Saint John Sea Dogs captain Jonathan Huberdeau (The Canadian Press)It's the first week of October, the week when traditionally even the very best junior-age players are sent back to their clubs from National Hockey League camps, either because they're too small or inexperienced, or they need to work on a certain aspect of their game. (Or, more likely, because NHL teams aren't allowed to send draft picks from the CHL to the American Hockey League).
But all three CHL branches have seen a star-studded September with junior-age players having nowhere else to go thanks to the NHL lockout. Nail Yakupov's exit from Sarnia to the KHL has been much-publicized, but who are the NHL-ready players good enough to stick with their NHL teams that are still hanging around in their junior leagues this year?
I've compiled a list of nine, but surely there are a few more surprises and omissions, given the talent-level of these leagues. NHL-level talent, coming soon to an arena near you...
Jonathan Huberdeau - Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)
The most obvious player on this list is Florida's No. 3 pick from a year ago Jonathan Huberdeau, who isn't just an offensive threat at the junior-level, but he's also aesthetically pleasing. He has speed and skill to boot, and all these things that make him a particularly desirable player for an NHL organization, but he's also physically dominant, despite being listed at just 171 pounds.
Through six games, his offensive numbers are merely great but not overly dominant, mostly due to the loss of the Saint John supporting cast. But with five goals in five games on a shooting rate of 19.4 per cent, below his QMJHL career rate of 22.2 percent, definite improvement in his goal total is about to come. Based on this, and the way he plays, I highly recommend getting into a rink to see him.
Mikhail Grigorenko - Quebec Remparts (QMJHL)
Grigorenko, the No. 12 overall pick to the Buffalo Sabres, is a very polarizing prospect, one who could be conceivably be playing pro in some form. The Russian has 14 points in six games, but his true talent lies in his ability to be a dominant defensive player as well as contribute on the north side of the ice.
He's the primary face-off man who draws the tough matchups, and whatever you think of him as an NHL-prospect, he's glorious to watch at this level and flat-out dominate. The Québec Remparts have given up a league-low seven goals in five games, and he's a big part of that.
Ryan Strome - Niagara Ice Dogs (OHL)
To me, Ryan Strome will always be the player who lit up Connor Crisp for five goals one fine game back in March. To the New York Islanders, he's another piece of their young forward group that includes former Western Hockey League stars Nino Neiderreiter, Michael Grabner, and of course former Oshawa General John Tavares. Strome lit the lamp 30 times last season in just 46 games and if the NHL is locked out all year, is a cinch to break the 30-goal mark again.
As odd as it was that the Winnipeg Jets passed over Sean Couturier with the No. 7 pick in 2011, Scheifele has a lot to gain out of this OHL season in Barrie, which has become a breeding ground for young players in the Jets franchise. Alexander Burmistrov, Bryan Little and Ivan Telegin are other connections between the two organizations.
Scheifele had a strong pre-season with the Jets last camp, scoring four goals in five games. He also has 17 games of pro experience, seven with Winnipeg and 10 with AHL-affiliate St. John's in their playoff run. While he didn't click offensively in either showcase, he's grown out of being able to prove anything at the junior hockey level.
Rickard Rakell - Plymouth Whalers (OHL)
It's been established that Plymouth, with 10 drafted players, has the most to gain by an NHL lockout. I believe Swedish forward Rickard Rakell, a key member of Sweden's World Junior title last season and one of the more effortless skaters in the OHL would be the most likely NHL target on that roster, if only because he's the one more likely to crack an Anaheim Ducks roster that possesses a very weak bottom nine forward group.
Boone Jenner - Oshawa Generals (OHL)
Well, for one, his Columbus Blue Jackets have vacated every NHL player in their system over a dismantling starting with trading away former QMJHL star Antoine Vermette in February. For two, Jenner has crushed OHL-level competition so far this season. As a point-a-game player in his 18-year old season with 49 in 43, Jenner already has seven goals and an OHL-high 15 points in his six games for the conference-leading Generals. He's probably riding some very high percentages right now and shouldn't be expected to click at two points every game for the whole season, but Oshawa has been in some very entertaining high-scoring affairs so far this season.
Matt Puempel - Kitchener Rangers (OHL)
He managed to be a minus-3 somehow on a Peterborough team that allowed 62 more goals than it scored last season, and now on a team with a stronger foundation, the Ottawa Senators pick from 2011 has a good shot at being a key player on a good team. He's played the early part of the season on a stacked line with Tobias Reider and Radek Faksa, but Puempel at 6-foot and 190 pounds, has the most-NHL ready body and experience.
There's an argument to be made for Faksa to join the Dallas Stars, indeed he was touted as one of the most NHL-ready two-way players heading into the last draft, but the Stars have nurtured their prospects over the last few seasons. Puempel could be a key part of Ottawa's bottom six when the NHL restarts.
Ty Rattie and Sven Bärtschi were arguably the WHL's most dynamic offensive pairing last season. Bärtschi has left us, joining the Abbotsford Heat as a 92-born player. Both players could conceivably be NHL players this season. Rattie was selected by the St. Louis Blues at No. 32 in 2011, and if there's one thing Ken Hitchcock's team lacks it's a young scoring threat. Former Lewiston MAINEiac David Perron is the closest thing to that in St. Louis, scoring 21 goals last season. There's an opening somewhere for a dynamic forward who can develop a two-way game under Hitchcock's watch.
Mark McNeill - Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)
Ask any Chicago Blackhawks fan, and they'll tell you the thing that their team needs to most outside of a goaltender is a centre. There's been a rotation of guys to fill the holes in the second-and-fourth-line centre positions since their Stanley Cup in 2010. McNeill is a big bus-driver who can play in any situation and doesn't necessarily need to score goals to be effective. He could be a big boost to their penalty killing, take some of the defensive burden off of former London Knight David Bolland and providing that team with some much-needed forward depth.
Coming off back-to-back 30-goal campaigns, neither offset by a Canadian World Junior team appearance, he's a player quietly overlooked based on where he plays. The 19-year-old has helped P.A. zoom into first overall in the Western League with a 5-0-0-1 record, counting eight points in six games.