The NHL draft is set to open virtually on Tuesday night.
The expectation is that the Ontario Hockey League’s Soo Greyhounds will see some of its own players selected in the seven-round draft, which will see round one go on Tuesday night and round two through seven set for Wednesday.
In fact, the Greyhounds have had just one season (2006) in which it didn’t have a player selected since joining the OHL in 1972.
Widely expected to be the first member of the Greyhounds selected, defenceman Ryan O’Rourke could have his name called relatively early in the draft, quite possibly on Tuesday night.
Some mock drafts have the Greyhounds captain going late in the first round.
Regardless, an early selection is something the young blueliner earned.
“You watch the (NHL) playoffs and you see how hard guys have to play and how they have to compete,” Greyhounds general manager Kyle Raftis said. “It’s not about fighting. It’s moreso about taking away on the defensive side of it with that edge and that’s what Ryan brings. A lot of times, people talk about the flash. He’s so smart in the way he moves pucks that it becomes something that’s a little understated, but when you look at his points comparatively to other draft-eligible guys that are in their first time going through the draft, he’s right up there with everyone in points-per-game. He’s not a one-dimensional defenceman and it was no different when he was in minor midget when we drafted him. He’s been that same guy and he’s been able to elevate it to another level.”
Raftis also noted O’Rourke’s ability to play a lot of important minutes for the Greyhounds last season.
“Ryan’s probably played more unprotected minutes than any of them,” Raftis said. “There are some years where you have a 17-year-old defenceman and maybe want to put him out with someone older and make sure that they’re taken care of. Not to say that you’re trying to prop them up, but you don’t want them to be crushed. With Ryan, he was the guy taking the younger defencemen out there. He was the guy counted on for those heavy minutes.”
Coming off a 30-goal season in his sophomore year with the club, Rory Kerins has drawn plenty of interest from NHL scouts as well.
“Rory has definitely always been a very smart player,” Raftis said. “He’s similar to Ryan (O’Rourke) in that he’s a little understated in terms of what he gets credit for. Coming in in his first year, we had him playing a little bit on the wing. Then we had him playing centre last year. You can see his smarts when he’s on the ice. He can play with anybody in our lineup and it was great to see the work that he put in the summer (of 2019) in terms of transforming his body and taking it to that next level and he was rewarded.”
Raftis added that the 30-goal season Kerins put up last winter “probably isn’t getting enough attention.”
“He was doing it five-on-five with different wingers throughout the year and taking tough matchups,” Raftis added. “Although he’s on the quieter side, he’s very confident in what he can do and it was good to see him put those numbers up.”
Another second-year forward who has drawn interest as a potential mid-round pick is forward Jaromir Pytlik.
“There’s no ego about him, he just works incredibly hard,” Raftis said. “His skill is very underrated in terms of what he can do in tight and get on top of the forecheck. He’s 6-3; he’s a good skater; he’s got good vision and a good skill set. He can really shoot the puck.
“He played a ton of hard minutes for us this year because behind him were a couple of 17-year-old centres,” Raftis added. “At the same time, I give him a lot of credit. He took on a lot. He wore a letter for us. The kids love having him as a part of our team.”
Import goaltender Nick Malik, who joined the Greyhounds midway through last season earned credit for his play just prior to the OHL shutting down for the season back in March.
“The most interesting part about Nick is he was playing his best hockey right before we got shut down,” Raftis said. “There were a lot of different factors, but when you’re a 17-year-old kid, it’s tough to come into any new environment when you’re coming from across the world.
“When you watch the athleticism, the power, and the confidence in his game, the things he does well are all right there and it’s just a matter of honing that,” Raftis added. “That’s something that started to show down the stretch. When you look around the league, there weren’t a lot of 17-year-old goalies that were playing the minutes that Nick was playing. It’s going to benefit him down the road.”
One of the more interesting prospects in some regards is Tanner Dickinson.
After joining the Greyhounds as a free agent before last season, Dickinson jumped out of the gate a bit offensively and proceeded to finish the season as one of the OHL’s top rookie scorers.
“When you’re watching him, you see the speed, you see the high hockey I.Q.,” Raftis said. “There were times this year where, just playing the way he was, he was looking to make that extra pass. He put up a lot of assists and he was top five in rookie scoring so you can’t take anything away from him for that. He’s a guy that, over the last six months since the league ended, he’s probably put on the most muscle.
“We talked a lot to our guys about taking advantage of this time and I know Tanner has completely,” Raftis added. “He’s someone that, gaining that extra year of confidence, is really going to take a step here.”
Meanwhile, defenceman Robert Calisti showed a marked improvement in his offensive game in 2019-20, and the steps his game took were noticed right away by the Greyhounds management and coaching staff.
“I said this right from training camp that he was the most improved in terms of steps taken,” Raftis said. “I give him a ton of credit because a lot of guys going through a rookie year like he did would have made excuses or maybe put the blame on other people where Rob used it as motivation. He came right into training camp and made no secret of what he was there to accomplish.
Raftis added that Calisti made the most of his opportunities early in the season in terms of the minutes the blueliner received.
“He changed our power play in terms of having that big shot on the back end,” Raftis said. “His skating has always been there. He’s a very confident player, but at the same time, when you’re playing lower minutes, sometimes it’s tough to create that confidence. It’s been great to see that evolution.”
The added time prior to the draft this season has made things different with regards to preparation by NHL teams.
“In a lot of regular years, you have an understanding of where guys might go, but this year, there’s been so much time (ahead of the draft) that all of the teams are digging in so much to all these players,” Raftis said.
With the draft normally being held in late-June, the extra three months has meant NHL teams are spending even more time than usual getting to know players. If there’s a year to really know the players available, there’s no doubt 2020 is that year.