There's almost 600 days left until the 2018 OHL Priority Selection comes to pass, and it's probably safe to say there's going to be a heck of a lot of movement during that period. That said, OHL scouts will become pretty familiar with several names a little bit early, as they ply their craft playing up with the '01 age group in the upcoming season.
One of the big storylines heading into the season is the departure of former Belle Tire winger, Ty Smilanic, who will be heading back to Colorado to play 16U with the Thunderbirds program. Had he stayed in the Detroit area, there may have been a case where he became eligible for the OHL's Priority Selection process, however, the move back west likely solidifies that he will be eligible for the WHL's Bantam Draft next year. While Smilanic's style of play may evoke memories of John McFarland - both good, and bad - teams will definitely be attracted to his elite skating and high-end physical tools.
The departure of Smilanic was also accompanied by Chicago Mission defenseman Gerard Keane's decision to return back to the '02 age group after what was a rather impressive underage season a year ago. Keane doesn't have elite size, which may have played a factor, but he's a very polished three-zone defenseman who is well on track to project as one of the elite players at his position in the '02-crop.
Like Keane, New Jersey Colonials' winger Alexandros Gaffney is also going to repeat bantam as he moves back to play with the '02 Colonials. Gaffney was pint-sized for the '01 age group, but size was of little impediment to his game as his electric speed and acceleration made him one of the most dynamic players, despite being a year younger. It's safe to say he should be able to establish himself as an elite player pretty quickly, this season.
The lone American who will remain playing up is Little Caesars winger Antonio Stranges, who might not wow you with his physical tools, but his hockey IQ and puck skills are more than enough to make him a very effective player. Playing in the 16U age group with a number of '00-born players, it'll be very intriguing to see how Stranges holds up, but it's clear that he's a player that will be garnering no shortage of NCAA interest this season.
North of the border, Cole Perfetti will once again feature for the Whitby Wildcats where he comes into the season off impressive showings in the OMHA, and subsequently, All Ontario Championships. While his skating needs some definite work and the physical growth hadn't come as of yet last season, Perfetti is another highly intuitive - and skilled - winger who generally finds the right place to be, at the right time. Perfetti will be joined in Whitby by another underage player, as Ryan O'Rourke makes the jump from the '02 Jr. Canadiens to patrol the blueline for the Wildcats. In contrast to Perfetti, O'Rourke is physically advanced for his age and has some impressive tools in that aspect, while his hockey sense and temperment may leave something to be desired, at this point.
After captaining the Windsor '01 squad last year, Tyler Tullio returns to the fold in 2016/17, and should continue to be a top-line player for the team. While you could make a very rationale case that he would have been better served playing with his own age group, at his size, Tullio definitely has the skill to fit in with the 01's and plays with an appealing level of grit and tenacity, especially for a player his size. The physical growth is likely going to take some time, but if Tullio continues to play with a chip on his shoulder while retaining the skill game, there's going to be a lot to like come 2017/18 when he enters his own draft year.
Barring any other newcomers to the fold, Guelph's Logan Morrison rounds out the list of '02-born players playing up. Like Tullio, Morrison really lacked the size and physical tools last season, which limited his ability to impact the game. He's another player that has some quantifiable skill and is willing to compete when he has the puck, but the lack of strength really held him back a season ago. Will that change this year? We'll soon find out.
It goes without saying - again - that it's still very early to solve the '02 puzzle, but there's little doubt that the players above are all going to factor into that somewhat prominently. 2016/17 will serve as another opportunity to see how it all shapes up.