The time is now for the Mississauga Steelheads.
A trio of likely first round picks at the 2016 NHL Draft in June look to ignite the budding franchise, which hasn’t advanced to the second round of the Ontario Hockey League Playoffs since 2011, when they were the St. Michael’s Mississauga Majors.
While returning 1998-born Steelheads’ Michael McLeod and Sean Day enter the 2015-16 season with the promise of a productive draft year, the addition of Swedish import Alexander Nylander should push the Eastern Conference team over the top, according to Future Considerations OHL scout Daniel Deschenes.
“He’s a big pick up for the Steelheads that propels the middling team into a serious contender,” Deschenes said of Nylander, the fleet-footed winger who joins Mississauga on a loan from the Swedish Hockey League’s Rögle BK. “He does everything at high speeds and has a bullet of a wrist shot.”
In 42 games skating in Sweden’s U20 ranks last season, Nylander scored 15 goals and 25 assists in 40 games. Deschenes notes how although not as developed in terms of skill as his older brother – Toronto Maple Leafs 2014 first round pick William Nylander – a strong performance for Sweden at the prestigious Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in August showed Alex is well on his way.
“He has a real shot to be a top 15-20 pick come June,” Deschenes said.
While Nylander’s speed and raw ability gives the Steelheads a big shot in the arm up front, McLeod and Day look to continue to make a name for themselves in Mississauga.
McLeod is hoping to contribute heavily to a junior hockey renaissance in his hometown following a successful 29-point rookie campaign last year and a gold medal for Canada at the Ivan Hlinka in August. The 17-year-old center contributed a goal and an assist in the tournament.
“I’m going to try and be a leader on the team,” McLeod said. “I want to produce a lot and hopefully skate on the top line to help the team make the playoffs. Our team goal is to make it to the second round of the playoffs, so hopefully we can do that and have a good year.”
What McLeod brings to the table, Deschenes said, is a “strong, up-tempo, no-quit game.”
He has, after all, played for one of the best defencemen of all-time.
“My minor hockey coach was Paul Coffey,” McLeod said. “He’s taught me a lot about the game, how to deal with certain situations and how to handle myself under pressure.”
Deschenes added that McLeod is destined to put up big numbers in his sophomore season, which kicked off with the 6-foot-1, 184-pound forward on the Steelheads top line flanked by wingers Nathan Bastian and overager Josh Burnside.
“He’s poised for an offensive outburst this year,” Deschenes said. “Plays a sound defensive game and thrives in pressure situations it seems. Makes his presence known in the defensive zone and is a beast in the faceoff circle. McLeod possesses a long, powerful stride that allows him to separate from his check in a flash.”
While McLeod and Bastian weren’t far behind, Day led the Steelheads 1998-group last season, tallying 10 goals and 26 assists in 61 games.
Day was cut from Canada’s Hlinka roster following Hockey Canada’s Summer Showcase in Calgary; odd, considering the Belgian blueliner was granted exceptional player status to enter the OHL as a 15-year-old, a distinction previously given to only John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid. Day enters his first year of NHL draft eligibility hoping to silence critics who have labeled him a bust, immature and out of shape.
While inconsistencies in his game remain a concern, Deschenes expects Day to bounce back.
“There’s no denying his raw skills,” he said of 6-foot-2, 217-pound defenceman. “Has a great read of the game and is very aware, allowing him to adapt to the play in a hurry – doesn’t get flustered and always seems to have a calming presence in his game. I like what he brings to the table but he needs to bring it consistently and in full force if he is to be a top-30 pick this season.”
If he, McLeod and Nylander can mesh as an emerging core in Mississauga, the Steelheads franchise will ignite.