Saturday, February 03, 2007

"The Word" in Oshawa

Well, I will be in Oshawa for Stephen Colbert day, will you? Nothing has done more for the league's exposure in my lifetime than the television star Colbert's antics over the last few weeks. I am tickled pink that Colbert has a bear phobia and that the OHL is getting so much publicity.

For those who don't know the story, or go to bed too early to see Colbert's show (Comedy Network, 11:30 pm Eastern Time, or Comedy Central in the U.S.), this all started last summer when the Saginaw Spirit were running a contest to "Name the Mini-Mascot." Colbert started a campaign to get the mascot named for him and Steagle Colbeagle the Eagle was born.

Colbert has a known fear of bears and took personal offense early in January at the toss of stuffed bears onto the ice during the Generals' annual teddy bear toss (the bears are donated to charities). Colbert lambasted the team and the city for it. That's when Oshawa Mayor John Gray issued a challenge to Colbert and the Saginaw Spirit. The challenge was that, if the Spirit lost the game against the Oshawa Generals on January 26 (last Friday), then Colbert would have to wear a Generals jersey on his show. However, the other side of the challenge was that if Saginaw won the game, that the city of Oshawa would honor the television host with a "Stephen Colbert Day" on Colbert's birthday in May. Well, Colbert and Saginaw accepted the challenge, except with a slight twist. Colbert wanted his day on the Mayor's birthday, March 20th. He also called for the Spirit fans to throw copies of the General Motors' Annual Report on the ice when Saginaw scored goals against the Generals, which in fact they did last Friday night.

In the completely sold out game, the Spirit defeated the Generals, 5-4. This prompted a response from Colbert on Monday evening's show. Mayor Gray called in to congratulate Stephen and the Spirit on the win and to invite Colbert to appear in Oshawa on March 20th for his day. Colbert did not immediately accept this invitation, but he did show how he was celebrating the Saginaw victory. He dropped his pants to reveal that he was wearing the Oshawa Generals jersey as underwear during the broadcast.

As of this morning that is where this saga sits. It has all been done in fun, and mostly good taste. More importantly, it has brought an enormous amount of positive attention to the OHL. Stay tuned as to whether Colbert will come to Oshawa. Kudos to all involved. Anything we can do to positively publicize the league is fantastic.

In other Oshawa news, last night the Generals young phenom John Tavares reached the 100 point plateau--the first player in the league to do so, and one of three players to reach the 100 point mark on the same night (the others were Tyler Donati and Pat Kane). What more can one say about Tavares than you have to see him in person to understand what a great talent he is. With Tavares, it is more than the number of points that he puts up that is so exciting to see. He really is a special player, who dominates the ice when he is on it. Although his skating is weaker than the rest of his skills, absent injury, he will no doubt be an NHL star. Plus he has so much more time to get stronger and to develop his skill. Not NHL draft-eligible until 2009, the OHL fans will be seeing him for two more years. If you can catch one of the Generals' games live, do so. Years from now, you will be able to say that you saw Tavares when he was playing junior hockey.

And that's the word.

OHL Reviews--Jan 16-31, East Division

Belleville Bulls--The Bulls are 9 points ahead of Oshawa in the standings going into tonight, and they look hard to beat in the division. Belleville played 5 games in the last 2 weeks of the month, and they won all of them, including an 8-4 wipeout of Oshawa on the 20th. Tyler Donati remains a force to be reckoned with on this team. With 13 points (7 G, 6 A) in the 5 games, most of which were while the games were competitive, Donati is leading the charge for the Bulls. There is no question that he has developed into a player who will be sought after next fall. While he still needs to work on defence, Donati has come out from under the shadow of his brother and proven his worth. Shawn Matthias (DET, 2nd round, 2006) is another forward who has really blossomed in this his sophomore season with Belleville. With 3 goals and 4 assists in the last 2 weeks of January, Matthias has been increasing his production as the season has gone along. Like Donati, Matthias needs to continue to refine the defensive aspects of his game, but he is well on his way to becoming the big, aggressive forward that the Red Wings are hoping he will develop into.

Defensively, the best player over the last 2 weeks, was the 2007 NHL draft-eligible PK Subban. Subban had 5 assists in the 5 games, and a +4 plus/minus, and appears to be getting stronger as the season goes along. Although the Bulls have older very important blueliners in Geoff Killing, Matt Pelech and Nick Pageau, a lot of the offensive defensive load will fall on Subban in the playoffs. It is my opinion that he will lift his game accordingly and could rise to a first round selection in the NHL draft come June. He has that much potential, and should be ranked higher than he has been.

Between the pipes, watch out for the rookie Edward Pasquale. This kid is the real thing and should be the number one netminder next season. In the 2 games in which he played during the last 2 weeks of January, Pasquale allowed 3 goals on 68 shots.

Oshawa Generals--Well, besides the ruckus with Stephen Colbert, there has been some very good hockey played by the Generals of late. John Tavares is tearing up the league, and with his prolific scoring, Oshawa won 4 of 6 games at the end of last month. Tavares had 17 points in the 6 games (8 G, 9 A), and the remarkable thing about it was that all his points were in competitive games except for one. It does mean that the team relies on Tavares a huge amount to win, but there is also another wonderful NHL prospect on the team. Brett MacLean, who is a 2007 draft-eligible winger, already has more than 70 points this season, and in the last 2 weeks of January, MacLean scored in every one of the Generals game. In addition, he had a great top prospects game. If he keeps up this performance, MacLean will be a first round selection this June in Columbus. Another prospect to keep an eye on is the older Igor Gongalsky, who has taken a major step forward in offensive production over the last month. With 8 points over the 6 games, including a game-winning goal against Windsor, Gongalsky seems to have found his game. Still not a defensive whiz, Gongalsky has talent, which the team is making use of.

Finally, rookie blueliner Michael Del Zotto is having an outstanding year. Vying with Mississauga's Alex Pietrangelo for best rookie D-man in the league, Del Zotto had 6 points in the latter half of January (2 G, 4 A), while maintaining a +6 plus/minus.

Kingston Frontenacs--With only 5 games in the last half of the month, Kingston won 3 of them, albeit against 3 of the weaker teams in the league. Against both Belleville and Mississauga, the Fronts were roundly defeated. Not expected to make a serious run for the league championship, Kingston does have some talent on the team. Overager Peder Skinner had 6 points (3G, 3 A), but is weak defensively (tonight he had a very good game against Owen Sound, but it does not change his need to consistently play well in his own zone). The team's best player has been Chris Stewart (COL, 1st Round, 2006), who continues to put up very good numbers (3 G, 4 A)on a weak team. But Stewart, who played this week in the All-Star Game in Saginaw, too needs to develop more of a defensive game. In all, Kingston lacks the talent to go far in the playoffs, both up front and between the pipes.

Ottawa 67s--After a coupe of disappointing seasons, the 67s are starting to look like a team on the rise. The 67s won 3 of their 6 game during the latter part of the month, and it had several consistent performers. Jamie McGinn (SJS, 2nd Round, 2006) was the team's best player. With 6 points (in 5 of the 6 games), McGinn had less production than in December (when he recorded 23 points in 12 games), but it is his poise on the ice that impresses me most. 2007 top prospect Logan Couture also had a bit of a letdown from December, but still put up some decent numbers during the latter half of January (1 G, 5 A). Disappointing was the recent play of blueliner Derek Joslin (SJS, 5th Round, 2005), who seems to have forgotten that a defenceman's first obligation is his own zone. But speaking of D-men, the arrival of the young Julien Demers, who was acquired early in January from the CJHL Nepean Raiders should be noted. A former 67s 15th round priority draft selection in 2005, Demers (D/O/B 9/25/89), an offensive defenceman looks very raw, and certainly needs work, but he may just have a future in this league.

Peterborough Petes--In the cellar of the division, the Petes only won 1 game of 6 in the last half of the month. Most of its developed talent was traded away before the deadline, so that the team consists almost entirely of youngsters. A noted exception is John Armstrong (CAL, 3rd round, 2006), who came over from Plymouth at the deadline. But Armstrong has not produced as was hoped this season, and only has 4 points in 10 games with the Petes. The best 2 players on the roster right now are Justin Soryal, who had a poor month, but leads the team in scoring with 44 points, and Kyle Raftis, an overage defenceman, who has 43 points in 51 games and a +10 plus/minus on a very poor team. The future of the team may lie in the hands of young blueliner Zach Bogosian, who is a lot of fun to watch. With 9 points last month (not much in the latter half though), Bogosian has 25 points in 51 games, and a +12 plus/minus.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

OHL Reviews --Jan 16-31, Central Division

Central Division

Barrie Colts--The Colts won 3 of the 5 games they played in the latter part of January, and the team does still stand atop the Central Division of the Eastern Conference, and are ranked 5th overall in the CHL Top 10 Rankings. But the Mississauga Ice Dogs, who beat the Colts by a score of 7-2 on the 19th, are moving closer to Barrie in the standings. To add to this, the Colts looked particularly bad last Friday night, when the team was shut out by Guelph. Barrie did come back and defeat the weaker Sudbury and Brampton teams later in the weekend, but the word is out that the Colts are beatable. Some have said that Bryan Little is basically this entire team, but there is other talent here, and more of it needs to step up to continue to hold onto the divisional lead. Overagers Hunter Tremblay and Andrew Marshall are going to have to continue to produce. Both had a good 10 day span, but Tomas Marcinko was completely invisible. And Matthew Bragg had a month that was not up to par for him. With only 3 assists all month and a -8 plus/minus, Bragg really needs to raise the level of his game.

A bright spot for Barrie is its future netminder Michael Hutchinson. Although he played in only one game in the past half of the month, Hutchinson got himself a very pretty win. He faced 33 shots last Sunday and stopped 32 of them. In 3 appearances during the entire month of January, the 2008 NHL draft-eligible had a 2.32 GAA and a .923 save percentage.

Mississauga Ice Dogs--In the last half of the month, the Ice Dogs have been on a tear, winning 5 of their 6 games. In all but 2 of the games, netminder Andrew Loverock (who is NHL draft-eligible this coming June) has held opponents to 3 or less goals. Unfortunately, the games where he was not sharp are indicative of a inconsistency that he has shown throughout the season, but luckily for Mississauga, there is lots of firepower on the team to make up for it. Lots of team members had big numbers this past half month, but this is deceptive, as I really don't look at what I call add-on scoring, ie, running your scoring totals up once the game is already won. With that said, Chris Lawrence (TBL, 3rd round, 2005) has to be the player of the half month for the Ice Dogs. Officially, he had 10 goals and 5 assists, with a +8 plus/minus. Although with the game still on the line, he had fewer points (7 G, 4 A), it was a fantastic run. Not far behind is centre Michael Swift, who officially had 2 goals and 9 assists and a +9 rating (2 G, 5 A, +7 by my count).

Others players deserving of mention are defenceman Kyle Lamb, with 7 assists and +9 rating (6 A, +6 in my figures), who has really come on in scoring of late; Jadran Beljo with 5 goals, 5 assists and +7 rating (3 G, 4 A, +4 my tally); 2007 top prospect Stephan Legein, with 7 goals, 2 assists, +9, including his fifth and sixth shorthanded goals of the year. Although my totals for him are a little lower (4 G, 1A, +5), Legein's play is raising his stock among NHL scouts daily. With 16 points in 9 games last month and a plus/minus of +12, he is quickly moving up in the rankings.

Lastly, one cannot talk about the Ice Dogs without giving space to rookie defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, who continues to impress. His official 6 assists often came with the game out of reach (I actually don't have him scoring any points while the game was still to be decided), but he is a force on the ice. As he gets stronger and more physical over the next year or so, he will begin to dominate in a way that will surely delight all those who enjoy watching young talent pass through the CHL.

Sudbury Wolves--Despite the addition of sniper Justin Donati at the trade deadline, The Wolves have not improved their winning record. Over the 7 games during the period covered here, the Wolves only won 1, and in that one, they defeated the Brampton Battalion in a shootout. Despite Donati's 3 goals and 5 assists during the 7 seven games, the defence and netminding have been lacking in most of the games. Allowing 4 or more goals in 5 of the games and 3 in the other two, it would take a huge amount of offence to overcome the defencive deficits. Besides Donati, Nick Foligno (OTT, 1st round, 2006) played well (5 G, 3 A, +2), but shut-em-down defenceman Marc Staal (NYR, 1st round, 2005) has not been on his game for most of the season.

Sudbury does not seem to gel well as a team, and the addition of Donati did nothing to change that. When added to a shaky goaltending situation, I do not believe that they will go far into the playoffs. Hopefully, they can turn things around over the next 6 weeks or so, but I certainly am not alone in my doubts.

Brampton Battalion--Despite General Manager and Head Coach Stan Butler's prediction during the tryout camp this summer, this team is not going anywhere near the league championship this spring. Not much good to say about the past 2 weeks either. In 5 games, the Battalion only won 1 of them. The only player worthy of mention during the time is winger Michal Klejna, who has been playing well for most of the season, despite the lack of experienced skill around him.

But take heart all you Brampton fans, because there are good days in the years head. The team smartly was on the receiving end of 08 and 09 draft picks at the trade deadline, so within a couple of years thing should look very bright for the Battalion. In fact, I expect them to move up substantially next season, as Michael Lomas, Cody Hodgson and Patrick Killeen get more experience. And there will still be John Hughes, who is a prolific scorer, but too small to get much notice by the professional teams.

Toronto St. Mike's Majors--I must admit first that I can often be found sitting on the metal media platform above the ice at St. Mike's arena, shaking my head as the Majors get beaten over and over again. I am however indebted to the staff of the team, particularly Parker Neale, who over and over again has it so my interview needs are met. That said, everyone on the staff of the team, as well as all the fans in the stands, knows that this team is out of the playoff hunt. Now with 12 losses in a row, St. Mike's has not won a game since December 28th, and that was a shootout win. Toronto has not won a game in regulation since December 10th. This was well before the trade of Justin Donati to Sudbury. Not that I am complaining about the trade, which was necessary, but it did end any hope of the team making the playoffs.

If there can be any bright spots for the Majors, and unbelievably there are a couple, it would be the play of Jesse Messier and Matt Caria over this period. Messier came over from the Wolves in the Donati trade and he is a very good player. Caria was overlooked in last year's NHL draft, rightfully so, but this year he is on the scouts' radar. He has improved his game enormously, and has had to contend with basically no support by teammates. Justifiably named to the OHL All-Star game played this week, Caria will be drafted in the later rounds this June.

As for the future, I believe that rookie Chris Carrozzi will be a good goaltender in this league next year. He just had a horrible month, but he has the potential to be a very good number 1 netminder in this league. Hopefully, head coach and general manager Bud Stefanski will continue to give him a chance to get more experience this season, so he will be ready to take over the number 1 reins next fall.

OHL All-Star Review

While you all probably do not need me to review the all-star festivities in Saginaw over the past 2 days, I'll quickly do it, so that I may get on to other things, including the review of the teams for the last part of January.

Last night, the scoring was wild (final score of 13-9 in favour of the East), with almost all the East players getting on the board. Hopefully all the fun was not too costly to Trevor Cann and the Peterborough Petes, as Cann had to leave the game with a knee injury. More will be known later today.

The "player of the game" for the East was overager Hunter Tremblay, who had 3 goals and 2 assists, and was grinning forom ear to ear. The sensational rookie Steve Stamkos was the "Player of the Game" for the West. Stamkos (2 G, 2 A) won it over both of the top London forwards Pat Kane and Sam Gagner, each of whom also made major contributions to the West's efforts. I won't name the worst players on the ice last night, but 2 of the 3 NY Rangers' draft selections were totally ineffective in the game, which follows similar recent performances with their OHL teams.

On Tuesday night, the skills competition took place. The East also won that (by a score of 15-13), but it was a thriller until the last second, when Matt Pelech won it for the East on a 3-on-3 goal.

Individual winners were:

Hardest Shot-Josh Godfrey (Soo Greyhounds) 99.3 mph (harder than the hardest shot in the AHL Skills competition Sunday night).

Fastest Skater--Stefan Legein (Mississauga Ice Dogs) 14.109

Shooting Accuracy--Logan Couture (Ottawa 67s) hit four targets in 5 shots (matching the AHL's accuracy winner Clarke McArthur two days before)

The crowds were great for both the skills competition and for the game itself. Plus both Legein and Couture are top prospects for this upcoming NHL draft and their performances here certainly can only have raised their stock come draft day.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Traveling to Cover All-Star Games

Sorry that coverage has been suspended for the last few days, but I have been travelling to cover 2 All-Star events for Hockey's Future. I will try to get some week in review articles up over the next 2 days, but duty calls.