The Canadian Hockey League is home to some of the most elite young talent in the game.
Young scorers Nathan MacKinnon of Halifax and Ottawa’s Sean Monahan headline a group of talented and entertaining prospects, while defencemen Seth Jones and Aaron Ekblad embody the future on the blue line.
With the season beginning Thursday, here’s a look at 12 players worth monitoring in each league.
Nathan MacKinnon, Halifax Mooseheads
The sky’s the limit for Mooseheads’ supreme sophomore and so too are the expectations. The local product, in many ways, exceeded expectations last season. Though he wasn’t invited to the Canadian world junior team’s December camp, it would be hard to imagine his youth and play in his own end could overshadow his offensive gifts when the world junior team is named this December.
MacKinnon scored 31 times in 58 games and finished second in rookie scoring with 78 points. His best performance, however, came during the playoffs when he helped guide his young team to the semifinals. MacKinnon produced 28 points in 17 games and scored a franchise record 13 playoff goals. His performance in his first QMJHL season leaves everyone wondering how far he can reach in his second season.
Phillip Danault, Victoriaville Tigres
The Tigres’ captain enjoyed a productive, but unspectacular third season a year ago. He set a personal best with 71 points in a season, which did little to compensate for the Tigres’ unexpected and humbling four-game sweep at the hands of the lower-seed Baie-Comeau Drakkar in the opening round of the playoffs.
Danault earned a reputation as an emotional and inspiring leader on his hometown team. His two-way play is considered one of the best in junior hockey, though he failed to crack Canada’s world junior team last winter. As Tigres general manager Jerome Mesonero told the local paper, the time is now for Danault to be a dominant player. Nothing short of brilliance will be tolerated for the Chicago Blackhawks’ prospect.
Francois Brassard, Quebec Remparts
As a young goaltender, there’s nothing quite like getting a vote of confidence from Patrick Roy. The head coach and general manager of the Remparts decided to run with the rookie goalie at times late last season in favour of veteran Louis Domingue. The two split the crease during the regular season (Domingue played in 39 games, Brassard in 37) and the young goalie proved capable.
Although Domingue was entrusted with the playoffs, Brassard comes into the season as the undisputed No. 1 goaltender now that his predecessor moved on. Brassard will be a lightning rod for controversy on a team with championship aspirations in Quebec City this season. If he’s the backbone of his team, credit may be miniscule. But if he falters, blame will lay at his feet. How he handles the pressure remains to be seen.
Alexis Pepin, PEI Rocket
The second-overall pick in the QMJHL draft, Pepin is already acquitting himself well to his new surroundings with an impressive pre-season. Pepin brings a solid mix of size and offensive talent. At six-foot-two and nearly 200 pounds, the rookie forward has shown glimpses of his potential as a budding power-forward and ability to play with an edge.
He’s absolutely deadly within 15 feet of the net due to a pinpoint accurate shot that he routinely rips off one of the bars on the way in. The Rocket’s coaching staff is already raving about his dedication to the game and immense potential.
Sean Monahan, Ottawa 67’s
Monahan’s third season should answer some questions about his potential future in the NHL. The third-year forward will find the scoring burden on his shoulders in Ottawa after the anticipated graduations of Tyler Toffoli and Shane Prince. Monahan finished third in team scoring last season with 33 goals and 45 assists for 78 points.
Although the strength of his team will be different than it was a year ago, Monahan has more than proven his ability to be the headliner on this team. Scouts will want to know how he handles the added responsibility and if his first two seasons are any indication, he should succeed. He may also don the Canadian colours at the world juniors this holiday season.
Connor McDavid, Erie Otters
McDavid became just the third player to be granted the exceptional player status and entry into the OHL as a 15-year-old this year. His offensive game made him the most enticing prospect among a peer group one year his senior last season, which should make the transition to play with older players a little easier.
McDavid is perhaps the most gifted offensive prospect the OHL has seen since John Tavares. He will join a nice core of young players in Erie and could develop chemistry alongside sophomore Stephen Harper. The expectations are high for McDavid this season and all signs point to full buildings every time the Otters play on the road.
Aaron Ekblad, Barrie Colts
Ekblad proved in his first season that the exceptional player status given to him by the OHL was well warranted. In 63 games, the hulking defenceman never looked out of place and contributed 10 goals and 19 assists as a rookie. Ekblad is the complete package and the comparisons to Chris Pronger aren’t out of place.
Although just 16, Ekblad could be one of the league’s top defencemen this season and the 50-point plateau is well within reach. The product of Belle River, Ont. is so poised and mature for his age, he could be one of the leaders on a contending team.
John Gibson, Kitchener Rangers
The American goalie proved his status as one of the league’s best puck-stoppers a year ago. Now Gibson will be looking to bring the Rangers to the Promised Land. Gibson was among the top goaltenders in the league last season with a .928 save percentage and a 2.75 goals against average. Remarkably, his numbers improved in the playoffs.
Gibson is the backbone of a team that wishes to win another OHL championship. It’s the Rangers’ 50th year and head coach and general manager Steve Spott is making it known he’s treating it as though his team were hosting the MasterCard Memorial Cup. Gibson should provide the goaltending they need to contend for the league crown.
Seth Jones, Portland Winterhawks
The son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, Seth is proving good genes transcend sporting borders. Jones is as complete a player as can be found in junior, a mobile, two-way force with size and leadership qualities. There simply isn’t anything Jones doesn’t do well, which is why some scouts believe he’s an even greater talent than Halifax’s Nathan MacKinnon.
Having completed two years at the United States National Team Development Program, Jones is already an NHL-ready package that many believe would have begun his professional career this season if not for his late birthdate. Jones’ addition in Portland basically means the Winterhawks can try one more time for that elusive WHL championship.
Leon Draisaitl, Prince Albert Raiders
A scoring sensation in Germany, Draisaitl has been called the "German Gretzky" for his impressive offensive totals back home. He made the trek to North America this season and will join a rising team in Prince Albert.
Draisaitl is knocked for his skating, an area he readily admits needs work, but compensates with his offensive contributions. He’s already proving a quick learner, scoring two goals and adding four assists for six points in four pre-season games. He may quickly become the headliner on a team loaded with young talent.
Eric Comrie, Tri-City Americans
The younger, half-brother of former NHLer Mike Comrie, Eric is already making a name for himself as one of the bright stars in the goaltending fraternity. Comrie joined the Americans last season with much fan fare and posted impressive numbers as a 16-year-old.
Americans general manager Bob Tory is giving his young goalie the ball to run with this season by trading veteran Ty Rimmer to Lethbridge in the summer. It’s a vote of confidence for the young ‘keeper whose maturity belies his age. A potential first-round pick next summer, Comrie will have many eyes monitoring his progress.
Ryan Pulock, Brandon Wheat Kings
Originally drafted into the WHL in the seventh round, as a forward no less, Pulock still carries some scoring touch as a standout defenceman of the Wheat Kings. The third-year player set a franchise record for points as a 16-year-old two seasons ago with 42, and produced another 60 in 71 games last season.
Pulock’s offensive forays are making him one of the most enticing defensive prospects for the upcoming draft. He plays a disciplined game (just 24 penalty minutes in two seasons) and brings a hard and heavy point shot. Pulock is a constant threat on the ice and will make his team dangerous.