The New Jersey Devils are likely to have 6 prospects playing in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) next season. This group is headlined by recent 6th overall pick, C Pavel Zacha. The rest of the group includes 2015 draft picks G Mackenzie Blackwood, RW Blake Speers, D Colton White, along with 2014 draft picks RW Connor Chatham and D Joshua Jacobs. Like I did last summer, I decided to reach out to Brock Otten of OHL Prospects to get some insight into these players.
I want to thank Brock for taking the time to answer all of these questions. I highly recommend that you follow him on twitter (@BrockOtten) and check out his blog, OHL Prospects, to keep up on everything that is going on in the OHL. You can find rankings for draft prospects (both 1st time eligibles and overagers) all throughout the season, his various Sunday Top 10 lists, player reports and interviews, and thorough analysis of everything going on in the OHL.
RW Connor Chatham (Plymouth now Flint)
ILWT: Chatham's 2014-15 season ended early due to wrist surgery (at the advice of the Devils). Do you know if he is expected to be back with Flint? He turns 20 in October and would be eligible for the AHL. The fact that he took advice from the Devils on a medical issue suggests that they do have some level of interest and communication with him.
Brock Otten: I would be shocked if Chatham isn't back in Flint next year as an overager. He's missed a fair amount of time the last few years and I'm sure the Devils would love to see him play a full season in the OHL before moving him on to the professional ranks. Plus, in Flint he'll get the opportunity to see power play time and top line ice time, which he's not likely to get in the AHL. At this point, there is still room to grow for Chatham offensively and I think he'll need ice time to do that. The only way he's not back in Flint is if he comes to camp healthy and puts on a show. But that seems like a stretch at this point.
ILWT: How would you assess his progress over 2 OHL seasons?
Brock Otten: Chatham's progress has been somewhat disappointing thus far. It's obvious that the wrist injury really hampered him last season. As a big power forward, he's yet to take that next step and physically dominate below the hash marks, the way that he's capable of. But, pending he returns to Flint healthy, he could be a big part of their offense next season. The hands have always been there and I could see him putting up 30 goals this year.
D Joshua Jacobs (Sarnia)
ILWT: Jacobs had a successful freshman season with Michigan State but opted to test himself in the OHL for this upcoming season. What type of role will he play in Sarnia? Any chance he could be paired with highly regarded 2016 Draft prospect Jakob Chychrun?
Brock Otten: Jacobs is going to play a huge role for the Sting this year. He'll play in all situations and will probably either pair with Chychrun or Kevin Spinozzi on one of Sarnia's top pairings. Safe to say that expectations surrounding him are quite large.
ILWT: What do you think Jacobs can learn from playing in the OHL compared to the NCAA?
Brock Otten: Tough question. Ultimately, I suppose Jacobs realized that he wouldn't be staying at Michigan State very long, so he opted to give the OHL a shot. Playing more games (more of a pro style schedule), taking on a larger role offensively (power play time), and getting the opportunity to play for a very competitive team (Sarnia could be a top team in the West next year), could be the benefits that Jacobs saw.
C Pavel Zacha (Sarnia)
ILWT: In your opinion what type of player is Zacha? Do you view him as a center or winger long term?
Brock Otten: Zacha is a big bodied forward who excels playing the power game. He's very aggressive in taking the puck to the net and really uses his size to his advantage in the corners and in the open ice. I think his vision and playmaking still has room to grow, but he certainly knows how to create scoring chances. Zacha is also a solid two-way player who has the potential to really develop into a defensive stopper because of his size and physicality. Ultimately, I think he profiles more as a winger because it would simplify his game offensively and allows him to open up ice for line mates (he played wing at the U18's and looked great).
ILWT: Zacha had 2 suspensions last year totaling 8 games to go along with 56 PIM in 37 regular season games. Should we view his lack of discipline as a red flag? Should we be concerned about his injury history?
Brock Otten: If the the injury and suspension history were a concern to the Devils, they wouldn't have taken him as high as they did. The suspensions did come from a lack of discipline, but I don't have a big issue with them. Zacha plays the game hard and he was trying to really establish himself as a physically intense player in the OHL and it came with a few a poor decisions. As for the injuries, it happens. If he can go this year without anything significant, it will be pushed to the back of people's minds. Even if he's physically mature enough, I think the Devils would be smart to keep Zacha in the OHL for another year. Really let him physically dominate, gain some confidence and play a full season before bringing him to the pros.
G Mackenzie Blackwood (Barrie)
ILWT: What is your assessment of Blackwood's skill set and potential?
Brock Otten: Blackwood is an immensely talented netminder. He is freakishly athletic (just check out some of his combine test scores) and has terrific size. His reads and positioning need some work and it helps to explain his inconsistencies, but you'd be hard pressed to find a goaltender more difficult to beat in the OHL when he's on.
Note: Here is a NHL.com article that highlights Blackwood's strong results at the combine:
Blackwood did well at the NHL Scouting Combine in Buffalo; he was one of four players to have a peak power output score better than 19.0 on the Wingate stationary bike test (19.2), was third in the vertical jump (27.28 inches) and possessed the third-strongest right-hand grip (174 pounds).
ILWT: What do you think he could do next year in Barrie to show he's got a real NHL future down the road?
Brock Otten: Blackwood has been largely terrific for Barrie since entering the league. He took away the starter's gig as a rookie and hasn't really looked back. This coming year, Barrie should be one of the best teams in the OHL. He'll need to maintain his focus, stay healthy, and help lead Barrie deep in the playoffs in order for it to be a successful year from his standpoint.
RW Blake Speers (Sault Ste. Marie)
ILWT: When I look at the numbers that Speers has put up in his OHL career, it appears from an outsider's perspective, that he is flying a bit under the radar. What can Devils fans expect from Speers next season?
Brock Otten: Speers is a very talented offensive player. He's got great hands and a terrific shot, and he's a smart guy who could profile as a two-way player down the road. Once the Hounds loaded up at the deadline, he got pushed down the depth chart and it led to a serious production decline in the 2nd half. He needs to get stronger and he needs to attack the net more using his speed, but Speers has the potential to be a 40/40 guy in the OHL this season, where he'll be firmly entrenched in a top 6 role with significant power play time.
ILWT: What would you consider are his strengths and weaknesses at this point in his development?
Brock Otten: Strengths for Speers would be hands, shot release, speed, and defensive hockey sense/positioning. Weaknesses would be shot strength, puck protection ability, and aggressiveness offensively.
D Colton White (Sault Ste. Marie)
ILWT: You've mentioned on your blog that White is "an incredibly raw product who has massive potential." With veteran defensemen such as Anthony DeAngelo and Darnell Nurse moving on from Sault Ste. Marie, what type of role do you expect White to have this upcoming season? Is this the year he gets some PP time?
Brock Otten: My guess is that White and Bouramman (the team's excellent 3rd pairing last year) graduate to become the Greyhounds' top pairing this year. That means tons of ice time in all situations for White. One of White's best skills is keeping pucks in at the blue line, which I think profiles him very well as a power play QB if he can improve upon his shot and gain confidence in his distribution ability.
ILWT: White has earned praise from you and other outlets for his positional defending, skating, and passing. What are some areas of his game that still need more work?
Brock Otten: The obvious one would be playing with more intensity in the corners and in front of the net. Most defenders at White's age would have this listed as an area needing improvement. That of course, comes with added strength and confidence. As mentioned, I think his point shot needs work, especially if he wants to QB the power play. And his confidence level in leading the breakout. His skating ability is tremendous and he'll need to learn to be more aggressive in leading the rush with his feet to evade forecheckers.
What answers stood out to you from this interview? Has this changed the way you feel about any of these prospects? What are you hoping to see from these players over the course of next season? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!