With 18 players from the Ontario Hockey League selected in the first round over the past two NHL Entry Drafts, it’s been no surprise to see several junior eligible players sticking in the NHL as a teenager. While only a select few manage to seize this opportunity and make the leap to the professional ranks early, the vast majority of first round picks return to the league to work on various aspects of the game in an effort to crack their respective NHL roster the next season. This year has been no exception as several highly accomplished OHL players will be returning to the league after being cut from their NHL teams.
RC Cody Hodgson – Brampton Battalion
6’0” | 188lbs | Shoots: R
Perhaps the most surprising returnee in the OHL this year, the consensus was that the 19 year old Markham native was a lock to crack the Vancouver Canucks this season after the year he had in 2008/2009. While a lingering back injury no doubt played a role in Hodgson being cut by the Canucks this year, there is still a lot that Hodgson can be optimistic for this season.
When he does come back from the injury, Hodgson should be able to quickly re-establish his presence as a dominant player in the OHL. A superb two-way player with a deadly release, Hodgson might have a bit of trouble replicating his gaudy statistics of a year ago after losing a lot of talented wingers from a year ago, but the season still has a lot of promise. Hodgson will be expected to take the captaincy for the World Junior team this year in Saskatoon and if he elects to accept a trade, he could be one of the most potent offensive players in the league if he manages to play on a contender later in the season. If you factor Matt Clark into the equation, this situation seems very similar to the John Tavares/Michael Del Zotto situation in Oshawa last year, and it will be interesting to see how Battalion GM Stan Butler plays his hand.
LC Nazem Kadri – London Knights
6’0” | 177lbs | Shoots: L
You might be hard pressed to find a player drafted out of the Top 3 this season with more upside then Nazem Kadri and he certainly showed a lot of that upside in the pre-season this year with the Toronto Maple Leafs. After many were quick to question the selection of Kadri at #7 in June, a lot of people were surprised to see Brian Burke elect not to give Kadri a chance in the NHL regular season, despite arguably being the team’s most electrifying player during the pre-season.
While Kadri likely could play a regular shift in the NHL this year, he still has a lot to gain from returning to the OHL for his fourth OHL season. The Leafs will be very hopeful that the London native can add some much needed strength to his lanky body and work on playing a more complete game. One of the major knacks against Kadri has been his tendency to rely on individual play and sometimes avoiding defensive responsibilities. The Leafs already know that Kadri has an abundance of skill, so improving this aspect of his game will be a top priority this season. Additionally, Kadri will also benefit from a World Junior appearance this year, after being one of the last cuts last season.
LW Kyle Clifford – Barrie Colts
6’1” | 200lbs | Shoots: L
The one player on this list that could be considered a bit of an anomaly is Barrie’s Kyle Clifford. He’s the only player here that was not selected in the first round of the NHL Draft, and he won’t be a player that makes the NHL based on elite talent. Clifford is not a pure scorer by any means, but that won’t stop him from being closely monitored by the Los Angeles Kings, who selected him with the 35th pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.
Clifford’s biggest strength is his versatility, and his ability to play a physical game while still being a threat offensively. He competes harder than almost any player on the ice on a consistent basis and can play in almost any situation. It will be interesting to see what type of year Clifford has offensively, as he should be a player that can put up 50+ points on a talented Barrie club this year, but the main thing to watch for will be whether Clifford can get an opportunity with the World Junior team this year. His ability to play a checking role is a definite asset, and he could make a case for that type of role with the team at Christmas, perhaps even getting the nod over teammate Stefan Della Rovere in that regard.
RW Zack Kassian – Peterborough Petes
6’3” | 215lbs | Shoots: R
The Buffalo Sabres made a decision that they wanted to bring in a new dynamic into their organization with the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, and picking arguably the best power forward in the draft is a good way to add some much needed size to your team. Kassian returns to captain Peterborough after a lukewarm camp with Buffalo as there were expectations that the 18 year old might contend for a roster spot with the team.
Like Kadri, Kassian is a player that can definitely benefit from another year in the OHL. Despite having the potential to be a big time player in the league, Kassian hasn’t quite taken that step yet, and this year will go a long way to determining if he will be able to do so. With increased offensive expectations on Kassian, the onus is on the LaSalle native to elevate his game and play with more passion and maturity, something that has plagued his career thus far. Despite suffering a separated shoulder last week in Sault Ste. Marie, Kassian will definitely be a contender for a Canadian World Junior roster spot and should be a versatile player for the team.
LD Calvin de Haan – Oshawa Generals
6’0” | 180lbs | Shoots: L
de Haan’s rise to prominence has been nothing short of spectacular for the 18 year old Carp native. After being excluded from the OHL draft list in 2007, the Oshawa Generals added de Haan to the final list and boldly selected the then 5’9” defenseman from Ottawa Valley. After an impressive season with the Kemptville 73’s, de Haan contemplated the NCAA route before signing with Oshawa before last season in a decision that he will surely not regret at this point. The slick offensive defenseman made a seamless transition to major junior, picking up 63 points in a full 68 game campaign.
After being a bit of a surprise selection to some at 12th Overall, de Haan looked poised to crack the New York Islanders during the pre-season, putting his smart play and offensive flair on display. Despite a good showing, the Islanders determined that de Haan would benefit from another year in the OHL where he will look to add some much needed mass to his slight frame.
The upcoming season will be particularly interesting for de Haan as he will have the spotlight on him a lot more. With the Generals still in the midst of a rebuild, there will be a lot of pressure on de Haan to improve off his rookie season and establish himself as a truly elite defenseman in the OHL this year. If de Haan can continue to work on his defensive game and a bit of grit, there is no doubt that he will be a player that gets a long look at the Canadian World Junior team this year, especially given his strong play with the Under 18 team this summer.
RD Ryan Ellis – Windsor Spitfires
5’10” | 170lbs | Shoots: R
After one of the most impressive OHL seasons by a defenseman in recent memory last year, it’s hard to say that Ellis really has much to gain from coming back to the league this season given his accomplishments. However, a combination of Nashville’s depth on the blue-line and Ellis not being quite ready for the NHL just yet will see the 18 year old Freelton native lace them up for another season with the Spitfires.
With Windsor set to ice one of the most talented rosters in the CHL this season, there will be a lot of pressure on the team to make another long playoff run this season and defend their Memorial Cup title, something that Ellis will need to be a big part of. While it’s clear that Ellis possesses elite offensive ability, this year will give him a chance to work on his skating and improve his defensive play so that he can give the Predators a tough decision in training camp next season on how they want to handle him.
Postscript: I haven’t included John Moore in this article as I haven’t had the opportunity to see him in action with the Rangers at this point.
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