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Plenty of surprise destinations for local OHL draftees (UPDATED!)
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Newsflash to future OHL draftees: don't be the least bit surprised if the team that ultimately calls your name is a franchise you would have considered among the least likely to select you in the days preceding the draft.

Based on highly unscientific research of the local draftees, specifically the current 2024 class but without a doubt in a pattern seen in previous years, the notion of trying to predict your ultimate destination based on the amount of discourse you have had with any given team is a fool's pursuit.

"It was a bit of a surprise," suggested Kohyn Eshkawkogan, a first round selection of the Ottawa 67's (21st overall), the smooth-skating blueliner only the third Manitoulin Island native to be OHL drafted* and the first to go in the opening round.

(* to the best of our knowledge - Nick Esposto (4th rd - 2007); Samuel Assinewai (13th rd - 2020))

"They called me when it was the 19th pick and asked if I would report to camp (if selected)," Eshkawkogan continued, a prospect who suited up with the North York U16 AAA Rangers this year but who played for both the Copper Cliff Redmen and Nickel City AAA Sons in his developmental years.

"I said yes, that I was really excited."

A few rounds later, a very similar scenario, with several local twists.

"I wasn't expecting Sudbury to take me, but I am very happy they did," suggested goaltender Mateo Beites, the Wolves 5th round choice who is coming off an outstanding season with the highly ranked Barrie U16 AAA Colts.

"They (Sudbury) were one of the only teams that I did not interview with," added the 5'11"+ puckstopper who donned a Team Canada jersey at the 2024 Winter Youth Olympics in South Korea in January.

"I think it was the fact that last year, I played with the 2007's (Sudbury U16 AAA Wolves - 2022-2023 edition). There was always somebody from Sudbury (Wolves) watching. And if I saw them at a game or tournament, I would always introduce myself and say hi - so I think they had a pretty good idea of what I am like as a person."

The first of five players taken from the 2023-2024 Sudbury U16 AAA Wolves, defenseman and captain Dawson Morris told a tale that pretty much echoed the previous two. "Honestly, that was a pretty big surprise," said the hair under six foot rearguard who was nabbed by the Guelph Storm in round seven.

"I didn't really talk to them much this year. I talked to a few other teams."

Even the locals who played out of town did not differ greatly. "A couple of teams interviewed me, but Kitchener was not one of them," said defenseman Ryker Young, the 12th round pick of the Rangers who was on the same team as Mateo Beites in Barrie.

"I wasn't expecting this," added the son of former Wolves' forward Jason Young.

Closing things off in round 14 for this team and now a product of the Barrie Colts, forward Ashton Pitawanakwat offered a story that we have heard repeated at pretty much every single OHL draft for the past two decades or more.

"Of all of the teams that I spoke to, I did not speak to Barrie once," said the 5'8" right winger with a nose for the net.

Speaking of which, there is no lack of skill sets included not only via the above quartet or the remaining locals who were able to exhale and celebrate Saturday evening: Mason Walker (9th round - Sudbury Wolves); Kaden Wicklander (11th round - Brantford Bulldogs); Jameson Fabbro (13th round - Erie Otters.

"My hockey IQ and ability to process the game - and also my skating ability," responded Eshkawkogan to the question of what specifically caught the eyes of OHL scouts, in his opinion.

And his is an informed opinion, based on how much work he puts in to understanding the game, constantly developing his hockey IQ.

"Some of it comes from me but I also read hockey books and watch a lot of hockey," said the young talent who was one of 40 draft eligible players invited to compete at the GTHL Prospects Game in January.

"There is a training device called Hockey Intelligence that I use as well."

For goaltenders, like Beites, their biggest strength often lies in the mental part of the game - something that is sure to come in handy when you have the added pressure of being drafted by your hometown team.

"I don't really see pressure as a big thing, to be honest," said Beites. "A lot of people might find it difficult, but I just step on the ice and play my game. I can't really worry about anything else."

Racking up 22 points in 33 GNML games (7G-15A), Dawson Morris had demonstrated an offensive flair both this year and in previous campaigns locally. With that in mind, he shifted his attention when it came to focusing on areas he felt the need to showcase at those highly scouted tournaments.

"Demonstrating that I am a pretty physical player who likes to get into the corners, into the battles is something the scouts like to see," he stated. "But honestly, every team is looking for something a little different."

One of three Sudbury U16 AAA Wolves forwards who eclipsed the point-per-game barrier this winter, Kaden Wicklander (19G-24A in 36GP) felt strongly that he had shown enough to work his way on to the computer screen on Saturday.

"I was confident in my capabilities," said the 16 year old who spent the day catching the draft at his grandparents' place. "I did think I would be drafted. I have a high compete level every time I touch the ice."

"It really doesn't matter to me if I get a point or not. If I work hard the whole game, every time they watch me, I should be good."

One of several players that scouts felt showed particularly well at the recent OHL Cup, Mason Walker (33G-30A in 36GP) suggested that culminated a season of steady progression. "In the first half, I was still getting used to it - new league, new teammates," said the younger brother of Sudbury Cubs' forward and co-captain Cameron Walker.

"In the second half, I started to pick up my game and was super happy with my performance."

At 5'9", the skilled centerman knows that having an offensive component to his game will always be important. "I watched a lot of OHL games this year and watched how players at that level were able to slow the game down and not get rid of the puck as soon as you get it," said Walker.

"Being calm on the ice was super important. I think helped me create a lot of chances. Simple things like waiting out a defender, knowing what you can do as a player and not trying to do too much."

"I was super pumped before the OHL Cup," Walker continued. "All year, that was all people talked about. The scouts already knew what I could do with the puck; they were looking for the little details away from the puck."

"I wasn't too worried about the scoring and stuff. Being hard on pucks, being tenacious, finishing my checks, making sure I was in the right positions, trying to play a really good all-around game - I thought I did that."

Also a member of the Sudbury U16 AAA Wolves, Jameson Fabbro was among those forwards who felt that skills that did not necessarily involve putting the puck in the net would be what popped out as scouts took in their games.

"My skating ability showed throughout the year - I brought it every game," said Fabbro. "That helped my pressure on the puck, making the other team cough up pucks. I found that throughout the season, I could make other teams make mistakes, creating turnovers for my team."

Regardless of whether the 2024-2025 season finds him with the Erie Otters or some other affiliated junior team at a slightly lower level, Fabbro feels that much more well equipped to handle the style of play thanks to the work of Sudbury head coach Randy Koski and his staff.

"Our coaches this year definitely pushed for a more systematic play style - a good forecheck, good PK, good power play," said Fabbro. "We were a lot more organized and playing as a team."

For many a blueliner in the draft, jumping up into the rush was their calling card to being drafted. Ryker Young is not one of those d-men.

"I was really good at shutting down the other team's top line, using my good stick and my high defensive hockey IQ to shut them down," said Young. "A shut down defenseman will bring a physical game and are hard on the other team's top players - and they are very good defensively."

The fact that this is often what was asked of him as he excelled in Barrie did not hurt his draft status one bit, especially at one of the year's most highly scouted events.

"At the Marlies Holiday Classic, I thought I was playing some of the best hockey I had played in a long time," said Young. "I had my role down to a "T"."

Rounding out what was more often than not his team's top line, Ashton Pitawanakwat (27G-22A in 36GP) liked his contribution to a U16 AAA Wolves crew that likely fared better on draft day than many would have predicted.

"My speed, my goal scoring ability and my hockey IQ," listed the grade 10 student at St Charles College. "We worked with what we had and I thought we did pretty good."

With a small handful of local products opting to play outside of Sudbury in their U16 AAA year, some had expressed concern over how competitive the balance of the group might be when facing the Ontario elite.

"Obviously it would have been nice to have the boys that did move out, but I we did pretty well and came together really nice, especially at the end of the season," added Pitawanakwat. "It just seemed like the switch went on and we were rolling."

With that behind him, however, the real work begins.

"I love working out; I love training," said Beites. "I am going to be working my butt off all summer, training with my goalie coach and making sure I am as ready as possible at training camp."

"The shots and the puck movement are much faster than what I was playing at this year," he added. "You look at any shots by any of the Wolves - they're pretty damned fast. Tracking will be very important for me."

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