions, it will be a very exciting year for the league in terms of contribution to the NHL. If these players remain where they are currently ranked, it can also mean some solid post season showdowns. Of course, we must remember the addition of Auston Matthews to this list of prospects – but that doesn’t mean the subtraction of an OHL pick in the first round.

If the playoffs started today: 


Kingston Frontenacs vs. Oshawa Generals                     
Barrie Colts vs. Peterborough Petes                            
North Bay Battalion vs. Ottawa 67's                            
Niagara Ice Dogs vs. Mississauga Steelheads              
Erie Otters vs. Saginaw Spirit
Sarnia Sting vs. Sault St. Marie Greyhounds
 London Knights vs. Owen Sound Attack
Kitchener Rangers vs. Windsor Spitfires

Nothing is final with about eight games remaining in the regular season, some of these match-ups are sure to be shuffled up. The Generals and Bulldogs will be closely watched - as they battle for that 8th seed. Oshawa still has to take on the conference leading Frontenacs twice while Hamilton's upcoming schedule appears a little easier with the Petes, Storm, 67's and Wolves on deck for the upcoming week. 

The four-five series is more often than not the most exciting face off to watch, but with a very tight Eastern Conference, it's still quite hard to predict. The Steelheads had a hard time this past weekend, losing 10-2 to the Attack at home on Friday night and then were shut out by the Colts on the road 8-0 the following evening. Head Coach and General Manager, James Boyd, gave the team a couple of days rest. A rejuvenated line-up combined with the potential return of Mike McLeod in the near future, the team has the chance to break away from the congested pack. 

I will wait until later in the week to start talking about player match-ups but one to keep your eye on this week is Mike Amadio. He currently has 86 points on the year, good for 7th in the league in scoring while the Troops are 6-2-2 in their past 10. 

Amadio became the franchise's fifth member of the 40 goal club (he now has 43) two weeks ago at the Hershey Centre. He's the first to do so since the team relocated to North Bay and joins Cody Hodgson, Evgeny Grachev, Wojtek Wolski and Raffi Torres:

Amadio has 24 points in the post season over the last three years - his playoff experience combined with a potential Ottawa first round match-up could result in a dominant performance. 

I started this piece with the idea that an abundance of NHL prospects within the league could make for an exciting show of playoff hockey, but the North Bay Captain who was a fourth round pick still headlines the post season for me.

Regardless of the potential 12 first rounders, the skill the OHL has to offer this season - through all age groups - is sure to get you on the edge of your seat. 

More to come as the playoff picture becomes more clear! 

 

Blog Post # 2: A Review of Patrick O'Sullivan's 'Black & Blue' - Identity and Platforms Defined.

Patrick O'Sullivan has brought change to more issues than he thinks.

I read "Black & Blue" by former NHL player, Patrick O'Sullivan for the first time last week. I have re-read it countless times. The first sentence of the piece shows right off the bat how refreshingly real and organic O'Sullivan plans on being about his life story, 

My father used to beat the shit out of me.
— Patrick O'Sullivan, Black & Blue | The Player's Tribune

 

No one around him did anything to stop it. Patrick's Mother and other parents were all witnesses of such events. Now, I know hockey parents are known for their politics and abundance of support in their small community rinks, but this griping story really reveals how far things can go.  

O'Sullivan talks about how there is too much pressure on youth athletes and that young hockey players are at their best when they are being creative and having fun. There are many messages to take away from this spectacular read, however, I want to analyze a very specific part of O'Sullivan's message. 

 

Today, as I scrolled through O'Sullivan's twitter feed - reading his exchanges with many supporters (and a few controversial "sh*t disturbers") something caught my eye, 

"most importantly a father of two boys." O'Sullivan has done something fantastic, he's used hockey as a platform for good rather than using hockey as his only identity. 

An identity is built up of many things. To define one person by one description would be hard and inaccurate. Patrick portrays himself as a family man over his social media account because hockey and his history of abuse are only one faucet of who the man actually is. 

I have spent a lot of time around the game and around families who are identified by their involvement in the game. When I started my interest in Sports Media I had to remind myself many times that Sports are just an outlet. A release from every day life. O'Sullivan brought so much truth to the statement, 

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.
— Wendy Mass, The Candymakers

While a review of this article would cover many issues including; speaking up when you notice an issue, healthy parenting, abuse, therapy and pressure at a young age, the one I took notice of, that lays beneath the surface of the obvious and intended message, is how the former Canadian Major Junior Rookie of the Year (2002) and AHL (2006) Rookie of the Year has created a conversation in the most effective way possible. 

Without reminiscing on his career, without romanticizing the game of hockey or talking about the luxuries and joy that the sport brought him, he was able to draw in an audience. 

As I mentioned, Sports are an outlet. I'll watch the news or read about the ugly truths of our world and then I am able to take the T.V. remote and put on a game. I can believe and invest myself in a sporting outcome, that really doesn't change my life, just to escape from all of the decisions that do change my life. Patrick O'Sullivan showed us that he used sports for that release, too. 

When I  interview an athlete, I never want to put them on a pedestal. Sure, they can probably beat me in a Beep-test and potentially have more raw talent than me in that specific sport, but they are a person of other characteristics too. I think the casual fan often forgets that. Sidney Crosby, Steph Curry, Russell Wilson, they may be exceptional in their sport - but they are people fighting battles.

If parents, who are supposed to know their offspring better than anyone else on the planet, can forget that their kid is just a KID, of course the rest of the world will forget that too. O'Sullivan gave us a big slap in the face and reminded us what we shouldn't have forgotten. We were all young, we all wanted to have thoughtless fun. When a young Patrick took the ice, I'm sure it wasn't in constant desire of making the NHL. He wanted to have fun, goof around and escape life for just 60 minutes. 

Stop forgetting that people, even if they're in the spotlight, have much more to their identity than meets the eye. They may be celebrities, the owner of a Range Rover or exceptionally good at 3-pointers, but they are also daughters, sons, foodies, cuddlers and 'most importantly, a father'. 

 

Blog Post # 1: Dion Phaneuf's 400th Game for the Maple Leafs

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I remember January 2010, the cover of the Toronto Sun was taped to my bedroom door. My Dad, the biggest Leaf's fan that I know, was ecstatic. "Neon Dion," the paper called him. Toronto thought they were getting a very different player back then. Looking back on the 399 games that Phaneuf has played in the blue and white though, I think the best days are still ahead. 

Toronto head coach, Mike Babcock, said this week that he thinks Phaneuf has been fantastic. He touched upon the fact that things have "chipped away" at Dion - given all of the pressure the city and the league has put on him. 

“When you’re the captain of a team that doesn’t win, you tend to take, uh, lots of hits,”
— Mike Babcock

It's almost cliché to critique the Captain now. The Leaf's struggles are much deeper than his +/- ratings (which, by the way, are among the best on the team this season).  I think the much more accurate assessment would be that he's found his role much easier with Babcock as the bench boss. When you have a head coach that believes in you and says so in the most genuine way to the media, the dressing room dynamic drastically improves. Whether the media likes to understand, or not, a large part of hockey is what goes on behind the scenes. If that curtain is pulled back, things start to go awry. 

The team's history has proven there should always be a solid relationship between the Captain and the Coach/Management. Perhaps the most interesting dynamic was back in 1979 when Darryl Sittler took the 'C' off of his jersey in protest. This move was a consequence of many incidents built up with then General Manager and Head coach, Punch Imlach. The Leaf's management team would have to reportedly pay $500,000 to get Sittler to waive his no-trade clause, so  Imlach traded Sittler's bestfriend and teammate, Lanny McDonald, to the Colorado Rockies. Sittler believed the Captain should be the line of communication between the players and management so he was unhappy with the decision made. 

(More interesting stories like this one found on Bardown. )

It would be complete speculation that Randy Carlyle, Peter Horachek or Ron Wilson didn't get along with Phaneuf, because again of the whole 'closed curtain' element of hockey. Wilson, who gave Phaneuf the captaincy, backed him up in many situations as well. Even during Carlyle's tenure. 

I was the one who made him captain, I think he’s a great hockey player, behind closed doors he’s a great guy... it certainly wouldn’t be fun to be Dion Phaneuf in Toronto.
— Ron Wilson

Should Dion be the number one defensemen? No, I don't think so. My point is that he's not as bad as everyone has labelled him. He's playing a main role on a losing team. His advanced statistics are definitely not flattering. Since Babcock's systems were implemented, they've worked in Dion's favour. Specifically, team's are getting less shots against Toronto. The Captain already has 35 blocked shots and is chipping in on offensive chances. 

The argument that his role as Captain has taken a tole on Phaneuf's play is fair, but to jump to a conclusion before we see how the rest of the season plays out would be wrong. 

When would be the right time to finally make the conclusion that Dion Phaneuf is not worthy of wearing a 'C'? Definitely not 27 games into a season under the highest paid coach in the NHL. 

Sittler had the right idea, the whole dynamic of team management combined with a relationship with the team's Captain is vital for a franchise's success. The Leafs want to come out and beat the Devils tonight FOR Lamoriello - there's comradery behind the curtain.  

Recently, Phaneuf told the media, 

(Mike Babcock) reinforces what we need to do to have success, and it starts with individuals. It’s about individuals buying into a team concept. When we do that, we have a chance.
— Dion Phaneuf

The Blue Jays were a perfect example of a team 'buying into a system', it may not happen over night, but if the Captain is believing in the management, it certainly cannot hurt things. 

I started this blog by stating Toronto thought they were getting a different player back in January, 2010. They thought they were getting 'Neon Dion', well, the defenseman is delivering some pretty believable hits that have me thinking Leaf's fans are as close as ever to that hard-hitting Flame's Phaneuf.

WATCH & READ: Michael Nylander - From the NHL to OHL Bus Trips

A special thank you to Elie Kobain for shooting and directing this interview.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon and the Mississauga Steelheads new Assistant coach, Michael Nylander, leaves the ice after a two hour practice. It’s a quick break because just moments after the pucks have been cleaned up, Michael steps back onto the ice to put in some additional time with a younger player. He goes through skating and shooting drills with him. While the player takes a breather – Michael does the drills himself, skating with the ease and passion that has made him a hockey icon.

“It’s not the same, but it’s the closest thing I believe,” he says with a grin when asked about the void of hockey being filled through coaching.

You can hear his instructions to the players from where my camera man and I are stationed in the stands. Laughter is mixed into their conversation, despite his strict coaching style. We’re at the Hershey Centre, a rink both Michael and his son, Alex now call home.

It’s been a smooth move, a lifestyle Nylander is no stranger to. He played with seven different NHL teams over the course of his respectable career. His name became even more popular in the Greater Toronto Area when his eldest son William was drafted to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2014. On this day though, I’m more interested in seeing how he’s enjoying his new lifestyle in the Ontario Hockey League – judging by his mood, he’s happy with his new job.

There are many questions you would like to ask the 43-year-old who’s still very much involved in the game. Michael’s hockey career has been unique – just two years ago, he joined his eldest son (William) on the ice along with Sodertalje EK of the Swedish Pro league. Now, with the World Juniors Tournament approaching – it’s possible the family will reconnect on the ice again, with the two brothers (William and Alex) potentially competing for Sweden.

Having Michael around a highly touted prospect group on the Steelheads has proven beneficial for the organization, especially when he joins in on the training,

“I make the guys a little looser…I try to beat them sometimes,” says Michael.

It’s his combination of fun and detailed coaching that seems to be working for everyone. Michael’s just happy to take the ice in any capacity, it’s evident in the extra time he puts in at the Hershey Centre that afternoon

When he joins us in the stands, his contentment is evident, not just for his own success in hockey but for his sons’. He is radiating with pride. 

Alex, William and Michael are enjoying some quality father-son time living together. Michael’s wife and daughters are still in Sweden, arranging a move over. In the meantime, Michael says it’s a lot of Xbox and arguing over who does the dishes.

The relationship between the three talented players is unique, and Alex and William have both been able to learn from their father and the life he lived while playing professional hockey, “they have grown up experiencing what NHL players do…it’s a normal lifestyle for them,” says Michael. A lifestyle that seems to be just around the corner for his sons – William currently holds the AHL scoring lead with the Marlies while Alex leads all rookies in scoring in the OHL.

So, Michael will sit back and enjoy watching his sons inch closer and closer to the NHL. In the meantime, he’ll also enjoy his coaching and bus trips in the OHL, he is the one picking the movies on the bus after all.

WATCH THE FULL INTERVIEW ABOVE.

Flint Firebirds Set an Example in Character Building: The OHL is in Good Hands

Photo Courtesy of Charles Warburton Photography

Photo Courtesy of Charles Warburton Photography

By Aly Munro

UPDATE: Firebirds owner, Rolf Nilsen has released a statement. The coaching staff has been reinstated today. 

 

When you visit the Flint Firebirds website – a new team to join the Ontario Hockey League this season* (see footnotes) – you will be impressed. Images of sold out crowds in a state-of-the-art arena stick out immediately. A roster full of young talent and a preview for their Sunday afternoon game when they will host the reigning Memorial Cup Champions is found on the high-traffic website.

When I watched the Firebirds take on the Steelheads in Mississauga, I met some Firebird staff members who were devoted to the new franchise’s vision. It was early in the season and the players seemed joyful during their early warm-ups around the arena. No bad blood seemed to exist regarding the decision of Steelhead rookie Ryan McLeod to not report to camp in Flint**. Everyone seemed content with where the franchise was starting out. The team was forming its identity in a league full of tradition.  

Following Sunday night, you would assume a shootout victory over the Oshawa Generals would add to the impression this team is forming. Instead, junior hockey fans got a taste of the politics that unfortunately surround the game.

It was announced that the team’s head coach, John Gruden (along with his assistant coaches) were dismissed from their duties just after Sunday night’s shootout victory over the Generals. The players (fresh off their eighth victory of the season and their first shootout win) stormed upstairs to quit the game they love.

Is this a story of solidarity? Or is the story deeper than that? The players joined together because of the reported reason behind the firing. Team owner Rolf Nilsen has a son on the team, rookie defenceman Hakon. Hakon was not receiving the minutes that his father (and no doubt, he) desired. He has dressed for five games and is a minus three.

Hakon joined his teammates in the walk-out.

The Ontario Hockey League prepares players for the professional world of hockey - they are the top breeder of NHL players. This is by no means an attack on young Hakon in a draft-eligible year - what this is about is the lack of morals and abundance of politics around the game of hockey.

While many lessons are learned during a player’s time in the OHL, including professionalism and the responsibilities of being employed as an athlete, dealing with corruption should not be present in these experiences. It is no secret that nepotism is present in sports – the son or daughter of someone important and the role they play on a team is almost a tradition – but it’s house league/bush league…or any other type of league that is not preparing their athletes for a professional career. The commissioner of the OHL, David Branch, prides himself in the fact that the OHL is an elite brand of hockey. The new kids on the block just came in and negatively influenced that brand - or did they?

A new precedent has been established in the league. A new identity for the Firebirds has been formed as well. In recent memory, such an event has not occurred. According to reports, all of the players gathered following the walk-out at a billet’s home. They all spoke with Gruden, who reportedly stated he would return to work with the team if the spot was open to him.

Hakon, who played 17 minutes in Sunday’s victory, showed great character by walking out with his teammates when he knew the cause of Gruden’s dismissal. Without concentrating on the player’s future within the league, the focus should be shifted to the standard the Firebirds have created. A team stood up for what is right and consequently made the OHL better.

Branch should not be worried about the OHL brand following the event, because the young men who walked out showed the character-building they have endured under the Ontario Hockey League name.

An OHL spokesperson has informed the media that Branch is on his way to Flint to meet with the team and their officials.

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* On January 14th, 2015 the Plymouth Whalers were sold to IMS USA, Inc. The sale moved the Ontario Hockey League Franchise to Flint, Michigan. The 2015-2016 OHL season is the Firebirds' inaugural season.  

** Ryan McLeod was drafted by the Flint Firebirds third overall in the 2015 OHL Priority Draft. Ryan’s older brother -  Mike – played his rookie season for the family's hometown OHL team, the Mississauga Steelheads. In late August 2015, Ryan chose not to report to Flint’s Preseason Camp. On September 2nd, the Steelheads acquired the centerman in exchange for 6 draft picks.

A First for Connor McDavid He'd like to Have Avoided as an NHL Rookie

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” - Maya Angelou

How on earth am I going to use Dr. Angelou’s philosophical intelligence to ease the minds of Edmonton Oilers and hockey fans worried about one of the most celebrated NHL rookies?

Connor McDavid broke his clavicle (or, more commonly known as the collarbone) in a collision with Brandon Manning and Michael Del Zotto of the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday. McDavid fell awkwardly into the boards late in the second period and will be out of the Oilers lineup for a notable amount of time. 

The simple story to write would be speculation on how long it would take for a young man’s collarbone to heal. We could sit here and relate it to the incident that occurred 12 months ago, when McDavid broke his hand in a fight playing for the OHL Erie Oilers and then returned for the World Junior Hockey Championship. No, we won’t be doing that. Instead, I will use the calming words of Angelou. How does she help in this situation? Well, the answer is simple: McDavid will be better because of this.

On Friday, the Edmonton Oilers host the Pittsburgh Penguins. It would have been the first time that golden boy McDavid met theGolden Boy, Sidney Crosby, in an NHL game. Instead, he will be sitting in a private box eating popcorn with his right hand while his left arm rests in a sling.

Too many milestones in a short period of time could burn out this seemingly composed exceptional player. McDavid was recently named the league’s rookie of the month for October and is on pace to win the Calder Cup.

Does this injury hurt the chances of achieving such an acknowledgement? No, it makes it that much sweeter.

I watched McDavid several times in the Ontario Hockey League. He was relentless. When he got knocked on his derriere, he simply got up. He put a smile on for countless questions from the media. He wore the target that comes with being The Next One and didn’t shy away from the accompanying pressure. He returned from a hand injury – acquired during a feisty moment with Mississauga Steelheads captain, Bryson Cianfrone in which McDavid hit his hand along the boards. He followed up that moment of uncharacteristic aggression by winning a gold medal for his home and native land while contributing 11 points.

Put this all together and you have a well-rounded, grounded athlete who will bounce back from his first extended visit to NHL sick bay.

Is McDavid ready to take on Sidney Crosby? Yes, although Crosby may have had extra motivation for Friday’s meeting to show the league’s next leading man he’s not ready to give up the throne – despite getting off to a plodding start. 

Do you remember the year dubbed, “Sidney Crosby’s Lost Year”? Following a concussion that sidelined Sid the Kid from January 2011 until November, and then when symptoms appeared again, he remained out until March 2012. Then, the guy broke his jaw!. The season was still a milestone for Crosby. The lost years built Crosby up for a 104-point season the following year. It also shed some light on the severity of concussions. The league fidgeted nervously, knowing their best player was out of the game with rumours swirling that his family wanted him to retire. 

McDavid faces the same expectations and brings the same loyal fans to tune into every game he plays. In one short month in the NHL, fans have witnessed his immense skill. He has earned respect under the huge media microscope. 

I may have said that too many milestones may wear this guy down, but we’re forgetting that injuries are milestones, too. We’ve watched it with Crosby, and we’re seeing it now. How you come back from being knocked down, that’s where the new landmark lies. 

So no, McDavid wont be taking on his mentor Friday. But it won’t be the popcorn feeding the new golden boy on the block – it will be the eagerness to return. Expect the continuation of big things when McDavid is back on the ice.