The 2012-2013 season is right around the corner (opening night is Thursday people!), so I suppose it's about time I put up a season preview.
The OHL is going to be one tough league to predict this year. For one, IMO, the races for divisions are so incredibly tight. Heck, the entire Eastern Conference is wide open. Quite frankly, I could see one of about 6 teams taking it as of right now. And even then, the other four teams really aren't THAT far behind. It's wide open, which means a lot of people will be made to look like fools with their predictions this year.
Secondly, the NHL lockout leaves us with a lot of questions. Questions surrounding the availability of players. Take the Niagara IceDogs, for instance. Right now, they've got Ryan Strome and Dougie Hamilton. Without them, I figured they'd probably look to move a few veterans and end up finishing out of the playoffs in the East. With them, guys like Brett Ritchie, Brock Beukeboom, and Steve Shipley will probably stick around and the Dogs are a contender for their division. Will the Dogs get to keep Strome and Hamilton for the whole year?
Just the same, the AHL is going to be MIGHTY crowded this year with all the young NHL talent filling up rosters. Will teams elect to send back players (like Phil Lane and Sam Carrick in Brampton) to give them more playing time/to avoid the ECHL? These are all legitimate questions. Again, questions that make this year so tough to predict (can't you tell I'm already setting up my excuse for being extremely wrong this year).
None the less, every hockey fan in Ontario should be damn excited to watch some hockey this year. Quality hockey, at that. Let's get this baby rollin'.
I bring you the Eastern Conference!
1. Barrie Colts (Central Division Champs)
Last year, I greatly underrated the Colts. I'm not making that mistake again. While, depth wise, I don't think this team is as strong as a few others in the East (on paper), the top end talent they possess makes them a serious threat to take the Conference. Not just talent, but veteran talent. The obvious wildcard is whether Mark Scheifele sticks around all season. My gut says he probably will (I think the Jets made a mistake keeping him last year for as long as they did). And he's surrounded by some great veteran offensive players like Zach Hall, Anthony Camara, and Steve Beyers. The Colts also have a lot of younger players who've been chomping at the bit for greater opportunity, such as Erik Bradford and Josh MacDonald. Throw in a motivated Andreas Athanasiou and you've got a solid group. My only concern is that they may be a bit small up front, which could hurt them in the injury department. On defense, newly appointed captain Ryan O'Connor looks hungry for an NHL deal and should have a monster year. Aaron Ekblad will also be a year stronger and better. Alex squared (Lepkowski and Yuill) make up the rest of the top four (in all likelihood). In goal, I think they've got one of the best tandems in the league. Mathias Niederberger got better and better as the season went on and I think he's going to be very good this year. And if he isn't, I've got a lot of confidence in Fotinos developing into a star netminder in this league. Always bank on a team with a ton of veteran talent going far.
2. Belleville Bulls (East Division Champs)
There's no denying that the key for the Bulls will be Malcolm Subban this year. If he's able to stay healthy and play like he's capable of, the Bulls are a Conference contender. If he's not, I seriously worry about the strength of their defense. Stephen Silas and Brady Austin will be fine. But relying on Jordan Subban, Jake Worrad, or a few others to play large roles could be difficult. On those Mike Murphy led quality teams of recent years, the Bulls had terrific defenses (led by PK Subban and Shawn Lalonde). On the big ice, it's hard to cover up your mistakes. Subban is going to be have to be really big. Offensively, the Bulls should be fine. They've got a very deep forward group led by captain Brendan Gaunce. I also think Austen Brassard is going to have a monster year. Last year, his overall game improved greatly. This year, he should have the confidence (and strength) to really earn a spike in his goal scoring production. I think he's capable of a 40 goal year. I think Belleville's two Russian imports (Daniil Zharkov and Sergei Kuptsov) will be incredibly important to the team's success. They are possibly Belleville's two most dynamic offensive players and they'll need to keep the opposition guessing. Consistency will be the name of the game for them. But as I said, if Subban stays healthy, this team should achieve great things this year. They have the right recipe for success IMO.
3. Oshawa Generals
I expect the race between Belleville and Oshawa to be very close this year. I like both of these teams a lot. The funny thing is, after losing the likes of Christian Thomas, Nicklas Jensen, and Andy Andreoff, who would have thought that this year's Oshawa team would actually be better. It's pretty clear that something was rotten in the Shwa last year, so it's all about new beginnings. This year's forward group is going to be VERY tough to play against. So many scrappy players who can also put the puck in the net (Boone Jenner, Scott Laughton, Lucas Lessio, Tyler Biggs, Scott Sabourin, etc). Lucas Lessio is going to have a very big year IMO. I felt like he was one of Canada's best players during the Summer challenge with Russia and I think he's finally figured out how to harness his energy. On defense, Matt Petgrave and Geoffrey Schemitsch have already won an OHL championship together and know what it takes to win. I think Colin Suellentrop is ready to take that next step as a top 3 defender too. And in goal, I expect Daniel Altshuller to bounce back in a big way. He's got the talent to carry this team a long way. But, if he runs into those consistency issues again, it'll be the difference between the Gennies being a division contender and being a 7/8 seed in the East. Last year, it wasn't just Altshuller though. The entire team had issues with consistency and effort level. Sounds like a tough atmosphere for a young goalie. This year's skater group will be much more consistent which I think will translate to better results for Altshuller.
4. Brampton Battalion
You've got to hand it to Stan Butler. Honestly, every year the Battalion manage to put together a winning team based off of a team that (on paper) looks like it'll be challenged to make the playoffs. This year, is no exception. Heck, not only is Barclay Goodrow the only forward to have scored 20 goals in this league before, but he's also the only forward to post a 40 point season. Every year, the Battalion are starved for offense, but they manage to play within Butler's system and just flat out, out work teams for wins. Although, I actually don't expect Goodrow to lead the team in goals this year. I think it'll be Brandon Robinson as one of the league's breakout stars. The key to victory for Brampton is always their defense and their goaltending. The Troops return their entire defense of last year (minus Jordan Auld) and also their starting netminder in Matej Machovsky, who was consistently one of the league's best last year (even if his numbers don't suggest it). And even if I don't expect Phil Lane and Sam Carrick to be back, stranger things have happened. And they've happened in years where there isn't an NHL lockout crowding the AHL talent pool. Of course, I'm finally predicting the Battalion to have a good year, so maybe I've jinxed them!
5. Peterborough Petes
I have to admit, I'm scared by the Petes' preseason record. I don't put a lot of faith in the preseason, but they just couldn't get anything done. And after last year's massive disappointment, I have to wonder if it's becoming a bit of a routine. On the other hand, I like the team's potential too much to completely count them out. Up front, I think they could very well have the deepest group of forwards in the league. Best of all, so many of these guys are coming into their prime (Alan Quine, Nick Ritchie, Brett Findlay, Stephen Nosad). Even if they had a heck of a time scoring goals in the preseason, I don't expect that to continue into the regular season. Defensively, they're also pretty deep and Slater Koekkoek will be around for a full year. Don't forget that the Petes didn't start to falter last year until Koekkoek got hurt. The real question mark is in goal. Andrew D'Agostini started last year quite well, but fell into a major slump in the second half. Hopefully he's figured out how to maintain composure. Anyway you slice it though, he's yet to prove himself capable of being a quality starting netminder in this league. Back-up and goalie of the future, Michael Giugovaz is a wild card as someone who could steal some starts and take over the role if D'Agostini falters. I like this team a lot of paper, which scares me a bit because "paper" is the key word. Hopefully they can back it up!
6. Niagara IceDogs
As I mentioned in my intro, the NHL lockout has certainly changed my outlook on the Dogs season. People don't realize the positive impact that Ryan Strome and Dougie Hamilton can have on this line up. They will force some of the younger players to step up their game...elevating it in the process. And it's not like they're surrounded by chumps. Brett Ritchie, Steve Shipley, Brock Beukeboom, and Jesse Graham know exactly what it takes to win in this league. In particular, Shipley and Beukeboom should have big overage years as they try to earn NHL contracts after having their NHL rights released in the offseason. Nothing like playing with a chip on your shoulder (as Beukeboom proved this preseason). I also really like the young forward make up of this team. Joel Wigle, Carter Verhaeghe, Trevor Peterson, and Anthony DiFruscia are excellent talents. With Hamilton, Beukeboom, Graham, and Luke Mercer, the team's top 4 is going to be really solid. In goal, it's hard to know what to expect from Christopher Festarini. He was terrific after being plucked from the scrap heap by the Dogs last year and he should have the starting job this year. He's a former highly touted netminder who never put it together. Has always had the talent, so maybe he finally puts it all together. So what happens if Strome and Hamilton head to the NHL eventually? I think they'll ultimately stick around long enough to make a lasting positive impact on the culture of this young, but talented team.
7. Ottawa 67's
Some people might be surprised by the 67's being this low. And as much as I love Sean Monahan and Cody Ceci as players, I just don't see them being surrounded by enough talent to push them closer to the top of the standings. That isn't to say that I expect them to miss the playoffs (or even be in serious consideration for it), it's just that I see better teams in this Conference right now. The defense is solid enough, but I think they are also a tad on the slow side. Players like Mike Vlajkov and Sean Callaghan are going to have to take big steps forward to help out Ceci and Jake Cardwell. In goal, Keegan Wilson, is looking to take on his first starting gig...as an overager. A shaky defense, matched with unproven goaltending can often be a recipe for inconsistency. This leaves the strength of this team at forward. Sean Monahan will improve whoever is lucky enough to play with him, but I just don't see Tyler Graovac being able to carry the second line, or at least elevate it enough to the point where he's taking pressure off of the Monahan line. If anything, the key to this year's season (outside of maybe Wilson's performance) is the progression of Graovac and Steven Janes as dependable offensive players. Perfection in the preseason just isn't good enough for me apparently.
8. Sudbury Wolves
I think my main concern with Sudbury is their lack of a true top line force down the middle. As much as I think Michael Kantor is underrated as an offensive player, he's not a top line center. And Matthew Campagna just hasn't progressed enough to be considered an option for that either. The line of Kantor, Leivo, and Pancel gained a lot of steam overseas in that Junior World Cup, but has been quite quiet during the preseason. There's some young talent up front like Nicholas Baptiste, Brody Silk and Sam Schutt, but if there's one thing we know about young talent, it's inconsistent. I just don't see this offense scaring anyone on a consistent basis. Defensively, the team will be very solid, which will take a lot of pressure off overager Joel Vienneau and rookie Taylor Dupuis. In fact, Frankie Corrado, Justin Sefton, Charlie Dodero, and Mackenzie Braid might be the strongest "stay at home" top four in the league. Physical and tough to play against. But the Wolves are going to miss Josh McFadden's presence offensively. His ability to run the transition game and the powerplay will be hard to replace this season. The key to victory will actually be head coach Trent Cull and his ability to get his players to buy into a strong defensive system which will protect his weakness in goal and offensively, but also focus on the team's strength on the blueline.
9. Mississauga Steelheads
I definitely think the Steelheads are going to be better than people are giving them credit for. That defense is so strong with Percy, DeMelo, Carrick, and Cord playing in the top four. And goaltender Spencer Martin is a star in the making. Scoring goals against the Steelheads will be a chore. However, scoring goals against the opposition will also be a chore. Riley Brace is back. Kris Kontos is back. Outside of that, it's a rag tag group of unproven talent. As much as I believe in the likes of Josh Burnside, Scott Teskey, Andrew Godlberg, and a few others, I don't think they're ready to be consistent offensive difference makers. And as we all know, consistency is what separates the playoff teams from the playoff wannabees.
10. Kingston Frontenacs
Last but not least, Kingston. Again. I actually really liked what the Fronts did this offseason. Bringing in two imports (Vainonen and Ikonen) who can contribute in a big way has been missed in recent years. And while the team still doesn't have a goaltender of the future, they did acquire a veteran stop gap in Mike Morrison, who has at least handled the load as a starter before. The rest of the team is young and will go through serious growing pains. I look for Ryan Kujawinski to have a big year. I also think Roland McKeown will be a stand out rookie on the defensive side of things. But I just don't see enough difference makers in this line up. That said, would I be surprised if this team ended up making the playoffs as a bottom seed? Absolutely not. Like I said in the intro, these 10 teams are all pretty close.
Stay tuned for the Western Conference tomorrow!