With the Ontario Hockey League season starting Sept. 17, all eyes are on the Kitchener Rangers as they attempt to become the first repeat league champions since the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds won the 1991 and 1992 titles.
Aside from the team battles, there will be a number of individual players to watch leading up to the 2009 Entry Draft, to be held in June in Montreal.
For many hockey fans, their knowledge of the best OHL prospects begins with John Tavares. Granted exceptional player status so he could play junior at 14, Tavares has been a sensation during his first three seasons with the Oshawa Generals.
However, there is more than just Tavares vying for the attention of NHL scouts. Here's a look at some of the top draft prospects in the OHL this season:
John Tavares, Oshawa -- In his first three seasons in Oshawa, Tavares has lived up to the hype that accompanied his early entry into the OHL. He had 45 goals and 77 points as a 15-year-old rookie, and followed that with 72 goals, shattering Wayne Gretzky's league record for goals by a 16-year-old and winning the OHL MVP and Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year Award.
Last season he was second in the OHL with 78 assists and third with 118 points, in just 59 games. He also tied for the team lead with 4 goals playing for Canada at the 2008 World Junior Championship. He was one of two 2009 Entry Draft-eligible players invited to Hockey Canada's National Junior Team Evaluation Camp this past July.
Tavares seems to have all the makings of a can't-miss NHL player, but there are some that consider Tavares' 2007-08 season a "down" campaign, and his status as the top pick in the 2009 Draft is up for debate.
"A lot of people are down on John after last year," said Chris Edwards, who scouts the OHL for NHL Central Scouting. "He needs to come out and be who he is. He's too talented to not be considered at the top of this coming draft.
"He's got more puck skills and playmaking ability than I've seen out of a guy in a long time."
Tavares has heard the criticism, but doesn't seem bothered.
"People have been telling me I'll be No. 1 for a long time and expectations grow," Tavares told the Ottawa Sun in July. "I've been playing in the (OHL) for three years now and people start to pick my game apart a little more and more, but I think it helps me improve my game where I need to."
Nazem Kadri, London -- Kadri gained a world of experience last season that he can take with him into his draft year. Playing with the Kitchener Rangers last season, Kadri had 25 goals and 65 points in 68 games. He was sixth in OHL playoff scoring with 26 points in 20 games, and capped his season with a goal and 4 points in 5 games as the Rangers made the Memorial Cup title game.
Of the top 15 scorers at the Memorial Cup, Kadri was the youngest, which bodes well for his future.
A 5-foot-11, 175-pound center, Kadri already has learned to use his size to his advantage.
"He's big, lanky and skilled," said NHL Director of Central Scouting E.J. McGuire. "He uses his size to accentuate his puck skills. … size, reach, stickhandling ability, those long kinds of stick movements that Mario (Lemieux) used to make, like (Vincent) Lecavalier makes."
Kadri joined Tavares at the Canadian WJC evaluation camp. The youngest player there -- he's 16 days younger than Tavares -- Kadri nonetheless made a major impression.
"Kadri is very good," Tavares told NHL.com. "He probably has the best toe-drag I have ever seen. He is a guy that can contribute all over the ice. He's great on the penalty kill and he can score some timely goals."
Kadri was dealt to the London Knights during the summer, which makes them a favorite in this season's OHL title hunt.
"He's one of the reasons London is a highly touted team going into the OHL season," said McGuire.
Matt Duchene, Brampton -- The Battalion center debuted with 30 goals last season, third among first-year OHL players.
"He was a significant contributor to a good Guelph team last year that beat London in the playoffs and he gained great experience. Good speed, good stick, good sniping ability -- a good player."
-- NHL Director of Central Scouting, E.J. McGuire on Peter Holland
The 5-10, 190-pounder added to his stature during the summer with 5 points in 4 games as he captained Canada to the gold medal at the 2008 Memorial of Ivan Hlinka Tournament. Duchene's 4 assists tied for the team lead.
Duchene also has good hockey bloodlines -- his uncle, Newell Brown, is an assistant coach for the Anaheim Ducks. Duchene spent time during the summer working out with Ducks players.
"He's a skilled forward (and) his hockey sense and playmaking ability is very good," said Edwards. "He will be a guy that will play on your top two lines at the next level and contribute. He's got real good hands, in front of the net, tipping point shots, he's aggressive and not shy. He'll get involved and battle for pucks. His skating ability is very good."
Peter Holland, Guelph -- Playing for a veteran Storm squad, Holland led the team's rookies with 8 goals and 23 points in 62 games.
The 6-1, 178-pound center likely will have a bigger role in the offense this season.
"He shows good all-round skills," said McGuire. "There's not one element that really jumped out from his under-age year. He was a significant contributor to a good Guelph team last year that beat London in the playoffs and he gained great experience. Good speed, good stick, good sniping ability -- a good player."
Alex Hutchings, Barrie -- The 17-year-old had a breakout season with the Colts, leading the team with 29 goals, 54 points and a plus-7 rating.
It was a huge jump from his rookie season, when he scored just once.
Colts coach Marty Williamson said the improvement in Hutchings' play came from a growing confidence in his game and the willingness to play in traffic.
"That's where Hutch has really emerged," Williamson told the Barrie Advance. "He's got that wrist shot, and he's got that confidence in traffic just to hang in there."
Ryan O'Reilly, Erie -- Despite playing on an Otters team that finished with the second-fewest points in the OHL, O'Reilly was sixth among all first-year OHL players with 52 points in 61 games, and his 19 goals was fourth on the team.
"This kid is going to be a really good goalie down the road. He has that good goalie sense in him." -- Central Scouting's Al Jensen on Edward Pasquale
"That was a tough situation for him to be in," Edwards said of playing in Erie. "They won a handful of games, changed their coaching staff, guys getting hurt. But he battled through it and he competed hard all year.
"As much as they didn't wrack up huge numbers, he competed and he contributed when he could on a very poor team last year."
Edward Pasquale, Saginaw -- The second-year goaltender split last season between Belleville and the Spirit after being traded in December.
After playing just 10 games for the Bulls, he was 8-5 with a 3.54 goals-against average in 13 games with Saginaw. With Ryan Daniels' departure, Pasquale enters this season as the Spirit's No. 1 netminder.
"He's going to be one of the top goalies this year," said Central Scouting's Al Jensen. "I think if he was eligible last year he would have been drafted. He's very poised and confident. I like his strength in the net. He reads the play very well. This kid is going to be a really good goalie down the road. He has that good goalie sense in him."
Alain Valiquette, Sudbury -- Valiquette went 6-10-0 with a 3.99 GAA last season, but those numbers are skewed by playing for the Wolves, who finished with the worst record in the league.
"He's a big kid, athletic," said Jensen. "He's a very poised, confident kid. He shows great upside to his game, as well."
Valiquette will compete with veteran Andrew Loverock for the full-time job, but it's a competition he could win.
"I wouldn't be surprised if you saw (Valiquette) as the No. 1 goalie," said Jensen. "I wouldn't be surprised at all."
Michael Zador, London -- On a stacked Knights team, Zador played just one period with the Knights, instead spending most of last season with the midget AAA Toronto Marlboros.
Jensen, Central Scouting's expert on goaltenders, believes the only thing that could hold Zador back on draft day is the amount of time he plays. London is expected to contend for the OHL title and may hesitate to go with an untested goaltender.
"I know he's going to be a good quality goalie," said Jensen. "Hopefully he gets some playing time in London. He's good. He's got good quickness, and he's been touted as one of those goalies a couple years ago that's a can't-miss goalie."
Ryan Ellis, Windsor -- The defenseman had a breakout rookie season with the Spitfires, finishing fourth among all first-year players in scoring last season with 63 points, and tied for fourth among all OHL blueliners with 15 goals. He also was a plus-30.
"He's a fireplug. He hits anything that moves; he hits hard."
-- Scout, Chris Edwards on Zack Kassian
At the 2008 Hlinka tournament, he tied for the Canada team lead with 4 assists, and his 16 penalty minutes led the squad.
The only drawback with Ellis is his 5-9, 180-pound frame.
"He's got lots of energy, great skater, puck movement," said Edwards. "You wish he was 6-foot-2, but he is what he is. With his shot -- he's got an excellent shot -- he gets it through to the net, he has a great ability to not get them blocked. He can run your power play at the next level. He's smart enough to do it, and he's got good enough skating and puck skills."
Taylor Doherty, Kingston -- A 6-6, 215-pound behemoth, Doherty was third on the Frontenacs with 118 penalty minutes as a rookie. The defenseman also had 6 goals and 24 points in 64 games.
Named to the 2008 Hlinka tournament team, he had an assist in 4 games.
"He's a guy that got better as the year went along and he started playing more," said Edwards. "He skated well, he handled the puck well, played the power play.
"He's a good skater but he needs to improve his speed and agility."
Zack Kassian, Peterborough -- The rookie right wing contributed 9 goals and 21 points in 58 games with the Petes last season. But in 2006-07, playing for the Windsor minor midget team, he had 22 goals and 80 points in 32 games.
Kassian had one of his 2 assists for Canada in the gold medal-game of the 2008 Hlinka tournament.
At 6-2 and 209 pounds, Kassian reminds Edwards of former Peterborough forward and current Buffalo Sabre Patrick Kaleta.
"He's a fireplug," said Edwards. "He hits anything that moves; he hits hard. He needs to improve on his speed. He has decent speed, but he really had one speed. His competitiveness is second to none. He'd hit anything, he'd fight anybody; there were over-agers in the league who wouldn't take him on."
Casey Cizikas, Mississauga -- The center debuted in the OHL last season with 18 goals, 41 points and a plus-12 rating with the Majors.
The 5-11, 186-pound center then tied for the team lead with 2 goals and 5 points at the 2008 Hlinka tournament.
"He just showed all-round good play," said McGuire. "He's just a good prospect."
Andy Bathgate, Belleville -- The 6-foot, 164-pound left wing has great skills and tremendous hockey bloodlines -- his grandfather is Hockey Hall of Famer Andy Bathgate.
The younger Andy had an assist in 5 games for a Bulls team that advanced to the Memorial Cup last season. Most of his playing time came with the Georgetown Raiders of the Ontario Provincial Junior A Hockey League, where he totaled 14 goals and 44 points in 40 games.
"He's a little on the light side," said Edwards. "He's got some room to fill in. … He's got real good speed and agility, he's an excellent skater, good movement and his puck-handling is very good."
Tyler Randell, Belleville -- In limited playing time, Randell had 5 goals and 11 points in 62 games for the Bulls, but was scoreless in 19 OHL playoff games and one game in the Memorial Cup.
Randell brings a 6-1, 182-pound frame into a season during which he should see far more extensive playing time.
"He's a big guy," said Edwards. "He wasn't a bad skater but he's improved his skating and strength. … I think he can be a pretty good power forward this year."
Andrew Agozzino, Niagara -- Agozzino had a fine season as a rookie with the IceDogs last season, finishing with 12 goals and 22 points in 50 games.
The 5-7, 176-pound left wing still needs to fill out physically, but his speed and skill has drawn early attention.
Central Scouting's Jensen said what stood out to him was Agozzino's "quickness, how he competes all the time. He's very skillful. I was impressed with how he played last year."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.