2016 NHL Draft Watch: Vitalii Abramov Torching QMJHL

Vitalii Abramov sits fourth in QMJHL scoring with 74 points in 49 games, which is also good for first in QMJHL rookie scoring by 25 points. | Photo: Kathy Kocur, Hockey Prospect

Vitalii Abramov sits fourth in QMJHL scoring with 74 points in 49 games, which is also good for first in QMJHL rookie scoring by 25 points. | Photo: Kathy Kocur, Hockey Prospect

If you don’t know the name Vitalii Abramov, you will soon. He is a QMJHL rookie with 73 points in 48 games, good for fourth in the lead and a 12-point lead on Gatineau.

The best way to describe Abramov is: Electrifying. His explosiveness, stickhandling, and creativity are all among the very best in the draft lcass.

Despite his 5’9” stature, he takes direct routes to the net, often exploding to the outside then making a strong net drive. He’s at his best around the net, but make no mistake, he’s a quality long-range shooter and an even deadlier playmaker. He owns a vast arsenal of one-on-one moves, including an absolutely potent toe drag. Thanks to fantastic edge work and hands, he evades checks and fights through traffic with ease.  Furthermore, he is a slippery player, sneaking away from defenders, only to pounce on a loose puck and bury it.

Although Abramov has a nasty habit of exiting the defensive zone too early, his defensive game has come a surprisingly long way in a short period of time. Each and every shift, Abramov is getting implicated in the play, whether that be in his own zone, along the boards, and in front of the net. He shows no fear whatsoever.

Abramov has impressed all season, but has turned it on in January, with 10 goals and 22 points in just 11 games. Size, undoubtedly an overrated concern, appears to be holding him back in the draft rankings, but there is no doubt that he one of the top talents in this year’s draft class.

Pair of ’98 defenders leading the way for Hamilton

Just four games into the season, Hamilton’s captain and number one defender, Justin Lemcke, went down for the remainder of the season due to injury. The initial disaster has since turned fruitful for a pair of former OHL second rounders: Cole Candella and Benjamin Gleason.

Candella has been thrust into the number one role, where he has thrived. The smooth-skating defenceman built upon a quietly solid rookie campaign, and now is one of the OHL’s top ’98-born defenders. Candella possesses tremendous hockey sense, showcased by his impeccable decision-making. Furthermore, Candella possesses a powerful slapshot, quality stickhandling ability, and great puck-rushing ability.

It is defensively where Candella really shines, which is a testament to his ability. Candella’s gap control is excellent, and he rarely loses a puck battle despite his average stature. He plays physical and spirited, while taking few trips to the penalty box.

Meanwhile, Gleason has taken a tough rookie season with the London Knights and turned it into a fabulous sophomore campaign with Hamilton. Gleason is an offence-oriented defender, displaying excellent push-rushing ability. While his decision-making must continue to improve, his explosive skating style and aggressive style make him a constant threat on the ice. Gleason’s 28 points place him third in Bulldogs scoring.

While Hamilton remains one of the weakest teams in the OHL, Candella and Gleason will integral in Hamilton turning their fortunes around next season.

Givani Smith emerging as Storm’s catalyst

It wasn’t all that long ago that the Guelph Storm were on pace for a historically bad season in the OHL. While it doesn’t seem like much, four wins in their past 10 games is just one less than they had in the previous 36 games. The implementation of a new coaching staff, with a revamped strategy turned around the team’s fortunes, and perhaps no Storm player has benefited as much as Givani Smith has.

While inconsistent, Smith has impressed from the start of the season. His ability to gain the zone and maintain possession was unique for a horrendous team such as a Guelph. Often times, it appeared that Smith was the only player capable of generating scoring chances. His shoot-first mentality allows him to generate many individual scoring chances.

Smith has a powerful shot with an explosive release that is noticeable from everywhere in the offensive zone. He skates quite well, but it’s his ability to anticipate the play and utilize his body that allow him to win races and battles. Around the net, Smith uses a strong lower body to fight for space and owns good hand-eye coordination. While his two-way game must improve, he competes hard and is constantly looking to lower the boom. While his passing is only average, his ability to score around the net is excellent.

Since the beginning of the December, Smith has added consistency to his game, scoring 14 goals and adding four assists in the past 22 games. January has been particularly fruitful, with nine goals and 44 shots in 12 games. Interestingly enough, Smith’s best games have come against some of the best teams in the league. In 12 games against Barrie, London, and Kitchener, Smith has 10 goals.

WJC instills confidence in Rasmus Asplund

While the 2016 WJC was disappointing for Team Sweden, Rasmus Asplund quietly put together a tremendous tournament. With excellent skating ability and non-stop motor, Asplund contributed each shift. In the six games since his return to Farjestad, he has amassed four points, putting him ninth in SHL U-20 scoring.

Asplund is a great skater, owning separation speed and excellent agility. Furthermore, he excels in his own zone, demonstrating a high level of awareness, smarts, and work ethic. While he doesn’t own a high-end trait offensively, he possesses above-average playmaking and decent finishing ability around the goal.

The 18-year-old winger already has 69 games of SHL experience, and has been consistently used in a fourth-sometimes-third line role.

Tage Thompson: A top NCAA freshman

Tage Thompson has been quite the revelation for the University of Connecticut. The 18-year-old freshman has 10 goals and 22 points in just 26 games this year, good enough for third among ’97-born freshman in the NCAA scoring race.

The 6’5” winger has played with Max Letunov, one of the most highly-skilled players in all of college hockey. The two have demonstrated excellent chemistry all season, and have arguably been the biggest reason why UConn has been a middle-of-the-pack team in a tough Hockey East conference.

Perhaps Thompson’s best asset is his goalscoring ability. He owns a powerful shot with a deceptive release. Around the net, his surprisingly soft hands and quality touch allow him to pounce on loose pucks and hammer in rebounds. He hasn’t been much of a long-range threat yet, but given more developmental time and confidence, he will hopefully begin shooting from long-range.

Furthermore, Thompson is an above-average skater. While big, he doesn’t particularly shine along the boards or in front of the net. Adding strength to his lanky frame in the future will go a long way.

However, there is cause for concern with Thompson’s outstanding NCAA production. Of his 10 goals, all but one has come on the powerplay, and he has a 15% shooting rate. Often times, Thompson is completely invisible at even-strength, while Letunov does the heavy lifting.

The reward for the 6’5” smooth-skating sniper that still has a lot of physical and mental room to grow could be huge, but the risk is quite high, too.

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