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OHL and WHL Playoff Previews: Canucks Prospects Edition

This morning my colleague Ryan Biech previewed a few QMJHL playoff series, from the perspective of some Canucks prospects. The Q is certainly the most populous CHL league in terms of Canucks prospects, and all five therein are headed to the QMJHL playoffs.

I’ll be tackling the other two leagues under the Canadian Hockey League umbrella, which will include four playoffs series and containing a total of five Canucks prospects. The only CHL prospect whose team failed to qualify for the postseason this year was Brett McKenzie, so you won’t be hearing about him in this article, except to note that he’s headed to Utica on an ATO.

Like I’ve done with the What’s On Tap articles that lay out the schedules of each prospect in the coming week, I’d like to incorporate a little information on the draft eligible prospects in each upcoming playoff series as well. In the event that you find yourself able to watch some of these games, you’ll have an idea of who to keep an eye on beyond those under the Canucks’ purview.

We’ll kick things off in the OHL, where the Canucks’ top CHL prospect plies his trade, and move west from there.

London Knights vs. Windsor Spitfires

This is the marquee matchup from a lot of different angles. It contains not one, but two Canucks prospects, playing on opposite teams, as Olli Juolevi will be facing off against the newest Canucks prospect, recent free agent signing Jalen Chatfield. There are also numerous draft eligible prospects on both sides, with Windsor boasting a likely top-five pick in Gabe Vilardi.

And then of course there’s the Olli Juolevi versus Mikhail Sergachev storyline that could provide enough intrigue all on its own.

The Knights were the better team in the regular season (although the two sides split the season series evenly). The Knights’ power came largely from their ridiculous goal totals – their 4.25 goals per game are among the best in the CHL, and they weren’t dominant offensively at both 5-on-5 and with the man advantage. Note the Knights’ goal ratio with respect to their shot ratio: only the Erie Otters had a higher shooting percentage among OHL teams than the Knights’ 11.3% conversion rate.

Juolevi is the big draw for Canucks fans. After an impressive draft season in which he was good, if not great, in London and utterly magnificent at the World Juniors, Juolevi plateaued in the OHL and came crashing back to Earth at the international level. In both cases, the losses of elite level teammates are at least partially to blame. The entire top line of the 2015-16 London Knights (Mitch Marner, Matthew Tkachuk, Christian Dvorak), and two thirds of the top line of the 2016 Finnish gold medal winning team (Patrik Laine, Sebastian Aho) are not just in the NHL, but are all impact players for their respective teams. The loss of that offensive power is not easily overcome.

From that angle, you could make the argument that Juolevi actually improved a little, because he no longer had Marner, Tkachuk and Dvorak to bolster his number. Of course, that would also be an admission that his numbers were higher than they deserved to be last year, which isn’t a good look either, especially since some of his draft competition had already outscored him.

That includes Mikhail Sergachev. If you wanted to make sure that the Canucks made the right choice at fifth overall, this is a golden opportunity. Before you get riled up though, know that Sergachev hasn’t had that great of a year either, compiling 10 goals and 43 points – both large steps back from last year, albeit he played 17 fewer games.

This is also an opportunity to get a good look at Jalen Chatfield, if you haven’t already. I was away at the time of the signing, so I didn’t get a chance to provide a pGPS projection for him (it’s 1.4%, which is not all that good). Chatfield appears to be a reliable defender, but his production to a step backwards this year, making this a bit of a risky move in my opinion, but I’ve already overshot my limit on vitriol for ELC free agents this spring, so I’ll have to let it go.

We’re not done with this matchup yet, as we haven’t even covered Gabe Vilardi, who could very well be the most exciting player to watch in this series. Yet another draft eligible prospect to watch is Windsor’s goaltender Mike DiPietro, one of the draft’s top ranked netminders. Logan Brown (Ottawa, 2016) and Jeremy Bracco (Toronto, 2015) are among Windsors’ offensive leaders, when healthy at least.

On the Knights side, Robert Thomas and Alex Formenton are having solid draft seasons, with Thomas slipping into the projected top 31 of late. In London though, most of the offence still runs through the vets – the first line of Cliff Pu (Buffalo, 2016), Max Jones (Anaheim, 2016) and Mitchell Stephens is likely to do some damage.

Hamilton Bulldogs vs. Kingston Frontenacs

This next matchup doesn’t have quite the same cache as the previous one – really, none of the other ones do, so my coverage of them won’t be quite so long.

Cole Candella’s Hamilton Bulldogs and the Kingston Frontenacs are a close matchup. While the Bulldogs have scored a lot more goals, the Frontenacs have allowed a lot fewer. Hamilton has controlled play and produced more favourable results at 5-on-5, while Kingston has an edge in the special teams battle. The series season between the two teams was relatively even.

Cole Candella, the Canucks’ fifth round selection in 2016, has had a fairly disappointing season, seeing his production rate dip substantially since last season (he hit 20 points in both campaigns, doing so in 37 games last year and 65 games this time around). We were complementary about his selection and had high hopes that he would be able to improve his production, after fighting through some injuries in his draft season. That didn’t happen, and as a result, his stock has fallen.

Not to worry, there are still members of the Bulldogs that should draw some notice. Matthew Strome, younger brother of highly touted prospects Ryan Strome (New York Islanders) and Dylan Strome (Arizona) is ranked on the edge of the first round. On his heels is Mackenzie Entwistle, as well as Benjamin Gleason, an offensive defenceman who was overlooked at last year’s draft. Will Bitten (Montreal, 2016), Matt Luff, and Michael Cramarossa (younger brother of Joe Cramarossa) are among their other offensive leaders.

The Frontenacs are led by draft eligible forward Jason Robertson, as well as Toronto prospect Stephen Desrocher. Their lineup is laregly devoid of draft talent, containing a couple of other interesting available players like cetnre Linus Nyman and defenceman Eemeli Rasanen.

Prince George Cougars vs. Portland Winterhawks

On to the WHL, we’ll find a pair of Canucks prospects whose teams are in very different positions.

Tate Olson’s Prince George Cougars have been one of the CHL’s best teams all season, especially at 5-on-5. Their greatest weakness unfortunately has been their power play, which has sputtered along near the bottom of the league for most of the season. The acquisition of Nikita Popugayev has done little to improve its efficacy, but in the games that I watched, it didn’t seem like personnel was the issue: the Cougars made use of odd setups that didn’t make use of one-timers and had trouble getting players to stay in the low slot.

In many other ways, the Cougars were a superior team to their upcoming opponents, the Portland Winterhawks. Though the Winterhawks managed more goals (buoyed by their superior power play), the Cougars were much more adept at keeping the puck out of their own net, as as a result they carried a dynamite 5-on-5 goal ratio.

Olson himself appeared to take a step back this season (which unfortunately appears to be a common theme with literally every Canucks prospect on this list). As the Cougars grew in power and potential, Olson saw his role diminished a little with the acquisition of Brendan Guhle. Olson still got his time in all situations and managed to lead the team in 5-on-4 points (with four goals and 12 points) – though that might be an indictment of Olson as well considering Prince George’s woeful power play.

Prince George’s big guns include Jansen Harkins (Winnipeg, 2015), Jesse Gabrielle (Boston, 2015), and Brad Morrison (New York Rangers, 2015). Their draft eligible talent includes likely first rounder Nikita Popugayev, as well as forward Justin Almeida, and defenceman Josh Curtis.

The Winterhawks on the other hand are led by their draft eligible talent – namely by rising centre Cody Glass, who is working his way into the conversation of top ten picks in 2017. Other available players include forward Ryan Hughes and defender Henri Jokiharju. Keegan Iverson (New York Rangers, 2014) and Caleb Jones (Edmonton, 2015) are some of the teams other offensive leaders.

Calgary Hitmen vs. Regina Pats

Of all the teams previewed here, Jakob Stukel’s Calgary Hitmen stand the least chance of survival. More likely, they’ll succumb to total annihilation at the hands of the Regina Pats, the CHL’s scariest team.

The Hitmen are led by Winnipeg prospect Matteo Gennaro, Carolina first round pick Jake Bean, and Washington prospect Beck Malenstyn. Stukel is third on the team in points, with 53 in 70 games.

As with Candella, we were hoping for Stukel to take a step forward, but instead his production regressed further back. Worse, as Stukel was taken in his second year of eligibility, meaning that he just finished his draft-plus-two season producing at a rate of 0.76 points per game.

The Hitmen aren’t overflowing with high end draft eligibles, but they do have a couple, including 6-foot-3 forward Mark Kastelic, Russian import forward Andre Grishakov, and Belarussian import defenceman Vladislav Yeryomenko.

The Pats have a whole lot more to keep an eye on, including the WHL’s top two leading scorers: Sam Steel (Anaheim, 2016), and Adam Brooks (Toronto, 2016), as well as some strong draft eligible forwards like Nick Henry and Jake Leschyshyn (whose season was ended by a knee injury in February).