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  • OHL shows it knows what it’s doing with exceptional player status


    By David Dickenson

    Connor McDavid
    is exceptional!

    There’s zero doubt this year the 14 year old Toronto Marlboros forward Connor McDavid will be the first overall pick in the 2012 OHL Priority Selection.

    The young superstar in the making has already seen comparisons to Sidney Crosby via scouts. While those may be comparisons that are unfair to the youngster, there are still similarities to their game, and there’s no doubt that again the OHL made a smart decision to grant exceptional status since the kid is a superstar in the making.

    If the lofty comparisons and being granted the status weren’t enough, the timing of the matter also comes as a huge part of the story. Not only was it just last year the status was granted for the first time to a defenseman in Aaron Ekblad, but he was granted the status in this year’s draft class which is considered among the strongest and deepest drafts in recent memory. Even without McDavid as part of this year’s draft, scouts have been singing the praises of the prospects available this year and yet all that hubbub goes in one ear and out the other, as all anyone can talk about is the young Marlboros forward who on Saturday will become a member of the Erie Otters and the OHL’s next superstar player.

    McDavid was born Jan. 13, 1997 and by all rights should have been playing bantam hockey this season, but because of his immense skill level, he has been playing with 1996 born players all season as a member of the Toronto Marlboros AAA hockey team, which was arguably the province’s top minor midget hockey team and possibly the best in the country.

    Not only did he not look out of place with the highly ranked Marlboros, but he was also named the Greater Toronto Hockey League’s player of the year, where the 5’11” 155 lb. forward netted 33 goals and 39 assists for 72 points in a paltry 33 games. The youngster’s exploits did not stop there as he led his team in scoring in the 2012 OHL Cup, with 11 goals and 8 assists for 19 points helping his team to the championship game, where they fell in overtime to the Mississauga Rebels. McDavid again was named the tournament’s MVP, having eclipsed the previous OHL Cup scoring record held by Sam Gagner who managed 17 points in five games for the Marlboros back in 2005.

    Blessed with a strong team around him, McDavid has always found a way to make the most of his ice time, not only putting the team on his back and carrying them when needed, but also making those around him better too. That is no small feat considering the level of talent with him on the ice on a regular basis, with Joshua Ho-Sang’s natural individual hockey skills which leaves many scouts in awe of what he just did, and captain Roland McKeown’s effort and all round skill that have scouts envisioning him as the next Drew Doughty.

    McDavid’s skills are different than that of his team mates, where he can control the puck as though it were attached to his stick and always manages to get his team mates the puck in the right situations to create scoring chances. He’s slick, he’s quick and when he turns it on, he’s tough to keep up with; you see him coming and before you know it the puck is either in the back of the net or perfectly put on a team mates stick as he taps it home for a goal. He’s the complete package.

    The Newmarket native through his skill on ice and maturity off-ice made it a no brainer for the Hockey Canada selection committee who voted unanimously this year to support McDavid playing next season in the OHL. It was noted, that the committee thought it could impair him to stay back, and saw the OHL as a chance for him to better develop both his hockey and personal skills.

    What makes the exceptional status players exceptional?

    Arguments have been made that the exceptional status rule, isn’t really that exceptional since there has been not one but three players granted this elite status to enter the league a year early in its seven years in existence.

    The fact of the matter though is the OHL has been spot on in their decisions to grant or turn down exceptional status candidates.

    Seven years ago hockey fans were stunned by the OHL as they mandated an exceptional status rule, which players could apply to enter the league a year early if they were to meet the criteria set forth by the league and Hockey Canada to ensure the player was ready to enter the league.

    Pundits and scouts alike quickly decreed the rule to be a way for the league to have more control over its star players and a way to ensure young potential superstars would not be tempted by the number of other options which were quickly being thrown at these youngsters. Options such as playing in the young USHL, which didn’t have age limits and offered a similar experience to the Canadian Hockey League’s three charter leagues. Another potential threat they saw was playing in Europe and especially the newly formed Kontinental Hockey League where players again were being drafted early in hopes of prying them away from their leagues a year early and bringing potential superstar potential and marketing opportunities with them.

    The OHL, while it may have seemed transparent as to its motives, has ultimately proved itself the right way of dealing with young superstars and has a great track record since implementing the rule.

    As part of the rule, a strict set of guidelines was created and a specific criteria added to not only ensure the player was ready to be in the league, but also allow those worthy to play early and ensure no ugly incidents with a player not wanting to report to the team poised to pick him first overall.

    Each time a player applies for exceptional status, the process is administered by Hockey Canada with a Special Evaluation Panel created to help evaluate the player on a multitude of levels.

    It’s not just hockey that the panel focuses on as academic documentation and assessments of the players physical and mental maturity are also a very large part of the consideration in the process of reaching a decision. According to the Ontario Hockey Federation the process is an extensive evaluation of all aspects of the player’s life and not just a hockey decision.

    Reportedly, another big part of the evaluation is whether the player would be the top overall selection, how they handle pressure, if they’re willing to report to where they’re chosen and if the team possessing the top pick would commit to selecting him.

    Since it’s implementations the OHL has gotten it right

    The idea quickly came about with John Tavares the first player to apply for the exceptional status, this would not only keep him from playing in the USHL which he was allegedly considering, but would get him into the league a year early and came at the right time, as he wouldn’t have to move too far from his Oakville area home, as he would still play in the Greater Toronto Area as a member of the Oshawa Generals.

    The OHL knew Tavares was a stud, as did anyone else who saw him play, after all we’re talking about a 14 year old kid who not only was playing a year above other kids his own age and dominating play, but also played 16 games with the Milton Icehawks Jr. A team, where he was playing against kids who were as old as 20 years old, and managed to net 23 points in 16 games. He was the game’s next big star and the OHL had to find a way to keep him home.

    He passed all the requirements of the exceptional status testing and became the first overall pick of the Oshawa Generals in the 2005 OHL Priority selection, causing some chaos as sure fire top pick Logan Couture was bumped from Oshawa where he wanted to play and ended up free falling in the draft over concerns whether he would report until the Ottawa 67’s took a flyer on him mid first round.

    Tavares though didn’t disappoint as he netted 45 goals and 77 points in 65 games as a 15 year old, and followed it up with a 72 goal season, and 134 points, and 40 goals and 118 points in 59 games the following year.

    In his draft year, Tavares had kept his expectations high for the NHL and was still a clear cut pick despite his Oshawa Generals having a poor season, and eventually trading him to London to help rebuild the franchise with youth. Despite splitting the season between the two clubs, Tavares continued his torrid pace with 58 goals and 104 points, as he was constantly hounded by opposing teams in hopes of containing the naturally gifted centre.
    His draft stock was still sky high, he was a superstar and he gave legs to the OHL’s controversial exceptional status rule, making it a staple of future OHL seasons.

    The rule was granted further credence as some would apply and be denied by the league, despite strong statistics against kids a year older.

    The most notable case was John McFarland who reportedly applied for the exceptional status for the 2007 OHL Priority Selection, but was denied and therefore played another year of midget hockey putting up again strong numbers, but started showing some chinks in his armour.

    Again scouts for more than a year, seemed baffled at his denial, but he was not as though he appeared and despite being picked first overall by the Sudbury Wolves in the 2008 OHL Priority Selection, showed he was no superstar, but a good OHL player, who allegedly had some issues over his time in the league.

    In his first year in the league he put up 52 points in 58 games, which was solid, but then was never able to break through that glass ceiling putting together 50 point, 38 point and 50 point seasons while also being moved around to Saginaw and then to Ottawa, where he just completed this past season.

    There were rumours of off-ice issues, locker room issues, issues with the coaching staffs and he never even got a chance to suit up for team Canada in the World Junior Hockey Championships.

    The OHL again looked like geniuses, with their assessments, and they again made the right move and denied him the exceptional status he desired.

    This past year the OHL got it right again as it granted Ekblad the first exceptional status given to a defenseman, as he left his Windsor area home to join the Barrie Colts a year early and quickly cemented his status as the league’s rookie of the year.

    Not only did Ekblad have good stats playing against older kids, but he was physically mature at 6’3” 200 lbs. and was a mature kid, who put in the work in the classroom, off the ice and was committed to being a success in whatever he did.

    His addition not only gave the Colts a future superstar player, but also helped them quickly turn around a depleted roster from worst place to playoff contenders in one year. A huge feather in the cap of Ekblad, as to the type of impact he has had in the league and why he was granted exceptional status.

    Ekblad managed to play 63 games in his first year and put up 29 points, while also being a hard-hitting defenseman who managed to control play in their own end.

    Some scouts believe some of the traits in his game mimic that of his agent Bobby Orr, and he Hockey News Future Watch edition already ranks him as one of the players to watch in their sneak peak of the 2014 NHL draft, noting, “his hockey sense for a player his age is special. Total package.”

    Again the league proved it knew what it was doing, and the exceptional status rule is here to stay and may need to be looked at for the WHL and QMJHL.

    The wild west of pre-exceptional status days

    When you look back to the previous rule where a player could play for their hometown team a year early and then enter the draft much confusion was added to the equation as players formed bonds with their team mates and often didn’t want to leave their hometowns. This was also being used as an excuse to keep local players home even though they may not have entirely been ready for the rigors of life in the OHL.

    Two examples of the pre exceptional status rule come to mind, Jason Spezza and Rico Fata.

    In the case of Jason Spezza it was both a success and a failure. He jumped into the league a year early playing for his hometown Brampton Battalion and managed to amass 71 points in 67 games before being forced to relocate after being picked in the OHL priority selection. However for him everything seemed to turn out not so badly, he just moved about 15 km down the road to the Mississauga Ice Dogs, which allowed him to keep close to home and some of the continuity in his life outside of hockey which most players don’t have the luxury. However the big hit for him was going from a well coached and strong Stan Butler led Brampton Battalion squad to a lowly Ice Dogs team which was rebuilding and trying to find its legs to become an OHL contender. In Mississauga, without the team around him he slightly stalled his development a little with his point totals dropping to 61 points in 52 games, down from the previous year and his status as an unquestioned first overall NHL draft pick also took a minor hit, allowing others such as Ilya Kovalchuk to jump into the mix.

    Fifteen games into the next season he was traded to the Windsor Spitfires and saw his development jumpstart again, however despite being a second overall draft pick of the Ottawa Senators he was not ready for the NHL right away as would be expected for a player of exceptional skill such as Spezza. He would toil in the OHL for another year after and even be traded once more to the Belleville Bulls, all of those things unthinkable for a player who at the time was considered exceptional by the scouts, but no official procedures in place.

    Rico Fata, on the other hand was the biggest historical argument for the league to step in to develop an exceptional status rule. His time in the OHL was a tad tumultuous at best with scouts drooling over the possibilities of having a fast, offensive youngster in the league a year early and immediately touted as a sure fire first overall pick in the NHL.
    He entered the league a year early with his hometown Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and it was quickly noticed he wasn’t quite the player scouts expected him to be. He was still fast, but smaller and not ready to face the physical nature of the league and added pressure of playing there at such a young age with such high expectations. In his first year, he played 62 games and put up a paltry 26 points.

    Immediately after the quest to woo him to leave the Soo started and he was picked first overall by the London Knights, where he started to show a little more of his skill scoring 53 points in 59 games.

    The following year he scored 43 goals and 76 points in 64 games and was picked sixth overall by the Calgary Flames in the 1998 NHL draft, which was thought to be too high for the once promising superstar to be picked. He was truly not exceptional, but just a good OHL player and a guy who would get a cup of coffee at the NHL level, but never be the exceptional player most thought he could have been simply by being allowed to play in the league a year early.

    His future had been compromised, a victim of over hype from scouts, monumental expectations on a young kid and he was doomed to never live up to the high standards previously set for him. He was the ultimate case study that something had to be done in the OHL to prevent these kids from the fate suffered by Fata of burning out too soon and not being ready for the pressures and demand of being a professional hockey player at 14 years old.

    Is this a sign of things to come?

    With David Branch’s rising status in the hockey world and the OHL being used as a testing ground for pilot projects such as discipline for hits to the head and more stringent rule about fighting, could the exceptional status procedure be later put in place at the NHL level?

    Scouts are all over the map looking for the best young talent out there and getting excited about the prospects of the next superstar coming into the league.

    Nathan MacKinnon is already receiving some of the hype for 2013, Patrik Koys for 2014 and Nathan Noel for 2015, all appear to be very good players, but maybe not the next Crosby or Ovechkin.

    If that player were to come along however, what’s to stop the KHL or a European League trying to make a name for themselves from making a ridiculous offer to grab them before they even reach the NHL. This could be even more of a risk if the next superstar is Russian or European, who may not have the same allegiance to the NHL as those who grew up with it on a daily basis.

    Would the NHL consider such a policy to ensure it didn’t loose that kind of talent and marketing potential if it were to come along, and if the KHL made a serious run at the NHL?

    Only time will tell, but with Branch a guy to watch in hockey, and someone who may receive consideration to replace Gary Bettman down the road, this is not something that should be just brushed aside.

    The future is very real, and the OHL and it’s exceptional player status could be a glimpse into it today.
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