When you watch Thomas Harley, he strikes you as a smooth skating, passive defenseman, who can put up points, but his breakout season with the Mississauga Steelheads was far from that.
On paper, Harley put up an amazing season in terms of points and shot metrics. The Syracuse, New York native put up 58 points in 68 games for a middling Mississauga team and played really well as a #1 defenseman at even-strength, on the power play, and on the penalty kill, all as a 17-year-old.
With the eye-test, scouts have been able to see an honest to goodness two-way defenseman who works hard in his own zone, has gotten stronger and has been able to use his size, and can play in any situation including high leverage moments in a game.
Harley is a player I personally know very well as I work parallel to their team as an off-ice official for the league. I was able to watch about 30 games from Harley from a neutral perspective and he impressed beyond my expectations, especially considering how the Steelheads really struggled in the first half of the year and only really put a playoff-contending team together after a lot of roster turnover and the introduction of young players. They were one of the few teams that could sell top-tier NHL prospects at the deadline and improve.
Harley showed spurts of being a very good offensive defenseman in his rookie season playing on the third pair in sheltered minutes with the Steelheads. In his first year thrown in the deep end as the #1 defenseman playing in all situations with and against top players.
Harley is one of the youngest players in the draft and in the OHL as a whole. Of the 34 defensemen to put up 0.5 points per game in 30 or more games in the league, Harley was half a year younger than the next oldest player, and he put up way more points and shots than anyone in his age group.
And here are his shot locations. You can see that Harley does take the majority of his shots from the point, but he has shown the ability to jump down to the top of the faceoff circle and be aggressive. His 11 goals was 12th in the OHL among defensemen.
Mitch Brown of The Athletic has a proprietary passing project going on for the CHL where he tracks shooting, passing, zone entries, zone exits, and defensive zone entries. If you have access to that paywalled website, his breakdown of Harley’s play using his advanced data is very complimentary to Harley’s play.
His ability to move the puck up the ice from the defensive zone into the offensive zone is among the elite in the league. The only area I’d say he lacks in is his personal shooting. He played alongside a few offensively gifted players in Owen Tippett, Ryan McLeod, and Alan Lyszczarczyk meaning he didn’t get to shoot as much as his teammates. To make up for that, his expected goals is very good relative to his shots so that’s an area of potential.
Harley is one of the smoothest skating defensemen in the OHL and his large wingspan really help him move up and down the ice. He’s great on his edges and uses them to great effect along the offensive blueline to open up shooting lanes as well as stopping the rush at his own blueline. As he puts on muscle and gets naturally stronger, this aspect of his game should only improve. With the way the NHL is going in terms of having an entire blueline of puck movers who can skate and be creative all the way up and down the ice, having a player like Harley should pay massive dividends should he pan out.
Harley is very clever on his feet. His vision is exceptional in my mind with and without the puck. There was rarely a time when he got caught in the offensive zone and had to chase pucks and opponents down. He usually has the upper hand with his instincts, and barring that, he uses his great feet and length to get himself out of trouble. His decision making in tight quarters came a long way this season, and combined with Mississauga’s switch to playing less of a stretch pass game, he became more successful in leaving his own zone.
I give a lot of credit in this particular area of the game to centers Cole Schwindt and Keean Washkurak. Both of these players are draft eligible this season and both deserve to get picked after their exceptional second halves of the year. Schwindt lived with a coworker of mine and I can tell you he’s a world class kid. 6’3”, incredible speed, and a nose for the net. He’s ranked 96th among NA skaters by NHL Central Scouting. Someone to watch for.
We’ve talked about Harley’s size and mobility a lot, and it’s helped him a lot in transition. It’s a big plus that he has that. Also, playing as much as he did against top competition, Harley really started to throw his weight around and be really physical along the boards. He doesn’t do it all the time, he’s no Nikita Zadorov, but he can muscle older players off the puck and get it where it needs to go when he needs to. One play that I noticed in his game that I really liked was when he drape himself around the forechecker in front of him and use his stick to poke the puck loose before rushing to get the puck first from whichever side it went. Used correctly (by not getting a holding or hooking penalty), it’s a really effective way to separate man from puck.
Right now, Harley is very lanky, meaning he’s not overly aggressive with pushing his weight around. Some call his lack of strength right now a weakness, but for a 17-year-old, I call it promising. He won’t make the NHL right away, all but two prospects in this draft should, so the fact that he has a solid frame and doesn’t choose to shy away from the physical game should be a plus. Once he naturally puts on weight, I don’t see the physical part of his game being a problem at all. These are prospects, after all.
As a staple on the penalty kill, Harley got a lot of reps in the defensive zone. At times he tended to be a little too conservative and backed into his goalie, allowing shots from the perimeter to be a lot more lethal. In the OHL you have shooters who can rip a shot from anywhere and it can sometimes go in. I think he has the ability to clean up that part of his game, but it’s going to take time. Other nit-picky things like covering passing lanes and getting on the right side of the forward in front of the net are really things that young defensemen learn with time and experience.
Thomas Harley really feels like Jake Gardiner 2.0 to me. All the way back in 2008, Gardiner was drafted 17th overall. I see a lot of the same things in Harley’s game (skating, vision, size) which is great to see because Gardiner turned into one of the premier puck-moving defensemen in the league for going on six years. Every time I watched Harley make a brilliant play, skate end-to-end, or walk the blueline, or make a blunder of a pass from his own red line, I thought in my head “oh, Jake.” I personally think it’s a very apt description, and should a team draft the next Jake Gardiner, they should be really happy with themselves.
Similar to Gardiner a decade ago, Harley seems to be a lock to go in the teens this draft. Gardiner was taken 17th overall, Harley was taken 15th overall in the SB Nation Mock Draft by Montreal, and he’s been listed anywhere from 12th to 20th by all the scouting services. The Colorado Avalanche pick around there, I know they have a lot of good, young defensemen in the system, but it honestly never hurts to have more.
And comparing those highlights to the original version, you can see a lot of similarities.
When it comes to tools, Harley’s toolbox is overflowing. He’s a gorgeous skater with light feet, good agility, and long, powerful strides. He gets up to speed quickly and can easily gain separation from opponents. To make things more enticing, he also has firm puck control and a knack for receiving passes while in motion, so when you combine those elements with his skating he becomes a major threat at carrying the puck up the ice and through traffic.
Offensively, he displays advanced offensive awareness and passing for a defenseman. He keeps his head up at the blue line and analyzes the situation before making a play, usually with great success. He also likes to roam the offensive zone looking for chances and picks his spots well. His shooting mechanics are well above average for a defender, and they’re only going to get better as he adds more muscle to his frame.
Harley has significant upside in transition. He invites pressure, directly attacking multiple forecheckers to get a better look for his teammates up the ice. It’s a trait shared by the high-end puckmovers of the NHL. His transition game, of course, isn’t quite at that level yet, but the fact he has that mentality is an excellent starting point.
Harley’s development curve spiked this season. One of the youngest players in the draft, Harley progressed from a decent prospect to a 25-30 minutes a night defenseman with impressive tools for the Steelheads. When he was on the ice, his team had control of the puck. He’s big, mobile, skilled and smart. That combination is attractive. Harley skates with the quickest forwards in the OHL due to the strength of his stride and his wingspan. He can jump up into the attack. He’s good with the puck, showing some creativity and good vision, at times very good.
Defensively he’s a bit of a work in progress. His feet and stick allow him to make stops and close gaps, but he needs to bulk up a lot and be better at times in his own end. Harley makes a lot of plays but tends to get too cute and make costly turnovers. Some scouts argue that was just the byproduct of the massive and arguably excessive minutes he played.
Other MHH Scouting Reports: