I bring you the second part of my season preview; a rundown of the Western Conference.
1. Plymouth Whalers
The Whalers have set themselves up for a tremendous season and are looking like a serious Memorial Cup contender. Plymouth is a very deep and balanced team, who has both the desire and talent, in combination with the pedigree for winning. At forward, this team is as deep and talented as any in the league. The additions of JT Miller and Andy Bathgate were definitely great. Better yet, the core of this team's offense should be around for another year after this, making this team a force to be reckoned with over the next two seasons. The defense is anchored by overager Beau Schmitz, who should have a tremendous year as he aims to get an NHL contract. In goal, the Whalers have perhaps the best goaltending tandem in the league with Scott Wedgewood and Matt Mahalak. Never a bad problem to have, even though I'm sure both goaltenders will want starting time. Plymouth is one of the surest bets to be among the league's elite this year too, because they don't really have any serious threats to make the NHL or AHL, like Niagara (for instance) does.
2. London Knights
The Knights should return to the top of the West again this year, after a one year hiatus (don't you wish your OHL team could say that?). The backbone of this year's Knights team will be goaltender Michael Houser, who will play workhorse for the team yet again and is one of the more underrated players in the league. In front of him, is a likely improved defense with a more confident Jarred Tinordi and Scott Harrington, as well as top import Olli Maatta. At forward, the team is returning all major players and have a deep line up. Expect a big year from second year forward Andreas Athanasiou. The true key for London may be the return of their powerplay to dominance. Any good London team has a strong powerplay, and last year's was among the worst in the league. With Olli Maatta and a recovered Jake Worrad, this year's unit should be much improved with comfortable quarterbacks on the line.
3. Sarnia Sting
I have to admit, I'm a little bit leery putting Sarnia this high. While they have a ton of talent on paper, I'm not sure their defense and goaltending is quite good enough (especially with Connor Murphy's injury) for them to put forward the consistency that would be needed to finish this high in the West. But like everyone else, I'm enamored by the potential of the team's forward group. You thought they were electric last year? What about adding Taylor Carnevale, Reid Boucher, and Ludvig Rensfeldt...in addition to the inevitable improvements made by the team's current young stars. So the team will be able to put the puck in the net. They were able to do that last year. In net, veteran Brandon Maxwell is going to have to have a big year and be more consistent than he was in Kitchener. The team's new look defense will have to gel and new faces like Alex Basso and Anthony DeAngelo will need to play big roles while Connor Murphy recovers from injury. While I've got Sarnia high, it wouldn't surprise me if giving them home ice advantage is a bit premature and some of the more veteran and more well rounded teams like Kitchener and Saginaw end up finishing ahead of them.
4. Saginaw Spirit
I've seen a lot of comments about Saginaw being a bit overrated going into the year based on the goaltending questions they're facing. And sure, neither Tadeas Galansky or Jake Paterson is a sure bet to prove to be a competent starter this season, so the criticism is valid. But if there's a team who can get by this year with average goaltending, it's Saginaw. They have one of the strongest and oldest defenses in the league, and the addition of Jamie Oleksiak won't hurt one bit. Not to mention, that the team's forward unit is one of the most dedicated defensive groups in the league, who play hard at both ends. Really, the team is returning all major players on offense from last year, except Ivan Telegin. So chemistry should be high, as long as you bank on improved seasons from the likes of John McFarland and Brandon Saad. If this team's goaltending surprises and one of Galansky or Paterson emerges as a legit starter (or the team trades for a quality goaltender), I could actually see Saginaw push Plymouth for the West.
5. Kitchener Rangers
Kitchener is a really interesting team this year. I think there are a lot of questions that need to be answered. 1. Can the team's set of younger forwards take that next step, especially Matia Marcantuoni? If the answer is yes, Kitchener should have a solid offensive team. Keep an eye on import Radek Faksa, who I've heard great things about. 2. Is Ryan Murphy going to make the NHL? If the answer is yes, this team will not finish 4th in the West. I don't think he's ready, and if Kitchener has his dynamic ability on the back end, it makes them better 5 on 5 and on the powerplay. 3. Is John Gibson going to have similar growing pains as Jack Campbell did last year? He comes in with the same kind of hype and same kind of international pedigree. Something tells me that this guy is the real deal though, as he exudes a real calm about himself on and off the ice. 4. Obviously everyone is going to be following Ben Fanelli this year and rooting for him to succeed and fulfill the potential that was robbed of him. While I'm not sure his on ice success has a huge impact on Kitchener's season, he makes for an intriguing storyline to follow. If the answer to the above questions is negative in nature, than Kitchener could actually struggle this year and find themselves closer to the bottom of the West.
6. Windsor Spitfires
Spits management has hinted that this season is to serve as a rebuilding year for the team, but what is a rebuilding year for Windsor really? A rebuilding year for the lined pockets of Windsor isn't exactly the same as the one Barrie went through last year. This team still has a lot of talent at every position, even if depth appears to be a moderate concern for the time being. With Alex Khokhlachev, Tom Kuhnhackl and likely Kenny Ryan at forward, this team should be able to put the puck in the net with some regularity. Kuhnhackl, in particular, should have a big year. The defense is going to look a hell of a lot different without Ryan Ellis for the first time in four years, but Nick Ebert showed last year that he's ready to carry the torch. And in net, Jack Campbell is determined to erase the inconsistency issues that plagued him last year. Mind you, there's a chance the Spits start trading some of these guys to gain picks and younger players, but as of right now, I still think this team is a playoff team.
7. Owen Sound Attack
The reigning OHL champions have lost 7 of their 8 top playoff scorers from last year's run (with only Mike Halmo scheduled to return). And while the Attack do have some nice young forwards like Jarrod Maidens and Gemel Smith, and did acquire Daniel Catenacci, asking the players they currently have to fill that lost production may be a tad excessive. Owen Sound should continue to have a strong defense, who'll be the backbone of this year's team thanks to veteran contributions from the likes of Matt Petgrave, Geoff Schemitsch, Keevin Cutting, and overager Jay Gilbert. Likely, the team will rise and fall with the play of Jordan Binnington, who showed flashes of brilliance at times last year. With a young and unestablished forward group, the defense and goaltending is going to have to carry this team to the playoffs.
8. Erie Otters
I'm not really understanding the lack of love the Otters are receiving this year. Every prediction I've seen, seems to have them finishing outside the playoffs in the West. Now granted, I don't think this is an exceptional team or anything. But I think a team returning as many core players as Erie is, deserves some credit. Teams with a solid core of overagers and 19 year old players, rarely struggle in this league. And with Greg McKegg, Brett Thompson, and Mike Cazzola returning at forward, the mystery of Sondre Olden, and some capable youngsters like Luke Cairns and Chris Marchese, this team should be able to score some goals. Defensively,things could be a little rougher. Derek Holden and Adam Pelech are steady and capable, but outside of them the team is relying on younger, inexperienced players. In goal, things are complicated. Ramis Sadikov is back...for now, complicating the team's already complicated overager situation. Not to mention the team acquired Tysen Teichmann this offseason to be their starter. Sadikov is almost certain to be dealt, even if he's the best of the bunch.
9. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
I've seen the Hounds a lot higher on other predictions, but I'm not buying it. I think this is a solid team, but not without question marks. I think they're right in that mix with Windsor, Owen Sound, and Erie, battling for the bottom spots of the West. But of those teams with serious question marks, I think the Hounds are least likely to have theirs answered. There is no question that Sault Ste. Marie has a great defense lead by the likes of Ryan Sproul and Gianluca Curcuruto. But I'm not convinced they won't have any better luck scoring goals as they did last year when they finished second last in the West in goals scored. The teams in this league who score goals (and really in any league) are those that have dynamic players down the middle. The trading of Daniel Catenacci really hurt (even if Andrew Fritsch is a solid player). I like Nick Cousins, but I don't think he's a premier playmaker in this league. And in net, I'm not convinced Matt Murray is ready to take a team to the playoffs (or Chris Perugini if the team decides to keep him on for the roster for the long run). This team could easily slide into the top 6 of the West, if things work out for them. But I think they could just easily finish out of the playoffs yet again.
10. Guelph Storm
I look at the Storm and see a team pretty similar to the Greyhounds. They're built from the defense out. Andrey Pedan, Tim Campbell, Matt Finn, and Stephen Gaskin (likely) form a solid top four, and the Storm have some solid younger talent to fill the remaining spots. In net, Brandon Foote is generally solid and will provide some veteran leadership. It's at forward, where this team will struggle. Like Kingston in the East, Guelph has only one forward who has scored more than 15 goals in an OHL season (Cody McNaughton). Unlike Kingston though (sorry Fronts fans), the Storm actually have some quality young players who have potential. But potential is the key word. Will the likes of Zack Mitchell, Brock McGinn, and Scott Kosmachuk, etc, be excellent OHL players eventually? More than likely. But will they be good enough next year to lead this team to the playoffs? The answer to that seems pretty unlikely at this point.
Stay tuned for Part 3, Award predictions!