This is the fourth and final installment of my season preview. As I've been hyping all week in the lead-up to this final article, I've got a treat for you OHL enthusiasts.
Whenever I'm reading a season preview for the upcoming season, my favourite thing to read is always the section where the experts make predictions on standings and awards. ESPN always does this quite well before the MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL seasons begin.
So what I've done is contacted a number of OHL experts; some of the most respected media members that cover this great league. And I've had them share with me (and us) their thoughts on the upcoming season. Instead of simply asking for standings and award predictions as ESPN does, I decided to ask each expert the same five questions. The questions were:
1. Who is the most underrated team heading into the season?
2. Who is the most overrated team heading into the season?
3. Who is your favourite to win the OHL Championship?
4. Who is currently the best draft prospect from the OHL for 2011?
5. What is the biggest storyline you're looking forward to following/seeing unfold?
And here are your answers...
Sunaya Sapurji (Yahoo Sports Canada)
1. I think a lot of people are forgetting about how good Ottawa could be this year – they’re probably the most likely to give the Majors problems in their Conference.
2. No one comes to mind, most of the talk is about Kitchener in the West and Missy in the East and expectations are very high for both.
3. Kitchener if Morin and Skinner are back. Mississauga if they’re not.
4. Brandon Saad
5. (While not related to the OHL), Sean Couturier & Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' road to the 2011 NHL draft.
Steve Clark (Niagara IceDogs Play by Play Announcer for Cogeco)
1. Niagara Ice Dogs- while teams like Ottawa, Kingston and Mississauga rightly deserve to be amidst the top teams, watch out for Niagara. They sport great goaltending in Mark Visentin, a return of their top core forwards and a deep, offensively oriented defense. Honourable mention goes to Oshawa if they get solid, consistent goaltending they will be much improved.
2. Mississauga- don't get me wrong, they will be very good and they did add Justin Shugg and Marc Cantin, but Cantin may just replace Cameron Gaunce on defense and one wonders whether or not Shugg will thrive in Dave Cameron's system. Their goaltending of JP Anderson and Anthony Peters is not as strong as Chris Carozzi and Anderson were last year.
3. Kitchener Rangers: Even if Jeremy Morin is not able to return and is deemed AHL eligible, it's hard to not pick Kitchener, who were a year ahead of schedule last year when they should have beaten Windsor in the Western Conference final.
4. Ryan Murphy Kitchener Rangers. How can you argue with Don Cherry's personal favourite? He got more face time last year during Coach's Corner than Ron MacLean. Oh wait, he did not make the U18 squad. As Seth Myers and Amy Poelher on Saturday Night Live like to say : Really? Really? He should hit 65-70 points. Honourable mention goes to Dougie Hamilton, who was listed at 6'4 on the U18 roster. He is getting lots of publicity and ink and is poised to be the breakout star of a young and talented Ice Dog defense.
5. Best Storyline: 1 (Steve couldn't give me just one!). Can Mississauga pull off holding a successful Memorial Cup? The GTA has collectively yawned at the OHL in the past (see Brampton and Mississauga), so the question is whether or not they will come together for the Memorial Cup. The answer is yes, but not without a lot of hard working and collective hand wringing along the way. The good news is that the Memorial Cup is in May and the Toronto Maple Leafs will have long been done by then.
Best Storyline: 2. How will Windsor do this year? There is no Bob Boughner, likely no Taylor Hall, Ryan Ellis, Cam Fowler Justin Shugg etc. I was tempted to put them into my underrated category because with 6000 seats to fill each and every night, there should be no such thing as rebuilding. They will be better than people think this year, and they also replaced Boughner with Bob Jones, who will be just fine behind the bench.
Neate Sager (Yahoo Sports Canada)
1. How about the Ottawa 67's? Three drafted forwards (Tyler Toffoli, Dalton Smith, Ryan Martindale), a couple overage scorers, a solid top-two defenceman in Marc Zanetti and Petr Mrazek is acclimatized to North American hockey.
From the quarter-pole on, the Soixante-Septs played at a near 95-point pace (33-13-5) after starting slowly,. That slow start could be somewhat written off as part of the coaching change from Brian Kilrea to Chris Byrne.
2. Gut instinct says the Soo Greyhounds in the West. They made a big jump last season to fifth in the West, but lost OHL defenceman of the year Jake Muzzin and No. 1 goalie Robin Lehner to the pro ranks.
3. The Kitchener Rangers. Going seven games against Windsor in the conference final, but they should have enough scoring (even if they don't get Jeremy Morin and Jerry D'Amigo) and beef on the blueline to make a run.
4. Matt Puempel. Thirty-three goals as a 16-year-old? If you really wanted to have some fun with it, you'd say Puempel is the best Canadian, Kitchener's Gabriel Landeskog the best Scandinanvian and London's Vladislav Namestnikov is the best Russian.
5. Mississauga's attendance during the season, since every announced crowd below 3,000 will probably cause someone's head to explode in Windsor.
Another that could be just as hot button s the "Russian revolution" in the Western Conference -- Windsor's Alexander Khokhachev, Alex Galchenyuk and Nail Yakupov in Sarnia, Vladislav Namestnikov and Igor Bobkov with the London Knights. It could start a big trend in the OHL, the way Igor Larionov is working to bring over young players from his homeland.
Terry Doyle (Loosepucks & TV Cogeco Sarnia)
1. Most underrated team heading into this season for me is the Guelph Storm. This is a team that heavily underachieved during the first half of last season, especially due to injuries. But they finally picked it up in the second half, especially with the return of Brandon Foote. I think because of this and being overshadowed in the Western Conference - some are overlooking them.
2. At this time, nothing jumps out to me as somebody overrated. I guess Windsor could be considered overrated by some only because when you're the back-to-back Memorial Cup champions you have a target on your back, but how could they be any better than they have been the last two years? But most don't expect them to be as good, so therefore I don't see them as overrated.
3. My favourite to win the OHL championship at this time is the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors. Here is a team that will have most of its players back from making it to the Eastern Conference Final last year, and have made some solid additions in Justin Shugg and Marc Cantin. Being the Memorial Cup host, they have the additional motivation of wanting to go into the tournament as the league champion, and don't expect Dave Cameron & Co. to hold back in improving the roster.
4. I put Matt Puempel as my top OHL prospect for the 2011 NHL Draft. He gave the scouts a huge look at what he is capable of during his rookie season, earning the OHL/CHL rookie of the year.
5. The storyline I'm looking forward to following this year will be very easy for me to follow, and that is the Russian invasion of the Sarnia Sting. Alex Galchenyuk coming in as the top choice in the OHL Priority Selection and then being joined by Nail Yakupov at the top of the import draft. It's expected Sting coach Dave MacQueen starts the season with them together to form a dynamic duo, but might they be capable of being split up and make for two offensive threats. This could all help lead to a breakout season for sophomore Brett Ritchie during his draft year. Go up and down the wing and park him in front of the net and he could have a 30-goal campaign.
Ryan Kennedy (The Hockey News)
1. I’ll go with the Peterborough Petes. Matt Puempel has the size and skill to be a dominant player and both Austin Watson and Ryan Spooner were held back by injuries at the end of last season. With those two healthy, the Petes have a potent attack.
2. Windsor – the Spits have just gone through so many changes. No doubt they’ll be good with Jack Campbell in net and a couple of good imports in Khokhlachev and Kuehnhackl, but none of those guys have played an OHL game yet and the team has a new coach. Three straight titles may be tough.
3. Kitchener. The Rangers have so many weapons, not to mention a huge chip on their shoulder from blowing a 3-0 lead against Windsor next year. Even if Jeff Skinner jumps to Carolina, this team will score in bunches.
4. I’m a big Boone Jenner fan, but my initial edge goes to Matt Puempel. His scoring ceiling has been higher so far and his linemates will be just as good as what Jenner has in Oshawa.
5. Whether or not Nick Ebert plays in the OHL this year (which has since been confirmed) Mississauga-St. Mike’s owns his rights and as Memorial Cup hosts he would be guaranteed a shot at a national title, but he hasn’t signed on yet (Ebert has since been traded to Windsor where he'll be playing this season).
Patrick King (Roger's Sportsnet)
1. The Barrie Colts. They stand to lose several key players to graduation, but still have a solid nucleus of returning players. Barrie is often overlooked in discussions for this season, and they will need to decide whether they will rebuild or add pieces. The return or graduation of players from NHL camps will affect this team perhaps more than any other.
2. I would like to preface this by saying I don't believe any team is overrated at this point. However, the team that has perhaps the most to lose is Guelph. On paper this team should have performed much better last season. If this team doesn't have a very strong start, I would not be surprised to see their core of '91-born players moved in the weeks leading up to the deadline.
3. The Kitchener Rangers. As is always the case, it will depend which players come back from NHL camps, but this team is stacked and ready for a run. They were the only team to beat the Windsor Spitfires in the playoffs and Memorial Cup combined and nearly pulled off the upset. This team is now battle-tested and ready to take the next step forward. Assuming Jeff Skinner is back, this team has all the ingredients to contend for the OHL and Memorial Cup championships.
4. Matt Puempel, Peterborough Petes. Puempel's natural scoring ability and size will make him a top five selection for the upcoming draft. Peterborough could be one of the highest scoring teams in the league this season and Puempel will be a big part of the triple threat along with Austin Watson and Ryan Spooner.
5. Do the Windsor Spitfires rebuild or go for the unprecedented three-peat? Spitfires general manager Warren Rychel has reiterated his intentions to rebuild this season in recent months, but this team is strong enough still to contend. With the best junior-aged goaltender in the world joining their program, the Spitfires should strongly consider loading up once more, especially considering a league finals berth could be good enough to obtain entry in the Memorial Cup.
And since I figured I went through all this trouble, I guess I should throw my own two cents into the ring!
Brock Otten (OHL Prospects Blog)
1. I feel like the London Knights aren't currently getting enough respect. I think despite losing Nazem Kadri and Steve Tarasuk (arguably the team's two best players last year), the Knights have a team that could compete for the Western Conference championship. Lots of veteran talent, some very interesting new players (Tinordi, Babkov, Namestnikov, Elser). Just a solid all around team.
2. I'd say probably the Soo Greyhounds. I loved the make up of the team last year, but losing Muzzin, Quesnele, and Lehner will hurt more than people think. The team's defense and goaltending (which was their bread and butter last season) will not be at the same level.
3. The Mississauga Majors. I love the moves they've made so far and I think they've got one heck of a strong team. They may have to upgrade their defense and goaltending at some point this season, but Cameron seems ready to go for it all.
4. I'm going with Matt Puempel. Really talented offensive player. One of those guys who knows where to be on the ice to score goals (kind of similar to Jeff Skinner). I think he's going to have a dynamite season. As a bit of a darkhorse though, I expect Lucas Lessio to shoot up the charts. He's a throwback player, a lot of power, physicality and skill. These are the types of guys the NHL are looking for and I think he's the top candidate for the Emms Family Award.
5. There are a TON of great story lines to follow this season. I'm definitely psyched for the season to start. Really, I could probably come up with a dozen things I'm looking forward to seeing (sounds like a Sunday Top 10 article!), from following this year's tremendous crop of Imports, to how well the Windsor Spitfires perform, to the battle for the East Division. But the one thing I'm really curious to see is how well the Memorial Cup works in the GTA. As a resident of the GTA, I'm really hoping that Mississauga runs a great Mem Cup and people actually come to watch. It's really big for the development of this league...in this area.
Well that's it folks. Consider your season preview complete. Is it September 23rd yet?
Also, special thanks to everyone who contributed to this article. Really means a lot to me and I think my readers will really enjoy it! I know Sportsnet's Sam Cosentino really wanted to contribute to this piece as well, but he's been really busy with the Toronto Blue Jays season wrapping up. If at any time Sam get's an opportunity to share his thoughts with us, I'll be sure to make an update.