OHL Sunday Seven: Hockey’s Back!

The OHL Sunday Seven is back for the 2019-20 season. Every Sunday or thereabouts, we will go around the Ontario Hockey League and highlight seven stories or topics of interest. Welcome to September! With that, the preseason has started around the league. We’ll start with the Otters opening performance Saturday, then discuss way too early rankings of OHL draft eligible players and then end with a cool moment that started when things didn’t go as planned.

1. Connor Lockhart Shines in Debut

All I can remember leading up to the OHL Priority Selection was “Erie should take Brandt Clarke. They’d be foolish not to take the best defenseman available.”

We knew for a while the Otters had Connor Lockhart on their radar. And as expected, when the pick was formally announced, criticism came pouring in. The Otters loss is Barrie’s gain and so on.

Fast forward to Saturday night at Erie Insurance Arena. Lockhart put on a show for the fans in his OHL debut. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

I get it. It’s the first preseason game. You don’t put a ton of stock in what you see on the ice. But you do try to project for the future. At least for one night, it was plainly obvious why the Otters invested the third pick in Lockhart.

Three things immediately stood out. First he is fast, very very fast. He can create separation even in the tightest of spaces. He can also create havoc with his speed.

There was one play early in the game that really stood out. On the penalty kill, he forechecked his man with speed and created a turnover. The fact that Lockhart was on the penalty kill was one thing. The fact that he had a major impact on it is something completely different.

Later on he earned a penalty shot by going defense to offense and using his speed. He didn’t score, but he left his stamp on the game. Every time he was on the ice he was dangerous. He won’t have games like this all the time, but you can see a glimpse of the kind of force he can be.

Dave Brown, OHL, Erie Otters
GM Dave Brown believed Connor Lockhart was the best available player at third overall. (Photo courtesy of the OHL)

Second, he’s very smart for his age. He’s a good passer and makes the right play when multiple options are present.

Third, he’s very confident. He made a rush down left wing and had no regard for the defenders that tried stopping him. The moment doesn’t seem too big for him. He knows he’s good and will only get better with age and development.

Bottom line is this. The Otters got their guy and are extremely pleased with it. Saturday showed a small glimpse of this player’s upside.

2. How Lockhart is Adjusting to Erie

Lockhart immediately gave praise to his teammates for helping him get comfortable with his new surroundings. He took it a step further by honoring his billet brother Chad Yetman.

“He’s a great guy to be around”, Lockhart said of Yetman. “I’ve learned a lot from him, in practice, in everything helping me adapt to that semi-pro, pro environment here.”

Before getting to Erie for camp and the preseason, Lockhart said that he got to work out with the likes of Flyers’ superstar Claude Giroux and Ben Hutton.

Lockhart is doing all the right things to help with his adjustment from living in Ottawa to now living in Erie. His teammates have been instrumental in making it easier on him.

3. Other Otters’ Takeaways

Austen Swankler played in his first game in an Otters’ uniform. As expected he didn’t look out of place. He’s a top-line center who can play the physical game. This was a huge get for the Otters and one that could be looked back on at the end of the season as a big moment given what he brings.

The kids played well as expected. We wrote on Saturday that the Otters are embracing the youth movement. It’s easy to see why. Coach Chris Hartsburg said after the 8-0 win about the youth “They’re not here just to go back to another team. They’re here to make a statement.” That they are doing.

Moves will have to be made eventually. Do not be surprised if a veteran or two finds themselves on the outside looking in.

Austen Swankler, OHL, Erie Otters
Austen Swankler also impressed in his OHL debut. (Photo courtesy of the Erie Otters)

4. Way Too Early 2020 Draft Talk

Honestly it’s never too early for this, especially in the OHL with so much top end talent. The question is who is the best of this bunch?

For me, Quinton Byfield is in a class of his own for the OHL crop. The combination of everything he brings is just too tantalizing. While he remains second overall behind Alexis Lafreniere on my board, Byfield will be the first OHL player off the 2020 board.

Now the question is who’s second? It’s between Cole Perfetti and Jamie Drysdale for me and it’s very close. I do give the slightest of edges to Drysdale. A right-shot defenseman who can play both way and quarterback your power play is a rare thing to find.

Take nothing away from Perfetti as he is a very dynamic talent. I’m on record as saying he should have won rookie of the year over Byfield last season. But you don’t find players like Drysdale outside of the draft itself. From a supply and demand perspective, Drysdale over Perfetti and should hear his name in the top-five. He’s that good.

Jacob Perreault and Jean-Luc Foudy round out my OHL top-five. But if there’s a player we need to watch that can crack this list, it’s the player we will quickly discuss in story five.

5. Don’t Sleep on Antonio Stranges

It’s not often a London Knight gets looked over. Stranges will be a focus for many. But many will have a similar top-five to the one I have above. Stranges has first-round talent and can challenge for a spot in this top-five. That should tell you how deep the OHL crop is this season.

On a stacked London team in 2018-19, Stranges played mostly bottom-six minutes and still posted a line of 13-21-34. But two things stand out for me, his skill and his propensity to take over a game.

In a couple of viewings of him last season, Stranges earned a promotion in the lineup based on his play and he didn’t disappoint. He was always in the right place at the right time and made an impact. Not only did he earn his promotion, he showed he belonged. That’s impressive for a rookie.

And Stranges is immensely skilled. You did see his insane shootout move, right?

Stranges is primed to have a monster year for the Knights. When considering the draft order for OHL prospects this season, don’t forget about him.

6. Vince Laise Finally Gets His Chance

I got to catch up with former Erie Otters’ assistant and current Hamilton Bulldogs’ head coach Vince Laise after Saturday night’s game. He worked under Kris Knoblauch in Erie and thought he could be in line to take over once Knoblauch moved on.

That didn’t happen but that didn’t stop Laise from achieving his goal of becoming a head coach.

“It feels really good,” Laise told me about becoming a head coach. He paid his dues and did things the right way. The Bulldogs got a good one running their bench. This opportunity couldn’t have happened to a better guy.

7. Making the Best of Things

The anthem is a staple at hockey games. But when the microphone doesn’t work, you have to improvise. The fans in Guelph did just that and it resulted in a very cool moment for everyone there.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next time.