Monday, August 31, 2009

2009-10 Season Preview - Eastern Conference

With the preseason under way, training camps wrapping up, and rosters being finalized, I feel that it's the perfect time to take a look at the 2009-10 OHL season. Obviously, because the season is still over two weeks away from getting started, their is still potential for change via trade, returning overagers, etc. However, I do think that I've got a pretty good handle on what every team is going to bring to the table this season.

As such, over the next three days I'll be releasing my season preview for the 2009-10 season. Today I'll take a look at the Eastern Conference, with standings predictions. Tomorrow will see the Western Conference revealed, while Wednesday will be awards and individual player predictions.

Here is your 2009-10 Eastern Conference Preview

1. Barrie Colts
Make no mistake; the Barrie Colts will be a team to be reckoned with this season. Last year this team finished near the bottom of the league in goals scored. This year, they should be near the top. The Colts could very well have the deepest group of forwards in the entire OHL, with only the Windsor Spitfires in the same class. They have 9 guys with 20 goal potential and can roll three legitimate scoring lines. Of particular interest are the additions of Luke Pither and Euro Import Alex Burmistrov. These two are likely to be the first and second line centers around a collection of skilled and tough wingers. The Colts could still use a solid right handed shot and thus the rumours of Bryan Cameron heading to Barrie. If Cameron joins this line-up, it could make them even more dangerous. Defensively, this team will be lead by veteran Ryan Gottschalk and second year offensive defenceman Ryan O’Connor. The team recently added Rangers Import cast off Simon Gronvaldt in hopes of increasing the amount of offense coming from the back end. All truth be told, the team could still use some help defensively and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them add another quality piece. In goal, the team dealt Michael Hutchinson to London, deciding to go with Peter Di Salvo instead. Di Salvo is a young goaltender with room for improvement and he should be able to cement himself as a legitimate number one in this league. Watch out for Dalton McGrath to steal some time from Di Salvo, as he was tremendous in Junior A last season. With the talent this team has offensively and Di Salvo in net, I just can’t see them finishing outside the top 4 of the Conference.

2. Peterborough Petes
Who wins the East Division? That is a question that I see 5 answers to. I think any team in that Division could take steps forward to win the Division and subsequently second in the Conference. Why Peterborough? I think they underachieved last season and had a better team on paper than they showed. The season’s success is definitely dependent on the goaltending of Jason Missiaen. The towering Habs draft pick has been an enigma thus far in his OHL career. Dazzling one night, a sieve the next. I think this is the year he figures it out, especially in front of the best defence he’s played behind. Barron Smith, Jeff Braithwaite, and Adam Sedlak make up three quarters of this improving blueline. The top 4 will be lead by the vastly underrated Jamie Doornbosch who should begin to make a name for himself, as long as he can continue to improve defensively. At forward, the team has the chance to roll three solid lines, mixing leadership from Zach Kassian, Pat Daley, and Brett Theberge, with the young vigor of the likes of Ryan Spooner, David Quesnele, Euro Jiri Sekac, and first rounder Matt Puempel. With the Division so wide open, I like Peterborough’s chances because I feel that they have the deepest overall roster of anyone in the division and the largest potential for their youngsters to breakout.

3. Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors
Choosing a winner in the East Division was very tough for me. I think that Barrie, Mississauga, and Sudbury all have a chance at taking it. Mississauga is an interesting team. At forward, the leadership they had last year is gone in Jesse Messier, Kaspers Daugavins, Jared Gomes and likely Michael Pelech. In losing so many veterans, it’s hard to believe that the Majors could actually improve. However, they have the youngsters to fill in the gaps. It all starts with a highly motivated Casey Cizikas who’ll be looking to become the offensive leader of this team. The addition of former Sarnia winger Gregg Sutch could also be huge, as the young forward has a ton of potential. The likes of Devante Smith-Pelly, William Wallen, Jordan Mayer, Corey Bureau, and Riley Brace should also improve and make this team a highly energetic juggernaut. If Pelech returns, it would make them that much better. Defensively, this team could be one of the best in the East, led by possible OHL defender of the year Cameron Gaunce. The OHL All Star will return for his likely final season in the OHL and should continue to be a dominant two way force on the blueline. He’s joined by underrated overager Blake Parlett and the likely improving Brett Flemming. If Coyotes draft pick Tim Billingsley can return to the form he had two seasons ago, this top 4 could be outstanding. In goal, the Majors will go with the J.P. Anderson/Chris Carrozzi platoon that worked so well last year. Anderson is a future star in this league and will look to continue the form he showed in the 2009 playoffs. Coach Dave Cameron should be able to return this team back to home ice advantage in the East, as long as the younger players on the roster take their expected steps forward.

4. Sudbury Wolves
I’m a little bit weary of this 2009-10 Sudbury team. Last year, I had high hopes for the Wolves and expected them to be a top 4 team in the Conference. Needless to say, they vastly underachieved. This year, can they meet my expectations? And are my expectations short changing them? Are the Wolves candidates to win the East? They have excellent high talent. Offensively, they’ll roll two lines who could consider themselves among the best top 6 in the East. Keep an eye out for the newly formed first line of John McFarland, Eric O’Dell and Euro Eddy Leitans-Rinke. This line has apparently been outstanding at camp and could be one of the most dangerous in the league. A hard working second line of John Kurtz, Marcus Foligno, and Jared Staal should be able to take some pressure off, as long as Foligno and Staal can take steps forward offensively. I do worry about the depth of their forward group as a hole though, especially with the unexpected departure of Gerome Giudice to Italy and the no-show of highly touted prospect Steven Beyers. Defensively, the Wolves should be much better than last year. Much of that can be attributed to the drafting of Justin Sefton, and the transfer of Euro Stefan Stepanov, both of whom could be stars in this league and a big part of the Sudbury defence for years to come. In goal, overager Andrew Loverock will man the pipes. Loverock isn’t the best goalie in the league, but he keeps his team in games and is what you’d call a ‘gamer.’ Even with the somewhat unexpected departure of coach Mike Foligno, hopefully this pack of Wolves can come together.

5. Ottawa 67’s
The strength of this year’s 67 showing will no doubt be its defense. Led by the healthy Tyler Cuma, Ottawa could very well have the best defense in the East. If Julien Demers returns (like it appears), he would join Travis Gibbons, first rounder Cody Ceci, and up and comers Marc Zanetti and Brian Birkhoff to form three very solid defense pairings. This is great news for goaltender Chris Perugini, who got left out to dry quite often last season, by an inexperienced and average blueline. My concern lies at forward. If Senators draft pick Corey Cowick returns as an overager, my concerns dissipate, but I have doubts that he does. This leaves three very talented forwards in Tyler Toffoli, Ryan Martindale, and Anthony Nigro, surrounded by a bevy of mediocre OHL forwards and inexperienced youngsters. I think Dalton Smith and Thomas Nesbitt have the potential to contribute as part of a secondary scoring unit; however I also think they’ll need a creative playmaker to help make things happen. This is where the loss of Logan Couture will hurt the most. I worry because this offence ran through Couture last season. When he didn’t play well, the 67’s had a heck of a time creating offensive chances. With the same group of forwards returning, who’s to say they can create without Couture now? Another wildcard lies in how the team responds to not having Brian Kilrea behind the bench. Will this team play as well for Chris Byrne? I’m on the fence about this 67 team. Depending on a few factors, I could see them finishing anywhere from second to out of the playoffs in the East. I just don’t know what to expect.

6. Kingston Frontenacs
The past three seasons, the last place team in the East from the year before has gone on to make the playoffs (Oshawa, Mississauga, Sudbury). Kingston looks to continue that trend. I think they’ve made great strides to do so this offseason. First and foremost, the acquisition of goaltender Tyler Beskorowany was huge. If he can gain more consistency, and fix some fundamental issues, he could be one of the best goaltenders in the OHL. He’s got a lot to prove after losing his job in Owen Sound to Scott Stajcer. He should have a pretty good defence in front of him too. The first pairing of Brian Lashoff and Erik Gudbranson could be one of the best in the entire OHL. Lashoff is very underrated and is coming off a very strong AHL playoff performance to end last season. I think he has a breakout year. A second pairing of Taylor Doherty and Euro Jaroslav Kruzik could also be very strong, if Doherty can finally begin to become the dominant force as was expected of him. At forward, the team needs a strong performance from Nathan Moon. And not another empty 70 point performance either. They need him to step forward and become the leader of this team, putting his questionable attitude aside. Ethan Werek also needs to have a solid year, leading a second scoring unit. Outside of those two, players like Zach Harnden, Colt Kennedy, George Lovatsis, Mitch Lebar, and second overall pick Alan Quine need to step up and produce. I think Dougie Gilmour finally gives this team an identity this season and gets the team to play hard game in and game out. If so, the positive results will follow.

7. Niagara IceDogs
The Dogs will once again be a tough team to play against, especially at home on the small ice. They return all of their key forwards, save the traded Matt Sisca and overager Patrick Lee. But they’ve got the depth to replace them. The Dogs band of undersized forwards, Agozzino, Friesen, and DeSousa are one year older and should look to continue to play a brand of in your face hockey. Euro Import Marco Insam will be returning for another year and he could be a real impact player this season. I also expect the energetic second year players Andrew Shaw and Freddie Hamilton to step into the top 6. While the Dogs don’t have any big name OHL stars up front, they’ve got a solid group of hard working, talented forwards who could really make a name for themselves this year. It’s preventing goals where I could see this team struggling. Thanks to Eric Brewer succumbing to knee surgery, I can’t help but assume Alex Pietrangelo starts the year in St. Louis again. If that’s the case, I can’t see them sending him back yet again. Without Petro, this defensive unit is only average at best, especially with the loss of Drew Schiestel too. Second round pick Dougie Hamilton could prove to be an immediate impact player, however others need to step up too, especially overager Reggie Traccitto. With the defense likely struggling, the Dogs are going to need strong starting goaltending. This is going to have to come from Habs draft selection and Import Petteri Simila. The giant goaltender is a bit of a mystery and could be anywhere from awful to exceptional. With the way this team has played at home so far in its two year existence, I can’t see them missing the playoffs. However, I’m also uncertain as to whether they’ve got enough talent to get higher than the middle of the pack in the Conference.

8. Oshawa Generals
I think the amount of success the Generals achieve this season will be determined by whether overagers Brett Parnham and Kory Nagy return. And since I do expect both to be back, I also expect the Generals could surprise some people this year. Offensively, they’d be led by Parnham, Nagy, and youngsters Christian Thomas, Andy Andreoff, and Boone Jenner. On top of that, newly acquired Imports Alain Berger and Jakub Strnad have apparently been turning heads in camp and could be impact players. Defensively, Calvin de Haan should become one of the best all around defenseman in the league. With him could be the improving Scott Valentine, forming a very dangerous two way defensive pairing. The depth defensively will most likely hold them back from being a top end team, but they do have some talent. In goal, Michael Zador will be looking to prove that he’s a capable number one OHL netminder. The once hyped prospect could definitely turn some heads this year. Overall, the Generals have a pretty solid team. If they get their overagers back, they should be a playoff team. If not, I definitely think one of Brampton or Belleville overtakes them for 8th.

9. Belleville Bulls
The Bulls are definitely re-tooling this year, thanks in part to the losses of six of their top eight scorers (Tangradi, Mashinter, Tanaka, Palmieri, Subban, Pither), and their starting goaltender (Mike Murphy). The remaining two, Bryan Cameron and Shawn Lalonde, are likely trade targets. That leaves a roster filled with guys expected to take a significantly larger role this season. Offensively, the team could actually still be fairly deep. The Bulls have some quality, hard working young talent. The likes of Stephen Johnston, Andy Bathgate, Luke Judson, Matt Tipoff, and Cody Alcock could form some solid scoring depth. Not to mention whoever the Bulls eventually get in return for Cameron and Lalonde. Defensively, Lalonde is still around and in camp, so we have to assume he at least starts the season in Belleville. He’ll be joined by Stephen Silas, who will likely assert himself as one of the top draft eligible defenseman playing in the OHL this year. Rounding out the top 4 will be two stay at home guys in Bjorn Krupp and Marc Cantin. In goal, the duties are likely to be split between Import Phil Grubauer (whom showed glimpses of brilliance last year), and first rounder Tyson Teichmann. The combination of youth at every position, with inexperienced goaltending, could be the kiss of death for the Bulls playoff chances this year. They’ll likely be some long nights in Belleville this year. Adversely, the potential is there for a lot to cheer about too. It’s unknown as to how capable this roster is, with the majority of players taking on larger, new roles. This team could likely play many of the teams in the East pretty hard. While I don’t expect they’ll be anywhere near the top of the Division, Belleville could definitely surprise a lot of people by making a serious push for a lower playoff seed.

10. Brampton Battalion
If it’s going to be a long year in Belleville, it’s going to be even longer in Brampton for the defending Eastern Conference Champions. While all of Cody Hodgson, Matt Duchene, and Evgeni Grachev are eligible to return this year, the likelihood is that none will. Grachev and Hodgson were no shows for training camp, suggesting that they are ready to move on, while Duchene has to be considered very likely to make the Colorado Avalanche. Without them, the team is pretty likely to struggle offensively. That leaves Scott Tanski and Thomas Stajan as the veterans returning at forward. They’ll be surrounded by the newly acquired Sean Jones, the youthful Sam Carrick, Phil Lane, and Dominic Alberga, and Import Valeri Knisev. In particular, keep an eye on Phil Lane. Lane recently signed with Brampton after spending last year in Buffalo Junior A, where he was one of the top younger players in the league. His under the radar signing could pay big dividends for the Battalion in the years to come. Defensively, this team will be led by Anaheim second rounder Matt Clark, who’ll have to take on a larger role offensively this year. He’ll be joined by two overagers, Ken Peroff and Brad Albert. Rounding out the top 4 will be the inexperienced Kyle Pereira. While that defense looks half decent on paper, I’d be surprised if it stays together all season. Clark and Peroff could likely fetch a fair amount in trades, should the Battalion look to a full rebuild. In goal, the enigmatic Patrick Killeen will be given the reigns and he’ll have his hands full. I’m not sure if he’s a good enough goalie to make up for the lack of goals the Battalion will score. I truly envision it being a very long season for Brampton. I’m just not sure I see a worse team in the Eastern Conference, perhaps even the OHL.

Thoughts? Your predictions are welcome too!

Stay tuned for tomorrow when the West is unveiled.

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