This article is one that fans of most OHL teams will begin with a sigh or an eye roll. The much-maligned London Knights, Memorial Cup Champions and perhaps the most prolific junior team in Canada, are often met with groans from Ontario hockey towns when they’re featured in the media.
Nonetheless, they’ll be in the spotlight all weekend at the NHL Draft. The Knights had eight players named in Central Scouting’s final North American prospect rankings, more than any other OHL club. Three of those players – Olli Juolevi, Matthew Tkachuk, and Max Jones – are projected to land in the first round, with Juolevi and Tkachuk going fourth and fifth overall, respectively, in LeafsHub’s own mock draft.
Barring a trade, those three won’t be in range for the Leafs’ first round pick. Some other names on the list of Knights draft-eligibles, though, could certainly be on the backs of blue jerseys at the NHL Rookie Tournament this fall, at Bud Gardens in London.
Before this draws the ire of the crowd who will scoff at Mark Hunter for every Knight picked by the Leafs, let’s have a few words of conciliation. It’s not favouritism to pick a talented player who fits in well, just because he played for London. The players discussed below would all be sincerely viable options for the Maple Leafs regardless of what team they play for. As one of the best amateur scouts in hockey, Mark Hunter is smart enough not to play favourites at the draft.
On the other side of the coin, though, there actually could be some value to the Leafs in taking a Knight at the draft. If management sees little separating two players, why wouldn’t they go with someone whose development they can watch more closely?
Hunter is not just a guy with former connections to London. He still has an active role with the team as co-owner with his brother Dale, the head coach who has watched over Mitch Marner and JJ Piccinich all year. This is more than a strong professional relationship.
To see this in action, just look at what was done with Marner this year. He was kept on the wing almost all season by Dale Hunter, a decision which was reportedly requested by the Leafs themselves. Compare this with Travis Dermott in Erie, who said Toronto’s involvement in his season mostly involved texting every now and then for tips on what to work on.
Matt Higgins of The New York Times called London “an environment that mimics the pros”. It’s easy to see, as well, as the team that draws the largest crowds and the most media attention in the OHL. Playing in London is the best primer for the spotlight that comes with playing in Toronto.
Nazem Kadri has also sung the praises of London’s development system, telling Higgins that Dale Hunter “treated me how he knew I would be treated at the next level”. Hunter would know, having spent a season as head coach of the Washington Capitals in 2011-12.
So obviously the Leafs won’t be specifically looking to draft players out of London, but if one of the following players is available at one of the ten picks where they could conceivably take one, they’ll have to consider it.
Without further ado, let’s get to the Knights of the Leafs’ draft table
Top of our list is a player who quickly became a kind of cult icon among London fans, with a name that they love to cheer – think of Roberto Luongo’s typical ovation in Vancouver, but more immaturely hilarious. Cliff Pu spent a lot of the year in the shadow of London’s stacked top line, but started generating media interest when the team’s typical stars fell silent in their first round playoff series against the Owen Sound Attack.
He had just 31 points in the regular season this year, but exploded in the playoffs and put up 13 points in 18 games. Pu is ranked 75th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting, but is as high as 34th in ISS Hockey’s rankings.
Pu is a centre with blistering foot speed and acceleration, and seems to have learned a lot from Mitch Marner. He has similar offensive instincts and creativity, if not always the hands to execute. He plays a similar physical game too, not afraid to go into corners or take a hit. It wouldn’t be surprising if he had been taking pointers directly from Marner, as the two are very good friends in London and are often seen hanging out together around Bud Gardens – everyone saw Mitch feeding teammate Aaron Berisha popcorn during an interview, but the idea came from a week before, when Pu was the one feeding Marner while he was trying to answer my questions.
The main part of Pu’s game that needs to improve is his shot. That’s the weapon that’s missing from his arsenal. There were dozens of instances throughout the OHL playoffs where Pu came streaking into the offensive zone with the puck, drove hard to the net with his 6’1” frame, and failed to get a shot off. He learned to settle into a playmaking role, but if Pu can develop a snap shot he’ll be extremely dangerous.
Mark Hunter has already hinted at what the Leafs think of this guy. On the Sportsnet panel at the Memorial Cup, he was asked which Knights draft-eligible players have caught his eye the most. “Everybody doesn’t talk about Pu enough,” he said. “Pu’s a strong second line player for the Knights”. If that’s not a thumbs up from the director of player personnel then I don’t know what is.
Pu has the potential to be a good playmaking centre in the NHL, perhaps on the Leafs third line behind Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri. He’d benefit from playing with Marner, and as a player with specific aspects he needs to work on could gain a lot from the influence Toronto has in London.
Having not drafted a goalie since 2013, and still quite thin in terms of goaltending prospects, it would be surprising if the Leafs didn’t pick at least one with their twelve picks in this draft. They acquired Frederik Andersen on Monday, who is now the presumptive starting goalie for the next five years, but taking another stab at finding an elite goalie in the draft is a necessary risk to take.
Tyler Parsons didn’t get as much credit as he deserved this year, until he stood on his head in the Memorial Cup Final. Yes, the Knights were stacked offensively, but they were not without their defensive faults. Parsons was needed to bail them out quite frequently; a fact which was repeated almost every game by his teammates.
His .921 save percentage was best in the OHL by a significant margin, and Parsons is largely responsible for London’s league-lowest 182 goals against. In the OHL Final, he was expected to be overshadowed by Alex Nedeljkovic of the Niagara IceDogs, but Parsons shut the door every night.
Rob Liddell, a goaltending coach who has seen Parsons’ development since he was 11 years old, has compared him to Jonathan Quick in style. Both are extremely athletic goalies who rely primarily on their size and flexibility to get in front of pucks. Parsons began the 2015-16 campaign surrounded by a lot of doubt, with some scouts citing poor rebound control and positional sense as reasons why he might fall out of the draft.
However, over the year Parsons improved incrementally, every night working on a new detail of his game. By May, he was relied on by Dale Hunter to smother the puck for a whistle as often as possible so the top line could be rested – a responsibility that Parsons may not have been trusted with in October. His puck tracking has come a long way as well, inspiring a lot more confidence in his defencemen.
Parsons could stand to improve his puck handling, as he finds himself lost behind the net at times. He also needs to control his long limbs a little better, as sometimes in scramble situations his form is messy. Nevertheless, if the Leafs don’t want to use the 30th or 31st pick on a goalie, it’s likely Parsons will be available a bit later – he’s typically ranked in the mid-sixties, or third among North American goalies.
The arrival of Andersen could actually tip things in favour of Parsons rather than Carter Hart or Filip Gustavsson (both ranked higher than him). Since the need isn’t as great anymore, the Leafs may use a lower pick to address an area of relative weakness in goal. Due to the nature of drafted goaltenders, it’s likely Parsons wouldn’t even mature to NHL readiness until the end of Andersen’s five-year contract.
The blueline is another area of need for the Leafs at this draft, and Victor Mete would seem to be a good fit based on their recent drafting history. As an undersized defenceman (he’s listed as 5’10” but that seems generous), Mete seems to have been overlooked by many scouts. However, OHL coaches picked him this year as one of the best skaters in the league.
Mete is an excellent option on the power-play, having spent much of this year as the lone defenceman on the Knights’ top unit (which was far and away the strongest in all of junior hockey). Some scouts have said he would be better off as a forward, given his speed and offensive mindset, but Mete shines when anchoring a rush. He often carries the puck to the red line, or just inside the offensive zone, before setting up one of Marner, Tkachuk, or Christian Dvorak. This led him to record 38 points this season, on London’s top pairing (alongside 6’7” Chris Martenet).
Mete wasn’t the most reliable defensive player on the Knights, typically given more freedom to join rushes with Martenet holding down the fort at home. Nevertheless, he’s arguably the best shot blocker on the team, and has an excellent poke check. He does tend to get knocked off the puck if caught by defenders, and isn’t particularly strong in the corners.
The Leafs’ drafting philosophy seems to value skill over size, and that is exactly what they’d get in Mete. He’s ranked significantly lower than fellow offensive defenceman Olli Juolevi, despite having much more responsibility during the season in London. It would not be surprising to see Mark Hunter or Kyle Dubas lobbying for Mete, who can be a lethal offensive weapon from the blueline.
Brandon Crawley & Nicolas Mattinen
We move on now to a pair of defencemen who are far from guaranteed to be drafted at all. The Leafs could indeed take a shot on either of them, but with picks like Nikita Korostelev in the seventh round last year they’re swinging for the fences late in the draft. They may be looking for players with higher ceilings in the final few rounds.
However, these two are likely worth consideration. Crawley was very effective on London’s shutdown pairing this year, and is known for the calm way he breaks up rushes. He was also singled out by Mark Hunter in the same interview where he praised Cliff Pu, so take from that what you will. Crawley has NHL potential, and could be worth taking a look at.
Nic Mattinen struggled to get into the lineup for London, usually losing his spot to either Aiden Jamieson or, more commonly in the playoffs, sixteen-year-old Evan Bouchard. He has offensive upside, but isn’t a particularly strong skater, but at 6’4” and 222 pounds he has the size to play a tough game in his own zone.
Of the players listed here, Cliff Pu seems to be the one who most commonly goes to Toronto in mock drafts. Most scouts have the Leafs filling their goaltending need with either Carter Hart or Filip Gustavsson, and Victor Mete is often not included in mocks that cover the first two rounds. However, there is some serious value in the Leafs picking a player who they can watch closely in junior, ensuring as much as possible is done to develop them to their ceiling.