The New Jersey Devils will have four prospects competing in the Ontario Hockey League this upcoming season, starting with C Mitchell Hoelscher of the Ottawa 67’s. Hoelscher was selected in the 6th round, 172nd overall by the Devils in the 2018 NHL Draft. He’ll be joined this upcoming season by fellow 67’s teammates D Nikita Okhotyuk and RW Graeme Clarke as well as D Michael Vukojevic of the Kitchener Rangers. These three prospects were all selected this past June in the 2019 NHL Draft with Okhotyuk going in the 2nd round at 61st overall, Clarke in the 3rd round at 80th overall, and Vukojevic in the 3rd round at 82nd overall. Today, we will interview OHL expert Brock Otten so we can learn more about these players and where they are at from a developmental standpoint.
I want to thank Brock for once again taking the time to answer these questions as he has done for a few summers now. I’m sure many of you are aware of his work, but for those just getting into prospect following, let me give him an introduction. Brock runs the blog OHL Prospects which is the most in-depth source of information on prospects playing in the Ontario Hockey League. You’ll see us reference his work throughout the season and especially when it comes to draft coverage. Right now he’s in the midst of running his 31 Teams in 31 Days series which highlights every NHL team’s prospect group in the OHL. It is a great way to learn a lot more about these players and become familiar where each NHL organization stands when it comes to prospects at the OHL level. I highly recommend checking out OHL Prospects throughout the year and following Brock on twitter (@BrockOtten) for info and analysis. He has also been an OHL scout for McKeen’s Hockey which provides excellent prospect coverage. Now let’s get to Brock’s opinion on the Devils OHL prospects.
C Mitchell Hoelscher (Ottawa)
AAtJ: Last summer you mentioned to us that Ottawa is likely going to be “crazy good” over the next two seasons. Ottawa certainly lived up to those expectations with a league best 50-12-4-2 record and 106 points last season. They even swept their first 3 playoff series before being upset by Guelph 4-2 in the OHL Championship. How did Hoelscher contribute to the team’s success and where do you think he’ll fit into the line up this upcoming season?
Brock Otten: Down the stretch and into the playoffs, Hoelscher centered the 67’s fantastic third line with OA’s Kyle Maksimovich and Lucas Chiodo. The three formed almost instant chemistry upon the acquisitions of Maksimovich and Chiodo near the trade deadline. This really turned around Hoelscher’s season from a statistical standpoint as the three were consistent producers. Hoelscher was also a key member of Ottawa’s penalty killing unit and a guy they relied on at times to protect leads late in games or to shut down the top line of the opposition. Next year, Hoelscher should be upgraded to centering the 67’s second line, where I would imagine he partners with at least one of Graeme Clarke or Jack Quinn. He should also receive powerplay time as part of their second unit, which likely helps to increase his offensive production.
AAtJ: Going back to last year’s interview, you mentioned that developing his shot and improving his strength would be keys to Hoelscher’s game moving forward. You also wanted to see him develop a more dynamic skating element. Do you feel that he improved in these areas over last season? What type of career path do you think he’s on at this stage of his development?
Brock Otten: Yes, and no. I think, unquestionably, these three areas remain weaknesses for Hoelscher and how those three areas progress this year will dictate whether the Devils offer him a contract. Hoelscher’s strengths remain his hockey sense and vision with the puck. But becoming stronger on the puck would allow him to drive play more effectively and allow him to take greater advantage of his gifts. The same could be said about his skating ability. I think his top speed did improve this year, however his first few steps still need to improve. He forces a lot of turnovers as a defensive player and this would allow him to really take advantage of those and turn more of them into scoring chances the other way. As for a future career path, I think Hoelscher still projects as a solid 3rd/4th line center who can anchor a penalty killing unit.
AAtJ: The Devils hold Hoelscher’s rights until June 1, 2020. What do you think he needs to do to show that he should be signed? What would you consider a successful season for him?
Brock Otten: While offensive production isn’t everything, I think Hoelscher will need to be a point per game player for the Devils to consider signing him. This would include taking the next step as an offensive player by improving the strength of his shot and his confidence in using it. It would also include improving his skating ability. As someone who projects as a 3rd/4th line center, this will be key. He is such an intelligent player, but without adding that extra gear, he won’t be able to be as effective as a defensive player or penalty killer at the NHL level. You don’t see many players in today’s NHL succeeding in that type of role without being a high level skater.
D Nikita Okhotyuk (Ottawa)
AAtJ: Back in May, you wrote that Okhotyuk projects as a stay at home defender at the next level but noted that his mobility, physical play, and discipline are all positive factors in his game. What areas of his defensive game do you feel he still needs to work on?
Brock Otten: Quite honestly, Okhotyuk is already a pretty polished defensive player. As a late 2000 born, he’s an OHL veteran and will be entering his final (likely) OHL season. For as physical as he is in the open ice, I would like to see Okhotyuk be a little tougher to play against near the crease. At times, forwards can elude his grasp, so asserting himself more physically and really using his size in tight would be a great next step. Additionally, I’d like to see Okhotyuk’s play with the puck in his own end tighten up. This includes the routes he takes to dump ins, getting himself in better position to retrieve loose pucks and make himself less prone to turnovers. His mobility can be an asset here, but it’s not something that he uses well enough with the puck in the defensive end.
AAtJ: What type of role did he play for Ottawa last season and what role can we expect him to play this upcoming season?
Brock Otten: Last season, Okhotyuk played a shutdown role, pairing with either Hudson Wilson or Merrick Rippon. He was responsible for shutting down the opposition’s top line and anchoring Ottawa’s main penalty killing unit. This upcoming season, Okhotyuk’s role shouldn’t change much with Ottawa returning nearly their entire defensive unit from a year ago. As such, he’s not likely to receive powerplay time, which I’m sure Devils fans will be disappointed about.
AAtJ: From a production standpoint, his offensive game seems fairly limited. Do you feel that he has another level he can reach and what aspects of his game does he need to improve to take that next step?
Brock Otten: Okhotyuk is one of those players whose offensive game passes the eye test quite often, but his efforts are not often recorded on the stat sheet. He does jump up into the play quite often, looking to find an opening to use his big point shot. And he will extend rushes deep into the offensive zone, going end to end. But none of these things are consistent, which helps to explain his lack of production. I think part of this is the role that Ottawa has asked him to play. I also think part of this is a lack of confidence in his ability to be an impact offensive player without sacrificing his defensive commitments. In order to truly take that next step as a consistent 5 on 5 offensive play creator, Okhotyuk’s ability to carry the puck will need to improve. His skill and strength on the puck would definitely have to be considered average.
RW Graeme Clarke (Ottawa)
AAtJ: Clarke has shown plenty of skill and goal scoring capability, recently putting up 23 goals in 55 regular season games and 7 goals in 18 playoff games for Ottawa last season. With that said, there seems to be a variety opinions about his game and potential. Back in May, you wrote that “his creativity and hands are elite” and that he “has one of the best shot releases in the age group and projects as a big time goal scorer at this level and the next”. What makes you think that his skills can translate into more success at the OHL level and into future success at the professional level?
Brock Otten: I stand by that statement. Clarke truly is one of the OHL’s most creative and individually talented players with the puck. And his shot release and power are terrific. In his minor midget season alone, he might have scored at least three times using the ‘Mike Legg’ lacrosse style goal. Receiving inconsistent ice time, Clarke was a 23 goal scorer this year, on only 116 shots. Next year, he will get all the ice time that he can handle, perhaps on the top line with Austen Keating and Marco Rossi. He will also be a fixture on the top powerplay unit. If he can get close to the 200 shot mark, it’s not inconceivable to see him scoring 40+ next season.
AAtJ: You noted in that post that you have concerns over his skating ability due to a stride that doesn’t generate a ton of power. Do you feel that is something that can make or break his career at the professional level?
Brock Otten: I think, without question. His skating has already improved a lot, which is a good thing. But it will need to continue to do so for him to be an NHL player. As a goal scorer and a skilled player, he will need to be able to create that time and space for himself. His hands are great, but he’s not a huge kid so being able to beat defenders to scoring areas is a necessity. How many quality CHL goal scorers have we seen fail to make the NHL level because their skating ability held them back?
AAtJ: I’ve read criticism of Clarke’s defensive and physical games throughout his pre-draft and draft seasons from a variety of reports. Do you feel that he’s made enough improvement in these areas to silence some of his critics? Are you concerned about these aspects of his game going forward?
Brock Otten: I would have been way more concerned had these areas not improved greatly this year. His draft stock hinged on it. Does his consistency away from the puck still need to improve? Yes. Will he need to learn to play through traffic better and fight for positioning in the middle of the ice? Yes. But based on how much these areas improved from his rookie OHL season to his sophomore, it’s obvious that he has identified these as areas of weakness and is willing to put in the work to be a better all around player. And as mentioned, he’s going to get the ice time in Ottawa to be able to flourish further.
D Michael Vukojevic (Kitchener)
AAtJ: In a pre-draft post back in May, you mentioned that Vukojevic was a reliable defender that played a lot for Kitchener this past season. What type of role did he play at even strength and on the penalty kill? What type of role do you expect him to play this upcoming season?
Brock Otten: Vukojevic played on Kitchener’s top pairing and was the team’s go to defender 5 on 5. He was an absolute work horse for them. If they were protecting a lead in the third period, he would play half of that final frame. Vukojevic was also the anchor of the penalty killing unit. He saw snippets of powerplay time too, on the second unit. Next year, his role is yet to be determined. No question, he will continue to be an anchor 5 on 5 and on the penalty kill. But his potential role on the powerplay remains to be seen. Kitchener drafted two offensively oriented defenders in the Import draft this year and if they report, it seems very unlikely that Vukojevic receives powerplay time this year when you combine that with Sebrango’s inevitable development.
AAtJ: With his 6’3, 200 lbs. frame and desire to compete physically in his own end, do we need to be concerned about his ability to stay out of the penalty box?
Brock Otten: Not at all IMO. Vukojevic is far from a reckless player. He’s a different type of physical player to Okhotyuk. He’s not really one to go chasing the big hit. He allows the game to come to him. His physicality comes out along the wall and near the crease, where he makes life very difficult for attackers looking to gain body positioning on him. His skating ability really improved this year too, which helped him cut down on some of those more “undisciplined or lazy” types of penalties.
AAtJ: Do you feel that he has the tools to develop more of an offensive game or do you see him more as a shutdown defender?
Brock Otten: In the second half of this year, I definitely saw gains in his offensive abilities. His confidence with the puck, in particular, really seemed to improve. We saw him chipping the puck out of the zone less/deferring to his partner for exits less, and taking on greater responsibility of the breakout. We also saw him jumping up into the play more looking for opportunities to put pucks on net. That said, his defensive game will be his ticket to being an NHL player. While I anticipate that his offensive production will increase over his OHL career, I don’t necessarily see his projection changing all that much. That’s not a knock on him either. I think there’s still a place in the game for the Mattias Norstrom or Chris Phillips types.
AAtJ: The OHL has long been one of the top developmental leagues for producing NHL players. This past draft was regarded as one of the thinner classes for OHL players compared to recent seasons. At the 2019 Draft, only 25 OHL players were selected with just 4 1st rounders. That was the fewest 1st rounders since the 2007 Draft and the first time since the 2006 Draft that less than 30 OHL players were selected. Do you expect the league to rebound to their normal levels in the 2020 Draft?
Brock Otten: 110%. The 2020 Draft is looking tremendous for the OHL right now. I’ve seen some lists with close to one third of the first round ranked players coming from the OHL. There’s depth. There’s high end talent (potential top 5/10 selections) with Quinton Byfield, Jamie Drysdale, Cole Perfetti, and Marco Rossi. It’s going to be a very exciting year to cover the league.
AAtJ: What do you think would be fair expectations for Ottawa and Kitchener in this upcoming season?
Brock Otten: I think it’s fair to list both as OHL Championship contenders at this point in time. Ottawa will need to replace some of their graduating scorers, but they will be incredibly difficult to score on with their defense and Cedrick Andree in net. Meanwhile, the Rangers will be a veteran group who just went out and acquired a veteran goaltender in Kings’ draft pick Jacob Ingham. That was their one weak spot heading into the year and they’ve already shored it up. It’s highly possible that these two teams meet in the OHL finals.
I want to thank Brock for once again providing us with his insight into the Devils OHL prospects. Be sure to keep checking out OHL Prospects stay up to date with all of the prospects in that league. Now I want to hear your opinions on the Devils 4 OHL prospects. Which of these prospects do you feel will make an impact for the Devils down the road? Which prospect do you find the most intriguing? What are your expectations for this group of prospects? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!