Future NHL stars are developing in the Canadian Hockey League this season. Each week, NHL.com will highlight a few of the top NHL-affiliated prospects in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League and the Western Hockey League.
Brandt Clarke wasn't back with Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League long before his coach, Marty Williamson, knew something was different.
"When he played his first four or five games for us, we had a conversation and I said, 'You play like a pro now,'" Williamson said.
Clarke began this season with the Los Angeles Kings, who had selected the defenseman with the No. 8 pick of the 2021 NHL Draft. He had two assists in nine NHL games but was averaging 13:39 of ice time, and because he was 19 when the season started (he turned 20 on Feb. 9), he couldn't play in the American Hockey League, other than a five-game conditioning stint with Ontario in November.
So after helping Canada win the gold medal at the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship, Clarke was returned to Barrie on Jan. 6 and has been one of the most dominant players in the OHL in the second half of the season.
He scored two goals, including the game-winner, in Barrie's 4-2 win against Sudbury on Thursday. It was his eighth multigoal game in 31 games this season, and it ran his point streak to 16 games (35 points; 13 goals, 22 assists). He has five straight games with at least two points, including a hat trick and two assists in an 11-4 win against Niagara on March 18.
"I think his shot has improved a lot," Williamson said. "And that's one of the things that he always had a very keen eye, of being able to put the puck where he wanted to, but it's because he's stronger. It's got a lot more pump on it. He's shooting the puck really well."
Williamson said the key for Clarke was embracing the return to junior hockey rather than sulking at what could be perceived as a demotion.
"Brandt is the first player that I've had that came back, he hit the ground running," Williamson said. "He's made statements that he didn't want to just be the best defenseman, he wanted to be the best player in the league. Unbelievably was excited. ... He made it perfectly clear that he wanted to come back to Barrie and help us win."
As much as Clarke has dazzled with his offense, Williamson has been equally impressed by Clarke's defensive improvements, including a plus-40 rating.
"His vision and his passing has always been there, but with all those stats, the one big one that jumps out to me his plus/minus," Williamson said. "Everybody gets critical of plus/minus now, who really costs you goals and that kind of stuff. But Brandt's defensive hockey's been outstanding with us -- his gap control, his stick and how hard he's been to play against. Everybody's talking about his offense, because it is going to be his calling card, because he'll run a power play. He's going to be that kind of guy.
"They compare him an awful lot to (Kings defenseman) Drew Doughty. Brandt isn't quite as physical as Drew but ... Brandt is highly underrated there as far as how good his defense is."
Los Angeles coach Todd McLellan said assistant Trent Yawney speaks with Clarke a few times each week to go over his games. And though there is concern that things are coming too easy for him, McLellan said Clarke is a good enough pro that he's not concerned.
"He's been here enough to know what the professionalism part it is, the things that he needs to do, and he has to be self-driven," McLellan said. "He has to be able to look around the room and say 'I need to do this today, I need to train or work out.' If the rest of them aren't, that's OK. We believe he's doing some of those things. He learned a lot by watching."
Williamson was surprised to have Clarke back with Barrie this season and knows it's the last time the defenseman will play junior hockey.
"There were a couple small things defensively that they wanted him just to be aware of, his battles out of corners, stuff like that," Williamson said. "Things that are very important in the pro game. Brandt still is maturing as far as his body. He's going to be a different player at 23, where the real man strength kicks in. He needs to work, but I think L.A. really pictures him fitting into their lineup next year."
OTHERS TO WATCH
Matthew Poitras, C, Guelph, OHL (Boston Bruins): Poitras had three assists in a 3-0 win against Erie on Friday to give him 14 points (one goal, 13 assists) in a six-game point streak. It's the sixth point streak of at least five games this season for the 19-year-old. The Bruins selected Poitras in the second round (No. 54) of the 2022 NHL Draft.
Joshua Roy, RW, Sherbrooke, QMJHL (Montreal Canadiens): Roy scored a natural hat trick in the first period of a 9-1 win against Val-d'Or on March 18, including the game-winning goal, and also had two assists. In his next game, he capped a great individual effort by roofing a backhand in overtime to give Sherbrooke a 4-3 win against Gatineau in a matchup of the top two teams in the Western Conference. The 19-year-old has 23 points (11 goals, 12 assists) in a 10-game point streak. The Canadiens selected Roy in the fifth round (No. 150) of the 2021 NHL Draft.
Matt Savoie, C, Winnipeg, WHL (Buffalo Sabres): Savoie scored in a 6-4 loss to Moose Jaw on Wednesday to extend his point streak to 11 games (25 points; nine goals, 16 assists), including eight multipoint games. The 19-year-old has 40 points (18 goals, 22 assists) in his past 21 games, with points in 20 of them, and helped Winnipeg go 18-3-0 in that span to take over first place in the league standings. The Sabres selected Savoie with the No. 9 pick of the 2022 draft.
Photos: Josh Kim