When being exceptional becomes the norm

For the third-straight year, this Saturday’s OHL draft will see a player who is one year younger than the rest of his 16-year-old compatriots among one of the early names selected.
Sean Day, who originally was born in Belgium in 1998 to Canadian parents and plays for the always-strong Detroit Compuware U16 team, was granted exceptional player status by Hockey Canada on March 22 and immediately became one of the top prospects for this year’s draft.
“He certainly has some of the best skills I’ve seen in six years of scouting players,” said Sean Lafortune, director of scouting for TheScout.ca, which profiles nearly 400 players who are eligible for the OHL draft each year.
“He’s probably the best skater that I have seen for his age, and that same statement has been made from guys that have been scouting for nearly 25 years,” Lafortune noted.
“When you add in the fact that he is 6’3” and 200 pounds, along with the way that he can control the puck, you have an unbelievably raw talent.
“The hype around him is worth it, but he still has a lot of room to grow,” Lafortune added.
Day will be the third-straight player to be drafted a year earlier than the rest of those in his birth year. Both Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid were given exceptional status and taken first overall in the last two OHL drafts.
The exceptional player status came about in 2005 when John Tavares was allowed to enter the draft a year early. But players in the OHL were allowed to play in the league prior to being drafted, as Rico Fata and Jason Spezza both played for their hometown teams in the 1990s.
“It just seems like you have seen more of it in the last couple of years, and you are noticing that in the WHL now, as well, as Tyler Benson is getting that exceptional tag thrown around him this year,” explained Sunaya Sapurji, the junior hockey editor for Yahoo Sports.
“I think with the amount of hockey that kids are playing nowadays, and with all of the things that out there to help them grow as a player, they are developing faster.
“But it’s important to note that those players have a lengthy process that they have to go through in order to get exceptional status from Hockey Canada, as they have to show they are not only prepared physically but mentally,” she stressed.
Although some might find that a third-straight year of a player entering the OHL to not be exceptional, Lafortune feels that the continuing development of elite young hockey players has let do this occurring more regularly.
“Having been able to see the curve from the ’92 birth year to the ’97 class now, I think the players are more ready now when they are in their draft year,” he reasoned.
“I don’t want to say they are physically ahead of where those that were drafted a few years ago were, but they seem more ready to go and they are quickly making an impact once they get into the OHL.
“Maybe exceptional status isn’t the right word for it,” added Lafortune. “But when you look at those players in a vacuum and the impact that they have made, I don’t think they have got one wrong yet in my opinion.”
Getting the opportunity to be drafted into major junior hockey a year early is only just the beginning for these young players, however, as the spotlight they are under will continue to grow as they edge closer to playing in the NHL.
“Everyone is already talking about them even before the draft comes around,” Sapurji noted.
“When you look at Connor McDavid, he had signed a lucrative endorsement deal with Reebok in his rookie year and he also had the New York Times follow him around for a weekend this season, which is not what most players his age go through.
“There are superstars in the OHL that don’t get that kind of treatment,” she added.
But while McDavid, Ekblad, and Tavares all were the consensus first overall picks when they were drafted, there has been a ton of debate over whether Day will go first overall.
Over the last few weeks, it’s been heavily reported that the Ottawa 67’s will be taking highly-skilled forward Travis Konecny with the first overall pick in Saturday’s draft—even after Day had been granted exceptional status.
In fact, TSN’s Bob McKenzie tweeted Sunday afternoon that Konecny and Dylan Strome possibly could be the first two players selected in the draft, and Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino speculated Day might fall as low as fifth before he knows what OHL team he plays for.
“I think it’s gong to be hard, though, for the 67’s to pass up on a player that you would get an extra year from,” Sapurji conceded.
“I have heard very good things about the other kids that are eligible, but when you have a guy that is 15 years old, it would be hard to pass him up if he is as exceptional as everyone says he is,” she reasoned