This past week — Tuesday, January 22nd to be exact — I had the opportunity to go to the CJHL Prospects Game in Okotoks, Alberta. It’s the annual showcase of the best that Canada’s second-highest junior A league has to offer. The CJHL comprises several leagues: the BCHL, AJHL, SJHL, MJHL, SIJHL, NOJHL, OJHL, CCHL, LHJQ, and the MHL (the Maritime Hockey League, not the Russian Junior Hockey League). For many of the players in this league, they weren’t quite good enough at 15 to get into the CHL-level leagues. But for some, this is a deliberate choice to be eligible for college. Tyson Jost is probably the biggest recent example of a player who deliberately stayed below to CHL to go to college. And most Senators fans will remember that the Sens drafted Jacob Bernard-Docker and Jonathan Tychonick out of the AJHL and BCHL respectively, players who would’ve been good enough to play major junior if they’d decided to.
This year, Draft Site’s compiled draft rankings project nine CJHL players to go in the upcoming draft, including one in the first round. Of the players at the CHL Prospects Game, many had committed to top-flight colleges next year.
It was interesting being at the game. The total attendance was 1604, and it seemed like almost half of that were scouts. The scouts were funny to observe. They all kept their jackets on. They all stood around behind the last row of seats, leaning on the railing. And they all left with two minutes left in the game like they were Sens fans trying to beat the Kanata exodus traffic. I also thought about how stressful it must be for some of the players. For those in more remote cities, like Grande Prairie or Summerside, this might be the only chance of the year to be observed by an NHL scout. While we all laugh about the meaninglessness of the NHL All-Star Game, this game was far from meaningless. Scouts are busy, and outside of a handful of hyped prospects, most of these guys won’t get visited by NHL scouts. In fact, back on Dec. 1st the Whitecourt Wolverines traded their two best players to the Okotoks Oilers because the Whitecourt coach thought his players deserved a shot to get noticed by NHL scouts, and Okotoks (30 min south of Calgary) gets a lot more scouts than Whitecourt (2 h northwest of Edmonton).
So I got to play scout for a game in which I had no stakes, and it was a lot of fun. The Western All-Stars had nine players committed to big colleges, while the Eastern ones only had three, and you could tell. The West won 5-2, and won in shots 37-27, with five of the East’s shots coming with their goalie pulled in the last two minutes. It also had the most penalties (six, three for each team) I’ve ever seen in an All-Star Game, and a lot of pushing and shoving after the whistles in the third period. Among players who stood out, here are my thoughts:
- Layton Ahac was the West’s MVP, and deservedly so. Any defenceman who puts up a goal and three assists when his team scores five goals has a pretty good game, but other than that, his skills were on point. A couple times, he made good reads at the blue line to pinch in and keep the play alive, he seemed comfortable with the puck, and was good at getting open for passes from the forwards down low. He’s committed to Ohio State for next year, and is projected to go in Round 3 of the NHL draft.
- Alex Newhook, the article picture, did seem to be the most skilled player at the game. He finished the game with only one assist, but his puck-handling and passing were on full display. And since he’s already projected to go around 15th this June, he hardly needed to show off in this game. He’s committed to Boston College for the fall.
- Alexander Campbell played a bunch on the West’s top line with Newhook, and he had blistering speed. It was best on display on a penalty kill, when he made a read of the D-to-D pass at the blue line, got his stick in the way, and then raced up the ice to set up a two-on-one shorthanded. He’s committed to Clarkson University for the fall, and is projected to go in the 5th round.
- Dylan Holloway was a crowd favourite because he plays for Okotoks. He didn’t put up any points, but was up there with Newhook for most skilled player in the game. The right combination of speed, hockey smarts, and puck skills projects well for him. He’s in the weird Brady Tkachuk spot where he’s born in mid-September, so he’s eligible for college in the fall, but not for the NHL draft until 2020. But keep an eye on this guy, because he’s projected to go 10th in the 2020 draft, and his stock will likely rise while playing NCAA after playing in the AJHL.