Top Prospects gearing up for Guelph

Tickets are still available, but very limited for Thursdays game. You can buy them here

The rosters are set, the coaches are in place, the captains have been assigned and 40 of the Canadian Hockey League’s top draft eligible prospects are gearing up for the 2018 Sherwin-Williams CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game on January 25th as it comes to Guelph, Ont. for the first time in the event’s 23-year history.

Guelph becomes the 15th different Canadian city to host the showcase that draws scouts and general managers from across the NHL as the top 17-year-old players from around the world put their skills on display.

While 38 players will be leaving their CHL member teams to come in from out of town, Guelph Storm standouts Ryan Merkley and Cam Hillis have the exciting opportunity of performing in front of the Royal City faithful at the 5,100-seat Sleeman Centre.

“Being selected to be at this event is one thing, but getting to play in front of the Guelph fans is something that I think both Ryan and myself are going to really enjoy,” said Hillis, a 17-year-old in his first season with the Storm. “I think it’s great that they’ll have the chance to see us play against other top prospects.”

Guelph has hosted other past CHL events including the 2002 Mastercard Memorial Cup that saw the Kootenay ICE crowned champions. The CIBC Canada Russia Series was played there in both 2008 and 2012.

The hometown Storm are in the midst of their first season under new head coach and general manager George Burnett, sporting a 21-17-1-3 record for third in the Midwest Division.

“I think we’ve started to come together as a team,” said Hillis, who scored the overtime winner in a 5-4 victory in Ottawa on Sunday. “I think we’ve had another gear in the new year and I feel like we can make good things happen as we get closer to the playoffs.”

Hillis currently leads OHL rookies in scoring with 39 points (17-22–39) in 42 games. Last year it was teammate Ryan Merkley who led OHL newcomers, becoming the first defenceman to do so since 1988. A former first overall OHL draft pick, Merkley is filling scoresheets again. The 17-year-old leads the Storm in scoring with 50 points including 11 goals and 39 assists in 42 games.

Fleet-footed Finnish blueliner Henri Jokiharju rose to prominence last year in Quebec City, earning Player of the Game honours for Team Cherry when he set a new event record for defencemen with three assists. His strong showing helped him draw the attention of the Chicago Blackhawks, who chose him in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft.

With that performance relatively fresh in everyone’s mind, Merkley, an effortless skater with a knack for making pinpoint passes through traffic, knows he isn’t alone in a 2018 class of talented defencemen and is eager to make an impression.

“There’s a lot of good puck-movers out there,” he affirmed. “Guys like Ty Smith (Spokane Chiefs), Calen Addison (Lethbridge Hurricanes) and Rasmus Sandin (Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds) can all do great things with the puck and I think that’s kind of the way the game is going.

“It’ll be a great chance to go up against some of the best.”

While Merkley is seen as one of the premier offensive defencemen eligible for the 2018 NHL Draft, he’s been placing an emphasis on the defensive side of his game, working to improve inside his own blue line under the coaching of Burnett and Storm assistant Jake Grimes.

“I’m working on being more well-rounded and that’s coming with more experience, more shifts, more reps,” he said. “I’ve been focused on my defensive game and want to get better in that area.”

The two teammates will suit up alongside one another next week, playing under Canadian hockey icon Don Cherry as the 19th and 20th Storm players to ever skate in the event.

“I watched a lot of Don Cherry as a kid,” Hillis recalled. “It’s a huge privilege to get to play on his team and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.”

With no Canadian Hockey League games on Thursday January 25th, Hillis, Merkley and the rest of the top prospects will take centre stage on Sportsnet when the puck drops at 7:00pm ET.

Tickets are still available, but very limited for Thursdays game. You can buy them here

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