This is part two of my season preview for the 2013/14 campaign, as I breakdown the Western Conference.
The West has an incredibly interesting dynamic this season. IMO, the three best teams in the conference are all in the same division (London, Guelph, and Erie). Because that division is so stacked, I think it'll make life very hard for Kitchener and Owen Sound as they try to play keep up. Meanwhile the West Division is a toss up between the Whalers, Spits, and Spirit (IMO). I could see either of those three teams taking it, depending on how certain players develop.
As I mentioned in my Eastern Conference article, I don't see the West being as strong this year. London is the best team in the league, but only Guelph (IMO) holds a candle to some of the East's best, and even they have the same question marks as a team like Barrie. One thing worth mentioning is that the quality of the bottom four teams (Kitchener, Sault, Sarnia, and Owen Sound) is significantly better than the likes of Mississauga, Oshawa, and Ottawa. This does make the conference more unpredictable and challenging to play in.
Let's look at my breakdown of the West:
1. London Knights (Midwest Division Champs)
Pretty hard to argue against at this point. They're deep and talented at pretty much every position. The biggest weakness is probably on defense, where they're going to have to rely on some fresh faces (Centorame, Jamieson) or inexperienced veterans (Leroux, Stewart) for their third pairing. But, you know in a year where they host the Memorial Cup, that they're going to go out and add at the position at some point (hello Alex Basso?). Offensively, they're just as talented and deep as last year. Max Domi will most definitely be back, and I'd be surprised if Bo Horvat isn't too. Fresh faces like Mike McCarron, Christian Dvorak and Mitch Marner will only add to the team's ability to score goals and wear down opposing defenses. In net, Anthony Stolarz should emerge as the starter and I think he's going to have a big year. He showed flashes of brilliance last year and should be better and more consistent this year. One thing is for certain, this Knights team is going to play to win the OHL crown, instead of entering the Memorial Cup through the backdoor.
2. Plymouth Whalers (West Division)
As I mentioned above, I think the West Division is very wide open. Every team in that division has warts, but also varying levels of talent. None of the teams are as strong as the top 3 teams of the Midwest though. If I'm a betting man, I'm going with the Whalers. For one, Mike Vellucci just gets it done year after year. He gets players to buy into his system and generally gets the best out of them. I also think they're the most well balanced team in the division. While they've lost a lot of talent at forward (and may lose more if Tom Wilson sticks in Washington), they still have a quite a few up and coming talents. Hartman, Mistele, Chatham, Vilardi, Crus-Rydberg are all talented offensive players who are also capable of excelling in Vellucci's hard nosed style. After strong preseason performances, it looks like Zach Lorentz and Carter Sandlak are poised to be strong OA leaders too. The defense will be anchored by two of the more underrated players in the league; Connor Carrick and Gianluca Curcuruto. Nick Malysa, Alex Peters, and Josh Wesley are all solid players too and should come together to make Plymouth a tough team to win one on one battles against. That leaves arguably the strength of this team; goaltending. I have very high expectations for Alex Nedeljkovic this year. He was so good as a rookie last year and I think he's only going to get better. He plays calm and consistent and should help the team through some scoring lulls while the new offensive pairings develop chemistry. While it's not a slam dunk, the Whalers' overall make up makes them the favourite to take the division IMO.
3. Guelph Storm
The Storm are easily the 2nd best team in the Conference, but aren't likely to oust the Knights from the top spot. The obvious question mark is in goal. Matthew Mancina and Jason DaSilva have a combined 7 games of OHL experience and look pretty "green" at this point. Both had some struggles this preseason. Mancina is the likely candidate to start in the long run because I think he's the more talented goalie. But there could be some rough patches along the way. Maybe Guelph considers acquiring a goaltender at some point (a guy like Daniel Altshuller). The good news is that the rest of their team is incredibly solid. Their defense should be able to hold steady and make the job a bit easier for their young goaltenders. NHL draft selections Matt Finn, Zac Leslie, and Ben Harpur form a solid top 3, while up and comers like Kyle Locke and Phil Baltisberger will provide depth. Offensively, the team is as good (on paper) as any team in the league. They will run three lines that will be very dangerous offensively, possibly even four. They're also very well balanced at the forward position with a mix of skilled grinders (McGinn, Bertuzzi, Kosmachuk), and more finesse types (Dickinson, Fabbri, Mitchell, Garlent). You won't be able to take a shift off against this team. Even if their goaltending is only average, the offensive firepower alone should be enough to slingshot the Storm to home ice advantage in the first round.
4. Erie Otters
Probably a bit higher than some people have the Otters placed, but I'm a McBeliever. That is to say, I see the Otters having enough top end talent to make them a force to be reckoned with on most nights. A Connor McDavid, Connor Brown, and Andre Burakovsky first line should wreck havoc on the OHL and feast upon the lower quality netminding the league seems to have this year. But it's not just that first line, the Otters have supporting talent at forward. Dane Fox, Michael Curtis, Dylan Strome, and Stephen Harper should definitely be able to do some damage against 2nd/3rd defensive units, taking pressure off that dangerous first line. In particular, if Stephen Harper can regain the mojo he demonstrated in his rookie year, that'd be a HUGE boost to the secondary scoring unit and powerplay. It's a big year for him developmentally. While it'll be the offense under McDavid that draws most of the attention, the strength of this team might actually be in preventing goals. Oscar Dansk and Devin Williams might be one of the best tandems in the league this year. In particular, I expect a big year for Dansk now that he's more accustomed to the league and has a stronger supporting cast. And a veteran laden defense lead by Adam Pelech will be there to help him. Last year, fans flocked to see the Otters to get a glimpse of McDavid. This year, they'll be flocking to see a better and more competitive Erie squad...oh and I guess that McDavid kid again too.
5. Windsor Spitfires
I'm pretty confident in Plymouth's distinction as the best in their division right now, but I really had a tough time deciding between Windsor and Saginaw. I flip flopped them several times. But I'm going with Windsor ahead of them because I think their offense and defense will be better, more dynamic, and more consistent. Goaltending is the big question mark, as they'll be looking to Jordan DeKort as a starter. He had a rough year last year and is still a big work in progress, but he's going to have a much improved defense in front of him. A healthy Slater Koekkoek and Pat Sieloff will do wonders for this team and make them a MUCH more consistent defensive team than they were last year. Nick Ebert should be motivated to earn an NHL contract too. The thing I like about Windsor's blueline is that they will be able to move the puck well and should really help to get things started for their dangerous offense. Guys like Koekkoek and Ebert will have to step up their defensive intensity, but in their final OHL year that shouldn't be too much of a stretch. And as teams found out this preseason, the Spits are going to be able to score goals. Kerby Rychel will return and be near the top of the league's goal scoring list, while Josh Ho-Sang looks motivated to climb draft charts. Fresh faces Nikita Yazkov and Ryan Moore also fit in very well this preseason and seem primed for fairly significant roles. While Windsor isn't perfect, they've got enough talent to overcome some possibly shaky goaltending to still make the playoffs and possibly contend for their division.
6. Saginaw Spirit
One of the other teams who will be in a dog fight for the West Division, the Spirit's strength is in net, where Jake Paterson is possibly the top goaltender in the league. He's coming into the OHL season with a ton of confidence after winning the Traverse City tournament with the Detroit Red Wings' group. He'll also be looking to impress Team Canada WJC staff in hopes of being the team's starter. The defense in front of him is an unheralded group. They're relatively solid, but not spectacular. A bounce back year for Justin Sefton, and a breakthrough year for Brandon Prophet are definite keys. I must say that I'm a tad concerned about their blueline's ability to move the puck out of their own end, and quarterback the powerplay. With Dalton Young gone, the team will likely turn to Marselis Subban for that role, but I'm just not sure if he's going to be capable of giving them what they need. Offensively, the burning question is whether Eric Locke returns as an overager. Buffalo could have him play in Rochester of the AHL, a possibility that's looking more and more likely after his performance at the Traverse City tournament. Losing Locke would be a big blow to this team at the forward position. Guys like Jimmy Lodge, Nick Moutrey, Zach Bratina, Cody Payne and Justin Kea are solid players, but I don't think they're capable of taking over games the way Locke did last year. If the Spirit are forced to move on without him, they'll still have a fairly deep forward group, but they'll also be pretty young and will be relying upon a group of 95's and 96's to inflict most of the damage. How far the Spirit go this year will depend on how far Jake Paterson takes them.
7. Kitchener Rangers
In reality, I think Kitchener is probably right there with the likes of Saginaw, Windsor, and maybe even Plymouth, but because of the strength of their division, I see them finishing a bit lower in the standings. The key for Kitchener will most definitely be the development of their young forwards. Radek Faksa is really the only guaranteed consistent contributor, and even then he didn't have the best of years last year. Guys like Matia Marcantuoni, Justin Bailey, Brent Pedersen, Josh Sterk, and Darby Llewellyn will really have to step up their games. The real wildcards, of course, are new comers Ryan MacInnis and Nick Magyar, who come in with high expectations. As long as half of the names I've listed above can improve, the Rangers should still be a shoe in for a playoff appearance. The strength of this team will likely be on defense with a veteran core of Ben Fanelli, Evan McEneny, and Max Iafrate leading the charge. Rookies Doug Blaisdell and Dmitri Sergeev should also play key roles and look like/sound like solid players. I expect big things from McEneny, as he tries to replace Ryan Murphy's production on the powerplay. In net, Tyson Teichmann is a veteran and should provide at the very least, a semblance of consistent goaltending. As I mentioned earlier, this Rangers team will only go as far as their forward group takes them. If they don't step up as a group, this team could be in tough in the league's most difficult division.
8. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Without question, the Hounds need a huge year from Matt Murray in net. He's got his NHL contract and it's time for him to be (consistently) one of the top goaltenders in the league. Thanks to graduations, the Hounds offense is going to be hard pressed to score goals this year. They've lost their top 5 scorers from last year and don't have a lot in the form of depth at the forward position (at least scoring line depth anyway). The preseason (in this case) wasn't a fluke. The Hounds are going to struggle to score goals. That really puts the pressure on Murray to perform. The defense could be a strength if Darnell Nurse returns (which he should IMO). He'll play over 30 minutes a night for this team and should pair well with either Alex Gudbranson or Tyler Ganly on the team's first unit. If Nurse somehow sticks in Edmonton, I think they're going to have a tough time making the playoffs. As mentioned, the forward unit is definitely weaker this year, but it doesn't lack elite level talent. Sergei Tolchinsky could have a really big year, and I have very high expectations for Jared McCann as a draft eligible player. As long as Nurse returns (as mentioned), I think the Hounds are still talented enough to make the playoffs, but it'll still be an up and down year.
9. Owen Sound Attack
It's not that Owen Sound is a particularly bad hockey club, it's more that they're going to be playing in such a tough division and I don't see them being able to keep up. The troubling thing for them is that it's looking more and more like Chris Bigras could be starting the year in Colorado. He's been turning heads in training camp and was signed to his ELC today. The Avs are going to be without former OHL'er Ryan Wilson for a bit, which opens up a spot for Bigras to at least earn a small audition. He might not be back in Owen Sound until mid October, if at all. And this is a defensive unit that badly needs his leadership and two way ability. With a defense that could be a little shaky, the Attack are also relying on Brandon Hope to be a starter for the first time. While he was solid as Jordan Binnington's back up last year, starting is a whole different story...especially when it's behind a defense that could experience some serious ups and downs. At forward the Attack will continue to be a team that's tough to match up against. There are no game breakers, but Gemel Smith, Cameron Brace, Zach Nastasiuk, Jaden Lindo, Kurtis Gabriel (likely), amongst others will form a solid core that should be able to produce offensively. But most of the teams in the West have an equally formidable, if not deeper, group of forwards. It's the team's weakness in the defensive end that could cost them against the absolutely dynamic offenses of London, Guelph, and Erie.
10. Sarnia Sting
The Sting are going to be able to score some goals this year, as evidenced by their performance in the preseason. Young stars like Nikolai Goldobin, Nikita Korostelev, and Brett Hargrave are all on the road to improvement and should be able to put some points up on the board. But, outside of Nick Latta and Bryan Moore (he himself, only a second year player), the team doesn't have a ton of veteran presence at the position. That will put a lot of pressure on the '95 and '96 age group to improve...and in a hurry. Defensively, the team was dealt a big blow when it was announced Alex Basso would be staying at home awaiting a trade. While Anthony DeAngelo provides the flash, Basso has unquestionably been the Sting's best overall defenseman. Replacing him will be difficult, especially when it comes to giving DeAngelo assistance in moving the puck (both 5 on 5 and on the powerplay). The plus side is that the team does have some good size at the position and guys like Tyler Hore do have the potential to contribute more. The bad news is that goaltending is going to be a sore spot between Dupuis and Barrick. Having a young and inexperienced forward unit, combined with inexperienced goaltending can often lead to the cellar in this league, which is where I envision the Sting ending up...even if I want to believe their preseason record will hold up.
Stay tuned for the final part of the season preview tomorrow; awards predictions.