By: Mitchell Fox
From their first pick in the 2023 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) Draft, the Mississauga Steelheads turned some heads. For the second straight year, the Steelheads took a goaltender before anyone else, though this year it came much earlier. After that, they picked up players of all positions, though their focus on defence was obvious.
The Steelheads’ performance in the regular season meant they had the seventh pick in the draft. With such a high pick, fans and media alike could be forgiven for not even thinking of a goaltender, especially with Ryerson Leenders already making his mark in Mississauga as a 16-year-old.
Coming into the week of the draft, many might have expected the Steelheads to pick a defenceman. With a young forward group including Porter Martone, Angus MacDonell, Luke Misa, Lucas Karmiris, Jack Van Volsen and more, the Steelheads appeared to have the players they needed up front to potentially fill the space James Hardie (and Owen Beck and Luca Del Bel Belluz) had filled for a few years. So, the next obvious choice was to get the one thing the Steelheads might not have that every OHL champion seems to have: a superstar defenceman.
When the Steelheads made their massive moves at the OHL trade deadline, the biggest loss was probably Ethan Del Mastro, their captain and a dominant defenceman in junior hockey. Finding another Del Mastro will be no easy task, so the expectation might have been for that to be priority number one for James Richmond and company. However, as the draft got closer, rumours circled about another possibility. A Mississauga native had made his mark in the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) and the Steelheads saw an opportunity.
Round 1 - Pick #7: Jack Ivankovic - G - Mississauga Senators
In the first round of the OHL Draft, the Steelheads selected goaltender Jack Ivankovic from the Mississauga Senators of the GTHL. The 6’0” son of former OHL goaltender Frank Ivankovic is very familiar with the Steelheads, having grown up in Mississauga, played for teams based in the city including the Port Credit Storm and the Senators and even grown up a fan.
GTHL goaltending stats are hard to find, but the Senators’ 25-7-4 season and Ivankovic’s .914 save percentage in four OHL Cup games, along with an appearance at the Canada Winter Games with Team Ontario, demonstrate the talent he has been touted for by scouts. To Joely Stockl and Chase Rochon of Mckeen’s Hockey, Ivankovic was the first first-round lock in the OHL Draft in a number of years.
It is nearly impossible to evaluate players when they are 15 years old, especially goaltenders, but if anyone should be able to do it, it is an OHL management group. In the Steelheads’ case, they have already proven an ability to find goaltending talent early in the draft, as they drafted Leenders in the second round of last year’s draft.
The surprising part of the Ivankovic pick lies mostly in the fact the Steelheads have two goaltenders on their roster. Leenders and Alessio Beglieri shared the crease for the entire season (though Chazz Nixon also got into a few games due to injuries) and although their .879 and .867 save percentages respectively were not exceptional, both showed the ability to steal games. Leenders’ growth over the course of the season and potential as a 16-year-old leads to the belief he will start at least some games for the trout next season. Beglieri, meanwhile, will be 19 (turning 20) and will likely seek at least a tandem role, if not a starting one.
Ivankovic may not play in the OHL next year, but if he does make the team, the question becomes which of the team’s goaltenders will get the opportunities they seek.
One possibility that comes to mind with the Steelheads’ selection of Ivankovic is that Beglieri may lose his spot – perhaps they trade him within the OHL, he goes back to Europe, or one of many other possibilities. That would not only create the opportunity for a Leenders-Ivankovic tandem (which would be one of the youngest in a long time in the OHL) but would open up another import player slot on the roster.
With Kasper Larsen’s departure, the team already has one import slot that they could fill in the CHL Import Draft in the summer, but opening up a second spot could mean an opportunity to take a chance on a skilled but less likely-to-move player. If they could pick an NHL prospect with the hope the player moves to Canada at some point, the risk could be worth the rewards. For example, a year after the Vancouver Giants picked Fabian Lysell with the 30th pick in the 2020 CHL Import Draft, Lysell moved to Vancouver from Sweden for the 2021-22 WHL season and led the team with 62 points in 53 games and 21 points in 12 playoff games.
On the other hand, the Steelheads could wait another year for Ivankovic to progress as a goalie in Junior A, giving the Beglieri-Leenders tandem another chance to see how far they can take a young team with their play in goal.
It is not certain, but if Richmond and company’s track record is any indication, Ivankovic was simply the player the Steelheads thought to be the best available. No matter what comes next, for now, the Steelheads have two top-tier young goaltenders in their system.
Round 2 - Pick 35: Kieran Witkowski - LW - Toronto Marlboros
After the Ivankovic selection, the Steelheads used the rest of the first day of the draft to grab the positions they did not in the first round, grabbing a forward and a defenceman from the Toronto Marlboros of the GTHL.
With their only second round pick, Flint’s pick acquired as part of the Del Mastro trade with Sarnia, the Steelheads selected forward Kieran Witkowski from the Marlboros. The Toronto native is expected to bring some scoring ability to Mississauga, as he had 41 points in 35 games this season, followed by four points in five games in the OHL Cup. He has also been talked about as a strong two-way player who plays with energy all game and all over the ice, a prototypical James Richmond player and perhaps the type that could work alongside the likes of Porter Martone or Jack Van Volsen.
Round 3 - Pick 40: Luke Dragusica - D - Toronto Marlboros
The Steelheads’ third round pick brought the defenceman everyone was waiting for in the form of another Marlboro, Luke Dragusica. The 6’1” defenceman has been heralded as a menacing physical presence that opponents will not like to play against, something James Richmond and company will likely appreciate having had Del Mastro on their team so recently.
Dragusica was the first of six defencemen picked by the Steelheads in their next seven picks, an indication of where their focus was for the draft. They got the two or three players they saw to be the best available in the first three rounds and picked Aidan Lane as something of a steal in the fourth round, but otherwise set their sights on the blue line.
With Del Mastro’s trade in January and the departure of two cornerstones of the Mississauga blue line in Charlie Callaghan and Kasper Larsen, this is hardly a surprise. Chas Sharpe and Parker von Richter may be able to lead the defence, but it will be no easy task for two players that have not had to play bonafide top pairing minutes yet. Any of Finn Harding, Stevie Leskovar, Dylan Gordon, Liam Spencer and William Haley could fill some of the remaining spots but there is room for Dragusica and any of the other defencemen the Steelheads picked in the draft to earn a spot in the lineup.
Pick #79: Alex Valade - D - Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves
Pick #80: Aidan Lane - RW - Toronto Marlboros
The Steelheads’ next pick was Alex Valade, a relatively small but tough defenceman from the Sudbury Nickel Capitals U16 AAA. Perhaps in the mold of a player like Charlie Callaghan, the 5’9” defenceman could bring offensive ability alongside shut down play in his own zone, providing some depth to the Steelheads blue line next season or beyond. The Sudbury native had 13 points and 62 penalty minutes in 24 games as the captain of a U16 team in the Great North Midget League (GNML), which includes players born in 2005 and 2006.
Then, the Steelheads made a pick that many scouts and pundits saw as a steal. Aidan Lane was yet another player from the Toronto Marlboros, in fact their top scorer in the OHL Cup with 13 points in five games.
Lane is a Mississauga native who could bring a menacing shot and high-level offence to a team he grew up cheering for. However, there is a small hiccup to the pick: there have been rumours the 15-year-old may commit to the NCAA American university route rather than playing junior in Canada.
None of the Steelheads’ picks have committed to playing for the trout next season yet (only a couple of players have committed across the league), but Lane is the one who received particular attention as a player that could go elsewhere. If this is the case, the Steelheads will hold Lane’s rights but may never see him in their colours, similar to what they did with both Jack Hughes and Trevor Zegras a few years ago (the Steelheads drafted both NHL superstars in 2017 before they played with the U.S. National Development Team Program). So, the Steelheads may be getting a promising forward prospect, but the word may is important.
Round 6 - #115: Kieran Riley - D - Toronto Nationals U16
One player that Steelheads managed to get in the middle rounds of the draft that has received some attention from scouts is Kieran Riley. The defenceman from the Toronto Nationals – a middle-of-the-pack team in the GTHL that may not have received the attention of the Marlboros, Senators or Toronto Jr. Canadiens – was ranked 19th by McKeen’s Hockey and was a player many scouts mentioned to be falling as the draft went on. Part of this may have been due to Riley only playing 16 games in the regular season due to injury, though he followed that with three points in five OHL Cup games. Notably, he has showed some game-breaking ability, namely that his two goals in the OHL Cup were both game winners.
As one of the oldest players in the draft (his birthday is Jan. 8, 2007) and at 6’1” and a 180 lbs, the King City, Ont., native may be a player the Steelheads consider an option in their lineup sooner than many of their draft prospects.
Round 7 - 128th: Jared Harding - D - Don Mills Flyers U16
Another pick worth mentioning for the trout is that of Jared Harding in the seventh round, at the 128th pick. Harding is the brother of Steelheads defenceman Finn Harding, who saw his role on the team take a huge step over the course of the season and playoffs. Like his brother, Harding is a left-handed defenceman and will thus add another different option as blue line depth, providing intelligence and smooth skating as a smaller player compared to some of the Steelheads’ other picks at 5’6”.
Harding had 11 points in 36 games playing for the Don Mills Flyers of the GTHL this season, followed by one assist in four OHL Cup games. He may not be a prolific scorer or bring the size some scouts appreciate at the junior level, but the Steelheads must have liked his game or they might have waited to select him. In the end, the Steelheads reunite two GTA-based brothers for a local team, while picking up another defensive prospect to look forward to seeing in the future.
Round 9 – 168th: Trent Vaillancourt - D - Southern Tier Admirals U16
In the ninth round, the Steelheads selected another defenceman, Trent Vaillancourt. Vaillancourt was an assistant captain for the Southern Tier Admirals, who finished second in the South Central AAA league in Ontario with a dominant 30-2-4 record before making it as finalists in the Ontario Minor Hockey Association (OMHA) Championships. Safe to say he knows a little bit about a successful season.
At 6’0” and 190 lbs, Vaillancourt comes as yet another defenceman who already has the size and strength to play in the OHL, though he still has plenty of time to develop. He also had 24 points in 37 games, followed by five points in eight playoff games, showing some degree of scoring ability for a defenceman as well.
Round 11 – 208th: Matteo Sabatini - D - Toronto Marlboros U16
The last of many defencemen picked in a row by the Steelheads was Matteo Sabatini. Sabatini would be the trout’s fourth and final pick from the Marlboros team that won the GTHL Championship and lost in the semi-finals of the OHL Cup, bringing experience and pedigree as well as skill on the ice. Sabatini had 15 points in 35 games this season, alongside an impressively low four penalty minutes as a defenceman.
There is not a lot that can be said about an 11th round pick at this stage, but the Steelheads did get a noteworthy performance this year from their 11th round pick from 2021, Mason Zebeski. If Sabatini can inherit some of Zebeski’s career progression and his fellow Marlboros reach the level they have been heralded as having the potential to reach, the Steelheads could feature a lineup built upon 2023 GTHL success in due time.
Round 13 – 248th: Justin Vlassis - C - Pittsburgh Penguins Elite 15
The Steelheads’ one selection of a player not from Ontario came with the pick of Justin Vlassis in the 13th round, a Virginia native playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite 15U AAA. The 6’0 forward had 58 points in 66 games in the regular season as well as seven points in 12 games in the NEPACK 15U season.
Round 14 – 268th: Wyatt Jinman - LW - Toronto Jr. Canadiens U16
The Steelheads did select one player from the OHL Cup champion Toronto Jr. Canadiens this year, grabbing winger Wyatt Jinman in the 14th round. The forward listed on Elite Prospects at 5’11” and 130 lbs had 13 points in 34 games this season, followed by four points in seven OHL Cup games. He also played one game with the Jr. Canadiens’ U18 team, scoring a goal.
Jinman was born in Switzerland and spent some time in the United States before joining the Jr. Canadiens, but now the Steelheads will hope he will stick around and make a difference in the GTA for a while.
Round 15 – 288th: Ivan Kastelan - G - Burlington Eagles U16
The Steelheads went full circle in this year’s draft, using their final pick to select a second goaltender. Ivan Kastelan had a strong season with the Burlington Eagles in the SCTA U16 league, allowing under two goals per game in 22 regular season games and leading his team to an 8-0-0 playoff performance with three shutouts.
Though Kastelan’s opportunities will likely be limited due to the Leenders-Ivankovic pairing ahead of him in the depth charts, he could provide another promising option if he continues to develop.
OHL Draft recap:
Round 1 – 7th Jack Ivankovic G Mississauga Senators U16
Round 2 – 35th Kieran Witkowski LW Toronto Marlboros U16
Round 2 – 40th Luke Dragusica D Toronto Marlboros U16
Round 4 – 79th Alex Valade D Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves U16
Round 4 – 80th Aidan Lane RW Toronto Marlboros U16
Round 6 – 115th Kieran Riley D Toronto Nationals U16
Round 7 – 128th Jared Harding D Don Mills Flyers U16
Round 9 – 168th Trent Vaillancourt D Southern Tier Admirals U16
Round 11 – 208th Matteo Sabatini D Toronto Marlboros U16
Round 13 – 248th Justin Vlassis C Pittsburgh Penguins Elite 15
Round 14 – 268th Wyatt Jinman LW Toronto Jr. Canadiens U16
Round 15 – 288th Ivan Kastelan G Burlington Eagles U16
In the end, the Steelheads got the player they wanted and a Mississauga native with their first pick to create a goalie tandem with the potential to catch a lot of attention in the OHL in the next couple of years, picked a couple of offensive talents from the GTHL’s two strongest teams and selected an array of defencemen to fill out the likely weakest portion of their lineup.
OHL Under 18 Selection Draft
On April 26, the OHL hosted its Under-18 Selection Draft, which featured 2005- and 2006-born players not previously drafted to the OHL getting a second shot. The Steelheads made a selection in each of the draft’s three rounds, selecting a player of each position.
With the 6th pick in the draft, the Steelheads selected defenceman Jaedon Holloway, a 6’1” blue-liner from Georgetown, Ont., who had seven points in 29 games with the Toronto Nationals U18 AAA of the GTHL.
In the second round, with the 26th pick in the draft, the Steelheads made a perhaps surprising decision by choosing another goaltender. Nate Galbraith’s 0.929 save percentage with the Brockville Braves of the HEO Midget league might have been enough to make him undeniable to the Steelheads at that pick, or they may have just wanted a slightly more developed option to use as a third goalie if Ivankovic is not able to transition easily into the OHL (which would be no surprise – few goalies make their mark in the league at 16 as Leenders did this season).
Finally, in the third round of the U18 draft, the Steelheads drafted Julian Demiglio, a center from the Toronto Marlboros U18 AAA. The 5’9” forward from Concord, Ont., had 29 points in 36 regular season games this season and will bring another option to a Steelheads roster that is shaping up to be deep on offence. If 2022-23 is any indication, that depth could prove necessary.
For a Steelheads team that made it into the playoffs and generated some attention by giving the North Bay Battalion a run for their money in the first round, the draft offered an opportunity to continue building what looks like a bright future.
The Steelheads’ management team will now shift their focus to the real offseason, including signing some of the players they drafted, getting through the CHL Import Draft and the regular offseason trades and signings before training camp in the late summer.
With the playoffs still underway, there is a long way to go until the next season starts up in September, but fans in Mississauga have reasons to look forward to seeing what comes next for their OHL team.