Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sunday Top 10 - Ten Matchups You've Got to Watch in 2010/2011

Today's top ten looks at ten games which you should be watching this season. If you notice, there are no games in September and no games in December. This is intentional. I'm not saying you shouldn't be watching OHL hockey in those two months, but that if I had to watch only 10 games this year, they wouldn't fall in September and December. September serves as the opening few weeks of the season as teams are still scrambling to see which players will be returning from NHL camps. A lot of key players are missing and there isn't a ton of team chemistry yet. While December serves as the disappearing act for many of the league's top players. Those invited to World Junior camps will take off for an extended absence (some longer than others), while the best rookies will leave for the Under 17 World Hockey Challenge.

That leaves us with games in October, November, January, February, and March that you should be watching!

Saturday, October 16 - Oshawa Generals @ Niagara IceDogs
There are a few reasons to watch this game. One, both of these teams should be much improved this season and will push for home ice advantage in the playoffs. There will be a lot of offensive firepower profiled in the game too. Secondly, I'm incredibly curious as to the reception that Lucas Lessio gets in Niagara. If you recall, Lessio was a Dogs first rounder who failed to report and was subsequently traded to Oshawa (for a king's ransom). He'll be a great player in this league and I think it'll be interesting to see if he hears the boos.

Thursday, November 4 - Kitchener Rangers @ London Knights
The Rangers return to the John Labatt Centre, the scene of last year's ugly Game 7 during the Western Conference Semi-finals. Kitchener smoked the Knights at home by a score of 8-3 and moved on to the Western Conf. final. This season, these two teams should battle for the Midwest division yet again, and this early season tilt should have a lot of energy and passion. You know the Knights are going to be looking for revenge. Also interesting to note, that by this time the Carolina Hurricanes would have played 12 games. It's likely by this time that the Rangers will either have Jeff Skinner back or learn that he'll be sticking in Carolina all season.

Saturday, November 13 - Sarnia Sting @ Belleville Bulls
On paper this might seem like an odd pick for a game of the year, but let me explain. Firstly, you're looking at two of the most exciting young teams in the league doing battle for only one of two times on the year. This game will feature a LOT of talent available for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft (Ritchie, Francisco, Brasserd, Curtis, Teichmann, etc) and you know NHL scouts have this one circled on their schedule. Secondly, I can't wait to see how Nail Yakupov and Alex Galchenyuk look on the big ice in Belleville. These are two of the fastest skaters in the league and they'll have a lot of room to move around. Could mean for some exciting things.

Sunday, January 16 - Ottawa 67's @ Mississauga St. Michael's Majors
While it's early to make predictions (we do it anyway), you have to think that these two teams will be up near the thick of things in the Eastern Conference. It's even likely that on January 16, this battle could be played between the two Division leaders in the East. The 67's should come out hard as they look to try and prove that they're right up there with the Memorial Cup hosts. Also interesting to see will be how the Majors look after the OHL trade deadline, which will fall sometime in the week of this game.

Friday, January 28 - Windsor Spitfires @ Kitchener Rangers
Who knows what the Spitfires will look like at the end of January or whether they're even in serious contention for their division. But I'm excited to see this one because the Rangers will be out looking for revenge on last year's collapse in the Western Conference final when Kitchener had Windsor at 3 games to 0 and the Spits won four straight to take the series and eventually the Memorial Cup. If the Rangers truly are the better team this year, they're going to look to hammer home the point by lambasting the Spits into the ground.

Thursday, February 10 - Guelph Storm @ Peterborough Petes
Probably another odd selection on paper. So let me explain. I see this match up focusing on what is likely to be the two most dangerous first lines in the OHL. Holland, Latta and Beck versus Watson, Puempel and Spooner. That's a damn exciting match up and it'll be great to see those two lines go head to head. Hopefully Peterborough figures out their goaltending situation by then!

Friday, February 18 - Mississauga Majors @ Kitchener Rangers
Preview of the OHL final? Preview of the Memorial Cup final? Who really knows, but pretty much every preseason prognostication by any prognosticator worth listening to had these two teams fighting it out for the OHL title. February 18 is about a month after the OHL trade deadline, so it also means that these two juggernauts will be icing the teams they'll be taking into battle for the playoffs.

Wednesday, March 9 - Ottawa 67's @ Kingston Frontenacs
Could this game decide the East division? There's a distinct possibility. Things are going to be very tight in the East Division this year with all five teams having a chance at taking it. But many believe these two to be the cream of the crop and the two teams ultimately having the best chance. March 9 will be the last time these two teams play each other and even if they don't end up being the top two teams in the division, this match up could still have severe playoff seeding implications.

Wednesday, March 16 - Kitchener Rangers @ Guelph Storm
Let the battle for Highway 7 continue! Seriously though, as much as these two teams hate each other, this match up could ultimately be huge for playoff seeding. The Rangers and Storm (along with London) are probably the top competitors for the Midwest Division and this end of the year game could possibly even have divisional implications.

Thursday, March 17 - Saginaw Spirit @ Windsor Spitfires
Not only could this late season match up have serious divisional implications, but it also pits former Team USA members Brandon Saad and Jack Campbell against each other. Along with Kenny Ryan, Vincent Trocheck and Nick Ebert, this game will also feature a ton of American talent (some of the best in the OHL).

So are you marking down these dates in your calendar yet?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Game Report: Sarnia & London from September 25

The OHL is back folks. While I haven't yet had a chance to get to a game live, I did catch the Sting versus the Knights on the OHL Action Pack.

It was a pretty exciting game, with a pace that increased as the game went along. Things started rather slowly with a somewhat timid first period, but the second period saw 6 goals scored. In the second half of the period especially, the action was fast and furious. The game ended up going to overtime where Seth Griffith capitalized on a Brett Ritchie turnover to head up ice on a two on one with Jared Knight, who finished off a beautiful cross ice feed for the game winner. If you count the shootout winner last night, it's Knight's second game winner in a row.

The Knights as a whole looked pretty good. Some sloppy defensive play at times, but the team has a nice mixture of speed and tenacity. One thing that struck me as somewhat odd was Dale Hunter's consistent use of five forwards on the powerplay (with Colin Martin, Michael MacDonald, and Jared Knight seeing time on the point). As the game went along, Scott Harrington began to see more and more time, but the five forward unit was used a fair amount. Even after Jarred Tinordi comes, you have to wonder if Dale Hunter has little faith in his defense's ability to move the puck and quarterback the powerplay.

The Sting are going to be an exciting team this season. Think of them like the Edmonton Oilers of the NHL right now. A ton of exhilarating young talent up front and a high tempo offense, but perhaps a team too green to be a consistent standings threat. Sarnia did look real good against a tough London team (a day after shutting out Windsor), but defensively they struggled tonight. A lot of turnovers and lazy penalties that led to strong scoring chances for London. On the plus side, John Cullen looked great in net and if he can continue to be a rock back there, the Sting might win more games than they lose.

Player Reports:

Sarnia Sting

#9 - Brandon Francisco (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011)

Playing on Sarnia's top line with Brett Ritchie and Alex Galchenyuk (Brandon Alderson also shuffled in at times), Francisco was the least visible of the three IMO. Showed flashes of being able to dart in and out of traffic, but wasn't able to find a lot of room. However, he did score a goal, capitalizing on a mistake by Scott Harrington at the blueline.

#10 - Nail Yakupov (NHL Draft Eligible in 2012)
Everything Yakupov does is done at high speed. I can't wait to see this guy live at some point this year to better appreciate how fast he plays the game. At this point, he could stand to use his teammates a little better as he seems to get tunnel vision in the center of the ice, but his puckhandling skills are fantastic. He turns and pivots on a dime and takes the puck with him. He seems to make it look really effortless. He scored a really nice goal in the second period, as he beat Michael D'Orazio and Jared Knight to the net on the rush and finished off a one timer from Kale Kerbashian. Funniest moment of the night happened in the third period when Yakupov tried to step up and engage Colin Martin as he carried the puck up ice. Brave, but the much bigger Martin ended up completely running over Yakupov. At least it shows he's got guts.

#20 - Brett Ritchie (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011)
Ritchie had an OK game. First some positives. In the first period he showed a great burst of speed as he blew past Michael D'Orazio one on one for a shot on net that forced Michael Houser to make a big save. And all night he was working hard to get open near the net. It's clear he's put on a lot of strength this offseason and he's become quite the difficult player to contain. Negatively, while he was getting himself in good position to score, he was snake bitten on the night. Twice he whiffed on cross crease passes that likely would have resulted on goals. Both were tough to handle due to the velocity of the pass, but as a scoring power forward, he's going to have show that he can finish at least some of those off. Also, it was Ritchie's turnover along the boards that led to the eventual game winner by Knight (although if Joe Rogalski isn't pinching, it's a 2 on 2 and likely a dead play).

#74 - Joe Rogalski (2010 NHL Draft - Pittsburgh Penguins)
This is Rogalski's 4th OHL season and the Sting are going to rely heavily on him this season. But he did not have a strong game tonight. He was kind of all over the ice and had a lot of trouble with London's forecheck tonight. In the third period especially, he had a hard time and it seemed like every time he touched the puck in his own end, a Knight forward had already collapsed on him and created a tie up or turnover. He's got to make quicker decisions with the puck against a team with speed like London. And in overtime, it was probably his costly pinch that resulted in the game winning goal. As Brett Ritchie was pinned along the boards in London's zone, Rogalski pinched to try and help out Ritchie, but instead a turnover was created and Rogalski got trapped up ice as Griffith and Knight flew up ice to end the game. On a positive note, he picked up a secondary assist on Brandon Francisco's goal as it was his dump in that gave Harrington trouble at the blueline.

#94 - Alex Galchenyuk (NHL Draft Eligible in 2012)
Is it a little early to say Yakupov/Galchenyuk 1 and 2 in 2012? You never know what the future holds, but Galchenyuk was the most impressive player on the ice for me tonight. The first overall pick completely lived up to the hype. He's got speed to burn, but he's very smart in using it. Seems to be very patient with the puck and doesn't force the play, but when he sees an opportunity he goes for it. Like his second period goal, where he took a pass from Brandon Alderson, cut to the middle of the ice and let a wrist shot go to the top corner. His cut to the middle left Reid McNeill in awe (and on the ground as Joe Rogalski promptly ran him over). I must say, I was hearing a lot of talk about his one dimensional play, but I saw none of that tonight either. He saved a goal early in the game as he hustled back to tie up Stephen Sanza at the side of the net on an odd man rush, and was aggressive in attacking the net (with and without the puck) all night long. Colour me impressed!

#33 - John Cullen (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011, Born in 1991)
When Cullen first came to the Niagara IceDogs two years ago, I thought he was going to develop into a premier backstop in this league. But inconsistency ultimately led to his trade from the organization and he's yet to get another shot as a starter until now. He was excellent in this game (a day after shutting out the Spitfires). He's a very athletic goaltender and he made some big saves for his team tonight. Unfortunately he got left hung out to dry by his defense a few times and that was the difference. But he did get his team a point by stopping 42 of 46.

London Knights

#3 - Reid McNeill (2010 NHL Draft - Pittsburgh Penguins)

McNeill looks like he has a lot more confidence this year. I thought he had an excellent game. Was active in moving the puck up ice, but most of all was intelligent about it and picked his spots well. He was also solid offensively. In the first period he saved a goal by tying up Kale Kerbashian in front of the net and then sending the free puck out of the slot and to the boards. This was generally the theme of the night as he (along with partner Michael Moffat) neutralized the Sting attack. I would have really liked to see what he could do on the powerplay, but was never given the opportunity.

#4 - Michael Moffat (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011)
Who? I didn't even go into this game looking for him, but he made himself pretty noticeable. He was an absolute rock defensively tonight. The rookie defenseman from Waterloo looked like an OHL veteran out there. As the game went along he began receiving more and more ice time and was even out there in the final minute of regulation. He didn't give any of Sarnia's forwards an inch tonight. He negated players on the rush (off memory Brett Ritchie, Kale Kerbashian, and Alex Galchenyuk) and used his size to prevent them from generating a scoring chance. He also did a great job in the corners as I don't ever remember him losing a battle along the boards. With great size (6'1, 200lbs) and a strong defensive game, he could be a guy to watch this year.

#6 - Scott Harrington (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011)
If it weren't for that costly error at the blueline, Harrington would have played a pretty damn near perfect game. Even with the error, he was excellent. The error I speak of happened in the second period as Harrington tried to glove down a high dump in at the blueline, missed and then fell down, leading to an odd man rush and a goal by Brandon Francisco. It was a tough play, but Harrington needs to have confidence in his ability to win loose puck battles and let that one go, rather than jump to glove it down. But otherwise, Harrington looked fantastic. He was used on the powerplay where it appears he's ready to step up his offensive production. He also looked good in rushing the puck up ice and was very aggressive in bringing it into the offensive zone. He made a tremendous play in the first period to negate a breakaway (by I believe Jesse Staughton). He caught up to the Sting player, used his stick to redirect the puck and then gained face to face body position and put the player down to the ice. Absolutely textbook. I also liked his increasingly physical demeanor. This is going to be key for him going forward. He doesn't have ideal size for a shutdown defenseman in the NHL, so he's going to have to show he can be a physical force to really attract attention for the first round (IMO).

#10 - Danny Elser (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011)
Not a ton to say about Elser, the former Shattuck St. Mary's forward. He's got some speed and he looks to have some offensive potential. Showed glimpses of ability but may need more time before things start coming together.

#17 - Seth Griffith (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011)
I thought Griffith was excellent tonight. He's definitely a good offensive player and a guy who's going to put up points in this league. He looked quite quick and was always pushing the pace of play. His pass to Jared Knight for the game winner in OT was a thing of beauty. The Sting defenseman played it really well, but Griffith showed patience on the two on one and put the puck right on Knight's stick.

#18 - Vladislav Namestnikov (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011)
I was expecting a little bit more from Namestnikov to be honest. There is definitely a lot of potential there. He definitely has good hands and when he had time and space (particularly on the powerplay), he made some Sting players look foolish as they tried to get the puck off him. But through stretches of the game he was largely invisible. Maybe my expectations were too large as I compared him to the way Yakupov and Galchenyuk looked out there. He did pick up a secondary assist on the powerplay as he moved the puck very effectively with the unit.

#70 - Chris Tierney (NHL Draft Eligible in 2012)
Was hearing from a lot of London fans that they didn't think he was ready, but after tonight's viewing I'd have to disagree. I thought he was the best London forward on the ice tonight. He looks like the total package offensively. Patient with the puck, worked the cycle well, was creative in making plays out of nothing. He also took the puck hard to the front of the net. While he didn't come away with any points, I thought he looked great.

#71 - Phil Varone (2009 NHL Draft - San Jose Sharks)
Varone is probably a good bet to be the Knights captain this season and he had a good game tonight. He looks a lot faster this year and seems to be ready to finally take his offensive game to the next level (in his last year in the league). He consistently went to the net looking for scoring chances and worked hard on the forecheck and the cycle. He scored a nice goal in the second period that put the Knights up 2-0. Hopefully he can keep it up (and stay healthy).

#97 - Jared Knight (2010 NHL Draft - Boston Bruins)
Probably still trying to get back into the gears of the OHL, Knight looked pretty tired at the start of the game. But as the game went on, he got stronger and stronger. Had a couple of great scoring chances in the third period as he took the puck hard to the net, but was stymied by Cullen. He was finally rewarded in OT as he finished off the Griffith pass for the game winner. The one thing I did notice tonight though was that Knight doesn't seem to have any chemistry with his linemates. A lot of his offensive chances were created by himself. It'd be such a waste of Knight's terrific release if London can't find a playmaker to pair with him.

#29 - Michael Houser (NHL Draft Eligible in 2011, Born in 1992)
I was a little bit surprised when Houser went undrafted this year. And things will be interesting for him once Igor Bobkov shows up from Anaheim. But for now he's the starter and he looked good tonight. Was aggressive in challenging the shooters and wasn't giving Sarnia's shooters much to aim at. He gave up a few rebounds, but his defense was there to clear them. Wasn't at fault on any of the Sarnia goals. If the Knights can get a solid platoon going this year, that'd be fantastic. He stopped 35 of 38 for the win.

That's it for the first game report of the 2010-2011 season! Thoughts, comments?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sunday Top 10 - Performers of the 2010 Preseason

With only one game left to be completed (Peterborough and Oshawa) on the 2010 preseason schedule, it's now time to take a look at the standout individual and team performances.

Here are the standings of the preseason (minus the one remaining game)

Eastern Conference
1. Belleville Bulls - 4-2 - .667 Win %
2. Niagara IceDogs - 3-1-2 - .667 Win %
3. Kingston Frontenacs - 2-1-1 - .625 Win %
4. Oshawa Generals - 2-2-1 - .500 Win %
5. Peterborough Petes - 2-2-1 - .500 Win %
6. Mississauga Majors - 2-3 - .400 Win %
7. Ottawa 67's - 1-2-1 - .375 Win %
8. Sudbury Wolves - 0-1-3 - .375 Win %
9. Brampton Battalion - 1-3-1 - .300 Win %
10. Barrie Colts - 0-4-2 - .167 Win %

Western Conference
1. Guelph Storm - 4-0-1 - .900 Win %
2. Windsor Spitfires - 4-1-1 - .750 Win %
3. Owen Sound Attack - 3-1 - .750 Win %
4. Sarnia Sting - 3-1-2 - .667 Win %
5. Kitchener Rangers - 2-1-2 - .600 Win %
6. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds - 3-3-1 - .500% (includes WHL games)
7. Plymouth Whalers - 1-1-2 - .500 Win %
8. London Knights - 1-2-2 - .400 Win %
9. Saginaw Spirit - 1-2-1 - .375 Win %
10. Erie Otters - 0-4 - .000 Win %

I don't want to alarm Spirit, Otters, Battalion, and Colts fans, but last year's bottom 4 teams in the preseason (here) occupied three of the bottom four spots in the OHL at the end of the regular season too. So for those that say the preseason means nothing, I implore you to reconsider. Also of note, during last year's preseason, none of the four eventual division winners (Ottawa, Barrie, London, Windsor), finished below .500. What does that mean for team's like Mississauga, Ottawa, and London this year, all of whom have aspirations to capture their divisions.

But on to the highlight of this article; standout individual performances of the preseason. While it was incredibly difficult to pare the list down to 10 (or close to it), I managed to do my best. Those who failed to make the list, join the Honorable Mention category which is organized according to team.

I'd also like to mention how absolutely insanely difficult it was to track down preseason statistics. This was especially true since a lot of game reports are missing during the time of the launching of the new OHL team websites. So any of the stats I bring before you are by no means confirmed to be completely accurate. This is especially true for assists, where I'm probably greatly under appreciating the impact of certain players on the score sheet. But you can't say I didn't try (and in fact spent a lot of time on this).

10. Nick Ebert - Windsor Spitfires
It's going to be hard for Ebert to live up to expectations this year after being billed the top defenseman available for the 2010 Priority Draft...despite his lower draft position. It's also going to be tough playing in Windsor where he's going to be expected to be a large part of a youth movement that's also expected to win. But Ebert has done well to showcase his talents during preseason play and it seems like he'll make a seamless transition from the USHL to the OHL as a 16 year old. Ebert had 3 goals and 1 assist through the Spitfires six preseason games.

9. Gianluca Curcuruto - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Curcuruto might have had the best preseason of any 2010 priority draft selection. The offensively skilled defenseman (and first round pick of the Hounds) had at least 7 assists during preseason play. With the Hound's powerplay QB's of last year graduating (Muzzin, Quesnele), it would appear that Curcuruto might have what it takes to take some of the pressure off of Brandon Archibald and Brock Beukeboom to take large steps forward offensively.

8. Ryan Strome - Niagara IceDogs
The IceDogs had a terrific preseason under new head coach Marty Williamson, and much of that was in thanks to the increased offensive contributions of last year's secondary scoring options. Ryan Strome, the centerpiece of the Alex Pietrangelo deal, was the best of this bunch with 4 goals and 3 assists during the preseason. If Strome, (and the likes of Fritsch, Hamilton, Theoret) can really progress this season, it'll go a long way in spreading out the team's offense from Andrew Agozzino and Alex Friesen.

7. Nick Cousins - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Everyone is expecting that Daniel Catenacci is going to have a breakout offensive season this year, but that means teammate Nick Cousins might be getting forgotten about. The 2nd year forward kept pace with the former first overall pick last year and had a preseason to suggest he might step out into the limelight this season. The diminutive and tenacious Cousins had 5 goals and 3 assists in the Hounds 7 games.

6. Zack Kassian - Windsor Spitfires
This is the season for Zack Kassian to step up. No more suspensions, no more off ice distractions. The Buffalo Sabres first round pick still doesn't have an NHL contract because the Sabres are still waiting for his offensive game to explode. If this preseason was any indication, this should be the year. Kassian played in only three games, but had 3 goals and 5 assists and appears to have developed some chemistry with Alexander Khokhlachev. As a budding power forward, this could be Kassian's season to just physically dominate against younger and inexperienced foes.

5. Alex Basso and Steve Strong - Belleville Bulls
The Bulls had a fantastic preseason and these two 1993 born defenseman were a large reason for it. On the big ice in Belleville, it's crucial to have defenseman who can skate and move the puck. Guys like P.K. Subban, and Shawn Lalonde have held this position with successful Bulls teams. Basso and Strong (along with Stephen Silas) appear to be ready to help this team get back to the playoffs. Basso had 2 goals and 7 assists, while Strong had 1 goal and 6 assists during the preseason. Both really helped to ignite Belleville's offensive advances and could be poised for big years in their draft seasons.

4. Nail Yakupov - Sarnia Sting
Sometimes Import players come in with a lot of hype and ultimately fall flat on their face. And sometimes they come in and are immediately among the best and most dynamic players in the league. Yakupov appears to be headed for the latter. The Sting had a strong preseason performance and Yakupov paced the team with 5 goals and 3 assists, electrifying Sting fans with his speed and offensive ability. Hard to believe he's only eligible for the NHL draft in 2012, thanks to a late birthday.

3. Brett Thompson and Vern Cooper - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
There's no secret to the fact that if the Hounds are going to be as successful this season, they're going to need to become more of an offensive team (as opposed to the solid defensive team they were last year). Arguably, the two most important players in that offense are veterans Brett Thompson and Vern Cooper. Thompson in particular could be a dark horse to lead the league in scoring this year. Both completely lived up to expectations this preseason when Thompson had 5 goals and 5 assists, and Cooper had 5 goals and 3 assists.

2. Alex Aleardi - Belleville Bulls
Speedy player and big ice usually equals dynamite. Aleardi must have been ecstatic when he was traded to Belleville last year and given the opportunity to take on a larger role offensively. But he still needed to learn how to utilize his speed more effectively (similar to the way Niagara's Alex Friesen learned last year). This preseason Aleardi has been fantastic and helped the Bulls to the best preseason record in the East. His 7 goals were the most of any player in the preseason. Something tells me that things in Belleville could be pretty exciting this year.

1. Alexander Khokhlachev - Windsor Spitfires
See Nail Yakupov. Some imports have it, and some don't. It certainly looks like Khokhlachev has it as he paced all OHL players in preseason scoring with 4 goals and 9 assists. Many believed the Spits to be in a rebuilding season with no chance of taking their division. But yet, the Spitfires kept winning this preseason and Khokhlachev was a big part of that. If he can keep this up, we might be talking about him as the best talent available from the OHL for the 2011 NHL Draft.

Honorable Mentions

Barrie Colts
While the Colts didn't have the best preseason, they did get solid contributions from a few fresh faces. The newly acquired and signed Mark Scheifele had 2 goals and an assist, while 2008 draft pick Tanner Pearson had 5 assists.

Belleville Bulls
On top of those who cracked the top 10, Bulls first round pick Brendan Gaunce had an excellent preseason where he notched three goals. He could play a top six role for Belleville this season.

Brampton Battalion
Overager Sean Jones should have an excellent season this year and he was solid in the preseason with 3 goals and 2 assists. Meanwhile 2010 first round pick Marcus McIvor had 1 goal and 2 assists from the back end and might be able to help improve the Battalion powerplay.

Erie Otters
The Otters had a terrible preseason but one bright spot was 2010 2nd rounder Connor Crisp (nephew of Terry Crisp). He had 3 goals and an assist.

Guelph Storm
Kind of weird for the team with the best preseason record to not have anyone on the list, but it was more a case of different players getting the job done every time out. In the one game they played, Peter Holland, Taylor Beck, and Michael Latta combined for five goals and 6 assists. All three could win the OHL scoring title this year. Second year player Carter Sandlak had a solid preseason with 3 goals. While Garrett Sparks looks to have what it takes to be a successful rookie netminder, as he had 2 wins and allowed 2 goals against in his action.

Kingston Frontenacs
Erik Gudbranson had 2 goals in the two games he played before leaving for Florida. If he returns, he should have a big offensive season from the blueline. Also, import defenseman Michal Cajkovsky seemed to make a solid impression with 2 goals and an assist.

Kitchener Rangers
Hard to imagine how good of a preseason the Rangers would have had if everyone was around. But Gabriel Landeskog did well to show he can create offense on his own and is living up to the 4th overall ranking by Bob Mackenzie of TSN. He had 3 goals. Also, Rangers rookie and offensive spark plug Zach Lorentz secured himself a job with a 4 goal preseason.

London Knights
The Knights didn't have the type of preseason worth bragging about. Offensive production was hard to come by on some nights, but second year player Seth Griffith had 3 goals and looks like he could make an impact this year.

Mississauga Majors
The Majors, extremely short staffed from NHL rookie and training camps, didn't have a great preseason. But two players who lived up to their high expectations were import Mika Partanen and rookie Kerby Rychel. Partanen had 3 goals, while Rychel had 1 goal and 3 assists.

Niagara IceDogs
As mentioned, the Dogs got contributions from second year forwards this preseason. On top of Strome, gritty winger Mitchell Theoret had an excellent preseason with 2 goals and 4 assists.

Oshawa Generals
The Generals offense was firing on all cylinders this preseason (their defense not so much). Free agent signing Josh Graves earned himself a contract with a 5 goal and 1 assist preseason. Meanwhile Lucas Lessio, Boone Jenner, and Nicklas Jensen all lived up to expectations with 3 goals each.

Ottawa 67's
The 67's had a disappointing preseason with their top talent away at NHL camps, but if there is a bright spot, it's that two secondary scoring options really stepped up. Joe Carnevale had 3 goals, while second year forward Tyler Graovac had 2 goals and 2 assists.

Owen Sound Attack
A hard nosed walk on by the name of Nick Weiss had a fantastic preseason with 4 goals.

Peterborough Petes
Overager Justin Larson is going to be counted on for more offensive production this season and if his 5 preseason goals were any indication, he's up to the challenge. Also, 2009 draft pick Kurt Gowdy seems to have earned himself a spot on the team with a 2 goal, 1 assist performance.

Plymouth Whalers
The Whalers had a respectable preseason. One forward who really stepped up was second year forward Stefan Noesen who had 2 goals and 4 assists and led the charge offensively. Import Rickard Rakell was also solid with 1 goal and 2 assists.

Saginaw Spirit
Second year forward Vincent Trocheck is looking to build off his solid rookie season and had 4 goals in the preseason.

Sarnia Sting
I could have probably put two other Sting in the top 10, but they fell just outside the mark. Overager Tyler Peters has been fantastic this preseason with 5 goals and 5 assists and could have a big year playing with more talent. First overall pick Alex Galchenyuk lived up to the billing and had 3 goals and 4 assists. While likely new Sting captain Nathan Chiarlitti had 2 goals and and 4 assists from the blueline.

Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
On top of the four Hounds who made the top 10, OHL rookie and free agent signing Brett Findlay has been fantastic for the Soo during the preseason with 2 goals and 3 assists. Too bad he's going to miss the first month of the season with a broken wrist.

Sudbury Wolves
5th overall pick Matthew Campagna looks like he's ready to make an impact right away and led the Wolves in scoring in the preseason with 2 goals and 2 assists. Meanwhile, second year forward Kris Kontos had 1 goal and 3 assists.

Windsor Spitfires
Ryan Ellis played in one game and had 2 goals and 2 assists. That should tell you the type of impact he'll have if he's returned. Second year defenseman Steven Trojanovic had an excellent preseason offensively, helping to fill in for Ellis. He picked up a goal and 5 assists. Lastly, new acquisition Zack MacQueen fit right into the Spits line up and had 1 goal and 6 assists. Looks like he could start the year with Kassian and Khokhlachev on the first line.

Well that's it folks. The season starts on Thursday!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

OHL Preview on The Pipeline Show

Last night I was fortunate enough to appear on "The Pipeline Show" to help them out with their season preview of the OHL.

If you recall, I did their show around this time last year as well and I'm fortunate enough that Guy and Dean decided to bring me back again this year.

If you aren't familiar with the show, you damn well should be. It's necessary auditory stimulation for absolutely any junior hockey fan. The show occurs twice a week (Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings) on Edmonton's Sports Radio home, the Team 1260. It features news and interviews spanning all of the junior hockey leagues and junior hockey players.

Here's a link to my appearance last night where I discuss the top team's heading into the new season, potential winners of the scoring race and players off to NHL camps.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sunday Top 10 - Players Who Could Be in the NHL for 2010/2011

NHL rookie tournaments begin this weekend and that means NHL training camps are right around the corner. That also means OHL players have departed for their taste of NHL style action (making the remaining OHL preseason schedule a real bore fest). Nearly almost all players will return to their junior teams sometime during the course of the first few weeks of the OHL season. I'd venture to guess that number is somewhere in the 95% range. But that means there are always going to be players who don't return; players who can say their final game of the 2009/10 season was their final game in this league.

Last year, Matt Duchene, John Tavares, Ryan O'Reilly, and Michael Del Zotto stuck in the NHL. Meanwhile John Carlson, Andrei Loktionov, and Evgeni Grachev were kept in the AHL. Additionally, Alex Pietrangelo started the season in the NHL but was returned around the Christmas holidays. That's a lot of talent that didn't return to the league last year. On my list last year (here), all of these players save O'Reilly and Del Zotto received mention.

This year, I'm back with a new list, of which we can probably expect at least half of these guys to stick in the NHL. Once again, I'm not including overagers on this list because if they fail to stick in the NHL, they'll likely head to the AHL (like Nazem Kadri for example).

10. Taylor Doherty - Kingston Frontenacs/San Jose Sharks
The Sharks were incredibly pleased with Doherty's progression last year and subsequently gave him his ELC. Signed and ready to go, the behemoth Fronts defenseman will look to make a serious impact at Sharks camp. While Dan Boyle, M.E. Vlasic, Doug Murray, and Nik Wallin would have to be considered locks, the rest of the top six could be up for grabs. The Sharks do have a wealth of defensive prospects though (Demers, Joslin, Petrecki, etc), all of which ahead of Doherty on the professional experience scale. But can you say no to a 6'6 behemoth defenseman if he stands out in a similar way to how Tyler Myers stood out at Buffalo's camp last year?
Likelihood of returning to the OHL? 95%

9. Alex Burmistrov - Barrie Colts/Atlanta Thrashers
Unfortunately for the Thrashers, they don't have the luxury of sending Burmistrov to the AHL as the Rangers and Kings did with Grachev and Loktionov last year. That's because Burmistrov was drafted out of the OHL. That means it's NHL or back to junior for the 8th overall pick. With some shrewd moves this offseason, it would appear that the Thrashers top six forwards are set, in particular the top two centerman in Nik Antropov and Rich Peverley. That begs the question, would the Thrashers feel comfortable playing Burmistrov as their third line center; a job that would appear to be wide open for the taking at camp. The other question is, is Burmistrov physically ready for the NHL? All questions that will be answered sometime in the next month.
Likelihood of returning to the OHL? 75%

8. Calvin de Haan - Oshawa Generals/New York Islanders
Calvin almost made the Islanders last season as an 18 year old, but was ultimately sent back to the OHL for another season. That season ended up being a difficult one as de Haan suffered a severe shoulder injury that required season ending surgery. Rehabilitated and ready to go, de Haan will be looking to pick up from where he left off last season. However, things are a little different on Long Island now. The Islanders brought in Mark Eaton, James Wisniewski, and Milan Jurcina this offseason and have a total of 8 defenseman with one way contracts. That means making this year's Islanders blueline is going to be a lot tougher than making last year's, especially considering he could be rusty after the surgery.
Likelihood of returning to the OHL? 70%

7. Kyle Clifford - Barrie Colts/Los Angeles Kings
Clifford was the talk of the Kings camp last year and after earning an ELC pretty quickly, some thought he might even break camp with Los Angeles. Alas, he was a late cut and spent the season with Barrie. Now it's take two for Clifford who's skating and physicality makes him an ideal candidate for the Kings 3rd or 4th line. It just so happens that the Kings could have some openings in the bottom six. Competition for those spots will be fierce, but it looks like one of his main prospect competitors might be out of the race before it begins (Brayden Schenn).
Likelihood of returning to the OHL? 50%

6. Erik Gudbranson - Kingston Frontenacs/Florida Panthers
Imagine, just for a second, Fronts fans if somehow Gudbranson makes the Panthers and Doherty makes the Sharks. Yikes, sorry to give you a heart attack. Anyway, the Panthers were terrible last year and that means they'll look to bring in some new blood this year. Let us not forget that Florida kept last year's first rounder Dmitri Kulikov on their blueline, and he makes up a group of four defenseman guaranteed roster spots (McCabe, Allen, Wideman). Outside of that, Gudbranson will be battling the likes of Mike Weaver, Keaton Ellerby, Nathan Paetsch, and Jason Garrison for a spot. Not exactly elite competition. If he's able to prove last year's injury and sickness maligned season provided enough development for him, he could definitely stick.
Likelihood of returning to the OHL? 40%

5. Ryan Ellis - Windsor Spitfires/Nashville Predators
What more does Ryan Ellis have to prove at the OHL level? He's won two Memorial Cups, World Junior Gold and Silver medals, and a Max Kaminsky trophy. But, due to age restrictions, Ellis is not eligible to play in the AHL (even if that might be the best place for him to develop at this point). He'll be going the Preds camp and will face off against several other solid young defenseman for a roster spot, including Cody Franson, Kevin Klein, Ryan Parent, Roman Josi, Jon Blum, and Alex Sulzer. That's a crowded blueline. However, if Ellis can prove he can withstand the position at the NHL level, while providing an injection to a Preds powerplay which finished 24th in the NHL last season, he might have a shot at staying.
Likelihood of returning to the OHL? 35%

4. Cam Fowler - Windsor Spitfires/Anaheim Ducks
Only fitting to have the two Spits side by side on this list. While Fowler may have slipped a tad in the draft, it would appear the Ducks are pretty high on him. He's already got his ELC and it looks like he has a serious shot at breaking camp with Anaheim. The Ducks really only have three veteran NHL defenseman in camp, Lubo Visnovsky, Toni Lydman, and Andy Sutton. That means, there is tons of room for a guy like Fowler to come in and see a lot of powerplay time, similarly to how the Rangers used Michael Del Zotto last year.
Likelihood of returning to the OHL? 20%

3. Jeff Skinner - Kitchener Rangers/Carolina Hurricanes
As much as the Rangers (and Rangers fans) want the Hurricanes to return Skinner to help with a Memorial Cup run, it should probably be known that the Canes could care less. After missing the playoffs three of the last four years since their Stanley Cup victory, Carolina will be looking to do anything to make the team consistently competitive. Spots inside the Hurricanes top six are wide open outside of Eric Staal, Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu. The Hurricanes are returning only three 20 or more goal scorers from last season (Staal, Jokinen and Brandon Sutter), which means that Skinner and his 70 goals from last year (regular season & playoffs) could be of some use. While it's not likely that he's physically conditioned enough to excel in the type of role he'll play at the NHL level, you can never count out a player as determined as Skinner.
Likelihood of returning to the OHL? 15%

2. Tyler Seguin - Plymouth Whalers/Boston Bruins
At this point, it would appear the only thing keeping Seguin off the "automatic" list of players to the NHL is the Bruins cap woes. Before the NHL season, they'll need to work some magic in order to keep Seguin, which would appear to be their preference. There likely wouldn't be a lot of benefit to returning Seguin to the OHL for another season. He won the Red Tilson trophy last year and is already a committed two way player. In addition, even with Seguin, the Whalers aren't likely to be a Memorial Cup contender (as they could have possibly been last year). Of course, Seguin could always come to camp and disappoint, but I doubt that happens.
Likelihood of returning to the OHL? 5%

1. Taylor Hall - Windsor Spitfires/Edmonton Oilers
Fresh off his jersey unveiling and the use of the number 4, it would appear the only thing keeping Hall out of the NHL this year would be a freak injury. It's time for him to move on to bigger and better things, where he'll be a part of an exciting youth movement in Edmonton.
Likelihood of returning to the OHL? 0.5%

Anybody you think I've missed? Would you alter the likelihoods or the order?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

2010-11 Season Preview - The Experts Pick

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 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.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

2010-11 Season Preview - Award Predictions

Welcome to part three of my season preview. Come aboard while I make terrible predictions for the season ending awards!

In all seriousness, this is the toughest part of the preview. Last year I managed to nail only one award, the Windsor Spitfires as the league's champion. Although I was VERY close on several others (and completely off on several others). The all star teams were particularly laughable. Josh Brittain for the 3rd all star team? Scott Stajcer for the 2nd all star team? What the heck was I thinking?

This year, I'm hopeful that a few more shots in the dark hit their mark.

Red Tilson Trophy (Most Outstanding Player) - Taylor Beck
If I was confident Jeff Skinner would be back with Kitchener, I'd have him in this spot. But I'm not. I figure he'll probably get the 10 game look from the Hurricanes, at the very minimum, and in combination with that and an inevitable performance at the WJC's (if he's not in Carolina), I don't see him putting up the type of numbers to take home this award. So I'm giving it to Taylor Beck, likely to be the highest scoring returnee from last year. Not so much because he has a chance at being the highest scoring player in the league, but because he's developed into a real heart and soul player. If the Storm are going to go far this year, it will have to be on the strength of their offense and Beck should lead that. Outside of that, I think there are several great candidates. Matt Puempel or Ryan Spooner in Peterborough could be good candidates if the Petes have the type of season many are expecting them too. Joey Hishon could bounce back with Owen Sound and get them back in the playoffs. In Ottawa, Tyler Toffoli or Cody Lindsay could be options. And lastly, while no goalie has won the award since 2000 (Andre Raycroft), if Jack Campbell can lead the Spits anywhere close to a threepeat, he'll get some votes.

OHL Goaltender of the Year - Brandon Maxwell
I was really tempted to have J.P. Anderson down for the second year in a row, but his minor implosion last year prevented me from having the confidence to select him. I'm going with Maxwell because I think Kitchener has a chance to have one of the best defensive teams in the league. Maxwell was inconsistent last year (his first in the league), but he should really come out strong this year and help the Rangers become the dominant team many are expecting. If not Maxwell, what about the aforementioned Jack Campbell if the Spits end up having a good season on his shoulders? London's Igor Bobkov could be a good option too, although it's to be pointed out that no import goaltender has ever won this award. Which could end up being broken this year, since two other imports, Petr Mrazek and Phil Grubauer, could also see themselves on this trophy come the end of the year.

Max Kaminsky Trophy (Defenseman of the Year) - Taylor Doherty
After last season's coming out party in the second half, I expect big things from Doherty this season (no pun intended). He's got a chance to lead the league in goals by a defenseman, and if the Fronts really take off this season and have one of the league's premier defensive teams, Doherty might be the most glamorous option. Obviously his teammate Erik Gudbranson could get some votes too (if he doesn't make Florida), but I'm not as confident he'll put up the gaudy offensive numbers often accompanied by this award. If Windsor's duo of Ryan Ellis and Cam Fowler return, both would also be front runners for the award, especially Ellis who's already won it once. Sophomore Ryan Murphy could be option because he has a chance to lead the league in defensive scoring, but if he doesn't mature enough in his own end, he might not get enough votes. A couple of darkhorses to keep an eye on would be Guelph's Sam Lofquist and Belleville's Stephen Silas. Both should be poised for big years and could be a part of winning teams of which they'll be the defensive leaders of.

Emms Family Award (Rookie of the Year) - Lucas Lessio
With the new rules, the OHL ROTY can no longer go to older players (particularly imports) jumping into the league for the first time at 19. Peterborough's Matt Puempel was the first recipient of the award under these conditions. However, the new rookie mandate does allow draft eligible 17 year olds to be eligible (in this case, 1993 born players). With SO many quality 1993's entering the league this season, I have a hard time believing one of them won't win the award. I'm going with Oshawa's Lucas Lessio on this one because I think he's going to have a great season playing with some talented players. But other 1993 born rookies to keep an eye on would be Windsor's Alex Khohklachev, Sarnia's Nail Yakupov, Oshawa's Nicklas Jensen, and Kitchener's Tobias Reider. But if the award does go to a true 16 year old (1994), my best guess would be one of these three; Owen Sound's Jarrod Maidens, Oshawa's Scott Laughton, or Windsor's Nick Ebert.

Leo Lalande Trophy (Overager of the Year) - Cody Lindsay
The Lalande trophy is always very wide open due to the amount of overage talent usually playing in this league. Next season will be no different. I'm going with Lindsay not only because he was already top 15 in scoring last year, but because the 67's will have a lethal offense and he'll be a very big part of it. Along with Tyler Toffoli (whom Lindsay has great chemistry with), I'd expect the two of them to challenge for the scoring title. A couple runner ups to keep a close eye on would be Guelph's Sam Lofquist (of the aforementioned potential defenseman of the year), Kitchener's Jason Akeson, and Saginaw's Mavric Parks. In particular, if the Spirit end up having a really good season, Parks will be a big part of it. It's been a while since a goalie won the award, but it's not impossible.

Matt Leyden Trophy (Coach of the Year) - Steve Spott
The Rangers are going to be good, and that means Spott is inevitably going to get consideration for this award. I liked what he did with the Rangers last season and this year should see a continued progression. Not outside the realm of possibility would be Dale Hunter winning the award for the second year in a row (and 4th time in his career). The Knights will be better than people are anticipating. Also, what about Dave Cameron in Mississauga if the Majors are as good as everyone thinks they'll be. Lastly, in sort of a darkhorse category, what about Kingston's Doug Gilmour if the Fronts can sneak the East Division away?

Eddie Powers Trophy (Scoring Leader) - Taylor Beck
Again, I'm going with Beck because I see Guelph putting up good offensive numbers this season and he's the highest returning forward in terms of scoring. His teammate Peter Holland could be up there too. As could Ottawa's Cody Lindsay and Tyler Toffoli, Owen Sound's Joey Hishon, Erie's Greg McKegg, and obviously Kitchener's Jeff Skinner if he's returned.

Goal Scoring Leader - Christian Thomas
The Generals offense is going to be dynamic and I think Thomas scores over 50 goals with all the help he'll be getting. Again, if Kitchener's Jeff Skinner returns, he's the odds on favourite for the award. Others whom I think have a real shot include Ottawa's Tyler Toffoli, Mississauga's Justin Shugg, Sault Ste. Marie's Brett Thompson, Peterborough's Matt Puempel, Niagara's Andrew Agozzino, and Guelph's Taylor Beck.

All Star Teams

1st All Star Team
Center - Greg McKegg
Left Wing - Matt Puempel
Right Wing - Taylor Beck
Defense - Taylor Doherty
Defense - Ryan Murphy
Goaltender - Brandon Maxwell
Coach - Steve Spott

2nd All Star Team
Center - Cody Lindsay
Left Wing - Andrew Agozzino
Right Wing - Christian Thomas
Defense - Ryan Ellis (I think he'll be back)
Defense - Sam Lofquist
Goaltender - Igor Bobkov
Coach - Dave Cameron

3rd All Star Team
Center - Ryan Spooner
Left Wing - Lucas Lessio
Right Wing - Jared Knight
Defense - Stephen Silas
Defense - Calvin de Haan
Goaltender - Jack Campbell
Coach - Dale Hunter

Wayne Gretzky Trophy (Western Conference Champions) - Kitchener Rangers
Even if Skinner and Morin don't come back, I like the Rangers to win the West. I think they've got a deep enough roster and would probably make a trade to improve should Skinner make Carolina.

Bobby Orr Trophy (Eastern Conference Champions) - Mississauga Majors
Kind of cliche to have my two number one teams win the Championships, but I think the Majors will be incredibly determined to win it all this year. They'll do whatever it takes and add whatever needs to be added to get it done.

J. Ross Robertson Cup (OHL Champion) - Mississauga Majors
While the Rangers might be the best on paper right now, I think when the season ends and the playoffs unfold, the Majors will be the team to beat!

Please stay tuned for the finale of this season preview. As I said, I've got something special planned!

Also, I'd love to hear your predictions on some of these awards.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

2010-11 Season Preview - Western Conference

Welcome to part two of the season preview, my look at the Western Conference.

Even with the improvements that most Eastern Conference teams have made, the Western Conference (as a whole) remains superior in my opinion. Teams near the bottom of these standings like Sarnia, Sault Ste. Marie, Saginaw, etc would likely be surefire playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.

Here is how I see it shaking down...

1. Kitchener Rangers
Come on, you had to have seen this coming. Is there anyone out there predicting anyone other than the Rangers to be the best team in the Western Conference this season? After such a strong performance last year, as a relatively young team, it comes as no surprise that they're the favourites to head to the Memorial Cup with Mississauga. I don't know if it's as clear cut as some analysts are making it out to be, but the Rangers do have great talent. The biggest wild card is whether Jeff Skinner returns. I think it's safe to say Jeremy Morin won't be back, which means getting Skinner back will be absolutely critical to the team's success. He is the heart and soul, as evidenced by last year's playoff performance. That being said, the team does have remarkable depth at all positions. Up front, returning players like Gabriel Landeskog, Jason Akeson, Matt Tipoff, and Tyler Randell are joined by incoming players like Tobias Reider and Matia Marcantuoni. One line in particular to look out for in the "size" department is that of Tyler Randell, Andrew Crescenzi, and Ben Thomson. On defense, The Rangers have added NHL draft picks Cody Sol and Julian Melchiori to dynamic sophomore Ryan Murphy. And in net, Brandon Maxwell is ready for year two in the league and should be one of the better tenders in the OHL. With Jeff Skinner, this team is the hands on favourite to win the West. Without him, they'll still be good, but quite possibly not good enough to hold off London, Guelph, Owen Sound, or Erie. The balls in your court Carolina Hurricanes.

2. Windsor Spitfires
But they're rebuilding! While that may be true, a rebuild for the Windsor Spitfires seems to be a little different than a rebuild for the Belleville Bulls or the Sarnia Sting (as you saw last season). We're talking about a team who'll still ice a quality top 6 that includes the likes of Zack Kassian, Kenny Ryan, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Alex Khokhlachev. And we're talking about a team who still has two NHL first rounders on defense to go with other quality youngsters like Nick Ebert, Craig Duininck and Steve Trojanovic. Sure, there's a chance that Ellis and Fowler don't come back. And if they do, there's a chance that they could be traded. But let's also remember two things. 1. The return for either of those players would likely (I'm sure Windsor fans would be HUGELY disappointed otherwise) include several quality young roster players. 2. The Spits could have the best goaltender in the OHL this season, Jack Campbell. Lastly, and I think this is the main reason I see the Spits still taking the division, I just don't see the competition in the West Division to be that strong. I think Sarnia and Saginaw have taken steps forward, while the Hounds and the Whalers have taken steps backwards. The wide open nature of the division also leads me to believe that Rychel and Co. also see this and will do everything in their power to remain competitive at the same time they attempt to re-tool.

3. London Knights
I'm not really sure why everyone is down on the Knights for this season. Sure, there's no Kadri, but the Knights have built up a very solid team, perhaps one that is more complete and well rounded than last year's Midwest division championship squad. For my money, they are the 3rd best team in the league heading into the season (behind Kitchener and Missy). Up front, a lack of size may be a bit of a problem, but speed and scoring shouldn't be. The Knights will probably be able to ice three scoring lines anchored by the likes of Jared Knight, overages Phil Varone and Chris DeSousa, and incoming Russian Vlad Namestnikov. Defensively and in net, the Knights will be equally as strong. Jarred Tinordi, Scott Harrington, and Michael D'Orazio make up a very solid two way top three, while either Igor Bobkov or Michael Houser should be excellent in net. While Bobkov's future with the Knights is still up in the air, I'd expect him to end up in London. We're talking about a veteran netminder here (1991 born player) and someone who could end up being the best goalie in the league this season. The Knights are just a solid all around team.

4. Owen Sound Attack
I have to admit, I'm a little bit afraid of putting Owen Sound this high after last season's disaster. But I'm willing to go on a little faith; faith that the kinks have been worked out and the team is ready to win again. They certainly have the talent for it. Up front, the team might have the best top six behind the Kitchener Rangers, with Garrett Wilson, Joey Hishon, Steve Shipley, Bobby Mignardi and probably Jason Wilson and Roman Berdnikov. If Hishon is healthy, he could challenge for the OHL scoring title, which would be a huge step forward in his development. On defense, the team is solid with a mix of size, skill, and two way talent. Jesse Blacker, Geoffrey Schemitsch, Matt Stanisz, Keevin Cutting, and Curtis Crombeen will all be expected to take steps forward in shoring up one of the league's worst defensive teams last year. The key ingredient will be Scott Stajcer in net. The Rangers draft pick is in his contract year and will need to put things together on a consistent basis this season. With the tightness of their division, if any of the above things falter, the Attack could be looking at another disappointing season.

5. Erie Otters
The midwest division is so strong this season. The Otters return all core players save leading scorer Zack Torquato, defenseman Paul Cianfrini, and goaltender Adam Courchaine. They have three 30 goal scorers (McKegg, Cazzola, Luciani) and 2 20 goal scorers (Yogan, Szydlowski) returning from last season. In fact, the Otters are one of only three teams in the OHL (Guelph and Ottawa are the others) who can say they'll be returning three 30 goal scorers; AND of those three, Erie is the only one returning more than one 20 goal scorer. Needless to say, the Otters could have an explosive offense. Defensively, the teams top 4 (arguably) return this season; Gaulton, Holden, Hostetter, and Shields. You can also expect behemoth Brady Austin to play a much larger role (no pun intended) this season. In net is where things get a little murky. Ramis Sadikov will likely carry the majority of the starts this season after backing up Courchaine/Janus last year. He was wildly inconsistent and will have to really step up his game if he wants to remain the starter all season. Maybe a rookie like Chris Festarini can push him to be better? Needless to say, a weakness in goal shouldn't hold back the Otters too much...and if it does, I'm sure Sherry Bassin makes a move to help.

6. Saginaw Spirit
Again, I'm not understanding the lack of love the Spirit are getting. I saw THN recently predicted they'd be at the bottom of the West standings. But I see a young, invigorated team who've got a potential top 2011 draft pick joining them (Brandon Saad), and one of the league's best goalies last year joining them (Mavric Parks). At forward, the Spirit could be three lines deep, depending on the progression of some younger players like Vincent Trocheck, Anthony Camara, Garrett Ross, etc. They'll be a hard working unit with enough skill to make you pay for your mistakes or laziness. On defense, they may not stack up quite as well as some other teams in the West, but they are by no means the weakest. All defenseman from last year return save Jordan Hill, but he's been replaced by overager Matt Ashman. Ryan O'Connor will likely try to make this defense his and take that next step in his development after getting passed over in the 2010 NHL Draft. And in goal, Mavric Parks is a tremendous goaltender who has the ability to bail out a defense who may or may not have some difficulty at times. I like the make up of this team, and I think they'll be the biggest challenge to Windsor for the division title.

7. Guelph Storm
While the Storm may not have the depth other teams in the league have, they have enough veteran talent to make me believe that they'll be strong this season. In particular, Taylor Beck and Peter Holland have a chance to lead the league in scoring this season. Steps forward from youngsters like Carter Sandlak, Cody McNaughton, and Zack Mitchell would go a long way in helping the team win games too. On defense, the acquisition of Daniel Maggio really helps what was originally looking like a lackluster unit. But Maggio should form with Sam Lofquist on the team's number one unit. A breakout season from someone like Tim Campbell or Matthew Maione would also be tremendous for the Storm, who'll likely need someone to step forward and become a legitimate top three defenseman in the league. In goal, Brandon Foote looks to build off last season's strong performance after returning from hip surgery. He was great for Guelph and really stabilized the team upon his return. With a season of good health, he could really make a name for himself in this league after starting his career so promising in Brampton only to fizzle from the spotlight. While Guelph does have some holes, no team in the middle of a conference is going to be perfect. The Storm have the best chance of ironing out some of those kinks in order to have a strong season, at least in my opinion.

8. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Last year, the Hounds won by playing solid in your face defensive hockey. They had the OHL defenseman of the year in Jacob Muzzin, and an OHL all star in Robin Lehner in net. This year, those two players are gone (in addition to Michael Quesnele and Jordan Nolan). Losing four key players in any year is tough, but when those players make up a large part of the team identity, it's even tougher. Are the Hounds going to be good enough on defense and in net to play solid defensive hockey again? And if not, is the offense going to be that much better to compensate? I'm hesitant to answer yes to both of those questions, which has me ranking the Hounds at 8th in the West. Yes, the offense should be better this season with the return of 40 goal scorer Brett Thompson (maybe the most underrated player in the league), and the inevitable improvements from Daniel Catenacci and Nick Cousins. But when you compare it to other units in the league (or the teams in front of them), is it better...or even equal? Defensively, the loss of Muzzin and Quesnele will hurt the most. Brock Beukeboom and Brandon Archibald are excellent defenseman, but I'm not sure they're ready to fill those shoes...especially on the powerplay where Sault Ste. Marie ranked 4th last season (thanks to 18 combined goals from Muzzin and Quesnele). And in net, Bryce O'Hagan has to step up. He started off last season tremendously, but once Robin Lehner got rolling, he was phased out and appeared to lose confidence. The Hounds need him to become that strong, dependable number one goaltender this season and whether he can do that or not remains a big mystery. So while many others seem to be pegging the Hounds for bigger and better things, I'm not quite as confident.

9. Sarnia Sting
One thing is for certain, the Sting should have a very exciting young team this season. Brett Ritchie, Brandon Francisco, Nail Yakupov, Nic Latta, Alex Galchenyuk. That's an exciting young make up at the forward position. Throw in a veteran like Kale Kerbashian and the Sting should be a difficult team to contain offensively. The question is, with so much youth, will that offense come in spurts, or will it be consistent? Quite often with young teams, there's a learning curve and I think at times this team could struggle. Defensively, the team looks identical to last season, which means guys like Nathan Chiarlitti and Joe Rogalski are going to have to step up their games to avoid giving up another 295 goals this season. This is especially true when the goaltending position is shrouded with mystery. Who's the starter? Shayne Campbell, last year's starter? The newly acquired John Cullen? The newly drafted Brandon Hope? Either way, I'm not sure I have confidence in any of those three to be good ENOUGH to backstop a young team and pull them through some rough patches. I love what the Sting have done moving forward to the future and next season, this team could be sensational...but right now I'm just not sure they'll be strong enough to seriously contend in the Western Conference.

10. Plymouth Whalers
Let me preface this one with, yes this ranking assumes Tyler Seguin will not be returning this season. Without Seguin, A.J. Jenks, Phil McRae, Josh Brittain, Ryan Hayes, and Joe Gaynor, this team is going to lose 131 goals from last season. That means Robbie Czarnik returns as the most accomplished goal scorer from last season with 17. No other team in the league is returning not a single 20 goal scorer from last season, and only two teams are returning one (Sarnia and Sudbury). That means the Whalers are going to be asking nearly every single forward on their roster to have a career season in the OHL. To me, that seems like an awfully tall order. Can R.J. Mahalak and James Livingston finally have big years? Is Garrett Meurs going to take over this team the way Tyler Seguin did last year? Are rookies like Adam Nanji and Rickard Rakell going to produce? I just don't see it happening. And while the Whalers could likely struggle offensively, they should actually be a pretty solid defensive club. Beau Schmitz, Austin Levi, Jay Gilbert and likely import Dario Trutmann (or vet Josh Bemis,/youngster Colin MacDonald) could make up a quality top four. And having Scott Wedgewood in net, ready to improve, should mean that the Whalers could be a tough team to play against. But being tough to play against and winning are two different things. I just think that offensively, this club has too many question marks to beat out other strong teams in the West for a playoff spot.

Stay tuned for part three: Award predictions!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

2010-11 Season Preview - Eastern Conference

Well folks, it's that time of year again. Training camps are under way and the preseason begins soon. The 2010-2011 Ontario Hockey League season is nearly upon us. That means it's time for every league prognosticator to look into their crystal ball and tell what they predict. I'm no different and as such, it is time for me to begin my season preview.

The season preview will come in four parts. Part one will examine the Eastern Conference. Part two will examine the Western Conference. Part three will take a look at some award predictions. And finally for part four, I've got something special planned for you. Any good season preview should weigh the opinions of resident experts. As such, I've asked several of the league's finest writers/media members to give their opinion on the upcoming season.

Keep in mind that predicting this league's results pre-season opening is incredibly difficult. This isn't like prognosticating in the NHL, where the team's best players are likely to remain the team's best players (barring some crazy trade). The OHL is the exact opposite. The unknown lies within the team's best players. What happens to Kitchener if Jeff Skinner makes the Hurricanes? What do the Spitfires do if Ryan Ellis and Cam Fowler aren't returned? Do Alex Hutchings, Dalton Prout and Alex Burmistrov return in Barrie? Star players can fall victim (hard to call it that) to making the National Hockey League, which means some teams have an air of uncertainty around them.

Today, I bring you part one of the season preview; The Eastern Conference.

1. Mississauga St. Michael's Majors
Did you really think it would be anyone else? The Memorial Cup hosts have the most talent on paper in the Eastern Conference and should run over competition in a much weaker Central Division this season. Last year, while the Majors were outstanding defensively, they just couldn't stack up offensively with Barrie (and nearly Ottawa). Ultimately, that lack of a dynamic offense really hurt them. This season, the Majors are not only returning their top five goal scorers from a year ago (Cizikas, Smith-Pelly, Mayer, Brace, Flick), but they've added Justin Shugg, Mika Partanen and probably Maxim Kitsyn. The question is...can that much firepower find success in Dave Cameron's system? In 2001/02 they did under Cameron, but that was the last time an OHL team coached by him had a player with over 75 points. Defensively, the system will be tested by the losses of Cameron Gaunce and Blake Parlett. However, the addition of Cantin in combination with other veterans (Flemming, Corrente, Billingsley) should cover up losses. Not to mention that sophomore Stuart Percy could be one of the breakout stars of this OHL season and emerge as a number one OHL defenseman. The real wild card for the Majors lies in net. Which JP Anderson shows up? Is it the one we saw in the playoffs of 2009? Or is the inconsistent one we saw all of last season? The Majors will need a steady Anderson at the top of his game to beat some of the Western Conference powers. And if he's not steady, they'll go out and get someone who is.

2. Ottawa 67's
The Eastern Division is clearly the cream of the crop of the Eastern Conference divisions this season, which means the competition for the top spot will be fierce. I truthfully would not be surprised at all if any of the five teams in that division reach first. If I was a betting man (which I am occasionally), I'd put my money on the 67's to repeat as the division champs. Here's why. They'll have two very balanced scoring lines (as they did last year), only the components of those lines are a year stronger and better. I wouldn't be surprised if Tyler Toffoli or overager Cody Lindsay are in the top five of OHL scoring at year's end. In goal, Petr Mrazek and Chris Perugini are a great 1/2 (even if I expect Mrazek to steal most of the starts as the superior goaltender). The question mark is on defense where Julien Demers and Tyler Cuma are gone. However, I think the concerns over the 67's defense are over stated. Overager Travis Gibbons is one of the most underrated players in the league and can be an anchor the way Steve Tarasuk was in London last year. Meanwhile, I'd expect Marc Zanetti and Cody Ceci to take big steps forward. They may need to go out and get a quality second pairing guy if no one steps up from the rest of the blueline group, but every team is going to have their holes.

3. Kingston Frontenacs
The Fronts finished 4th in the Eastern Conference last year after a bounce back season, so why shouldn't the expectations be higher this year (even if Fronts fans in the Mavety era continue to be skeptical)? Sure the loses of players like captain Brian Lashoff, goaltender Tyler Beskorowany, and forward Zach Harnden and Joe Pleckaitis hurt, but what team doesn't go through any changes? The key to the Fronts season is the return of Erik Gudbranson. I personally don't anticipate him being ready for the NHL this season after missing so much of last year with mono and injuries. But you never know how he performs in camp with Florida...and they do have some openings on the back end. But if Gudbranson returns to the OHL, the Fronts could have one of the strongest defensive units in the league. Gudbranson and Taylor Doherty (who's poised for a HUGE year) are a year older, wiser, and better and could make up (if the Fronts choose to) possibly the best top pairing in the entire OHL. Goaltender Philip Grubauer has a memorial cup ring and should provide the Fronts with the quality of goaltending Beskorowany supplied last year. The turning point for Kingston will be among their forward unit. There are a lot of question marks offensively for this team, and a lot of expectations being placed on young players (like Quine, Durocher, Froats). The key to all of this may be Nathan Moon. As an overager, perhaps he's motivated to have his best OHL season yet after being let go by Pittsburgh? Even if some things don't fall into place, there is likely enough of a veteran presence to make the Fronts offense passable. Which is all their defense will need if Gudbranson returns and Grubauer plays well.

4. Oshawa Generals
How about the positives? The Generals could have one of the most explosive, dynamic, and entertaining offenses in the league. New faces like Lucas Lessio, Nicklas Jensen, and Scott Laughton combine with old faces like Boone Jenner, Christian Thomas, and Alain Berger to form a lethal top 6. The Generals have enough forward depth among veterans to ice a solid forward unit overall too. So what are the negatives? The Generals may not be able to keep pucks out of their own net (as was the case last year when they gave up a league high 299 goals). It all comes down to whether the "De" twins return; Calvin de Haan and Tony DeHart. If both return, Oshawa's defense should be good enough to compensate for possibly average goaltending. But if both play professionally, it could get ugly. Realistically, I think DeHart comes back. I don't know if there will be room for him in the AHL and he could use another year in the OHL to build off his breakout season. On the flipside, I think de Haan is much more debatable. The smart thing would be to let him return to the OHL in order to make up for some development time lost last year. But the Islanders were apparently very impressed by him last year at camp and nearly kept him. The only thing that makes me think he won't make it is the fact that the Isles already have 8 defenseman with one way deals for next season, which means Calvin would have some serious competition. In goal, somebody's got to step up. Michael Zador is in his contract season and needs to impress Tampa if he wants a deal, so my money would be on him (over Bailie). It'd be a shame to spoil the efforts of a very talented offense if the Gennies can't keep the puck out of the net again. But, something tells me they'll be fine.

5. Peterborough Petes
The Petes are a very interesting team to me. On one hand, they are a veteran laden team who is returning a lot of players off last year's team. On the other hand, I'm just not sure the Petes have the offensive depth to compete with some of the other top teams of the East. Losing guys like Pat Daley, Brett Theberge and Mike Lomas could hurt more than Peterborough fans believe. Sure, Ryan Spooner, Austin Watson, and Matt Puempel should have VERY good years. But who else is going to score on this team? There isn't another player on the roster who's scored 20 goals before in this league. Are the overagers going to step up and fill in the gaps? Defensively, this team is very deep. Lots of veteran flavour and a good mix of offensive and defensive guys. That being said, is there a defenseman on the team who can step up and be the number one? Lastly, Jason Missiaen should return as an overager in net, but he's going to have to improve his consistency and help provide a stabilizing force behind a relatively average defense. I can totally see why there is optimism for the Petes heading into this season, but I think there are a lot of question marks surrounding them. I wouldn't be surprised if the team finished as high as winning their division, but I also wouldn't be surprised if the team squeaks into the playoffs yet again.

6. Niagara IceDogs
Marty Williamson's IceDogs could surprise a lot of people this year. Like any club, there are question marks, but there are a few things that I think point towards them having a great season. 1. Mark Visentin could perhaps be the best goaltender in the league this season and works harder to improve than most players in the league. Having quality goaltending goes a long way in this league and the Dogs should definitely have that. 2. On top of having good goaltending, the Dogs defense should be quite good this season. You may not know who a lot of their players are (outside of Dougie Hamilton, who should have a monster season), but they're tailored to the small ice in Niagara. Nearly all of their defenders can move the puck, and Hamilton and Mike Schwindt have the ice to close off gaps and scoring lanes. The thing holding back it did last year is their lack of secondary scoring. But the Dogs are returning pretty much all of their key forwards, and the hope is that many have gotten better going into this season. If players like Freddie Hamilton, Andrew Shaw, Andrew Fritsch, and Ryan Strome can step up, this Dogs team could push for home ice advantage in the first round.

7. Belleville Bulls
Quite often, it's hard to peg young teams as being successful, particularly when the Eastern Conference should be much better this season. The team's success will be riding on the development of draft eligible players like Michael Curtis, Austen Brassard, Tyson Teichmann, and Alex Basso, and 92's like Stephen Silas and Alex Aleardi. But I'm a fan of what George Burnett has done with this club and the talent that he's amassed. On top of young talent will be mixed veterans Luke Judson, Andy Bathgate, Paul Bezzo, Bjorn Krupp, Kyle DeCoste, and HOPEFULLY Richard Panik. Panik doesn't yet have a contract with Tampa Bay, despite rumours that they'd like him to play in the AHL this season. With the new regime in Tampa, I bet they let him play another year in the OHL to develop some offensive consistency. Defensively, I really like the base and Stephen Silas should have a tremendous year and establish himself as one of the best defenseman in the league. That leaves Tyson Teichmann, fresh off a convincing performance for Canada at the Ivan Hlinka. If he can play as well as he did for gold, then he'll be able to backstop this team back into the playoffs. I truly believe the Bulls to be one of the real wild card teams this season. If their young talent comes together, they could easily finish in the top four of the Eastern Conference.

8. Barrie Colts
If the Bulls are a wild card team, I'm not even sure what to call the Colts. A mystery? The unknown? There are SO many questions that this club faces heading into the season. Do Alex Burmistrov, Alex Hutchings, Kyle Clifford, and Dalton Prout return? If they return, do the Colts keep them or move them? Personally, I expect Hutchings and Prout to return, but Clifford and Burmistrov to not. The other questions revolve around the contributions of players who've never played in the OHL...or who have played very little? Just what can guys like Beyers, Hall, Scheifele, Smoskowitz, and Beranek do? Defensively, the team is a bit of a wreck, but overager Peter Di Salvo is a calming presence in net and should be able to do his best to help an unsettled defense. If Barrie returns all their players and get's heavy contributions from those unknown first year guys, than they could be a really solid team yet again this year. And if no one returns and the new guys crap the bed, it could be a long year all the way to the Jack Ferguson Award winner. Just a really hard team to project, but something tells me they could be better than I'm predicting.

9. Sudbury Wolves
No, this is not punishment for making me look bad last year when I had the Wolves finishing 4th in the East during my preseason predictions. Let's face it, the Eastern Conference is going to be more competitive this year and two teams are going fail to make the playoffs. I know Wolves fans have a TON of optimism heading into the season (and they should after a solid offseason), but here's why I think the Wolves under perform. I just don't think they've got enough talent to compete with the other teams in the Eastern Conference. While other bottom feeders from last year like Oshawa, Belleville, Niagara, and Peterborough have likely improved, I'm not sure the Wolves have. Sure, they've had a great offseason that has seen the team secure some quality players and go in a different direction, but I don't think that's enough. Although the defense has good depth, the top end talent isn't likely to overcome the lack of quality goaltending Sudbury is likely to get. Alain Valiquette is heading into his final OHL season and has yet to establish himself as a bonafide starter in this league. It's not likely to happen over night. Offensively, the additions of talented offensive players like Andrei Kuchin, Robert Visca, Mike Lomas, and Matthew Campagna should go a long way, but not far enough. The saving grace could be the return of overager Eric O'Dell if he doesn't recover from offseason heart surgery in time to make the AHL. But in that situation, I could see the Wolves dealing O'Dell to help the team build for the future. This team needs to be handed over to John McFarland. It's his team now and it's time for him to step up. Even if he does, I'm just not sure he has the necessary support to get the Wolves into the playoffs.

10. Brampton Battalion
When a defensively oriented team loses their top 3 defenseman (Clark, Peroff, Albert) and their starting goaltender (Killeen), it's not likely to be a pretty season. When a patch work and relatively raw defense sits in front of two very inexperienced goaltenders, it spells further trouble. The Battalion actually could ice a pretty solid forward unit. Outside of Cody Hodgson (who spent little time in Brampton last year anyway), Brampton is returning pretty much every key forward from last year's team. That kind of experience should help Brampton remain relatively competitive despite their defensive shortcomings, but I don't think it'll be enough to see them make the playoffs in a much stronger Conference this season. But then again, I vastly underrated the Battalion last season too. You can't underrate the value of good coaching.

Stay tuned for Part 2: The West!