Ryan Merkley and the OHL draft’s biggest question

Ryan Kennedy
Toronto's Ryan Merkley (Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

When the OHL draft is held on April 9, the Guelph Storm will make the first pick. And the Storm have a very interesting decision, because there are two intriguing, yet different defensemen available to them. Ryan Merkley is an offensive wizard who comes in at 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds, while Bode Wilde is a big-bodied, all-around blueliner. Merkley plays for the Toronto Jr. Canadiens and comes from the Ryan Ellis/Ryan Murphy school – similarly skilled guys who ruled junior, but were not sure things at the NHL level (though Ellis is shining with Nashville). Wilde is a typical pro prospect, more in the Jakob Chychrun vein. Playing for the Chicago Mission, the 6-foot-2 beast has committed to Harvard, so there is some risk in a team taking him early, unless they truly believe they will convince him to go OHL.

With Merkley playing in the GTHL, the spotlight has been searing for most of the season – and he’s totally cool with that.

Read more

Auston Matthews’ team is on the ropes in Swiss League playoffs

Auston Matthews  (Photo by Sparta Prague/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)

The overwhelming favorite to be the first overall pick in the NHL draft this summer is on the verge of seeing his season end shockingly early. With his Zurich squad losing 4-3 in overtime today, Auston Matthews and his team find themselves facing a playoff upset of enormous proportions in the Swiss League.

Matthews and his team face a 3-0 deficit and the prospect of a humiliating elimination Thursday night in Bern. Matthews has two assists so far in the first three games of the series, with his second assist of the series coming on Zurich’s tying goal early in the third period. If Zurich goes on to lose to Bern, it will be a monumental upset, since Zurich finished in first place in the regular season with a 31-12-7 record for 98 points, while Bern, which is led by former NHLers Andrew Ebbett and Cory Conacher, had a 21-20-9 record, which put them in eighth place with 67 points.

Read more

Eichel and Sabres young guns bringing hope back to Buffalo

Buffalo Sabres (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)

In their 67th game last season, the Buffalo Sabres came into Toronto and blew a third-period lead before losing 4-3 in a shootout. Walking out of the Air Canada Centre that night, the Sabres were a miserable outfit well on its way to becoming the worst team in the NHL, one that gave up goals by the bushel and couldn’t win on the road.

It’s a stretch to say the Sabres turned the tables on Monday night, but they did manage to erase a third-period deficit and win a shootout by the same 4-3 score against the same team in the same building. Is that progress? Well, if you look at the standings, the Sabres walked out of the Air Canada Centre in 23rd place in the league instead of 30th. Instead of having a goal differential of minus-99, they’re at a far more respectable minus-21. Instead of having just seven wins in 34 road games, they have more than double that with 15 in 33.

Read more

Future Watch 2016: the NHL’s top 10 falling prospects

Matt Larkin
Jacob De La Rose. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

The glass was decidedly half full last week when I revealed the top 10 rising prospects in THN Future Watch 2016. It’s half empty now. Every year, dozens of youngsters rise in their farm development, and countless others are drafted into teams’ systems, so it’s inevitable, then, that some prospects tumble down the overall rankings.

To recap the Future Watch ranking process: we start by consulting scouts from all 30 NHL franchises, who rank their organizations’ top 10 prospects who are not yet full-time NHLers, creating a pool of 300 players. We turn that list over to our scouting panel, which typically consists of 15 executives, head scouts and GMs, with the number fluctuating slightly year to year. Each member ranks the top 50 players from the group of 300. We then assemble the votes to create an aggregate top 50, which expands to the top 75 players who received top-50 votes.

Stefan Matteau and Brandon Gormley plunged the most last year. Who took the biggest dives this time around? Here are the top (bottom?) 10. Keep in mind no player drafted in 2015 was eligible, nor was any player who graduated to full-time NHL duty since last season.

Read on at your own peril, Canadiens fans. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Read more

Future Watch 2016: the NHL’s top 10 rising prospects

Matt Larkin
Jimmy Vesey. (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

Feels like Christmas in the THN office. Future Watch, my personal favorite yearly edition of our magazine, hits newsstands any day now. I like to think of it as our prospect bible.

So how does it work? We start by consulting scouts from all 30 NHL franchises, who rank their organizations’ top 10 prospects who are not yet full-time NHLers, creating a pool of 300 players. We turn that list over to our scouting panel, which typically consists of 15 executives, head scouts and GMs, with the number fluctuating slightly year to year. Each member ranks the top 50 players from the group of 300. We then assemble the votes to create an aggregate top 50, which expands to the top 75 players who received top-50 votes.

From 2014 to 2015, Anthony Duclair and Shea Theodore were the big movers, and the newfound love from scouts has proven warranted given both players’ ascensions in the past year. Which players made the biggest jump in overall rank between Future Watch 2015 and 2016?

Here are the top 10 rising prospects. Keep in mind that players drafted in 2015 and debuting in the ranks this year don’t count, nor do players who have graduated to full-time NHL duty.

Read more

The New York Rangers suffer in Future Watch – and that’s OK

Eric Staal (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Awwww yeaaah: our annual Future Watch issue came into the office yesterday, feeling all slick and new, like a baby wearing a diaper full of prospects knowledge. As per usual, all 30 NHL franchises are ranked based on the kids they have in the hopper and once again, the New York Rangers did not fare well.

And even though I love covering prospects and the draft, I’m not going to shade the Rangers here. Because the reason they are so low is that they keep trading away their high draft picks for veterans in a short-term attempt to win the Stanley Cup.

And yeah, that’s what they should be doing right now.

Read more

Why Brooks Laich will be worth every penny – and why the Leafs should make him their next captain

Brooks Laich  (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Hardship is all relative. Take Brooks Laich, for example. On Sunday night, he was traded from the best team in the NHL to the second-worst and likely saw the best chance he’ll ever have at a Stanley Cup taken away from him. On the other hand, he’s engaged to Julianne Hough, with whom he was watching the Oscars when he learned of the trade.  And he’s made more than $31 million playing hockey, with another $4 million to come next season.

Still, it was difficult not to feel badly for Laich, who was dealt from an emerging powerhouse in Ottawa in 2004 to the doormat Washington Capitals, only to have the whole thing play out again 12 years later and be a lot more stinging this time. Laich was a glue guy, a hardworking and loyal grunt for a team that underachieved, only to have the team realize that his salary cap hit and role on the fourth line did not mesh at a time when it’s finally primed to live up to its potential. And he was shipped out, mandated to start all over again with a team just as bad as the one he went to in 2004. And just in case he needed to be reminded, he’s scheduled to play his old team when the Maple Leafs visit Washington Wednesday night.

Read more

Encouraging early returns for Maple Leafs kiddie corps

Ken Campbell
Kasperi Kapanen (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)

Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper doesn’t make a habit of paying too much attention to his opponents during a game, but he couldn’t help but feel a slight tinge of nostalgia when he looked over at the Toronto Maple Leafs bench Monday night.

It wasn’t long ago that Cooper was in the American League shepherding the careers of a bunch of young, promising players. He even won a Calder Cup championship, something the Toronto Marlies might do themselves this season. So he did see a lot of similarities between the journey some of the Tampa Bay Lightning players have taken and what the Maple Leafs are going through right now. He harkened back to his days of guiding kids like Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov on their path to the NHL.

Read more