When any hockey player has a great season, regardless of being a skilled rookie or a chiseled veteran, one often wonders how he will fare in the following year. In the OHL, it is no different. Fans, coaches and media often scrutinize whether that player will live up to the expectations that have now begun to follow him around. There have been many players in the OHL in 2011-12 who had brilliant seasons; that being said, there are always surprises — usually those least expected — and it is that group of players are usually the ones most put under the microscope for the following year. In all honesty, it also takes weight off the shoulders of superstar players in the league, ones who are already being closely observed.
It is only when the new OHL season begins where it is known whether or not they continue what they started the previous campaign. Here is a list of players, one per team, who are likely to continue their success in 2012-13.
Let us know what you think the future holds for these exceptional athletes.
Barrie Colts — Aaron Ekblad
Aaron Ekblad came into the OHL in 2011-12 with incredible expectations after being the first overall pick in the 2011 OHL Priority Selection, especially since the young 1996-born defenceman was granted “exceptional player status” to be chosen a year early. He did not only meet expectations; he shattered them. Ekblad scored 29 points, including ten goals, best among all Colts blueliners. He scored his first OHL career point, which was his first OHL career goal, on October 8, 2011, his seventh game in the league. Ekblad recorded eight two-point games and he had 21 of his 29 points by the start of 2012. He helped Ontario win gold at the World Under-17s, scoring three points in five games. Ekblad also had five points in the playoffs for Barrie, including a goal in each series. The 6’3″, 207-pound rearguard was rewarded with the Emms Family Award as the OHL’s top rookie. The graduation of Norm Ezekiel and Reid McNeill will make him even more prominent on the blueline for Dale Hawerchuk in 2012-13. To add, his older brother Darien, a goaltending prospect of the Plymouth Whalers, may join him in the OHL full time next season.
Belleville Bulls — Daniil Zharkov
Daniil Zharkov had to wait a while for his first game in the OHL because the young Russian sniper had to recover from an injury. When he was finally healthy enough to join the Bulls full time, he did not disappoint. He scored two goals in his first OHL game on November 2, 2011, against the Ottawa 67’s. In fact, he had five two-goal games during the 2011-12 campaign, all coming before he had played a dozen games in his new league. He wasted no time adapting to the larger ice surface in Belleville at the Yardmen Arena, or adapting to the OHL in general. Zharkov scored 11 points in his first month with the Bulls, the same amount of points he scored in 36 games with the USHL’s Tri-City Storm the season before. He also showed that he was sound defensively and that he could play physically, holding his own in a fight against Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors forward Spenser Cobbold. His all-around play is reminiscent of another player to wear 17 for Belleville, that player being Anaheim Ducks forward Matt Beleskey. Zharkov played at the CHL Top Prospects Game in Kelowna in February and, after the Bulls were eliminated from the playoffs, he played for Russia at the World Under-18s.
Brampton Battalion — Keegan Wilson
Keegan Wilson could have been overwhelmed by the shift from a starting role in a junior C league to the rigours of the OHL. He, however, never faltered. Wilson, who had been drafted among 1995-born players (and one 1996-born player) in the 2011 OHL Priority Selection, was the #1 goalie for the Stayner Jr. C Siskins in 2010-11 and, within less than a calendar year, he was backing up Matěj Machovský, a goalie a year younger than himself. Wilson got his first OHL career win on September 30, 2011, a 25-save victory over the Sarnia Sting. On October 21, 2011, he recorded his first OHL career shutout, making 14 saves against the Kingston Frontenacs in a 4-0 Battalion win. Unlike Machovský, Wilson did not face many shots during most games, the most faced in one game being 41; this happened twice, October 27 and November 24 both against the Niagara IceDogs. Wilson enjoyed quite veritable success for a first-year OHL goaltender and his numbers reflected it. In 31 games, he had a 12-9-3-3 record, a 2.82 goals-against average, an .892% save percentage and the aforementioned shutout. His goals-against average was eighth best in the OHL but he was exempted from winning the F.W. “Dinty” Moore Trophy due to age restrictions.
(A video of highlights from Wilson’s first OHL shutout can be viewed here.)
Erie Otters — Stephen Harper
Stephen Harper may share his name with the Prime Minister of Canada (who is actually a hockey historian in his own right) but this young man made a name for himself south of the border. As the Erie Otters’ first-round pick in the 2011 OHL Priority Selection, the Burlington native struggled a bit at first in the OHL, going pointless in his first eight games. Scoring his first OHL career goal on October 25, 2011, against the Windsor Spitfires started him on the fast track toward elite rookie status. Two weeks later, he already had his first two-goal game. Harper remained an ever bright light in what was a tumultuous season for the Otters, one in which they finished last in the OHL standings. By the time he left for the World Under-17s, in which he helped win gold for Team Ontario, he had 13 goals. He enjoyed two more two-goal games but nothing topped the game of March 7, 2012. That game, in front of the Otters faithful, as well as 18 days before his 17th birthday, Harper scored his first OHL career hat trick; he added an assist for a four-point night. He finished the season with 35 points (24 goals, 11 assists) in 63 games. Harper was rewarded by being named the team’s top rookie and he is now expected to be a tutor for younger players coming to play down in Pennsylvania, including 2012 exceptional player and first-overall pick Connor McDavid.
Guelph Storm — Hunter Garlent
Hunter Garlent may be undersized (5’8″, 159 pounds) but his rookie season in the OHL was anything but. As the Guelph Storm’s first-round pick in the 2011 OHL Priority Selection, he joined a team that was a delicate balance of veteran leadership and youthful exuberance. The Storm realized that, in the not-too-distant future, they would lose players such as Francis Menard and Cody McNaughton to graduation, as well as Zack Mitchell not too long after that. That being said, it seemed as though the Thorold product was a great fit. Garlent worked his way up the depth chart for Scott Walker’s club as it would with most any rookie and, in good time, he did show that he was quite an adept playmaker from the early parts of the season, recording his first OHL career point — an assist — in only his fourth game. Garlent scored his first OHL career goal on October 21, 2011, against the Windsor Spitfires and it was the beginning of a resurgence in confidence. He made his way from playing with fellow rookies Patrick Watling and Ryan Horvat, to playing with veterans Brock McGinn and Scott Kosmachuk. He had two games in which he scored a pair of goals. All the while, he still managed to help win gold for Ontario at the World Under-17s. Garlent finished the season with 42 points (16 goals, 26 assists) in 60 games, seventh in team scoring.
Kingston Frontenacs — Darcy Greenaway
Darcy Greenaway proved in 2011-12 that it is possible to go home again. Originally a 2009 draft pick of the London Knights, the Wilton native was acquired by the Kingston Frontenacs in a 2011 offseason trade. He had previously played with Lake Forest Academy in Illinois and with the Wellington Dukes of the OJHL. Rather than possibly exploring the NCAA route, Greenaway opted to play for his hometown team. He shone throughout the preseason, something that warranted the 1993-born forward a roster spot. On September 22, 2011, his first OHL career game, Greenaway recorded his first OHL career point, an assist. Six games later, against the Oshawa Generals, he had his first goal. That was the beginning of something special. Greenaway recorded two goals in his next game and, 13 days later, he had another two-goal performance. He was starting to become one of the most consistent players on a Frontenacs team that was severely underachieving. On November 11, 2011, he had his first Gordie Howe hat trick in his OHL career. The start of 2012 did not stop the diminutive centreman who, by this time, was named an alternate captain. Greenaway was scoring points in bunches. He recorded his first OHL career hat trick on February 16, 2012, in Peterborough against the Petes. Greenaway finished the season with 52 points (27 goals, 25 assists) in 66 games. He was also Kingston’s nominee for the Red Tilson Trophy, which is awarded to the OHL’s most outstanding player.
Kitchener Rangers — Franky Palazzese
Franky Palazzese may have been classified as a backup this season in Kitchener but he surely did not play like one. Palazzese, who had spent the first part of his OHL career in Kingston, became one of the league’s better goaltenders in 2011-12. He was expected to learn from Anaheim Ducks draft pick John Gibson, who had signed with the Rangers in 2011, but it was the lanky Mississauga native who seemed to outplay the NHL prospect. His tenure in Kitchener started off poorly with only one win in five games but he followed that up with winning each of his five starts in November, allowing for him to be named the OHL Goalie of the Month for his efforts. In time, Palazzese was winning more games than he was losing. Additionally, he was facing many more shots than he would when he was with the Frontenacs. There were 17 games in which he faced over 40 shots and, in three of them, he faced over 50. He did not record any shutouts but he had stellar numbers. He had a 20-13-1-1 record in 36 games, registering a decision in all but one outing; those 20 wins were nearly 300% more than he had in 2010-11. As well, he had a 2.93 goals-against average and a .927% save percentage. Palazzese is now being ranked among the top OHL goalies going into the 2012 NHL Entry Draft; he will also be attending the NHL Draft Combine in June.
London Knights — Josh Anderson
Josh Anderson may not have accumulated as many points as other forwards on this list but it was his all-around play — which included offense, defence and physicality — that makes him one of the biggest surprises of the 2011-12 season. (It seems as though the London Knights do that with ease.) Anderson showed right away that he was an incredible playmaker, recording three assists in his first game. Physicality came next with a fight against André Comtois in a game against the Sudbury Wolves a week later. Two games later, he had his first OHL career goal. Fifteen days later, Anderson scored a goal that has been the highlight of his OHL career thus far. He may have struggled with issues of consistent point production but his defensive play remained intact. He had a positive plus-minus or was even in many games; he finished the season with a +17. One of his best months came in February of 2012, when he recorded six points — including five goals — in 11 games. Anderson finished the season with 22 points (12 goals, ten assists) and 34 penalty minutes in 64 games. With many of the Knights’ top players graduating or on the cusp of graduation, Anderson will be counted upon to have a bigger role in 2012-13.
Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors — Trevor Carrick
Trevor Carrick came into the OHL with incredible pedigree. His oldest brother Jake played four OHL seasons with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and the Windsor Spitfires; his other older brother Sam was the captain of the Brampton Battalion last year and he is a draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs. As well, his cousin Bobby Hughes spent several years with the Kingston Frontenacs. Carrick, the third of four brothers, joined the Majors in 2011-12 after playing a year of tier II hockey with the Stouffville Spirit of the OJHL. He started the season on defence but he found that points were not coming. He did, however, begin to employ considerable truculence, getting into four fights by the end of October 2011. Also in October, he scored his first OHL career goal against the Plymouth Whalers. After a while, as the new year dawned, Carrick was beginning to be used as a forward, something that actually helped his point production. He scored four assists in 11 games in January. February also saw a surge in point production, scoring six points (three goals, three assists) in as many games in the last part of the month. He also enjoyed a four-game goal-scoring streak between February 24 and March 2, 2012. He finished the season with 19 points (six goals, 13 assists) and 64 penalty minutes in a complete 68-game schedule.
Niagara IceDogs — Jesse Graham
Jesse Graham went into the 2011-12 OHL season looking to improve two things: his point production and his draft status. The Niagara IceDogs were a team looking to make a surge for the OHL championship in 2012, especially since they had a considerable number of NHL draft picks on their roster. The team already had Dougie Hamilton on their roster and, after the OHL trade deadline, they also had acquired Jamie Oleksiak, another first-round NHL draft pick. Graham struggled to score points in the early parts of the season but, by the middle of October, things started to turn around. He scored his first goal of the season on October 20, 2011, and he finished the month with six points. He accumulated seven points in November and seven again in December. When he was not scoring goals, it was assists he was tallying, accumulating 15 in the last two months of the year. Additionally, Graham’s defensive play also improved from the beginning of the campaign. On February 9, 2012, he was +5 in an 11-0 win over the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors; on March 4, 2012, the now infamous game against the Erie Otters, he was +6. Graham finished the season with 41 points (four goals, 37 assists) in 68 games; he was also +25. He is now being highly thought of for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, despite not playing at the CHL Top Prospects Game.