By Ryan Kennedy – The Hockey News
The third game of the CHL-Russia series took place on Thursday in Kitchener, with the OHL taking up the sword for the QMJHL, which split its two games with the Russians. The OHL dominated a Russian lineup that didn’t have a lot of firepower outside of Vasili Podkolzin (VAN) and Ivan Morozov (VGK), but what was most intriguing about the 4-1 home victory is how the youngest players on the team fared.
Team OHL featured four 2002 birthdays on the night, all of whom look to be major players in the 2020 draft this summer: Quinton Byfield, Cole Perfetti, Jamie Drysdale and Ryan O’Rourke (goalie Nico Daws, passed over in the last year’s draft, was also excellent). Drafted prospects such as Akil Thomas (LA), Ryan Merkley (SJ) and Connor McMichael (WSH) also had strong showings, but it was truly illuminating to see the 2020 ‘Big Four’ make major impacts in front of Canada’s world junior brain trust.
“The Russians are a big, heavy team,” said coach Dale Hunter. “And they held their own against big, strong guys that are older than them, so that’s a credit to them.”
Byfield is the best-known of the group, so let’s start with him. The Sudbury Wolves center is expected to go within the first two picks in the draft, at this point right behind Rimouski’s Alexis Lafreniere. Byfield earned player of the game honors for Team OHL in Kitchener on the strength of two primary assists and had no problem using his 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame to get his way, particularly in the offensive zone.
“I tried battling down low in the corners, showing my strength and putting my stamp on the game,” Byfield said. “I’m just trying to show a lot of people that I can play with older guys and that I’m ready for the next step.”
What makes Byfield such an intriguing prospect is that he’s still on his way up. The offensive skills are impressive, but he can put more weight and muscle on his frame, giving the youngster an incredible ceiling. He also showed his versatility by switching from center to wing, something Hunter likes to see in a player (which makes sense given how many natural centers Team Canada traditionally has on its national teams).
Perfetti came into the season looking like a potential top-five pick thanks to a big performance at the summer Hlinka-Gretzky tournament, not to mention his 37-goal rookie campaign with the Saginaw Spirit last year. He popped in the game-winner in Kitchener and looked dangerous throughout. Though he doesn’t have the size of Byfield, Perfetti brings his own tantalizing package of skills, including his vision and an incredible shot.
On the blueline, Drysdale has been everything for the Erie Otters this year and his hallmark comes with his skating. Simply put, every NHL team can use a defenseman with the mobility of Drysdale and he looked very good against the Russians. I would not be surprised if Drysdale is the first defenseman off the board this summer, so top-five is on the table for him, too.
Drysdale actually played on a pairing with O’Rourke in Kitchener and while he may be the least-known of the four, O’Rourke is opening eyes quickly. The 17-year-old was just named captain of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and that is quite the accomplishment for a second-year player. O’Rourke moves well too, but also has a nice level of snarl in his game. Both he and Drysdale can put points on the board, too. If O’Rourke continues his strong play, I could see him sneaking into the top-10 in the draft, but if he goes lower he’ll be a very nice pick-up for an NHL team.
And the best part of this Big Four? They like each other.
“We’re always hanging out at the hotel, we’re good friends off the ice,” Byfield said. “We always support each other on the ice as well. All three of them are special players and we thrive off each other. The energy between all of us is strong.”
How many of them will make the team? It’s difficult to say, given how loaded Canada is for skaters. For me, even surviving an initial cut at main camp would be a badge of distinction, but it sounds like Canada’s coaches are keeping an open mind.
“It’s always open,” Hunter said. “Whoever’s the best, we’ll take. That’s what you want; a battle for all positions.”