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PROSPECT REPORT: Devils-Led Ottawa 67s Tearing up OHL

Mitchell Hoelscher, Nikita Okhotyuk, Graeme Clarke and Kevin Bahl leading the way on Canada's top junior squad

by Peter Robinson / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

OTTAWA - Andre Tourigny's smile said it all. 

"You want me to talk about half of our team," asked the Ottawa 67's head coach, in jest recently to an interviewer who showed up at his post-game news conference wanting to ask Devils-themed questions.

The affable Canadian junior coach has plenty of reason to keep things light. He helped his country win the gold medal at the World Juniors in early January. He's returned home to take his regular position behind the bench of the Ottawa 67's and was recently named Team Canada's head coach for next year when the tournament takes place in Edmonton and Red Deer. 

It's a lofty perch.

Helped by three Devils prospects - defensemen Nikita Okhotyuk and Kevin Bahl, plus center Mitchell Hoelscher - with another forward, Graeme Clarke, expected to return in time for the playoffs, the 67's are rampaging through the Ontario Hockey League. 

"We've been in this situation for two years," said Tourigny. "We've been in this mindset every day, where we come here and have an objective…then we get back to work, and do what we can today to be better tomorrow…(the Devils prospects) and every player on our team have embraced that."

The 67's won 17 games in a row straddling 2019 and 2020 that was snapped by a single loss in mid-January. Their current win streak is approaching double digits and the 67's are atop the weekly national rankings. 

Some nights it's not a fair fight. 

In addition to the four Devils prospects, two other forwards, Austrian Marco Rossi and Hoelscher's linemate, Canadian Jack Quinn, are expected to be top-half selections in the first round in Montreal on June 26. 

In other words, there could be another top-flight Devils prospect playing for the 67's. 

Quinn was recently named his team's most valuable player at the Kubota CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game held recently in Hamilton, Ontario. That contest, which pits the top 40 draft-eligible players from Canadian Hockey League in a one-off game, had as many as 18 players who will be Friday-night selections in Montreal. 

"I just give him the puck and hope for good things," said Hoelscher, of Quinn, "as cliched as that sounds that's really all I try and do."

Hoelscher is being humble. The now 20-year-old from Elora, Ontario (a small community near Kitchener, the hometown of Scott Stevens), celebrated his birthday on Monday and was recently bestowed with an early present: the OHL's player of the week award after an eight-point (five goals, three assists) stretch over three games.  

Now considered one of the OHL's best two-way players, Hoelscher says his goal is clear: keep getting better, take the opportunity that comes with being on such a good team and earn an NHL contract by the spring. To do that, he's working on getting stronger and harder on the puck.

"Strength and be that 200-foot player," said Hoelscher. "I'm putting up more points this year, which is good to see but I have to get stronger and heavier in (puck) battles to play at the pro level next year."

Bahl does not have to worry about his physical attributes. Almost 6'7", he has a man-among-boys quality on the ice. In a recent victory over the Saginaw Spirit, he saw plenty of time against both Cole Perfetti, a projected top-10 pick in the upcoming NHL Draft, and Ryan Suzuki, a Carolina Hurricanes first-rounder last June. 

Bahl passed the test. 

"Offense is the name of the game, it's the same way in the NHL," said Tourigny. "But when you have a shut-down defenseman, who plays against the other team's best players, who kills penalties…he's played 29 minutes (some nights), he is a huge part of our success."

For a big man, Bahl moves well but acknowledged that looking ahead to pro hockey, continued work on his mobility will be key.

"I enjoy the work," said Bahl, on his approach, "When you step on the ice and see the results and people see the improvements that you're making…I like (the challenge) and to see the results."

Okhotyuk's return to the lineup after two injury layoffs dating back to early September has also been a big part of Ottawa's excellence this season. 

"It was tough start for me with my two injuries," said Okhotyuk, in vastly improved English, "but I feel amazing right now…I really like it here, my third year. It's a great spot for me in Ottawa." 

On a team level, the Devils brigade and their teammates are looking to address the disappointment of losing in last year's OHL Final. The Guelph Storm, with Devils prospect Nate Schnarr in their lineup, reeled off four consecutive victories to snatch the title away from the 67's, who may have lost their focus after building a 2-0 series lead. 

"Last year, to get so close to it and get a taste of it," said Bahl, "and then it's gone…to comeback from that experience from last year's playoffs is important as well…but it was a tough couple weeks after."

Clarke's return - expected sometime in March - could give the 67's a jolt at precisely the right time. 

"He's doing really good, he's training (in the gym), now we are talking something between four and eight weeks," said Tourigny. "He is going to be a huge addition for us…he is a really hard-working kid. He's focused and intense…he will be great for us."

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