OHL Update: March Free Agents.

Peter Harling

2023-03-06

With the OHL regular season winding down in the final month of the regular season, we are now in the prime season for NHL teams to recruit CHL free agents.

This month the OHL Update will look at potential candidates to sign as free agents. These players are low risk, with limited upside from a fantasy perspective. Typically, NHL organizations end up with good AHL pro players when they dip into the free agent market. But occasionally you can find an NHL player this way.

Two prospects are already signed this year as the Philadelphia Flyers signed Jon Randall Avon, and the Nashville Predators have signed Nolan Burke.

What I like about it for my fantasy teams is, I can add these players as a free agent to my prospect roster. It does not cost me a draft pick, and because they are already 20+ years old, they begin pro hockey the following year, as opposed to prospects drafted that typically have two more years of junior to wait out before they turn pro.

Sure, players drafted in the first two rounds are far more likely to be relevant and worth the wait, but a 20-year-old, undrafted player will tell you within a year or two if they are worth keeping. It costs nothing and the incubation period is quick. You either gain an asset or cut bait and gain the roster spot back.

With this in mind, here are some players to put on your Fantrax watch list and if they are signed, try to be the first to scoop them up in your dynasty leagues.

Logan Morrison, C – Ottawa 67’s

There is plenty to like about Morrison and a reason why I open with him.

The good: He has decent size at 6-0 and 180 pounds. He won the OHL Championship last year, and was named the playoff MVP with 17 goals and 39 points in 19 games. Morrison also had eight more points in five Memorial Cup games falling just short in the final game. Morrison is in his over age season as a 20-year-old and is on pace to match last years 100 point performance. He has excellent skill as a playmaker and passer. His hockey sense is elite for the OHL level, and he can finish as well as he is on pace for 43 goals. Morrison was dealt from a rebuilding Hamilton team to the top team in the OHL in Ottawa where his production has not faltered.

The Bad: His skating is the reason why he was not drafted. It is well below average for the NHL level but has been improving over his career.

I spoke to an NHL scout recently about Lucas Edmonds and where he was drafted last summer by Tampa Bay and he had this to say; “I liked Edmonds all season, and Logan Morrison. Then in the playoffs they went in different directions totally. I would have picked Morrison over Edmonds!”

Morrison has a lot of work to do with his skating, but his hands and hockey sense can more than compensate in my opinion to allow him to play at the pace of the NHL.

Sean McGurn, C – London Knights

The 20-year-old is in his fourth season with the Knights and is co-captain. The Knights tend to give older players the lions share of the ice time so his rookie season was underwhelming with three points in 38 games. He did not play in the COVID cancelled season and understandably was not drafted. His D+1 year was more impressive with over a point per game production of 73 points through 66 games, yet he was undrafted again.

I am assuming he was undrafted due to size concerns, standing at 5-10, 170 he is an undersized player, but his skating, offensive skill and playmaking abilities are what stand out positively in his game. In his final year and as co-captain of the Knights, McGurn has proven to be a consistent producer and is on pace for an 86-point year. He has had very few games where he did not hit the score sheet and outside of a five game pointless streak he has produced. He recently went on a tear scoring 16 points in five games to be named the OHL player of the week.

Last September McGurn was invited to The Toronto Maple Leafs rookie camp as a free agent, showing that he is definitely on teams’ radar as a potential free agent.

Evan Vierling, C – Barrie Colts

If you are thinking hold the phone, Vierling was drafted by the New York Rangers in the 2020 draft, you are correct. However, they did not sign him, releasing his rights and making him a free agent.

Vierling was the second overall selection in the 2018 OHL Draft behind Quinto Byfield and ahead of Will Cuylle, Jamie Drysdale, and Cole Perfetti. As a rookie he produced decent numbers on a bad Flint team with 34 points, but really saw his offensive game take off after a trade in his sophomore year to Barrie where he has scored 34 points in 28 games. Then Vierling missed a year of development as COVID shut down the OHL and he did not play in either the AHL or Europe. His development took a small step back when he fell below a point per game in 2021-22 with 47 points in 55 games.

Despite the setbacks of declining production and being dropped by the Rangers, he was invited to the Columbus Blue Jackets training camp as a free agent. He returned to the OHL for his overage year and has been a force in the league and is on pace for 90 points in 61 games.

Vierling is a jack of all trades, master of none. His skill ratings across the board are very consistent, he skates well, has good pucks skills, plays a two-way game, has a good shot, but to be successful at the NHL level he lacks an elite skill set in any category. Will he be a top six player? Unlikely as he lacks explosive speed or dynamic offense. Will he be a bottom six? Possibly, but he lacks a strong physical game and is only average in defensive zone coverage. Perhaps he peaks as a good AHL player. Still, he is worth adding to a watch list and giving him a year of pro hockey before making a final call.

James Hardie, LW – Mississauga Steelheads

While undrafted, Hardie is definitely on NHL team’s radar. He signed a ATO with the Toronto Marlies during the pandemic closed OHL season, but did not make the team. He was invited to the Toronto Maple Leafs development camp the following season, and to the Boston Bruins rookie tournament last September as a free agent.

His OHL career has been as a consistent producer as he has exceeded a point per game in every season since his rookie year. The 5-11, 176 pound left winger is on pace for a 84 point season as the captain of the Steelheads and playing for a contract.

While his skill level is enough to play in the NHL, his skating is the concern. His first step is lacking and at 21-years-old likely as good as it is going to get. His lack of separation ability, limited size and good but not great puck skill make him a gamble, but a low risk one.

Avery Hayes, C/RW – Peterborough Petes

The undrafted forward had a breakout fourth season in the OHL last year as a key member of the OHL Champion Hamilton Bulldogs. Hayes went undrafted after two rather pedestrian season in the OHL, and his D+1 year was spent in Europe playing only 14 games in Slovakia.

Labelled as an undersized playmaking forward with skating liabilities, his 41 goal outbreak and 79 points in 66 regular season games got scouts attention. His play improved in the playoffs as he scored a whopping 14 goals and 34 points in 16 games, and another three goals and five points at the Memorial Cup.

His outstanding performance earned him an invitation last fall to the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Camp. Teams like the Leafs that have traded away several draft picks could be looking to the CHL to sign free agents to fill out their rosters. Hayes is a dual threat offensive player, he has good hockey sense that enables him to be a dynamic playmaker, he has good deception and anticipation that will translate to higher levels. His skating concerns have also since been addressed and are no longer deficient to the level that will keep him out of the NHL.

Riley Piercey, LW/RW – Flint Firebirds

Unlike other skaters on this list, Piercey has a size advantage standing at 6-3 and 205 pounds. The 20-year-old has seen a steady incline in production throughout his OHL career but was not drafted.

The good things about his game are obviously his size, he uses it well to his advantage to win puck battles in tight and along the boards. He can skate through players and is a factor in the crease causing screens and fishing for rebounds. Next is his stickhandling ability, it is above average, and he can manipulate the puck to create time, space and passing or shooting lanes. His hockey sense is average, highlighted by his ability to read the ice and find soft spots in coverage to make himself an option for passes.

Like many tall players his skating is below average. Being 20 years old already it is unlikely to improve beyond what it already is. His edge work, and two-step acceleration are below average.

Piercey was invited to the Detroit Red Wings development camp last fall before returning for his OA season in the OHL. While I may not see him having as high of an offensive ceiling as others on this list, his floor to be an effective bottom six NHL or pro player may be higher given his size. Piercey will also bring additional value to fantasy leagues that score peripheral stats like hits and PIM’s.

Brett Brochu, G – London Knights

A second player on the Knights to grace this list speaks to the development reputation of the London Knights. Brochu was a mid sixth round selection from the 2018 OHL Draft coming into the league with little fan fare. But to the credit of London scouting staff (Shout out to DobberProspects alumni and London Scout “Dean Youngblood” Brendan Ross.) Brochu has a career stat line of 86-30-4 and a 2.61 GAA and .912 SV%.

Brochu made somewhat of a name for himself as well with Team Canada as he was name to the 2022 WJC Gold Medal winning team, but did not play. Perhaps his most significant accolade was being named the OHL Goaltender of the Year in 2022.

Brochu has received some NHL interest as during the lost OHL season he signed a ATO with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and played in one AHL game, it was a loss and he allowed five goals but was an 18-year-old at the time.

The biggest hurdle for Brochu to cross will be his lack of size, standing at just 6-0 he needs to be outstanding in other aspects of his game. He plays a confident style where his movement is typically very refined and mechanical. Seldom scrambling to recover his methodical movements give shooters little openings to aim for. He uses angles very well and is aggressive in challenging shooters to compensate for his size. He is also very athletic and quick with his feet to make lateral movements to get from side-to-side when required.

Brochu has established a formidable resume for a sixth round OHL draft choice and an undrafted NHL player. This playoff performance should go a long way in determining how serious an NHL team will be in considering him for a NHL contract as a free agent.

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