The Ontario Junior Hockey League typically isn’t seen as a hotspot for National Hockey League prospects. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some intriguing ones.
Matt Buckles leads the way among the OJHL’s draft-eligibles this season. The St. Michael’s Buzzers forward is the league’s top prospect on most draft rankings.
At this point, the average hockey fan likely begins to question who he is, never mind that they’ve never even heard of the team he’s playing for. Many fans are familiar with the OJHL, and might know what it is, but aren’t too familiar with who exactly plays in it and why they’re there.
To refresh some minds: the OJHL was founded in 1954 as the Central Junior B Hockey League. About twenty years ago, it became the Ontario Provincial Junior A Hockey League. And just a couple years ago, the OJHL became the province’s primary Junior A league.
The Ontario Hockey League (OHL) is widely considered the world’s best junior league, and that’s probably true. As a result, the OJHL is considered a step down the ladder, and rightfully so. Many players in the OJHL just aren’t quite talented enough to play on top lines and pairings in the OHL.
There are many players who choose to pass on the OHL and play either Tier II in the OJHL, or Junior B in the GOJHL. There’s a perfectly legitimate reason for this; it all depends on the young man’s priorities. For more than a few junior stars, education is more important than quality of competition.
Rules restrict athletes from playing NCAA hockey in the United States if they have already played in a CHL game. Oddly, there are no real limitations preventing NCAA players from moving to the CHL. In the case of Matt Buckles, he would prefer to play college hockey and receive an education while still making a run at a professional career.
During the 2010-2011 season, Buckles was one of a handful of star athletes with the Don Mills Flyers Minor Midget AAA team, which is based out of Toronto. Three of his teammates that season went in the first round of the 2011 OHL Priority Selection: defenceman Darnell Nurse went third overall to Sault Ste. Marie, forward Max Domi was selected eighth by the Kingston Frontenacs, and blueliner Adam Bateman was picked by the Niagara IceDogs.
Buckles played 32 games and put up 27 points for the Flyers that season, a group that just fell shy of winning the OHL Cup, a tournament that acts as a showcase for the best teams in the province. In those games, he proved himself worthy of being a fairly high OHL draft pick.
“Don Mills was the first step,” Buckles told The Hockey News. “It was a great place to play and we had great coaching. Knowing that even practice was competitive made for a healthy environment.”
The Greyhounds ended up taking Buckles in the fourth round of the draft. Given that the Soo had already picked Nurse, it was hard for Buckles to decline their offers.
Instead, Buckles made a commitment to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Playing for the Big Red next season is his current plan.
“With [Sault Ste. Marie] drafting Darnell, it was something I thought about,” Buckles said of joining the Greyhounds. “But I’m happy with my decision. They have a great tradition at Cornell. Guys like Joe Nieuwendyk and Ken Dryden went there and I’m really excited to get down there.”
The Buzzers are one of the most historic franchises in Ontario. Having existed since 1917, they’ve been around for a while. They also play in the legendary St. Michael’s College School Arena, one of the province’s best barns.
Buckles was rated by NHL Central Scouting as a B-level prospect at the start of the season. By those rankings, he’s currently projected to go in the second or third round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. At the moment, he’s showing why.
Through 18 games with St. Michael’s this season, Buckles has 25 points. Of those points, 12 of them have been goals. That’s good for the team lead, and it also counts him as one of the league’s top-twenty scorers.
Size-wise, Buckles is listed at a solid 6’1”, 204 pounds. Clearly he’s already physically mature. Now he’s hoping to develop his brain at Cornell next season, too.
“I just hate to lose,” the Buzzers star has said. Sure enough, his team sits second in their division, just behind the Oakville Blades. It’s a good attitude to have, and if the team’s fans haven’t done so already, they should prepare for a tight race to the playoffs.
Better buckle in.
David O’Connor is a managing editor with the Sunbelt Hockey Journal. His writing has been on the Los Angeles Times’ website, among other places. O’Connor also does some scouting work for the local Junior B hockey club. Please feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.