The NHL Entry Draft is only hours away at this point, and with the OHL missing the entire 2020-21 season, there are plenty of OHL players left wondering why they are so low on the rankings. The OHL has produced many great talents in the past, including Connor McDavid, John Tavares, Wayne Gretzky and talents of the future in Brandt Clarke and Shane Wright.
Related: THW 2021 NHL Draft Guide
While none of the players below will be certain to shape up like the names above, they have been underrated for a multitude of reasons. Only five are listed, but there are certainly more that should go higher. Here are five of the most underrated NHL Entry Draft-eligible players from the OHL.
Wyatt Johnston (C) – Windsor Spitfires
There’s not a team in the NHL who wouldn’t want to add a big, physical, and talented forward like Johnston, meaning he is a player that could end up going much higher than the pundits suggest than he will in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. The 6-foot-1 centreman had a productive rookie season with the Windsor Spitfires, scoring 30 points in 56 games including 12 goals.
Johnston, like many players in the OHL, only saw very limited playing time in 2020-21, with his time coming with the Canadian U18 team that cruised to a gold medal win over the Russians in May. While not one of the central contributors of the team, Johnston proved that he can be an important role player on good hockey teams.
While he still has some work to do to make sure he is going to be a capable NHL-caliber player, including his shot and his overall skating, Johnston brings enough to the table today to make him a worthwhile investment for an NHL team. Heading into draft night, he’s pegged as a second to fourth-round pick by various mock drafts and rankings, but he is listed as the 16th best North American skater on NHL.com.
“I think he’s going to be so great. You have seen him move up through the lineup, you have seen the coaches trust him a little more throughout the [U18] tournament and I think he’s going to be sneaky good,” said Tate Harris on an episode of The O Show. “He’s going to be one of those guys that goes late in the first round, maybe early second round and in three or four years, people are going to be wondering where this player came from.”
Johnston likely isn’t on the inside track to stardom in the NHL, but he has a clearly defined role waiting for him should be able to develop his skating a shooting just a touch. If your favourite team is the one who picks him, you can be confident that they have made a very good investment.
Connor Lockhart (C) – Erie Otters
Between the missed season and size concerns, Connor Lockhart has tumbled down draft boards (104th in North American skaters on NHL.com), but he isn’t exactly deserving of it. Although small, standing at only 5-foot-9, it’s entirely possible that he has grown since the layoff. Outside of his size, however, he is an exceptionally talented centerman who was likely due for a big season with the Erie Otters and could very possibly be one of the better players in the league when the puck does drop in October.
There’s no question that Lockhart’s specialty is the offensive zone. When it comes to this end of the ice, he excels in large part thanks to his shooting, skating, and creativity. It’s hard to judge exactly what you are going to get out of Lockhart, however. When looking at his tape, all you really have to rely on is his rookie season in 2019-20, a season where most players are getting acclimated to the league and can struggle to find consistent playing time and top-tier performance.
It’s more of a situation where scouts need to project into the future instead of thinking about what they have right here right now because we know virtually nothing about what Lockhart looks like right now. The word ‘nifty’ comes to mind with this player, and despite his low goal-scoring totals in 2019-21 (nine goals in 57 games), that number is going to climb exponentially in 2021-22.
What might surprise some people is his willingness to play with an edge and mix in physicality when needed. Smaller players typically shy away from this sort of thing in their first year or two in the OHL, but Lockhart was never afraid to go into the corner hard and work for the puck. He’s an intelligent hockey player after all.
In the defensive zone, however, he struggles. This goes for his positioning and his ability to make a crisp pass when needed. Whoever ends up drafting him can likely fix this issue with some work, but this could also just be down to being a rookie in an incredibly competitive league.
“He will have almost certainly gotten stronger over the layoff, if not bigger as well,” said Dylan Galloway of FC Hockey. “If that’s the case it will be more likely that he can pull off similar plays against even bigger and stronger players as he progresses through the pro levels. His intelligence to read the defenseman, solid body positioning instincts, and the ability to finish the play with a pass to the slot area are great things to see from such a young player.”
Jack Matier (D) – Ottawa 67’s
Jack Matier is a player that I was expecting to shoot up the rankings in 2020-21, but of course, COVID-19 stepped into the way, and the OHL canceled the season, leaving Matier sitting on the sidelines for nothing more than the U18 World Championship in Texas. Thanks to that, he never really had a chance to prove himself and sits at 79th among North American skaters on NHL.com.
Matier was selected by the Ottawa 67’s with the 21st overall pick in 2019, and while still a first-round pick technically, the 21st pick is normally the first pick in the second round. Evidently, he wasn’t the first (or even second option for one team) for most teams, but the 67’s got exactly what they were looking for and then some in his rookie season. Standing alongside Noel Hoefenmayer, Matier stood head and shoulders above the other 67’s young defencemen, earning himself plenty of important minutes.
If you’ve ever watched Matier in action, you know that he’s the definition of a defensive defenceman. To him, making a play to take away a scoring chance from your opposition is just as valuable as creating one or even scoring at the other end of the ice. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this mindset, and while it has become slightly outdated in the NHL over the past handful of years, there is still a role in the league for a player like this.
“Matier’s mobile, and occasionally explosive and cunning,” said Mitch Brown of Elite Prospects. “The puck skills come and go, but the mindset’s all about making controlled transition players. If he’s improved despite the lack of game reps, his stock could take off.”
Impact players are often thought of as players who score big goals or make a big play in the offensive zone when it matters the most, but Matier’s defensive awareness and penalty killing ability was absolutely a game-changer for the 67’s in his rookie season. We have to remember, he has only played his rookie season and was already a crucial piece on the 67’s blueline.
Matier is a project player, no doubt. He’s not going to step into the NHL and be a difference-maker for quite some time, but when he does reach the NHL, he will likely be a solid top-six defenceman who can confidently be used on the penalty kill and in key shutdown moments. A very worthwhile pick.
Francesco Arcuri (C) – Kingston Frontenacs
Francesco Arcuri isn’t thought too high of by the NHL.com rankings, coming in at 122nd among North American skaters. Other rankings seem to have a much more favourable outlook on Arcuri, including Andrew Forbes’ list where he is 102nd, Matthew Zator’s list where he is 107th, and Peter Baracchini’s list where he is 123rd (these lists are overall, not North American skaters only).
The Kingston Frontenacs are a team in a very favourable position to be serious Memorial Cup contenders in 2021-22, especially with Shane Wright at the helm of the team, but Arcuri stands to be a very valuable piece to the run they hope to go on. Blending a good mix of size at 6-foot-2, playmaking, and skating, he is a player that you would expect to be improving drastically over the next couple of seasons in the OHL and continue to develop beyond that.
“He’s a guy who’s going to be very important to our program and we need him to take a big step from where he was last year and obviously we are going to count on him to play with good players and be able to contribute offensively but also be a guy who’s very competitive without the puck,” said Paul McFarland, former Frontenacs Head Coach.
Arcuri was loaned out to play overseas in 2020-21 and has spent his time with Steel Wingz Linz of the AlpsHL in Austria. He has fared quite well with them, scoring nine goals and 15 totals points in 18 games playing against grown men, and it makes you wonder what he would have been able to do in his second OHL season had it gone ahead.
Again, Arcuri is another player that would be considered a project and won’t step onto an NHL ice for some time, but there is a belief that he could get there someday. His next season in Kingston is going to tell us a lot more that we don’t already know about him and will be a critical year in his development.
James Hardie (LW) – Mississauga Steelheads
James Hardie is a little bit different than other names on this list, considering this is his second time being eligible for the NHL Entry Draft after he was passed on in the 2020 Draft. In some ways, it’s surprising that he wasn’t taken in 2020 considering he had scored 34 and added 29 assists in 59 games, but no one thought that maybe they should take a flier on Hardie at the end of the draft.
The pandemic has thrown a wrench into Hardie’s plans, of course. He didn’t go overseas to play in 2020-21 and is now relying on a 2019-20 season that didn’t get him drafted and hoping it works for him the second time around. Hardie has already grown in leaps and bounds since the start of his rookie season and likely would have had his best season yet in 2020-21 had the season gone ahead. It’s hard to imagine him not getting drafted again this time.
“Hardie has the skating ability, skill and enough size to catch attention while playing on Mississauga’s top line,” said Ryan Kenedy of The Hockey News. “Scouts would like to see more compete and more diligence away from the puck out of the winger, but they are intrigued. And the kid himself recognizes he’s not close to being a finished product yet.”
Hardie is currently sitting at 154th among North American skaters on NHL.com but rises as high as 98th on FCHockey. Incomplete and still growing, he will likely see another season if not two in the OHL before graduating to pro hockey, and in that time, we could very reasonably see him take over and be the catalyst of the offence for the Steelheads.
Fortunately for Hardie, teams don’t have an issue taking some older players in the later rounds, including the Ottawa Senators drafting Igor Sokolov in the second round last year. For the team that does end up taking a flyer on Hardie, they will likely get a better player than even they could expect. When Hardie comes out in 2021-22 and is one of the best players in the OHL, you shouldn’t be too surprised.