Oshawa's John Tavares and London's Steve Mason have stood out from the crowd in the OHL this season.
Folks, sorry for the delay in my second posting, but it has been a hectic month of December. Here are my mid-term OHL Awards with a recipient from each conference.
Best Power Play Quarterback
East – Bobby Sanguinetti, Brampton Battalion
The New York Rangers’ first-rounder has been rejuvenated after being traded to the Battalion and has shown the offensive prowess to make him the highest-scoring defenseman. Sanguinetti understands how to run the power play, where to move the puck and excels at getting his shot through to the net.
West – Drew Doughty, Guelph Storm
Doughty has great offensive instincts and is a surefire top-three pick in the NHL Entry Draft this summer. He’s excellent at skating hard into the zone, stopping and setting up the power play. Along with a great point shot, he also has tremendous vision and always moves the puck to the proper teammate to give the Storm their best chance of scoring.
Best Defensive Defenseman
East – Josh Day, Niagara Ice Dogs
GM Dave Brown stole Day from the Soo Greyhounds because he had fallen into Craig Hartsburg’s doghouse. The result has been outstanding defensive play from the kid from the east coast. Day has some offensive prowess in his game, but his specialty is in shutting down opponents and protecting leads. Although not the biggest defender in the league, he has used his quick feet and tremendous understanding of angles and leverage to become a standout defender for Niagara.
West – Tyler Cuthbert, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Although the Soo missed out on Josh Day, they certainly have a defensive stud in Cuthbert. The former 13th round pick has developed into the prototypical defensive defenseman by ensuring his own end is cleaned up before even worrying about trying to create offense. That mentality has made him a very valuable player.
Most Dangerous in goal area
East – John Tavares, Oshawa Generals
The young superstar is at his best when he’s in the offensive zone and has the puck in the goal area. It’s almost unfair. Tavares has the ability to finish, as proven by last year’s 72 goals, but if the better play is to pass, he’ll find his teammates and give them a tap-in by putting the puck right where it needs to be.
West – Steve Stamkos, Sarnia Sting
The potential No. 1 pick overall at this June’s NHL Entry Draft is a pure scorer who capitalizes on virtually every opportunity. If Stamkos has the puck in the goal area, it will invariably end up in the net. He has great hands, a deadly accurate shot and tremendous patience, which gives him an unfair edge against opposing goaltenders.
The Best Stick Magician (the player who can dangle through a crowd to create scoring chances)
East – Cody Hodgson, Brampton Battalion
Hodgson is another smallish player who makes up for his lack of verticality by beating defenders at will. He has unbelievable hand-eye coordination and soft hands, which allow him to terrorize defensemen and create scoring chances. Since entering the league as a 16-year-old rookie, he has developed a confidence that allows him to challenge defenders and dare them to try and take the puck away from him. Once they become too aggressive, he will deke them out and laugh on his way by with the gall of a cat burglar.
West – Vladimir Nikiforov, Sarnia Sting
Although Nikiforov is closer to the ice than almost any other player in the OHL, he’s clearly the most difficult to take the puck away from. His stickhandling is incredible, and he’s such a coveted teammate because he creates as many tap-in goals for his teammates as any player in the league. He’s very difficult to contain one-on-one, because he can make the puck dance while having amazing elusiveness that leaves defenders shaking their heads in disbelief.
Heart and Soul Player (a guy who will go through a wall for you)
Stefan Legein, Niagara IceDogs
Legein’s tenacity was on display throughout the World Junior Championship, but everyone in the OHL already knew that he’s the kind of kid who will do anything to help his team win. Although he has become a significant offensive threat, his willingness to block shots, finish checks, fight and do anything else required by his team to win is what makes him such a special player. As a fifth-round pick, he was a surprise coming out of his first training camp, but he made the team because he had that attitude, and his willingness to do anything to help the team has continued through to this day.
West – Devin DiDiomete, Sarnia Sting
Although everyone gave credit to players like Marc Staal and Nick Foligno for last year’s improbable run to the finals for the Sudbury Wolves, it was the work of Devin Didiomete that helped pave the way for the more glamorous players on the team to succeed. He would fight the other teams’ toughest players, finish every check and basically did anything and everything that was needed to help his team win. Although he has had an injury-filled season with Sarnia, his willingness to do anything will make the Sting very dangerous as the playoffs come closer.
Money Goalie (the guy you want in net for the big game)
East – Sebastian Dahm, Sudbury Wolves
Dahm struggled early in his OHL career and was traded a couple times. But his fantastic performance during the 2007 playoffs was breathtaking as he helped lead the Sudbury Wolves to the OHL final against the Plymouth Whalers. He proved throughout the playoffs that he has the ability to go into visiting rinks and steal wins under the most intense pressure situations.
West – Steve Mason, Kitchener Rangers
Mason waited patiently while Adam Dennis was the toast of the net in London. But when Dennis moved on to professional hockey, Mason showed he was a more than capable replacement. Most recently, Mason was selected over the incumbent Leland Irving for the Canadian World Junior team—that’s because he has become the best big-game goaltender in junior hockey. Although he isn’t as technical as some other goaltending prospects, he makes big saves with a combination of incredible athleticism and the ability to anticipate what’s going to happen, and he also handles the puck better than any goaltender in the CHL. The result is that in a huge game, Steve Mason is the guy you want tending the net. After leading Canada to gold at the WJC, Mason is returning to lead his new team, the Kitchener Rangers, to the Memorial Cup. (He has been called up in an emergency role to the Columbus Blue Jackets while Pascal Leclaire is ill.)
Most Underrated Player
East – Michael Swift, Niagara IceDogs
Swift has quietly been one of the most dangerous players in the Eastern Conference for the past three seasons, and yet not many people know his name. He’s another guy who suffers from a lack of respect because of his size, but Swift is very quick on the puck, distributes it exceptionally well and shows tremendous leadership. This combination of skills should allow him to play well beyond the OHL.
West – Matt Caria, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Although Caria played in the center of the hockey universe, he’s one of the most underrated players in the league. The Majors have been bereft of offensive talent over the past few years, but Caria put up some incredible offensive numbers for them. He’s very gifted offensively, and although his shifts sometimes are too long, he was the only consistent scoring threat on the team. He was selected for last year’s All-Star Game in Saginaw and was a replacement player in the ADT Russian game in Sarnia. But despite his accomplishments, he wasn’t selected for the Summit Series this past summer and wasn’t even invited to the Canadian World Junior camp. Despite facing the opposition’s top defensive lines and pairings, Caria has continued to score this year, even though nobody seems to notice. After trading for him recently, the Greyhounds look for the hometown boy to be a key part of their playoff run.
The Total Package (what player has it all)
East – Shawn Matthias, Belleville Bulls
Mathias is that rare player who was drafted higher into the NHL (second round) than he was into the OHL (sixth round). He truly possesses all of the tools to become a solid two-way NHL player. At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, he’s physically gifted, but his complete understanding of the game shows that he’s cerebrally gifted as well. That combination usually results in an outstanding pro career. His play at the recent World Junior Championship showed just how valuable he could be. In fact, Florida realized how special he was and demanded that he be part of the package in exchange for Todd Bertuzzi at last year’s NHL trade deadline. Although he isn’t the flashiest of performers, I truly believe that Shawn Matthias possesses all of the attributes of a special player.
West – Steve Stamkos, Sarnia Sting
Much has been written about Stamkos, and much of it for good reason, because he possesses all of the attributes that are needed to be a superstar in the NHL. His offensive prowess is obvious, but I think his two most important assets are his tremendous work ethic and his mind’s ability to figure the game out by doing what needs to be done. He has put up gaudy offensive numbers his whole career in both the OHL and minor hockey. His improved play away from the puck and blossoming hockey mind are tools that will allow him to become a superstar in the NHL.
East – Stan Butler, Brampton Battalion
Butler is a veteran in the OHL, but this might be his best coaching job to date. The Battalion has some extremely skilled young players in Cody Hodgson and Matt Duchene. But the older players have numerous warts, and yet Butler has molded this team into a solid contender as we head for the playoffs. Furthermore, he has convinced former first overall selection John Hughes to become a more complete player, and ridden a safe, but not flashy, defense corps to the top of the Central Division.
West – Bob Jones, Windsor Spitfires
Usually this award would go to a head coach, but I don’t think the phenomenal work that has been put in by associate coach Bob Jones in Windsor should go unmentioned. Obviously, Bob Boughner deserves some credit as well, but this tremendously young team has turned the corner and is looking like it will be a powerhouse the next few years—and it all starts with the defensive coaching of Bob Jones. His inability to secure a job as a head coach mystifies me, because his previous work with the defense at St. Mikes, and most recently in Sudbury, was extraordinary. He has continued his work in Windsor and the competitive Spitfires are the result.
Please check back in a week or so when I’ll release my new Top 30 for the NHL Draft in 2008 and have a few thoughts on the World Junior Championship.
Also, my deepest condolences to the family of Gary Cook, a phenomenal hockey guy from Thunder Bay who passed away this past weekend. He will be missed, but never forgotten. R.I.P buddy.
Thanks for reading and I’ll talk to you soon.
Mark Seidel is the chief scout for North American Central Scouting, the commissioner of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League, and appears as a host on Leafs Lunch on AM 640 radio in Toronto.