The New Jersey Devils will see C/RW Blake Speers and D Colton White move on from playing in the Ontario Hockey League to professional hockey next season, likely with Binghamton. C Michael McLeod is a candidate to join them in the professional ranks should he earn a spot with the New Jersey Devils out of training camp. The Devils could have as many as 5 prospects playing in the OHL next season. That group could be led by the aforementioned McLeod. Joining him will be RW/C Nathan Bastian, G Evan Cormier, RW Marian Studenic, and possibly LW Jesper Bratt if he opts to play junior hockey over the AHL and London is able to make room for him as an import player. This post is an interview with OHL expert Brock Otten so we can get to know a bit more about these players and how they've been developing.
First, I want to thank Brock for taking the time to answer these questions. I know he is in the midst of his "31 Teams in 31 Days" series on his blog, OHL Prospects, that reviews every NHL teams OHL prospects. I appreciate him making time for us. His blog is a great resource for year round OHL prospect coverage and everything going on within the league. If you want to learn more about the league and prospects, then I highly recommend reading it on a consistent basis. You can also follow him on twitter (@BrockOtten) to keep up with everything going on in the OHL. Now on to the questions about the Devils OHL prospects.
C/RW Blake Speers & D Colton White (Sault Ste. Marie)
AAtJ: How do you view the development of Blake Speers and Colton White over the course of their OHL careers?
Brock Otten: Speers: I think it’s safe to say that Speers has developed incredibly well as a prospect since he was drafted. Nearly every area of his game has developed. Adding strength really did wonders for his game, as he always had the speed and smarts. With added strength came the ability to extend plays and possession so that he could better utilize his speed and his great vision to make plays, especially in the middle of the ice. Obviously the wrist injury he suffered this year wasn’t ideal, but I think he’s ready for the pro game next year.
White: Over the course of his OHL career, I think White developed well as an OHL defender. I would say that his offensive game probably didn’t develop as well as many thought it would. I’d even say that he took a bit of a step backward offensively this year. But I think that was by design so that he could really focus on improving in his own end. And he definitely did that. White’s mobility has always been an asset, but his defensive positioning and reads have really improved, and he played with a lot more physical bravado this year, engaging way more without the puck. Offensively, he can still be prone to some turnovers, so I think he’ll need to really simplify his game at the next level, but major steps forward were taken defensively to the point where I’d call him one of the better defensive defenders in the OHL.
AAtJ: What type of players do you think they can become at the professional level?
Brock Otten: Speers: That’s a tough question. I think the first thing you need to decide is whether Speers stays down the middle as a pro or shifts to wing. I think he’s got a great shot to stay down the middle because of his speed, smarts, and face-off abilities. If that’s the case, I think best case scenario sees Speers develop into a quality top 6 center in the Paul Stastny/Derek Stepan mold. Even though Speers cracked the opening day lineup this year before being sent back, I think that a year spent in the AHL would be good for him to adjust to the pro game (to continue to get stronger).
White: I could see White developing into a quality third pairing defender who can help kill penalties and keep things simple offensively. Think Matt Hunwick. Probably needs at least a few years of seasoning at the AHL level though.
C Michael McLeod (Mississauga)
AAtJ: Michael McLeod has had a strong OHL career but seemed to reach a higher level in the 2nd half of last season and the playoffs. How do you view his progression as a prospect over the course of last season?
Brock Otten: As you mentioned, McLeod was dynamite in the second half. To be honest, I was disappointed with his play up until the holiday break. The Steelheads were struggling (much to the surprise of everyone) and he needed to own part of that. But after coming back from the World Juniors, it’s like a fire was lit under his ass and he had found a new level of confidence. From January on, McLeod was extremely aggressive in attacking the net, utilizing his speed and size to own the middle of the ice, something that people have been looking for him to do since he came to the OHL. His shot remains a work in progress, but by attacking the middle, he doesn’t need to have the world’s best shot to score goals. And of course, he remains a workhorse at both ends. A very good year for McLeod.
AAtJ: Do you think he's ready for the NHL in 2017-18?
Brock Otten: Do I think he’s ready for the NHL? Yes. I think McLeod could earn a spot on New Jersey’s 3rd or 4th line and provide speed, energy, physicality, and defensive awareness to their line-up. BUT, I don’t think it would be the right play for his development. He’s finally showing signs of being able to dominate his peers offensively, and I think he needs to return to the OHL to continue to gain confidence in his offensive abilities. I feel like his development offensively could be stagnated if he plays in the NHL next year, as the learning curve will be great in other areas. Mississauga will be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference again and McLeod could have a chance to be one of the better players in the league. Another year in the OHL would be great for his development IMO. Let him continue to work on his shot, on his ability to use his speed to open up chances for his teammates, and on his overall offensive vision and playmaking ability.
RW/C Nathan Bastian (Mississauga)
AAtJ: Nathan Bastian's production slipped a bit last season for Mississauga as he was separated from Michael McLeod. How would you view his 2016-17 season? How much did shifting from wing to center during the season affect him?
Brock Otten: Bastian had one of the most disappointing seasons of any prospect in the OHL, IMO. I don’t think shifting from wing to center had anything to do with it, to be honest. That’s something that he’s done regularly throughout his OHL career. I pinpoint it to a few factors. a) His skating never really improved as an OHL player and remains a weakness. Still lacks that explosiveness in his stride that could help him get to loose pucks quicker. b) His physicality took a step back this season IMO. Wasn’t as aggressive without the puck and didn’t use his size as well as he should have. And c) His hands in close and shot never improved to the point where he could be considered a real threat to score consistently.
AAtJ: What aspects of his game does he need to focus on improving in your opinion?
Brock Otten: I alluded to that above. Skating, shot generation, and the ability to utilize his size without the puck are things that need to improve. I think most important is the development of that physical game. At this point, I think we can say Bastian’s offensive game isn’t at the level where we could realistically expect him to be a top 6 contributor. As such, he’s going to need to add that physical element to be a 3rd/4th line contributor. He’s a very defensively aware player. His defensive IQ is solid. But there needs to be more, especially with his lack of speed. And if he wants to stay down the middle, improving his faceoff ability will be key too.
G Evan Cormier (Saginaw)
AAtJ: What is your assessment of Evan Cormier's skill set and potential?
Brock Otten: Big goalie who relies on positioning and his size to make saves. Takes away the top part of the net well and has worked hard to improve his rebound control. Still needs to get quicker side to side to take away the bottom of net and work to shake off some bad goals. Consistency remains an issue. But he had a decent year for a poor Saginaw team. Kept that Spirit team in a lot of games that they didn’t deserve to be in. Still, we’re looking at a goaltending prospect who has yet to produce a save percentage above .900 in a season. Needs to take a step forward for New Jersey to offer him a contract next year IMO.
AAtJ: How do you view his development over the course of his OHL career? What do you expect out of him next season?
Brock Otten: He’ll return as an overager and the expectation would be that he be in the conversation for one of the top 5 best goalies in the OHL next year. This is a kid who’s seen a lot of rubber over his OHL career and now is the time to take that next step. Saginaw will once again rely upon him to be their starter and he’ll look to get them back to the playoffs. That said, I don’t see them being very strong, so it will take quite the performance from Cormier to get them there. No question, he’ll need to hit that elusive .900 save percentage mark and then some.
RW Marian Studenic (Hamilton)
AAtJ: What are your thoughts on Marian Studenic's rookie season in the OHL last year? What role did he play for Hamilton?
Brock Otten: Studenic had an up and down first season in the OHL. Some games I saw of Hamilton, he was completely invisible. Other games (especially later in the year), he was terrific. He did see only 3rd line ice time mostly, with little powerplay time. That has a chance to improve next year.
AAtJ: What type of player is he and what type of potential does he have?
Brock Otten: Studenic is a slick skating, offensive winger with goal scoring potential. He’s got very good hands in transition and can make defenders miss. Needs to be more aggressive in attacking the middle of the ice though and get stronger to be able to use his speed and hands, as he’s too easily pushed off the puck right now. Definitely a boom or bust prospect IMO. Has top 6 potential, even if he’s a long shot to reach it. As a late ‘98, he’ll need to take a massive step forward next year as a prospect to really give himself a shot at an NHL career, IMO.
LW Jesper Bratt (London)
AAtJ: If Jesper Bratt ends up with London for the 2017-18 season, then what type of role do you expect him to play?
Brock Otten: Bratt would have the opportunity to play a top 9 role, perhaps even as a top 6 winger for the Knights. I would imagine that they would expect him to be a fixture on their penalty kill and would perhaps even see some secondary powerplay time, depending on performance. Could see him being a 25/35 type of player for London.
From the OHL to NHL
AAtJ: From your perspective, what makes the difference between a top OHL player and a legitimate future NHL player?
Brock Otten: That’s the age old question is it not? It’s what makes a scout’s job so difficult. How can you tell when a player’s dominance at the junior level will translate to being a dominant NHL player? Or when will you know that their particular skill set won’t translate well? In today’s NHL, I think it all comes down to skating ability. It’s never been more important than it is now. Being able to play in transition, at both ends, is so critical. Another thing I always look at is, where a player does their damage. In the NHL, the majority of the goals are scored from within 5 feet of the crease, where as in junior, you see a lot more goals from the outside. If a junior player makes their living on the outside, their point totals likely won’t translate unless they adapt their game. Lastly, I look at hockey sense. Are we looking at a 6’4, 220lbs, 20 year old dominating against 17 year old 5’11 defenders, using just size and bravado to physically overpower. Or is this 6’4 kid beating those same defenders to the right spot and anticipating the play, then using his size to keep them on his back? When you can skate, when you’re fearless, and when you’ve got smarts, (to go with skill, obviously), that’s when you’ve got a legitimate future NHL player IMO.
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!