The CHL Top Prospects Game is not the be all and end all — nor is the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, the Canada-Russia Series, the World Juniors or any other showcase involving draft-eligible players.
Scouts do put a lot of stock in those best-on-best events, so a strong showing can certainly help and a not-so-strong performance can potentially hinder, but NHL teams are evaluating an entire body of work throughout the draft year — from start to finish, with plenty of hockey still to be played between now and June’s draft in Vancouver.
So Wednesday’s game in Red Deer — the 24th annual CHL Top Prospects Game — amounts to just one contest, one step in the process, albeit an important one every year on the scouting calendar.
2019 #SWTP Final Score:
Team Orr (5) vs Team Cherry (4)
— CanadianHockeyLeague (@CHLHockey) January 24, 2019
Watching that game not once, but twice — live in real time, then on PVR with the ability to rewind multiple times — I found it much easier to pick out the prospects helping their stock as opposed to those hindering. That is typically the case when scouting most games, but the number of prospects climbing my personal rankings far outweighed the fallers on this night.
In saying that, here are five prospects trending up and five trending down based on my observations from the CHL Top Prospects Game.
RELATED: Fisher’s Top 217 for January
1) Nick Robertson (LW/LC, USA, Peterborough OHL)
Dynamic and dangerous on seemingly every shift, Robertson dazzled as a playmaking extraordinaire in setting up his linemates Arthur Kaliyev and Peyton Krebs for highlight-reel goals. Robertson finished with three assists and that trio was by far the best on the ice.
All three raised their stock — all three could have appeared on this list — but Robertson stole the show by displaying the same high-end skill that he flashed throughout the Hlinka tournament. Back then, in August, I touted Robertson as a potential top-15 pick and he’s making me a believer again.
For the record, Robertson was ranked No. 32 — the first pick of the second round — for my January rankings published prior to the CHL Top Prospects Game and was also listed among my monthly risers. He debuted at No. 26 in my preseason rankings before slipping as low as No. 54 largely due to an injury absence, but he’s back to being a first-rounder for me as of today.
2) Samuel Bolduc (LD, Canada, Blainville-Boisbriand QMJHL)
I’m admittedly late in getting on the Bolduc bandwagon — he was still way down at No. 183, a sixth-rounder for my January rankings — but he won me over in Red Deer and it’s safe to say he’s in my top 100 now. Possibly my top 75 and perhaps even my top 62 for February.
Bolduc was that impressive — from dominating the fitness testing to standing out on the ice with a couple eye-opening rushes and several more subtle plays, a strong skater and a powerhouse in general — but, again, it’s only one game and I’ll have to do some more due diligence on him in the weeks to come before releasing next month’s rankings. I’m intrigued by his skill-set, I liked what I saw, and I plan on tracking this prospect closer in the second half.
3) Nikita Okhotyuk (LD, Russia, Ottawa OHL)
Next to Bolduc, Okhotyuk might be the biggest overall riser for me coming out of the CHL Top Prospects Game — considering I had him ranked No. 129, a fifth-rounder in January. I liked his game — his assertive passes and his physical presence — long before Okhotyuk scored for Team Orr to cut the deficit to 4-3 in an eventual 5-4 win. That goal, a harmless-looking point shot through a screen that eluded Taylor Gauthier, was the least of what caught my eye.
Okhotyuk is clearly better than his season-to-date stats suggest, with just one goal through 33 games for OHL-leading Ottawa. He may never develop into an offensive force, but he does appear to have nice upside as a defender. It’s rare for a defensive defenceman to do enough to get noticed in this type of event — to land on this type of list — but Okhotyuk did and definitely deserved that goal for his all-around game.
I’ve had Okhotyuk as high as No. 84 going back to my preseason rankings, but his lack of production had dropped him out of my top 100. Now that I have a better read on the type of player that he is — more impactful on defence than offence — Okhotyuk will be climbing my rankings again.
4) Graeme Clarke (RW, Canada, Ottawa OHL)
Okhotyuk’s teammate in Ottawa, Clarke wasn’t as consistently dominant as Robertson, but he emerged as a standout among the forwards. Clarke scored the goal of the game, dangling and deking his way into the highlights, but he had a few ‘wow’ moments and really seemed to be feeling ‘it’ on this night.
I was expecting Robertson to shine and I was really looking forward to full-game viewings of OHL risers Connor McMichael, Phillip Tomasino and Thomas Harley as well as another look at Jamieson Rees, who I really liked at the Hlinka, but Clarke had been flying under the radar for me since that summer tourney. He needed that kind of game to get back in my good books or simply to grab my attention again.
I don’t get to see a ton of OHL games and my contacts out east are very split in their opinions of prospects, so I struggle to get a read on some of the talent from that league. Thus Clarke had slid from No. 69 all the way down to No. 150 in my rankings over the last five months — another fifth-rounder for January — but rest assured he’ll be back in my top 100 for February after serving up a reminder of his offensive upside.
5) Mads Sogaard (G, Denmark, Medicine Hat WHL)
Sogaard was the best of the four goaltenders on this night, stopping 17-of-18 shots for Team Cherry through the first half of the game and totally redeeming himself for the shelling he took at the World Juniors. Sogaard needed to rebound — he had gone from a riser in December to a faller in January for me — and this was Sogaard at his best, the Sogaard that has stood tall for Medicine Hat all season long in the Dub. He even got to show off a bit of his personality in a bench interview after his work was done, which was also good to see.
Sogaard was No. 95 for me in January after jumping to No. 71 for me in December. He’ll probably get a little bump in my rankings thanks to this bounce-back effort — and more importantly he’ll get a confidence boost for himself — but Sogaard will still be in that range as a third-rounder for February.
1) Ryan Suzuki (LC, Canada, Barrie OHL)
Suzuki has been clinging to his status as the top OHL prospect in my rankings through January — he’s down to No. 12, having ranged from No. 9 to No. 15 for me to date — but he did little to lock up that title in the CHL Top Prospects Game. Suzuki was invisible for the most part in posting a blank stat-line while many of his OHL peers were raising their stock in my eyes.
I still really like Suzuki’s ceiling as a cerebral offensive catalyst — similar to his older brother Nick — but the likes of Kaliyev and McMichael, even Robertson and Tomasino are nipping at his heels coming out of this showcase. Tomasino didn’t factor into the scoring either, but he generated a lot more chances than Suzuki and had plenty of possession time. I thought McMichael was mediocre for much of the game before sniping the winner past Gauthier. Robertson and Kaliyev, with their chemistry together, were the best of that bunch from start to finish. So I’ll have to think long and hard on whether to maintain Suzuki’s top billing for February.
2) Josh Williams (RW, Canada, Edmonton WHL)
I’m more familiar with the WHL prospects and this honestly wasn’t a great night for most of them, with the exception of Krebs and Sogaard. Krebs was the best of the big three — better than Kirby Dach and Dylan Cozens — but most of the Dub forwards left a bit to be desired, including Williams. He had some decent shifts on a line with Suzuki and fellow OHLer Joe Carroll, but Williams seems to have lost a step from the Hlinka. Maybe it’s just me, but Williams looks bigger or bulkier, but also slower or sluggish at times. That could be part of his growth process — these are teenagers after all — but Williams didn’t have as much jump or pep in his step as we saw at that August tournament.
Williams will need to get quicker to be an effective pro, but we know he can shoot the puck like a pro. He’s a budding sniper, but he hasn’t been doing enough of that in the Dub either, with just 10 goals through 46 games in his draft year. The change of scenery from Medicine Hat to Edmonton at the Jan. 10 trade deadline should spark Williams going forward, but he’s closer to being a third-rounder than a first-rounder right now.
3) Nolan Foote (LW/LC, Canada/USA, Kelowna WHL)
Foote finished with two shots on goal but, like Williams, didn’t really get a sniff of the net. Foote also seemed sluggish on this night, a bit lumbering in his skating, and ran into the same problem in Red Deer that he’s dealt with all season in Kelowna — he needs to be paired with a playmaker, a set-up man, but Team Cherry had Foote on a heavy line with two other shooters in Cozens and Raphael Lavoie. That combination didn’t work out and didn’t showcase those three to the best of their abilities. They were outshone by smaller, quicker players.
Foote didn’t do much offensively and was guilty of screening Gauthier on Okhotyuk’s goal in which Foote was slow to cover the point and failed to block the shot. It was a mediocre effort all around for Foote, who had a much better showing during the Canada-Russia Series in November when he was a standout for Team WHL and had no problem keeping up with a similar pace to the CHL Top Prospects Game.
Chalk this up as an ‘off’ night for Foote, which is too bad because he was coming off arguably his best game of the season for Kelowna in scoring the shootout winner after netting a goal and two assists in regulation to upset Prince Albert 4-3. Fatigue may be partially to blame for Foote, following an intense weekend where his Rockets knocked off the top two teams in the WHL. Conversely, Foote was fresh as can be for the Canada-Russia Series, which occurred during the lightest stretch in Kelowna’s schedule. He elevated his game there but didn’t get back to that level in Red Deer.
4) Matthew Robertson (LD, Canada, Edmonton WHL)
Not to keep picking on my WHL boys, but the other Robertson on display didn’t bring his A-game. This Robertson has the size, skill and upside to be a first-round pick, but there are also concussion concerns and a cautiousness in his game that wasn’t there during the Hlinka. Call it timid or tentative, but Robertson wasn’t pushing the pace from the back end or attacking the puck the way he used to.
Perhaps he’s still getting back up to speed, but I didn’t love Robertson’s game here. Like Williams, his new teammate in Edmonton, Robertson will need to pick it up in the second half to have a hope of getting selected in the top 31. He’s capable, they both are, but they will have to go out and prove it the rest of the way.
5) Thomas Harley (LD, Canada/USA, Mississauga OHL)
This one will be controversial since Harley is trending up in everyone’s rankings, including mine. Harley is a first-round talent, his tools are very evident and were on full display in the CHL Top Prospects Game, so he’s a riser for me in that sense — I had him ranked at No. 33, the second pick of the second round for January, and he’ll be higher for February.
That said, I’m not sure Harley put his best foot forward in this particular game. He was very active, very noticeable, but a very mixed bag for me. He was a bit too casual for my liking, almost as if he was treating it as an All-Star Game instead of a draft showcase. Harley didn’t backcheck hard enough on Jakob Pelletier’s goal — he possesses the speed to prevent that pass from Dach but went into coast mode through the neutral zone — and that was just one example where he seemed to be going half-speed, All-Star speed if you will. But on the shifts where Harley was going full speed, a case could be made that he was the best defenceman in the game — even better than Bowen Byram, who had a relatively quiet yet efficient night despite ending with a minus-2 rating.