Jett Alexander (Steven Ellis/North York Rangers)
Unlike the NHL, which still has a few weeks to go before the end of the regular season, the Junior A governing body, the Canadian Junior Hockey League, will see their member clubs start their respective playoff series’ across the country this week for a chance to play in the Canadian Junior A national championship, previously known as the RBC Cup.
For many of these players, it’s the last chance for fans and scouts to watch some underrated prospects showcase their skills before eventually moving to the NCAA. Let’s be clear: the top players from the CJHL are usually good enough for major junior, but are aiming for an NCAA scholarship instead. Much of the talent you’ll learn about today played at the World Junior A Challenge, a tournament involving Junior A players from North America and other top U19 players from Europe, including Vasili Podkolzin, who is projected to go in the top five of the draft.
The top Jr. A leagues that people follow in Canada are the BCHL in British Columbia, the AJHL in Alberta, the CCHL in the Ottawa region and the Ontario Junior Hockey League. This year, most of the young talent hail from Western Canada, with names like Alex Newhook, Alex Campbell and Layton Ahac leading the way.
Let’s take a look at some of the better prospects in Jr. A hockey this season, many of whom will hear their name called at the NHL draft in June.
Alex Newhook, C (Victoria Grizzlies, BCHL): There’s a good chance you’ve heard of Newhook this year, especially after his eight-point performance in Victoria’s second last game of the year. Projected to be drafted fairly early at the NHL draft, Newhook has been unstoppable in BCHL play this year, ending the season with 102 points – 18 more than Ryan Brushett in second and 38 more than the league’s second top U18 forward, who just happens to be Newhook’s linemate, Alexander Campbell. The duo was often dominant against other top lines in the league and saw some action together at the World Junior A Challenge and CJHL Top Prospects Game. Unfortunately, Newhook didn’t really shine at either tournament and wasn’t selected to the Canadian Hlinka-Gretzky Cup team in August, so we didn’t really get to see Newhook at his full potential against top talent.
But against some tough competition in British Columbia, the Newfoundland native was very tough to deal with this season. Newhook’s speed makes him look like a man among boys, and his playmaking instincts are second to none in Jr. A. Newhook has spent his junior career playing top-line minutes and is often a dangerous threat on the power play. He’s far from a selfish player, but he knows when to keep the puck to himself and how to get himself out of trouble with the puck along the boards. Newhook is set for Boston College next season, adding to his well-travelled hockey career that has seen him play in Newfoundland, Ontario and British Columbia already.
Alexander Campbell, LW (Victoria Grizzlies, BCHL): Sure, there’s a good chance you’re thinking that the only reason Campbell has had a good season is because of Newhook, but Campbell has had a very impressive rookie campaign in the BCHL. The 42nd-ranked North American skater by the NHL Central Scouting Service finished the regular season with 21 goals and 64 points in 52 games, which helped put him up for the BCHL rookie of the year and the BCHL sportsmanlike player of the year. To top things off, Campbell also played at the World Junior A Challenge and CJHL Top Prospects Game,
Campbell is a pure goal-scorer and benefited from having Newhook on his line (a lot of defenders would set their sights on Newhook, allowing Campbell to exploit the extra room to his advantage). Campbell’s hands are very quick and he uses his speed to beat defenders. The Clarkson University commit has a shifty ability to avoid checks and finds open ice well on the power play. If he’s available late in the third round, expect whoever drafts Newhook to give Campbell a shot as well.
Carter Berger, D (Victoria Grizzlies, BCHL): There are quite a few players from the Grizzlies that will likely get NHL draft attention, but overage defenceman Carter Berger is one that people can’t ignore these days. The 19-year-old defender that’s set for the University of Connecticut has spent the past three seasons with the Grizzlies, hitting the 60-point mark on the blueline. And while having Newhook and Alexander Campbell as forwards definitely helps, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Berger often was the one who would start scoring rushes from Victoria’s zone.
The 181st-ranked North American skater by NHL Central Scouting looked impressive for Canada West at the World Junior A Challenge despite just registering a single assist, but the tremendous two-way forward has shown in the past that his wrist shot isn’t something to take lightly. Berger was named the Island Division nominee for the BCHL top defenceman award this year and really showcased his ability to play against the top lines the league had to offer. Berger was a member of the Anaheim Ducks’ development camp last summer, so if you had to take a guess at which NHL team could draft him, that’s a good sign.
Luke Bast, D (Brooks Bandits, AJHL): One of Berger’s defence partners at the WJAC was Luke Bast, the top defenceman on the Brooks Bandits. The Red Deer, Alberta native had 35 points in 43 games after posting 31 points the season before. The University of North Dakota commit for 2019-20 has some big game experience to his credit, recording a goal and three points with Canada West in December and scored at the 2017 RBC Cup with Brooks, too. Bast isn’t that big, standing at 5’9 and 170 pounds, but his speed allows him to move around the ice well and puts him in a spot where the opposition has trouble getting around him. Bast is a strong two-way defender with lots of creativity to boot. The Bandits utilized the left-handed defenceman on the power play and his slap shot was a lethal weapon all season long.
Jett Alexander, G (North York Rangers, OJHL): Alexander is re-entering the draft this year, and while last year saw him split the net with eventual OJHL goaltender of the year Colby Muise, nobody could stop him this season. The undisputed top goalie in the OJHL and often regarded as the best in the CJHL this season, the Bloomfield, Ontario native finished the regular season with an OJHL-record 10 shutouts, helping North York to their first 40-win season in team history. In 43 games played this season, the 2018 OHA top prospect award recipient finished with a 1.67 GAA and a .945 SV%, and while he has credited his defence for doing a good job over the past three years with the team, there’s something impressive about his play that makes him so exciting to watch.
Alexander represented Canada East at the 2017 World Junior A Challenge and was a surprising omission from the 2018 team’s final roster, but the Mississauga Steelheads draft pick and former Telus Cup champ used that as motivation for the second half of the season. Alexander was a big reason why the Rangers sat in the top 10 of the CJHL rankings all year long and the large goaltender with a tremendous glove hand and athleticism is expected to bring home a couple of awards at the end of the year. It’s worth noting that Alexander was drafted as a 5’8 goaltender before developing into a 6’5 beast, and unlike some other goalies in the past, he hasn’t had an issue adjusting to his size.
Eric Ciccolini, RW (Toronto Jr. Canadiens, OJHL): Teams truly didn’t like being on the receiving end of Ciccolini’s wrist shot this year, and while he couldn’t maintain his spot at the top of the OJHL scoring race all year, Ciccolini was the most impressive U18 forward in the league by quite a bit. Ciccolini, who was joined by fellow NHL draft prospect Kosta Manikis at the league trade deadline in January on the Toronto Jr. Canadiens finished the regular season with 59 points in 48 games played while also playing for Canada East at the World Junior A Challenge. The University of Michigan commit had eight games with at least three points this season, including a two-goal, five-point night against the Lindsay Muskies on November 4th.
Ciccolini’s biggest asset is his quick, strong wrist shot, but he also had nearly half of his 33 assists on the power play. Ciccolini possesses impressive speed and seems to have no issue dishing the puck out in traffic, but he could add some strength to his game for more physical battles along the boards against older competition in the NCAA. Ciccolini and Manikis will play against Alexander and the Rangers in the opening round of the OJHL playoffs, so expect a decent amount of scouts to be in attendance.
Quinn Olson, F (Okotoks Oilers, AJHL): The #154th-ranked North American skater was one of the best draft eligible forwards in the CJHL after putting up 65 points in 52 games played with the Okotoks Oilers this year. A top forward with the team, Olson has been a close to or over a point-per-game player at every level of hockey and has typically been a stronger playmaker than goal-scorer. Olson is comfortable carrying the puck down the ice and often gets creative to make a pass or deke past a defender. The University of Minnesota Duluth commit has an option to return to the Oilers next season but could make the jump to the NCAA in Olson and the team decide it’s in his best interest to do so.
Matthew Davis, G (Spruce Grove Saints, AJHL): Davis was good with the Saints all year long, but the spotlight was truly on him at the World Junior A Challenge. On December 9, he had 41 saves in 65 minutes of action before stopping six of the seven shootout attempts that went his way, leading Canada West to a 2-1 victory over the eventual champions from the United States. While this was just one game, in particular, Davis led Canada West to the bronze while helping his team allow just 10 goals in four contests, the second-fewest in the tournament.
Davis has a quick glove and rarely misplays shots towards it. He moves fluently from post-to-post and covers the bottom of the net very well. He isn’t great at playing the puck but is strong enough positionally to make the first save on most occasions. Davis isn’t expected to join the NCAA’s University of Denver until 2021, so expect him to earn a lot of starts in the AJHL over the next few seasons.
Spencer Kersten, C (Oakville Blades, OJHL): Kersten, another player entering the draft for the second time, is somewhat of an unknown compared to others on this list. While Kersten has always been a solid player, his 2018-19 season was seen as his coming out party after recording 60 points in 48 games as an 18-year-old, nearly double the points as what he managed with the Oakville Blades a year prior. Kersten, a Princeton University commit, took off at the World Junior A Challenge, recording five points for a Canada East team that was very offensively challenged.
Kersten is a forward that knows how to get the puck into a scoring position often. While he did go a few months without recording a goal in OJHL play, Kersten was seen as one of the best passers in the league and often takes risks that worked out in his favour. Kersten spends a lot of time on the power play and is typically used late in tight games. Kersten is a great faceoff guy, too, and was easily one of the best 2000s in the league this year. While he may not have much draft attention just yet, Kersten should at least earn a spot at an NHL development camp during the summer, especially while playing for a team that should play deep into the spring.
Layton Ahac, D (Prince George Spruce Kings, BCHL): Another member of Canada West’s blueline at the World Junior A Challenge, Ahac showcased his two-way ability to the world by throwing up two assists on the scoresheet while doing a great job of keeping the puck away from Davis in the Canadian net. In domestic play, Ahac had a respectable 32 points in 53 games, with his best asset being his ability to pass well on the power play. Ahac had three points at the CJHL Top Prospects Game and was among the best players overall, a strong honour given the choices available.
Ranked 114th in North America by the NHL Central Scouting Service, Ahac has good size at 6’3 and moves quite well for a kid his size, but he could work on his acceleration. Ahac played big minutes in the BCHL this year and developed into a well-rounded blueliner that is reliable enough in important games.
Massimo Rizzo, C (Penticton Vees, BCHL): Had Rizzo decided to go the NCAA route as opposed to playing Jr. A, there is no doubt he would have made an impact with the Kamloops Blazers. Just prior to being selected 15th-overall pick at the 2016 WHL bantam draft, Rizzo finished the season with 60 goals and 137 points in 61 games before advancing to midget and recording 84 points in 48 games with the Burnaby Winter Club Prep squad a year later. In 2017-18, Rizzo had a strong rookie season in the BCHL with 39 points while also adding a goal and an assist in five games for Canada Black at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
This year, Rizzo served as the captain for the Vees, recording 40 points in 37 games. While he may not have blown away the competition offensively, Rizzo was a dynamic forward that was used on the power play, penalty kill and key five-on-five situations. He has strong offensive awareness that places him in a scoring situation often and he does a solid job of blocking shots, but he does lose a lot of faceoffs and could learn to be a bit more physical. Still, Rizzo has shown he can be a dominant player at times and could be worth a late-round flier in June.
Other notables include Zachary Uens, D (Wellington Dukes), Keighan Gerrie, C (Thunder Bay North Stars, SIJHL), Kosta Manikis, C (Toronto Jr. Canadiens), John Beaton, C (Kemptville 73s, CCHL) and Ethan Leyh, LW (Langley Riverman, BCHL).
Follow Steven on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.