New Star Rising in Oshawa

When star forwards John Tavares and Brett MacLean of the Oshawa Generals step onto the ice, you can bet that opposing goaltenders quake just a little in their big goalie skates. Then they elevate their focus really fast. They had better; after all, this dynamic duo gives the Generals of the Ontario Hockey League the most explosive one-two punch in Canadian junior hockey.

While the Generals finished the season at 38-17-6-7, good enough for 89 points and the fifth best record in the OHL, MacLean and Tavares finished the scoring race second and third behind Justin Azevedo of the league-leading Kitchener Rangers. MacLean had a league-high 61 goals (30 scored on the power play) along with 58 assists for 119 points in 61 games while Tavares finished with 40-78-118 totals in 59 games. Meanwhile, Azevedo won the scoring title with 43-81-124 totals in 67 games.

With his stellar play last season, Tavares became the youngest player to win the the Canadian Hockey League’s MVP award and the OHL’s Red Tilson Trophy as the most valuable player. His 72 goals broke Wayne Gretzky’s mark of 70 goals by a 16-year-old. He also added 62 assists for 134 points in 67 games.

This year in the pre-season, he joined a team of select junior All Stars and played a key role as Canada dominated the Canada-Russia Super Series. John got off to his usual good start with the Generals and then missed nine games when he helped Canada win its fourth straight World Junior Title over the Christmas holidays.

Not only is John Tavares arguably the best 17-year-old on the planet, he is probably
the best undrafted player, period. His birth date of September 20, 1990 means that he’ll miss the 2008 NHL draft by a mere five days. There was even speculation that his agent would seek to change the draft rules, just as the OHL had made an exception allowing Tavares to enter the OHL draft one year early. He’s that good.

More speculation had ex-Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr. seeking to sign Tavares to a lucrative AHL contract with the Leafs’ farm team, the Toronto Marlies. The plan was to keep him in the AHL for three seasons, thereby bypassing the draft, and then sign him to an NHL contract with the Leafs. The grand plan never took flight however because the AHL’s draft rules are identical to the NHL’s.

Asked what he thought of the wild speculation coming out of Toronto, John told Oshawa This Week, “I still don’t even really understand, but I am just trying to focus on myself and using my free time, using my time to just get away from hockey. Get away from the game and relax and just be a 17-year-old kid. I am just playing hockey and having fun, trying to get better each and every day.”

What makes John Tavares so good? Well, first he has a hard wrist shot which has deadly accuracy. From 15 feet in, nobody shoots it better. Second, he has a knack for being at the right place at the right time. In fact, he and MacLean seem to always know where the other will be. Third, his competitive instincts and determination allow him to score goals in key situations.

For instance, on January 19, in a game with the Peterborough Petes, Tavares scored the tying goal with less than a second remaining in regulation time. Then he scored a shootout goal to give the Generals a dramatic win. Four days later against the division-leading Belleville Bulls, again he netted the tying goal, this time with ten seconds remaining in regulation time.

Though Tavares isn’t scoring at the torrid pace he was a year ago, the 6 foot, 183 pound center is becoming a better all-around player and playmaker, setting up his linemates Brett MacLean and Patrick Asselin (a scoring threat himself with 41 goals) with frequent regularity. That bodes well for the Generals as they drive into the playoffs and shoot to win the Memorial Cup.

Brett MacLean was born on Christmas Eve 1988. Little did Brett’s parents know that their greatest gift that Christmas would be blessed with the gift of hockey. And although starring in junior hockey is not the same thing as starring in the NHL, the 6′ 2″ and 200 pound left winger is arguably well on his way. MacLean has made steady progress throughout his junior career, so much so, it is said that he’s the best kept secret in the CHL.

In his first year as a member of the Erie Otters, Brett achieved a respectable 13 goals and 25 assists in 35 games. Last season, after being dealt to the Generals, he had a great breakout year scoring 47 goals while adding 53 assists for 100 points in 68 games. And of course this year his play has been brilliant, as most of the season he, like Tavares, was on a two points per game pace. He reached the 100 point plateau in only 45 games, a big improvement over last year when it took him a full schedule to achieve the magic mark. Had MacLean not had a five game suspension which carried over from last year’s playoffs, he might very well have won the scoring title.

In November alone he scored 22 goals, a total many players would be happy to attain over an entire season. Then after being a late cut from Canada’s national team, Brett had a great January with the Generals, scoring 30 points (10 goals, 20 assists) and earning the honor of OHL player of the month. Brett also had an impressive 32 consecutive game point streak. Interestingly, the day after Brett was honored as player of the month, Brett McLean of the Florida Panthers notched five points in leading his team to a crushing defeat of the Maple Leafs.

Brett was selected to the East team of the 2008 OHL All-Star Classic, along with teammates John Tavares and Ryan McGinnis, a game which saw the East prevail 8-7. MacLean was a star amongst stars as he netted a late tying goal and then added a goal in the shootout.

There’s no doubt the Phoenix Coyotes will keep a keen eye on their speedy draft choice from the 2007 draft in which MacLean was chosen in the 2nd round, the 32nd pick overall. Going into the draft, he was rated the 14th best skater by the NHL’s Central Scouting. So don’t be surprised if there are two Bretts with a very similar last name soon starring in the NHL. That would suit MacLean and the Coyotes just fine. I’m sure McLean wouldn’t mind either.

Generals Notes

If Brett MacLean, John Tavares and company can continue their offensive production as the leagues best offensive team (they also had the league’s best power play with a success ratio of 28%) and the Generals can shore up their defense (they were only 16th in the 20 team league in goals against), they will have a solid chance of making a long run in the playoffs. Of course the Generals will need consistent goaltending from newcomer Michal Neuvirth who played for the Czech Republic in this year’s World Junior Championships and last year was a big reason the Plymouth Whalers went all the way to the Memorial Cup.

The Generals got off to a great start in first round action against the Ottawa 67′s (29-34-2-4) who are led by legendary coach Brian Kilrea. By doing all the right things, the Generals appear to be in command after taking the first two games in Oshawa. In Game 1, MacLean and Tavares were at it again as Big Mac one-timed a pass from Tavares for a 3-1 lead and the eventual winner in a 3-2 win. In Game 2, the Generals got off to a quick 4-0 lead, then cruised to a 5-2 triumph, as MacLean had four assists and Tavares and Asselin each had a goal and one helper. The Generals now travel to the nation’s capital for Game 3 on Tuesday night and Game 4 on Thursday.

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