Jakob Chychrun (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
…And it's not even close right now. The blueliner for the OHL's Sarnia Sting battled injuries as a rookie and this summer, but he's healthy to start the season and will be the best 2016 prospect playing on North American ice this year.
Defenseman Jakob Chychrun brings size, speed, toughness and a cracking shot to the ice and really; you can't ask for much more in a prospect. That's why the Sarnia Sting sophomore will be the top 2016 draft hopeful to watch in North America this season and by far the most coveted defenseman.
With American center Auston Matthews plying his trade against men in Switzerland and dangerous right winger Jesse Puljujarvi facing similar competition at home in Finland, Chychrun will have a lot of attention on him in the OHL. Luckily, the kid is pretty good.
“I think 'Chicky' is going to be the best defenseman in the league (this) year," said former teammate Anthony DeAngelo, the Tampa Bay first-rounder. "I’m not sure if there’s someone else like him coming up, but in my opinion I don’t think there will be anyone better.”
The son of former NHL enforcer Jeff Chychrun was born and raised in Florida, where he attended prestigious American Heritage High School, playing multiple sports and sharing a weightlifting class with future Notre Dame running back Greg Bryant. The school also recently produced San Francisco Giants shortstop prospect Lucius Fox, so sports are well known there. Hockey? Maybe not so much. In fact, Chychrun's classmates didn't realize what a talent they had in their ranks.
"That was tough," Chychrun said. "I don't think they really understood what I was trying to accomplish."
School was always a focal point for the blueliner and his family and Chychrun managed a 4.0 GPA while taking honors courses. And though the humid setting may not scream hockey, the 17-year-old wouldn't have changed a thing.
"I consider myself very lucky to be from Florida," he said. "My dad coached me all the way up and he coached me the right way."
Eventually though, Chychrun outgrew the state – in many senses of the word. When Sarnia took him first overall in the 2014 OHL draft, he was already 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds. By then, he was playing for the Toronto Jr. Canadiens. Before that, he spent several years with Detroit's Little Caesar's program, flying up from Florida to Michigan on weekends, sometimes leaving on Thursdays if the team had a tournament.
That's a lot of sacrifice for a teenager, but so far it's been worth it. Chychrun is now up to 214 pounds and will be a crucial part of a Sarnia team that added New Jersey Devils prospect Josh Jacobs to the 'D' corps over the summer from Michigan State. New owner Derian Hatcher – a pretty good NHL defenseman himself back in the day – also takes over behind the bench, replacing Trevor Letowski (now an associate coach with Windsor).
"We had a great staff last year that helped me a lot and it will be great having another ex-pro coming in," Chychrun said. "All the boys are really excited."
Even more exciting for Chychrun? He's finally healthy. The big kid missed the OHL Cup with the Jr. Canadiens due to injury and then went through two stages of shoulder problems as a rookie with the Sting. First, his shoulder popped out before the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, causing him to miss the showcase event – which happened to take place in Sarnia. Then, right before the OHL playoffs, it popped out again after a fight with Guelph's Brock Philips. He had surgery in April to correct matters.
Sarnia will need Chychrun at full strength if the Sting has any hope of doing damage in the post-season. For a franchise that has boasted Steven Stamkos, Nail Yakupov and Alex Galchenyuk as members in recent years, Sarnia has won just a single playoff round in the past decade. Needless to say, there's some urgency being felt.
"One-hundred percent," Chychrun said. "We even felt the urgency last year. Maybe because we were so young, we didn't have that experience and we let some leads slip away. But we're all very prepared now."
Given how well Chychrun performed in limited duty as a rookie, a full schedule with him in the lineup would do wonders for that progression. Childhood friend and fellow 2016 prospect Logan Brown offered the following assessment:
"He's fast, he's strong and he's got a good stick," said the Windsor Spitfires center. "I don't think there's a weak point to his game."
For the record, Chychrun wants to focus on improving his defensive zone play this season. A video room fiend, he tends not to use the viewings for ego boosts.
"I've watched the negative clips a hundred times," he said. "I think I've watched the positives once."
A lot of scouts will be watching video and live performances of Chychrun this season. And something tells me that they'll be finding a lot more positives than negatives in his game.