Approaching the second half of April, we're well into the meat and potatoes portion of the Ontario Hockey League postseason. Not only is one OHL club that much closer to punching its ticket to the Memorial Cup Final, but members of the 2013 NHL draft class are trying to make the most of whatever opportunity remains to dazzle the NHL scouting community. Soon there will only be a quartet of teams left in contention.
While four clubs continue to battle it out west, the Eastern Conference final is solidified. Sweeping the Sudbury Wolves in four straight, the Belleville Bulls have earned the right to face the Barrie Colts in the battle for the Bobby Orr Trophy. Production-wise, Bulls' defenseman Jordan Subban hasn't had too stellar a campaign -- netting only two goals and an assist through 10 contests. But he's an impressive plus-10. And there's still a minimum of four games remaining for the puck-moving D-man to make more offensive noise.
• Before his Oshawa Generals were knocked out by the formidable Colts, forward Cole Cassels didn't enjoy much personal postseason success. Scoring just the one goal through nine games and finishing minus-two, Cassels fell well short of his overall 2012-13 production rate. Predominantly admired for his feisty two-way play, the son of former NHLer Andrew Cassels still managed to collect 43 points in 64 games with the Generals this regular season. General consensus has Cassels pegged for third- or fourth-round selection this June.
• Out west, the London Knights are one victory over the Kitchener Rangers away from reserving their spot in the conference final. Max Domi has enjoyed a remarkable postseason campaign to date, racking up 11 points through eight games. And while fellow forward Bo Horvat has been at his steady, intelligent best, winger Remi Elie has commanded more attention than usual by scoring three playoff goals and adding three helpers. ESPN Insider and NHL scout Grant Sonier believes the 6-foot-1, 200-pound winger has been somewhat overshadowed this season on a roster otherwise teeming with elite talent.
"On any other team in the league [Elie] would've been a top-six forward and his game would've gained much confidence," Sonier said. "He works hard and will go through defenders to get to loose pucks and the net. While he has to learn to play with more control -- without reducing his intensity -- I feel that'll come when he gets a greater opportunity."
Sonier suggests Elie could be picked as early as the second round this June.
• The other Western Conference semifinal has the Plymouth Whalers up against the Owen Sound Attack (series is tied 2-2 at the time of this writing). While Whalers forward Ryan Hartman has been his usual scrappy self ("relentless" is how one NHL Eastern Conference scout recently described the 18-year-old), Attack forward Zach Nastasiuk has been one of the league's playoff stars to date. With four goals and six assists through 10 games (plus-six), the big winger is justifying his ongoing rise in the estimation of the NHL scouting collective. This just-turned 18-year-old is really, really hot right now.
• Knocked out in the first round, forward Jimmy Lodge deserves credit for making a fair amount of hay during limited playoff sunlight. Lodge topped his Saginaw Spirit teammates by scoring a goal and two assists before being swept by the Knights in four straight. In a sneak-peak of the soon-to-be-released "Big Chart," NHL Central Scouting has Lodge in its OHL Top 10.
• Netting one goal and three assists, Darnell Nurse enjoyed a decent playoff stint before his Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds fell to the Attack in six games. The 6-foot-5 defenseman seems to be a consensus first-round selection this spring. In fact, in their March Top 30, International Scouting Services has Nurse ranked fifth overall behind Seth Jones (WHL), Valery Nichushkin (KHL), Nathan MacKinnon (QMJHL), and Jonathan Drouin (QMJHL).
• Forward Josh Burnside led the Mississauga Steelheads with two goals and two assists before his squad fell to the Bulls in six games. As it stands, Burnside is expected to be picked in the fourth- or fifth-round of this year's draft.
• The gaggle of NHL draft prospects with the Guelph Storm didn't have much chance to shine, once the regular season wrapped up. As a whole, the squad only managed eight goals in five games before getting the boot by the Rangers. Of the bunch, forward Jason Dickinson (unsurprisingly) stood out the most -- particularly in games four and five. While other scouts appear slightly concerned with the 17-year-old's lack of consistency, TSN's Craig Button has Dickinson ranked 23rd in the April version of his scouting list. And there's no questioning the 6-foot-3 winger's talent or skill-set.
Class of 2014 (and beyond)
Rookie Blake Clarke of the Brampton Battalion made the most of his first OHL playoff stint, amassing three goals and three assists in five contests. More than one NHL scout who had yet to see Clarke play live was captivated by the 17-year-old forward's physical presence and skill. This kid is going to get a lot of press next season.
• Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad has enjoyed a good playoff run so far, with three goals and two assists in eight games. While Ekblad is occasionally critiqued for not living up to the hype of being granted "exceptional player" status, Barrie head coach Dale Hawerchuk has little time for that type of talk.
"Ever since Aaron Ekblad got here, we became a better hockey club -- instantly," Hawerchuk said this winter. "He does so many things well, he's not just a one dimensional player. He's big and strong, and difficult to get around. He defends hard, he can play against big, strong wingers in front of the net, he really supports the play on the offensive side and he's got a really great shot."
Altogether, there's little doubt in Hawerchuk's mind that Ekblad will make a fine NHL defenseman one day.
"He's got a bright future," the Colts' bench boss added. "He's going to become a better skater -- he's only 16 years old (at the time) -- he's got a big frame. As he grows into himself he's going to be that much stronger. One day he's going to play on an NHL team and he's going to be that go-to defenseman offensively and defensively."
Notable NHL prospects
Once the Generals were eliminated, Boone Jenner (Columbus Blue Jackets, 2nd round, 2011) was assigned to the Springfield Falcons. How well Jenner performs with the AHL squad will determine whether he gets a taste of action with the Blue Jackets in the foreseeable future. The NHL club is said to be open to the idea of promoting the 19-year-old forward before the regular season concludes. Jenner appeared in five games for Springfield last year.
• Oshawa center Scott Laughton (Philadelphia Flyers, 1st round, 2012) has been called up to the AHL Adirondack Phantoms. The 18-year-old appeared in five games with the Flyers to launch the 2012-13 season. Laughton is expected to be an NHL regular in 2013-14.
Actually, there was a great scattering of Oshawa skaters once the OHL playoff ride ended. Forward Tyler Biggs (Toronto Maple Leafs, 1st round, 2011) , forward Lucas Lessio (Phoenix Coyotes, 2nd round, 2011), and former free-agent forward Scott Sabourin (Los Angeles Kings) were also assigned to their respective AHL clubs.
• The Boston Bruins have signed forward Seth Griffith (fifth round, 2012) to a three-year, entry-level contract. To date, Griffith has two playoff goals and four assists with the Knights.
• Charles Sarault is this season's OHL Overage Player of the Year. The 21-year-old recipient of the Leo Lalonde Memorial Trophy enjoyed an outstanding season with the Sarnia Sting, collecting 108 points in 68 games. Recently signed as a free agent by the Anaheim Ducks, Sarault has three points in five games with the AHL Norfolk Admirals this spring.