OHL Players to Watch for the 2018 NHL Draft

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LONDON, ON - NOVEMBER 12: Ryan Merkley #6 of the Guelph Storm skates away from a checking Alex Formenton #80 of the London Knights during an OHL game at Budweiser Gardens on November 12, 2016 in London, Ontario, Canada. The Knights defeated the Storm 4-1. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

With 2017’s NHL draft in the rearview mirror, the focus shifts to next year and the 2018 NHL Draft.

While the big names are already known, but there is still plenty of talent across the world to learn about. It will take a few months to find out if we have a true number one or another ‘Nico or Nolan’ or ‘Taylor vs. Tyler’ debate, but teams will be able to fill their needs. Whether it’s a puck-moving defenceman, a strong two-way centre, or a high-scoring winger, there’s a little bit of everything available; especially from the OHL.

OHL Players to Watch for the 2018 NHL Draft

So, a week after we named five winners from the Ontario Hockey League at the 2017 Draft, the Friday Five brings you five names to know heading into the 2017/18 OHL season.

David Levin, Sudbury Wolves – GP: 66 / G: 18 / A: 35 / PTS: 53 in 2016/17

It’s easy to pull for David Levin.

Talking to him two years ago at the OHL Priority Selection, he came off as a very mature kid who had fully dedicated himself to chasing his NHL dream. A dream that started on roller blades. In Israel. To make the decision to come to Canada to chase that dream you have to be mature. And you need guts. Levin has those too. And whether it’s on pavement or ice, he’s got talent.

While teaching himself how to skate and speak English, Levin proved himself on the ice for the Don Mills Flyers leading into the 2015 OHL Draft. Due to his background, he presented plenty of intriguing upside for the Sudbury Wolves when they took him first overall. One scout even said that Levin was ‘the hardest player to project long-term, because he has no track record. He just appeared (in Midget).’

An injury-shortened rookie year presented plenty of challenges on a Sudbury team undergoing growing pains, but a year later Levin rounded out his second season with 53 points in a near-full 66 games. Benefiting from a just-too-late birthday to qualify for the 2018 Draft, Levin has one more year to improve his stock and make his dream come true. If you want to follow anyone based purely on their story heading into the NHL Draft, Levin’s your guy.

Ryan Merkley, Guelph Storm – GP: 62 / G: 12 / A: 43 / PTS: 55

There isn’t a lot that needs to be said about Ryan Merkley. He lets his game do the talking.

Relatively soft-spoken entering his rookie season, he shook up the OHL. From the outset, Merkley showed the potential to become a premiere puck-mover with electric skating skills. The defenceman was so good, he ended up leading the Guelph Storm in scoring with 55 points. If you’re keeping track, that’s one more than then-draft eligible and now-Philadelphia Flyer Isaac Ratcliffe.

Merkley led all rookies in scoring, finished seventh in assists by blueliners, and was eighth among defencemen in scoring. To put this in perspective, the Storm had never had a rookie lead their team in scoring, and it had been nearly 30 years (1987/88) since a defenceman won the rookie scoring title in the OHL.

There were some questions about the defensive side of Merkley’s game that came up midway through last year, but any young defenceman will face those difficulties. Especially one with such a dynamic skill set as Merkley. If his rookie year is any indication, it will be hard not to hear Merkley’s name when people talk about the most dangerous players in the league. Peterborough’s Matt Timms and Sault Ste. Marie’s Conor Timmins are (likely) the only returning defenceman that had more points than Merkley, so he could end up leading defencemen in scoring before he even hears his name at the NHL Draft next year.

Allan McShane, Oshawa Generals – GP: 62 / G: 17 / A: 27 / PTS: 44

To me, McShane finds himself in an oddly similar spot to former General Cliff Pu at the end of the 2014/15 season.

That year, Pu was trapped on a loaded Oshawa team. Struggling to find time in the lineup, he managed just three points in 17 games. He would play out the season in London following a deadline day trade, registering six points in his last 24 games, watching the Generals claim an OHL championship and Memorial Cup. That’s nearly identical to McShane last year. Stuck on a powerhouse Erie team, McShane put up good numbers (23 points in 33 games) in his time with the Otters. Erie wanted to add experience though, so McShane was dealt to Oshawa for Anthony Cirelli. The Otters went on to win an OHL title while McShane finished the year with 21 points in 29 games for Oshawa.

The difference between McShane and Pu, is that Pu was on one of the deepest teams in the CHL a year later, developing into a dynamic two-way threat as others were relied on for their offence. McShane will be the one providing that offence for the 2017/18 Generals.

McShane’s 44 combined points landed him fifth on the Generals in scoring. He’ll be playing alongside a maturing core that features Domenic Commisso, Eric Henderson, and Jack Studnicka this year, with plenty of opportunities to show off his skill. If McShane starts the year like he finished 2016/17, his name could shoot up draft boards.

Ryan McLeod, Mississauga Steelheads – GP: 68 / G: 9 / A: 33 / PTS: 42

While the Stromes may still be the first family of the OHL, the McLeods may not be too far behind.

The brother of Devils 2016 first rounder Michael, Ryan’s third season in the OHL should be his best yet. Another player benefitting from a late 1999 birthday, Ryan was originally drafted by Flint in 2015 before he was traded to Mississauga. That trade meant that he would spend his OHL career alongside his older brother.

Wherever Michael ends up, Ryan is staring at an opportunity to elevate his game in Mississauga. His 42 points in 68 games during the regular season were good, he was even better in the playoffs. Playing at a point-per-game pace (five goals, 15 assists in 20 games) gave OHL fans a taste of what his third year could have in store. He hasn’t produced at the same level as Michael throughout his career, but he has made gradual improvements. A 60-70 point season doesn’t seem out of the question for the smooth-skating forward.

Akil Thomas, Niagara IceDogs – GP: 61 / G: 21 / A: 27 / PTS: 48

Akil Thomas’ life has been focused on hockey for as long as he can remember. He’s hoping that pays off next June.

The fact that he has been immersed in the sport for his entire life showed during his first OHL season. The 12th overall pick was electric, finishing third in rookie scoring and third in goals. He also finished fourth in scoring on the IceDogs, who will be hoping his second season continues to trend upwards.

Thomas’ season featured a pair of five-game point streaks, and a five-point game at the end of the season. While Thomas was held pointless in four playoff games, that was against a stingy first-place Peterborough Petes team. It was also at the end of a long season for the 17-year old; something he’ll be better prepared for. The skilled forward will be fun to watch as he comes into his own, with a solid support group. Thomas could be a big-time riser at the NHL Draft.

 

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