TORONTO, ONT. -- Where has the time gone? It's an annual question we ask ourselves in reflection as the penultimate tournament of the minor midget season - otherwise known as the OHL Cup - comes and goes.
While teams should have the draft crop figured out at this point, there's always a human tendency to allow for a recency bias to cloud judgment. But hey, there's always room for a Luke Pither performance to shake up the draft order with a great performance on this type of stage.
In a tournament that features 16 of the top teams in the province - err USA, as well - plus eight wildcards, there's obviously no shortage of storylines to pull from. That said, we've got a few that are of particular interest as this year's tournament gets set to kick off on Tuesday.
| Johnny Be Good |
Salisbury's Johnny Beecher is likely a top-20 type of talent for most teams, but it's also safe to say that most teams probably haven't got a volume of looks at the Elmira, N.Y. native, as his Connecticut prep home doesn't exactly make for an easy scouting trip. Not being an attendee at the Select 15 camp last year, Beecher's easiest set of live viewings came by way of games at Ridley College just before the turn of the New Year, so we're going back more than two months now.
With all that in mind, all eyes are going to be on the lanky pivot as he laces up with the Detroit-based TPH Thunder in this year's OHL Cup. If you're buying into the whispers, it looks like Beecher will be suiting up in the OHL next year, and this tournament could go a long way to determining where that might fall. He's been plauged by consistency issues in the past, but there's little doubt that when he's on, he's on. What version of Beecher will we see in Toronto this week? For us, that's probably the most intriguing question on the board right now.
| Spotlight on the States |
With the NTDP Selection Camp invites being abnormally delayed this year, the beneficiery becomes the OHL Cup, who will see arguably the most talented group of American born players in the history of the tournament. While it's unlikely all of the attendees have been slighted for an NTDP Select 40 camp invite, we can probably safely read into it that a number of the players descending on Toronto are going to be on the outside looking in with regard to camp invites.
Of the two US teams, TPH has the most high-end talent of the two squads, albeit neither roster is anything to scoff at. The aforementioned Beecher and Tag Bertuzzi are the premier names to watch for on TPH, but eyes will also be heavily fixated on Russian winger Egor Afanasyev, who has been deemed eligible for this year's draft. The 6-foot-2 winger was a bit of an enigma for Little Caesars this year, but it's fair to say he's going to have some interested suitors.
Featuring a heavy contingent of Belle Tire players, TPH's defensive corps sees the addition of smooth puck-mover Brendan Kischnick from Oakland, while Cameron Rowe is the goaltender to watch for between the pipes. The 6-foot-2 goaltender has ideal size for the next level and while he had some ebbs and flows with a marginal Team Illinois squad, he's definitely a goaltender who's trending well in the crop.
Switching gears to the Elite Hockey roster, it's a team that features a number of talented forwards with no shortage of depth. Kyle Schroeder (Mission); Eli Devereaux (Rochester); Dalton DuHart (Belle Tire); and Gabe Malek (Philadelphia) are all legitimate top-100 players that could heavily factor into the draft if they're declaring their intentions. Meanwhile, Matt Crasa (Selects 15U); Christian Sarlo and Michael Posma (North Jersey 15U) are all capable players in their own right, who will be getting a taste of the spotlight after flying under the radar a bit playing in the 15U loop. Oh, and let's not forget about Sahil Panwar, an '02 centre who is shaping up to be a pretty high-end talent within an age group that isn't short on it. The LA Jr. Kings forward is likely going be OHL eligible next season and this will be the first taste of his game for most OHL scouts.
The defense is headlined by Boston University commit Cade Webber who will play alongside a couple of other big bodies with Cam Newton (Victory Honda) and Matt Foster (PAL Jr. Islanders). Robert Nuchereno (Nichols School) was a quality goaltender for the Jr. Sabres 14U squad last season, and despite being undersized, will be looking to turn in a solid tournament, as well.
| What does Ottawa have to offer? |
It's not exactly a secret that the '01 age group for Hockey Eastern Ontario isn't exactly a spectacular one. On top of that, the league has seen a number of departures over the past two years, headlined by the loss of Graeme Clarke to the Toronto Marlboros two seasons ago. This year, Simon Mack has had a decent season with the Selects 15U squad that he's parlayed into a Penn State commitment, while the results have been a bit mixed for Cody Monds and Reid Russett.
With that in mind, this will be the first true test for most OHL scouts to see the Ottawa 01's playing against their actual peer group in tournament play. Luckily for HEO, last year's Eastern Wild squad has seen an influx of additional talent; headlined by forwards Alex Johnston, Joe Carroll, and Curtis Fabbro; defenseman Simon Rose; and goaltender Luke Cavallin. We'll see how well this team is able to come together, but there's little doubt that they'll be the focus of a lot of attention during the round robin.
| Who actually wins this thing? |
The obvious favourites that jump out - in no particular order - would be the Mississauga Rebels, London Jr. Knights, and the Toronto Marlboros. All three teams come into the tournament in fine form and have the high-end talent and depth to hoist the trophy next Monday night at the Mattamy Athletic Centre.
While those are the favourites, it would be unwise to count the Whitby Wildcats out, as their pesky style of play keeps them in every game and makes them a very tough out. Beyond those four, we may come to see that the American teams both pose credible threats in this tournament as they've got the talent to make some serious noise, but will the chemistry and cohesion be there?
It would be a bit of a surprise to see anyone else take home the title this year, but as they say, that's why the play the games.
| The future of the OHL Cup? |
One storyline we don't want to discount is the amount of change we're starting to see in the OHL Cup. When the tournament originally came to being in 2003, it featured just 16 teams with no wildcard play-in games. While the expanded 20-team format plus wildcard games has been in place prior to this season, this season's tournament still features some change that could certainly impact the future of the tournament.
The Team NOHA has been in place since the original tournament, but this year's Team HEO provides a platform for another team that could start to tip the balance of power in subsequent tournaments. Assuming the HEO U18 pilot project is renewed, it'll be interesting to see how that sets the stage in future seasons as it could be a risky proposition to essentially create an all-star team for a region that has a population base of more than 1.5 million residents, even if you're going to lose some of those players elsewhere in the minor midget season.
And that brings us to the American teams. This is the first year in some time where both teams are credible threats to advance to the playoff round, and potentially even do some damage beyond that. Sure, they could just as easily be a flash in the pan, but it does bring up an interesting question.
What is the purpose of this tournament? Is it to determine some form of provincial champion? Or is it to provide one last platform to see the top prospects in the draft? Right now it feels like it's trying to be both, and frankly, that might be increasingly hard to do.
How does this tournament retain its value for smaller population centres that are scratching and clawing to get in, just to face-off against an all-star team in their pool that was assembled for the sole purpose of this tournament? That's a question to ponder.
If any of those aforementioned three teams find some major success in this year's OHL Cup, it might also be a question that quickly comes to the forefront a heck of a lot more than it is right now.
If you're still with us, that's some food for thought in advance of this year's OHL Cup. As for us, we'll hope for some better-than-forecasted weather ...and even better hockey.