As promised, here is my Western Conference preview for the 2012/2013 season.
This too, was very difficult to predict and decide upon. For similar reasons as the East actually. I think there are a handful of teams who could emerge as front runners for the Conference, and then another handful who are a step below and could battle for the playoffs. I could see any team in this conference making the playoffs. It'll be a close race I think. Erie is certainly significantly improved over last year.
Let's take a look at the predictions.
1. Kitchener Rangers (Midwest Division Champs)
It's pretty hard to argue with the type of depth they have at all positions. The strength of this team will be goaltending though. John Gibson is the league's best goaltender (IMO) and his health will be crucial to this team's success. I'm not sure how long I expect Franky Palazzese to be with the team. He's too good to play second fiddle to Gibson. And there are a few teams out there with goaltending concerns. Offensively, this team has a lot of weapons and did well to acquire some vets like Matt Puempel, Dominic Alberga, and Nick Czinder. Rookie Justin Bailey also has a lot of potential to become a top contributor. Radek Faksa and Matia Marcantuoni/Josh Sterk, will hold down the center spots. It's hard to imagine MM not having a big bounce back season. On defense, Ryan Murphy returns, looking to have a better season after last year's mild disappointment. The return of Evan McEneny will help tremendously too. The Canucks were smart to sign him before he plays this year because I think he'll break out in a big way. Truthfully, it's pretty hard to find a fault with this team. Depth, goaltending, leadership, and quality coaching. Sounds like a recipe for success to me.
2. Plymouth Whalers (West Division Champs)
I definitely love the make-up of this year's Whalers' team, however I do have to admit that I feel like they're probably only the 4th or 5th best team in the Conference behind the Midwest division powerhouses (London, Owen Sound, and maybe even Guelph). The forward group is incredibly strong and built to have success under Mike Vellucci. They will work you to the bone, and then beat you with skill. Look at it this way, they're returning every key forward from last year's strong team, minus Devane and Bathgate, but they've replaced them with Ryan Hartman, who could be better than both. In particular, I expect Stefan Noesen to have a huge year, possibly to the point of being the league's leading scorer. In goal, Matt Mahalak is ready to take the ropes full time after being eased into the role last year. He's a quality netminder who I have a lot of faith in. It's on the defense side of things where I think this team should have some concerns. While the players they've brought in to fill holes are all potential impact players (Carrick, Karlsson, Curcuruto), you never truly know what you're getting until the regular season starts. The one thing that this team does have going for it is how committed the team's forward group is to playing both ways. That should help to take some of the pressure off the new look defense to start the season.
3. London Knights
It's going to be great watching the Knights and Rangers battle for the division this year. Everyone knows about the team's depth at forward. Just like last year, they'll be sitting kids good enough to play in the top 9 of other teams in the league. While many of the team's veterans are moving on to the professional ranks (like Jared Knight, Vlad Namestnikov, and Austin Watson), the returning members of last year's team are all top quality and ready for the prime time (like Seth Griffith for example). It'll be really exciting to see the progression of some of the team's younger forwards like Maxi Domi, Bo Horvat, and the Rupert twins. This team is going to be explosive not just next year, but for the next few years. That said, the strength is definitely on defense. Scott Harrington, Olli Maatta, and newcomer Nikita Zadorov (a potential first round pick) will be so hard to match up against. Throw in some veteran roughions like Tommy Hughes, Kevin Raine, and Tyler Ferry and you've got a tough task ahead of you when you enter London's end. The big question mark will be replacing Michael Houser in net. The defense is great, but having at least adequate goaltending will separate London from Kitchener and Owen Sound. Kevin Bailie was brought in, but I'm not sure he's the answer. I think the reigns should be tossed to Jake Patterson to see what he's capable of. Don't be surprised if London's hunting for a goalie by Christmas.
4. Owen Sound Attack
Quite honestly, I wouldn't be surprised one bit if this team ended up running neck and neck with London and Kitchener for the division. They are stronger than they were last year (IMO), and that team was pretty damn good. It all starts on defense, where the Attack might have the best top 6 in the league (Cutting, Chiarlitti, Dotchin, Bigras, Hope, MacDermid). That's not even counting their first rounder Jacob Middleton. They should also get strong goaltending from Jordan Binnington who'll finally be looking to take that next step forward and become a top netminder in the league. He'll have the team in front of him to give him confidence, that's for sure. Up front, the consistency of their offensive game will depend on the development of the team's younger players IMO. We know that Dan Catenacci and Gemel Smith will bring it every game. But will Joseph Blandisi, Zach Nastasiuk, Holden Cook, among others, step up and bring their "A" game. The wild card is obviously the return of Jarrod Maidens. He won't be ready for the start of the season, but he should come back at some point. If he can come back strong, this team would receive a huge boost. The Attack are also still waiting on Artur Gavrus to get his VISA situation sorted out. They'll need him in the lineup (and healthy) too.
5. Guelph Storm
I'm going to just flat out and say it. I love this team this year. While I don't think they're strong enough (yet) to make a run to the top of the standings, they'll be mighty entertaining to watch. So much heart. So much grit. But also a lot of skill. I think Tanner Richard is going to end up near the top of the league's scoring race if he can stay healthy. He has so many talented goal scorers to play with. I'm also incredibly excited to see the development of draft eligibles Jason Dickinson, Hunter Garlent, and Tyler Bertuzzi. This team is also deep at forward though. Some talented young players like Justin Auger, or Brody Milne, could be playing 4th line roles to start the year. On defense, newly appointed captain Matt Finn is the anchor. But he's got a talented running mate in Andrey Pedan who took massive steps forward last year. Depth wise, they're not quite as strong defensively. A lot will depend on the improvements made by players like Ben Harpur,. In net, Garret Sparks is a vastly underrated goalie. He was solid last year, but tired a bit throughout the final months of the season. He should be better prepared to handle that in his 2nd year as a starter. While you never truly know how a young team is going to play, I think the Storm will go a long way to reaching their vast potential this season. I know I'll be cheering for them.
6. Sarnia Sting
While I'm not particularly sold on the team's forward situation (even with the likes of Galchenyuk in the mix), I think their defense and goaltending is going to be plenty good enough to vault them into the mix for home ice advantage in round one. Overager JP Anderson is back for another year and I think he's going to have a good one. He struggled at times last year (which is why he's back in the OHL as an overager with an NHL contract), but I hope he's re-focused himself and found the proper motivation to get his game back on track. He'll certainly have a solid defense in front of him. This is led by Connor Murphy, who if he can stay healthy, has a chance to be the league's best defenseman this year (IMO). Supporting him is a cast of veterans like Alex Basso, Craig Duininck, and Jack Kuzmyk. Throw in sophomore Anthony DeAngelo and you've got a great mix. As mentioned, I'm a tad worried about their depth at forward. They'll be relying on several rookies (Davis Brown, Nikolai Goldobin, Bryan Moore, to name a few) to play big roles. But they certainly have a strong veteran nucleus to teach them the ropes. Alex Galchenyuk and Charles Sarault should be up near the top in league scoring. And Reid Boucher had a heck of a preseason. Teams with veterans usually win in this league (save the Oshawa Generals last season), and I think that will be the case in Sarnia.
7. Windsor Spitfires
I see the Spits being in a very similar position to the Storm this year. Great depth at forward, but a lot of younger players still working towards consistency. I absolutely loved the team's pickup of Derek Schoenmakers this offseason. He's the perfect compliment to some of the younger skilled players in this line up. The one development I'm curious to watch is who ends up centering the Kerby Rychel line. Is it the new hot shot in Joshua Ho-Sang? Is it the inconsistent but skilled Michael Clarke? Or is the strong, dependable Brady Vail? Not a bad problem to have in terms of their depth at center, but it will make for an interesting internal battle. Throw in Jordan Maletta who's a natural center too and looking to have a strong sophomore year. I could see Ho-Sang shifting to the wing to start, until he learns to play more of a complete game. On defense, I'm hoping that Flames pick Patrick Sieloff can help Nick Ebert find his game again. His aggressive, stay at home style could help to stabilize Ebert's efforts at both ends. Captain Sav Posa is also a true glue guy and one of the league's underrated defenders. Just like last year (post Campbell trade), the question mark is in goal. Import Jaroslav Pavelka returns but he'll need to be more consistent this year. He does have a lot of talent though. Rookie Jordan DeKort will likely be given every chance to try and steal the starting job, or at least share it. If Windsor can't get consistent goaltending, I wouldn't be surprised to see them make a play for someone like Palazzese in Kitchener.
8. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
While I think the Hounds are definitely better this year, it'll be hard for them to climb higher in the standings than they finished last year. The competition is that stiff. The key to victory will be the play of Matt Murray in net. It's his show to run this year (even if Justin Nichols seems to have a lot of potential moving forward) and he'll have to be way better and more consistent than he was last year. He has all the talent in the world, but just needs to put it together. Once again, the Hounds aren't going to be a team who will light the lamp with ease, which makes their ability to prevent goals all that more important. Defensively, I love the team's make-up. Ryan Sproul is going to have a huge year. Ditto for overager Colin Miller. It'll also be interesting to see Darnell Nurse's development at the offensive end. If he can really ratchet it up offensively, that's give the team 3 solid options on the powerplay. Offensively, Nick Cousins and Andrew Fritsch are going to try and put this offseason's mishaps behind them and focus on putting this team on their back. Of course, everyone is talking about Import Sergei Tolchinksy. The little offensive dynamo could be the spark plug this team has badly needed up front. And while not the most skilled, there is some great size to crash the net (Broll, Alderson, Schumacher, Dempsey, etc). This team should be improved. But it won't prevent them from battling for a playoff spot IMO.
9. Erie Otters
The Otters are hard to peg this year. The team was so woefully awful last year. Can they really avoid the basement this year? I think yes and let me explain why. Firstly, Connor McDavid is the real deal. His playmaking ability is going to elevate the capability of any forward he plays with. And once Dane Fox comes back from a broken foot, the team is going to have a formidable one/two punch down the middle. Both are capable of putting up 80 point seasons. Surrounding them are a handful of capable goal scorers, including captain Connor Brown, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. On defense, Adam Pelech is going to have to play over 30 minutes a night again because the quality just isn't there. Guys like Troy Donnay, Jimmy McDowell,. Liam Maaskant and Travis Wood are going to have to step it up if the Otters want to have any hope of making the playoffs. For as difficult as things could be defensively again, Oscar Dansk will be there to make everything OK. While I'm hesitant to suggest he'll steal game after game for the team (based on the consistency problems I've read and heard about), he was a high NHL draft pick for a reason. He should be able to come in and supply quality goaltending, perhaps even terrific goaltending. The Otters will be improved, but I don't quite see them as a playoff team...not yet.
10. Saginaw Spirit
At this point, I just don't see the high end depth to allow this team to consistently compete against the big guns of the Western Conference. Vincent Trocheck is a dynamite player and one of my favourites in the league (anyone who reads the blog knows that), but I don't see him getting enough help. Eric Locke and Garret Ross are solid secondary scoring options, but they aren't going to help take the pressure off Trocheck. Nor do I believe the likes of Justin Kea, Nick Moutrey, Jimmy Lodge, David Perklin, are ready for prime time roles (even if I love Kea's long term potential). On defense, I don't see a true first pairing defenseman. Someone who can put this team on his back and lead them. Brandon Archibald, Steven Strong, Dalton Young and Frank Schumacher are solid defenders, but they aren't guys you build your defense around. Even Erie has Adam Pelech. In goal, I'm a big fan of Jake Paterson (and the overall depth the team has at the position), but I don't think he's going to get enough help to ease the pressure of his first true starting gig. He's not ready to steal games on a nightly basis. So many of the teams in the West are balanced deep and I don't see that from Saginaw this year.
Stay tuned for the Award Predictions tomorrow!