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OHL Round-up: Steelheads shining

11/7/2012

OHL WATCH

Editor's Note: * = Named to at least one of two OHL rosters for the Subway Super Series

In the case of an aspiring young hockey player, the destination overshadows the journey when the opportunity to play professionally is conceivably within reach. Whether a young lad is drafted early in his first year of eligibility, or his third go-around, or is bypassed altogether and signed as a free agent down the road -- the station of arrival matters more than the route taken.

At different stages in their respective OHL careers, all three members of the top line for the Mississauga Steelheads -- one of the hottest trios in the league -- could end up playing hockey for a living. Especially if they continue to make the same productive music together they have since the start of this campaign.

Approaching his first year of draft eligibility, Josh Burnside has above-average speed, great hands, smarts and a fantastic attitude. A nice recipe for a future NHLer, yes? At last check, Burnside was slated to go in the third or fourth round of the 2013 Draft. But a little more size and strength could go some length to improving that projection.

"I still need to get bigger out there," the 17-year-old winger agreed recently, pledging to add to the 20 lbs. of muscle he gained this summer. "They (the opposition) can push me around still [and] I want to stand my ground and be able to do my thing."

Burnside's "thing" includes snuggling up to the net, creating space by asserting himself physically, winning battles in the corners, and bringing a sense of defensive responsibility to Mississauga's top line. His flaws/weaknesses are few, but the squad's general manager/head coach wants more -- as bench bosses are usually wont to do -- from the former blueliner.

"He could be a little bit more physical," James Boyd admitted, following Friday's 4-1 victory over the Peterborough Petes. "I think he errs on the side of caution, and that might be the defenseman in him, but I would like to see him be a little bit more aggressive. I don't mean running guys through the boards, but asserting himself when he has opportunities."

As an already noteworthy element of the 2013 draft conversation, Burnside's progress in that regard is worth tracking this season.

As for the top trio's elder statesman, the draft is no longer part of the equation for 20-year-old Riley Brace. But that doesn't mean the fifth-year player can be ruled out as a future pro. GM/Coach Boyd believes the well-rounded forward deserves a legitimate shot at the next level.

"Riley Brace is the straw that stirs the drink for our team, offensively (and) defensively," Boyd said, outlining the leadership role the veteran has taken on in the last couple of years. "When you need a big goal, he's often the guy that's involved in the play. I think he plays extremely hard and he's smart. And I hope he gets an opportunity."

He very well might. The two-way winger with a relatively new fondness for scoring was invited to development camp for the San Jose Sharks this past summer. And Brace is already on pace to exceed last season's 82-point output.

Then there's Dylan Smoskowitz. Of the three, Smoskowitz' future seems the fuzziest. After falling flat with the Barrie Colts in 2011-12 -- a "black hole of a season," according to his current coach -- the 19-year-old forward appears to be having the time of his life with his new squad. Notching 11 goals and four assists in 13 games, Smoskowitz is determined to remain in the moment and not take anything for granted.

"It's funny to think two months ago I was sitting at home on my couch, not knowing where my next game of hockey was going to be played, and I was fortunate to get this second opportunity," said Smoskowitz, crediting his linemates with helping resurrect his junior career. "I got the call from Mississauga and I couldn't be happier with how things have worked out."

However, the hard-working winger/center can't be ruled out as a potential dark horse come June -- particularly if he maintains his current rate of success. Furthermore, the admirable work ethic and team-first attitude may be the elements that help convince an NHL club to finally call Smoskowitz' name in his third year of eligibility.

Again, while the journey -- however long, short, or winding -- may be enjoyable and gratifying in its own right, reaching the ultimate goal of playing hockey for a paycheck could be a realistic and ultra-sweet reward for these three members of the OHL Steelheads.

Class of 2013

Spencer Martin is considered the current top-ranked goaltending prospect from the OHL this season. The Steelheads netminder boasts a 9-2 record and .937 save percentage after 11 appearances. Good enough to go in the first round? Maybe. NHL Central Scouting upgraded Martin to 'A' status recently.

• Finnish forward Jonatan Tanus appears to be adapting well to life on and off the ice in North America in his first year with the Petes. It's not often a rookie is used on the penalty kill, Mike Davies of the Peterborough Examiner pointed out to me at last Friday's losing effort in Mississauga. True enough. Tanus is pegged as a later-round selection this early in the season.

• In the company of NHL prospects Mark Scheifele* (Winnipeg Jets, 1st round, 2011), Anthony Camara* (Boston Bruins, 3rd round, 2011) and Andreas Athanasiou (Detroit Red Wings, 4th round, 2012), an undrafted 19-year-old is also meriting attention as a top-six asset for the Barrie Colts. Passed over by all 30 NHL clubs last June, Zach Hall* is showcasing his scoring upside with nine goals and 16 assists through 16 games. When watching the diminutive forward play live, it's easy to understand why he's so effective.

Not only does Hall bring a hefty dose of on-ice leadership to the mix, but his vision is top-notch. And the Belleville, Ontario native moves well too. It's no surprise the Vancouver Canucks extended Hall an invitation to their prospect development camp this past summer. While size remains a concern, Hall's other categories of strength -- leadership, smarts, vision, puck-movement, skating -- justify another look this June.

• Along with Hall (Barrie), Barclay Goodrow* of the Brampton Battalion was named to one of two OHL rosters for this month's Subway Super Series. The imposing winger will be draft-eligible for the third and final time in 2013. Fortunately, he's been impressive so far this season.

• Defenseman Darnell Nurse continues to attract the finest brand of attention for his play with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. A naturally imposing and athletic presence (tall, big, strong, fast), Nurse is further evolving into a offensive threat this season. The towering D-man has 13 points through 18 games.

Class of 2014 (and beyond)

Sidney Crosby-endorsement aside, forward Connor McDavid* (eight goals, 13 assists) is living up to the hype most nights for the Erie Otters. Not bad for a 15-year-old measuring 5-foot-11 and weighing in at a buck-seventy. Granted exceptional status for the 2012 OHL draft (like Aaron Ekblad of the Barrie Colts the year previous), McDavid isn't eligible for NHL selection until 2015.

Notable NHL prospects

• Forwards Ryan Strome* (New York Islanders, 1st round, 2011) and Brett Ritchie* (Dallas Stars, 2nd round, 2011) are clearly in some sort of groove, collecting 12 and 13 points, respectively, in three games for the Niagara IceDogs this past week. Along with linemate Mitchell Theoret (Islanders, 7th round, 2011) Strome and Ritchie are largely responsible for Niagara's 12-6-1 record.

• After a slow September -- in relative terms -- Alex Galchenyuk (Montreal Canadiens, 1st round, 2012) is successfully shrugging off his injury-riddled 2011-12 campaign. Seven points in two games for the Sarnia Sting over the weekend has Galchenyuk within striking distance of the league-leading Strome.

Tyler Graovac* (Minnesota Wild, 7th round, 2011) has been a pleasant surprise for the Ottawa 67's thus far. The towering centerman already has 25 points racked up this autumn. And, more importantly, there aren't any obvious lingering effects from last season's concussion.

• Winger Stefan Noesen (Ottawa Senators, 1st round, 2011) may have put an end to his cold skid. After notching only six points in his previous 11 contests (minus-six on the season), the Plymouth Whalers forward found the back of the net twice in Tuesday's 4-1 victory over the Saginaw Spirit.

• According to the Sault Ste. Marie Star, a judicial pre-trial conference in the sexual assault case involving Nick Cousins (Philadelphia Flyers, 3rdround, 2011), Andrew Fritsch (Phoenix Coyotes, 6th round, 2011), and Mark Petaccio has been scheduled for Dec. 20. The three members of the Soo Greyhounds are charged in connection with an alleged incident involving a woman that police say occurred Aug. 25. The next court date is set for Jan. 14.