The Ottawa 67’s turned heads this past April, selecting three defencemen inside the first 31 picks of the 2016 OHL Priority Selection.
With Calgary Flames pick Stepan Falkovsky graduating after one season and overagers Evan de Haan and Nevin Guy moving on, head coach and general manager Jeff Brown turned his attention to re-stocking the back end for the years to come.
After selecting Noel Hoefenmayer and Hudson Wilson in the second and third rounds respectively in 2015, the 67’s took Mississauga Rebels rearguard Peter Stratis 11th overall, OHL Cup Champion Carter Robertson of the York-Simcoe Express 30th overall and big Toronto Marlboros defender Kevin Bahl 31st overall.
“The plan going in wasn’t necessarily to take three defencemen,” said Brown, reflecting on draft day. “The situation kind of dictated our approach, and with Robertson and Bahl, two guys we had in the first round both being around midway through the second, we weren’t going to pass on them.”
The 67’s scooped the versatile right-hand shooting Stratis at 11th overall, a player 67’s head scout Pat Higgins identified early in the season. Stratis’ Minor Midget campaign with the Mississauga Rebels included 20 goals, 29 assists and 49 points over 70 games.
“We needed a high-end defenceman in a bad way,” Brown said. “Peter does everything well. He has a great stride, good vision and makes smart decisions. He jumped out at Higgy early on and we kept close tabs on him throughout the season. We see him developing into a guy who’ll see big minutes for us.”
Robertson, a left-handed shot who stood out during the OHL Cup Showcase and Bahl, an intense 6-foot-5, 225Ib. competitor will both be provided with opportunities to mature in Ottawa alongside fellow rookie, 17-year-old Russian import Andrei Golikov.
“These guys are all puck-movers, they’re all smart and they’re all mobile,” Brown added. “It’s hard to find good defencemen, and we feel like we have a number of them within our organization now.”
Fifth-year veteran Jacob Middleton will be counted upon to log big minutes as ‘the kids’ find their rhythm in the OHL against older, stronger opposition.
“We’re going to have to be patient, our we’ll drive ourselves crazy,” Brown said of the mindset entering this season. “It’s not easy for these 16 and 17-year-old kids to face the size and speed of forwards in this league. We’ve worked really hard to rebuild here, and we’re kind of in the middle of our transition right now.”
Go back in the history books and you’ll find that the 67’s have a history of drafting and developing their own talent on the blue line. Players like Sean Blanchard (13th overall, 1994), Nick Boynton (3rd overall, 1995), Brian Campbell (37th overall, 1995), Jon Zion (18th overall, 1997) and Brendan Bell (18th overall, 1999) all went on to do great things in barberpole jerseys.
“When you draft 15-year-olds, it takes time for them to develop into really good OHL players,” Brown concluded. “So we’re certainly not going to panic, we just have to understand where we are right now.”