Today sees part 2 of my season preview, outlining my predictions for the Western Conference.
1. Windsor Spitfires
The defending OHL and Memorial Cup Champion Windsor Spitfires return this year, icing pretty much the same team they did last year. This can mean only one thing, can anyone top them? Significant players definitely gone from last year’s roster are Dale Mitchell, Andrei Loktionov, Rob Kwiet, Ben Shutron, and Andrew Engelage. It’s also unlikely that Lane MacDermid and Scott Timmins return as overagers, however Harry Young does look like a likely returnee. They’ve been replaced in the line up by Richard Panik, Cam Fowler, and Austin Brassard. At forward, Panik’s addition gives the team another big, skilled forward to play with, on top of already having Greg Nemisz, and Austin Watson in that role. A top six forward group including Taylor Hall, Greg Nemisz, Richard Panik, Adam Henrique, Austin Watson, and Eric Wellwood looks mighty dangerous. Defensively, the addition of Cam Fowler is huge. Fowler, a challenger for first overall in 2010, is a dynamic two way defenseman who instantly makes this defence even better than last year’s. With Ryan Ellis, Mark Cundari, Jesse Blacker, and likely Harry Young still around, the Spitfires defense should be every bit as dominant as last season. In net, the question marks are yet again raised. Engelage has moved on, leaving overager Josh Unice to mind the nets. Unice will need to return to the form he showed two years ago in Kitchener, if the Spitfires want to rely on solid goaltending. If not, don’t be surprised if the Spits pull the trigger to land a top goalie early in the season. Even with some goaltending concerns, there is no reason to think that this team can not repeat as OHL Champions. After all, last year’s team had the same concerns.
2. Kitchener Rangers
I know a lot of people are expecting a huge improvement from the Rangers, and with just cause. The Rangers have added six potential impact players to their roster this season, Jeremy Morin, Brandon Maxwell, John Moore, Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan Murphy, and Patrik Andersson. So am I being too bold in predicting a division championship for them? I don’t think so. Let’s break things down. The top six includes returnees Jeff Skinner, Jason Akeson, Chris MacKinnon, and Tyler Randell, in addition to new additions Jeremy Morin and Gabriel Landeskog. The Rangers also have some young, promising forward depth in the form of guys like Alex Aleardi, and Shane Prince. Defensively, the Rangers top four could be outstanding. The top pairing likely sees Columbus first rounder John Moore paired with the always dependable Dan Kelly. The second pairing likely sees talented first round rookie Ryan Murphy paired with Swedish import Patrik Andersson. If that second pairing can play up to par, this Rangers team could be very good from the net out. Brandon Maxwell is perhaps the key to success. He comes from the US Development Program with perhaps a bit of baggage, and a level of uncertainty surrounding his play. If the Avalanche draft pick can provide quality goaltending, this team could go pretty far.
3. London Knights
The million dollar question on everyone’s mind is; how much will the London Knights miss John Tavares? To which I reply, not as much as they will miss John Carlson, Matt Clarke, and Kevin Montgomery. I think defense is definitely the weak spot of this years Knights entry. It’s going to take a big effort from Michael Del Zotto (should he not make the Rangers), to keep this defensive unit afloat. The drafting of Scott Harrington was a huge help, since he should be an immediate impact player, however, the rest of the defense is a bit of a mystery. Defensive depth can definitely be called into question. Luckily enough, the Knights went out and acquired a top flight goaltender in Barrie’s Michael Hutchinson. Hutchinson, a Bruins draft pick, is a legit number one netminder and should be able to keep London in every game, even if their defense struggles. And while the offense will no doubt miss John Tavares, I’m pretty convinced they can march on without him. The Knights will still be able to roll out three solid forward lines anchored by a full set of returnees, with the obvious exception of Tavares. Blues draft pick Phil McRae should finally be able to take on that larger role he’s been ready for. While I expect a big bounce back season for Phil Varone, and a breakout season for Jared Knight. In a recent Sunday Top 10, I was asked why I didn’t include the Knights in the teams falling in the standings. The reason being that I have confidence in the Knights management (Hunter brothers) to do whatever it takes to get this team to the top 4 of the Western Conference. If the defense struggles, they’ll act quick in improving it.
4. Guelph Storm
I have to admit, when I was originally planning this article, I had the Storm ahead of the Knights in the Conference standings. I changed it at the last minute. Why? The answer is goaltending. I’m not even sure the Storm are confident in their goaltending situation, thus the recent re-acquisition of Cody St. Jacques. Harvard transfer Matt Hoyle looks to be the starter, but how good is he? Young incumbent Brandon Foote is out till at least January following hip surgery, what happens when he returns? The uncertainty around whether the Storm will get solid goaltending keeps them below the Knights for me, whom should get quality goaltending from Michael Hutchinson. Outside of the goaltending situation, the Storm look poised for a quality season. Offensively, they’ll return recent Hurricanes draft pick and captain Matt Kennedy as an overager. Also returning are the trio of 2009 NHL Draft picks, Peter Holland, Taylor Beck, and Michael Latta. The team has also gone out to acquire Niagara scoring forward Matt Sisca, who should add secondary scoring to a team that could have the ability to roll three lines capable of scoring. Defensively, the team went out and acquired Saginaw stand out Adam Comrie to shore up a blueline that lost standout overagers Tim Priamo and Nathan Martine. Comrie adds to an already gigantic blueline. None of the penciled in top 4 are shorter than 6’3, and less than 200lbs. The others being overager Corey Syvret, Import Evgeny Molotilov, and Ben Chiarot. That blueline will be exceptionally tough to play against, which bodes well for covering up the potential inconsistencies in net. The battle for the Midwest Division should be epic this season, with any of the five teams in the division having a chance.
5. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Could it be? Every team that missed the playoffs last year, in the playoffs this year? I think so. The standout for the Hounds this year will definitely be their ability to keep pucks out of the net. It starts with the acquisition of Swedish netminder and Sens draft pick Robin Lehner. He’ll join forces with the 2010 eligible Bryce O’Hagan to form quite the goaltending duo. It ends with a very underrated blueline that consists of star overagers Jacob Muzzin and Michael Quesnele, combined with talented youngsters Brandon Archibald, Brock Beukeboom, and David Mead. This blueline has it all, offense, size, and aggressive defense. At forward, the situation becomes a little more murky. I do question as to whether this team will be able to improve upon their league worst goals for last season. This is especially true considering second leading scorer Matt Lyall won’t be returning and leading scorer Jordan Nolan is unlikely to return. That leaves an offense without a leader. Power forward James Livingston needs to be that leader this season. Young center Michael Fine also needs to bring up his play. The Hounds have to be counting on large contributions from first overall pick Daniel Catenacci, and second rounder Nick Cousins too. The addition of veterans T.J. Battani, Vern Cooper and late last season Kyle DeCoste, should help too. For some reason, I just have a feeling like this team will be able to excel this season, on the backbone of its ability to keep the puck out of the net, and play in your face hockey.
6. Owen Sound Attack
I really like the make up of this Owen Sound team. I think they’ve got a really solid roster, up and down. They return most of the squad who finished 8th in the West last year, minus forward Andrew Wilkins and the traded Tyler Beskorowany. Beskorowany’s loss is not large for this team. Manning the pipes will be Scott Stajcer, who’ll be looking to establish himself as a top netminder in the league. Stajcer was solid for Owen Sound in the playoffs last year, despite the team losing in four straight to Windsor. On defense, the team recently had a bit of a blessing in disguise. Overage defenseman David Kolomatis recently came down with mono, meaning he’ll be out of action for a while. This, as terrible as it is for Kolomatis, is a blessing in disguise for Owen Sound because it means Kolomatis won’t be able to attend NHL or AHL training camp (at least not likely). That means he’s likely to return to Owen Sound to lead a strong defensive core that includes the rough and tumble Paul Bezzo and Milan Dozcy, as well as the up and coming Keevin Cutting and Curtis Crombeen. At forward, the team has a balanced scoring attack, with as many as 7 potential 20 goal scorers. This unit will be lead by Joey Hishon, who’ll look to cement himself as one of the top players available for the 2010 NHL Draft. The forwards have size, speed, and a tireless work ethic. I think the Attack are going to be a team opposing teams are going to try and avoid this season. The Midwest is a tough division, and I think Owen Sound could finish anywhere from 1 through 5, although I can’t see them finishing out of the playoffs.
7. Plymouth Whalers
I have a hard time envisioning the Whalers matching last year’s success of home ice advantage in the first round. That being said, I think they have a talented enough team to still make the playoffs. It all starts in goal, where Matt Hackett will look to prove that he’s more than a one year wonder. He was tremendous all throughout last year and into the playoffs, and it’s hard to imagine he won’t duplicate that success. Outside of the crease is where the Whalers may have some problems. Gone is the team’s leadership core of last season; Brett Bellemore, Chris Terry, and Matt Caria. Also gone are gritty role players Vern Cooper and Kaine Geldart. That leaves some talented young players to step up at both forward and defense. At forward, the offense will likely run through Tyler Seguin. But he’s going to need help, in particular from the likes of Ryan Hayes, A.J. Jenks, and R.J. Mahalak. All are capable of being scoring options, but need to become more consistent. On defense, the team is going to need Beau Schmitz and Austin Levi to step up their games, giving Michal Jordan some help in filling in for Brett Bellemore’s intimidating defensive presence. While I do think they are talented enough to make the playoffs, the Western Conference is going to be a dog fight. If some of their previous role players don’t step up to the plate, not even strong goaltending from Matt Hackett will help this team stay out of the bottom of the Division and Conference.
8. Saginaw Spirit
I’m not entirely sure how I missed them in a recent Sunday Top 10, but the Spirit are a team I definitely see falling from last season. Gone from last season are the team’s two most important offensive weapons, Jack Combs and Chris Chappell, as well as stand out defenseman Adam Comrie. The Spirit will still boast a solid blueline though. This is led by NHL draft selections T.J. Brodie and Nick Crawford. In fact, only Comrie exits a blueline that was already solid last season. An increased role for Thrashers draft pick Cody Sol could likely counteract the loss of Comrie. In goal, the team still has Edward Pasquale, who was a complete workhorse for Saginaw last season. The questions I have revolve around the teams forward unit. I think their success this year depends a lot on three players. One is Euro Import Ivan Telegin who comes over with a fair amount of hype. The others are Josh Shalla (acquired for Comrie), and Jordan Szwarz. Both showed glimpses of being excellent offensive players in this league. However, both also suffer from inconsistency. If the Spirit are going to score goals, they will need to every single forward on the roster to step up to the plate. It’ll be an interesting battle between Plymouth and Saginaw for 3rd and 4th in the West Division.
9. Erie Otters
The Otters are an interesting team to peg at this moment. A lot depends on whether they’ll get Jaroslav Janus, Zach Torquato and Luke Gazdic back as overagers. My guess is that Janus and Gazdic won’t be back, but Torquato will. That would mean the loss of 4 of the teams 7 20 goal scorers from the year before (Gazdic, Hodgman, Biggers, Jones). While the team should be able to ice a top quality first line consisting of Andrew Yogan, Ryan O’Reilly and Shawn Szydlowski, the secondary scoring unit built around Zach Torquato could be a bit of a mystery. Does highly touted draft pick Greg McKegg take steps forward this season? Even still, part of what made Erie such a good team last season, was their balanced scoring attack. I think they’ve lost that element to their offense. The loss of Janus in net would also be a big blow. Shane Owen is a largely unproven candidate as a starter, while Euro Import Ramis Sadikov faces similar questions about his talent level. On the bright side, I do like the teams defense this season. If Mitch Gaulton can stay healthy, he should be able to become a number one defenceman for this team. The rest of the defense is built around young up and comers Tyler Hostetter, David Shields, and Brett Cook, in conjunction with overager Paul Cianfrini. I think that defense can do a good job of providing both solid defense, and offensive from the back end. That being said, the Midwest Division is very tough and I do think Erie is the weakest of the five teams. Do they get beaten up playing four extremely competitive teams on a consistent basis? I think it’ll be a dogfight between Plymouth, Saginaw, and Erie to make the playoffs this season and the Otters could be on the outside looking in as I have them.
10. Sarnia Sting
On the optimistic side, not much was expected of Sarnia last year too, when they lost Steve Stamkos, Ryan Wilson, Devin Didiomete, and Andrew Perugini. Yet they managed to finish 5th in the West. This year, the Sting carry similar low expectations after the departure of Justin DiBenedetto, Jamie Arniel, Mark Katic, Dan Spence, and likely Matt Martin. Can the younger and former role players step up yet again for the Sting? I’m just not sure they’ve got it in them again this year. In particular, I’m just not sure the offense can make up for the loss of their three leading scorers. Outside of the newly acquired Kale Kerbashian, and the two Imports (Miroslav Preisinger and Ted Brithen), I’m not sure anyone on this roster is capable of scoring 20 goals at this time. Defensively, the team is likely anchored by two potential young studs in Joe Rogalski and Nathan Chiarlitti, but depth has to be a concern. In goal, if he returns, overager Adam Courchaine will do his best to stem the tide. Courchaine is a solid goalie who should keep the Sting in a lot of games, but he can only do so much. That and he’s not even guaranteed to return. I know Sting fans are remaining positive that this season can be a success, in the face of last years scrutiny. But at least last year the team was returning three 20 goal scorers (DiBenedetto, Martin, Arniel) and two veteran defenseman in Mark Katic and Steve Ferry. This year, the team is returning one player who’s scored close to 20; Kale Kerbashian. After that, no returnee even potted 10 goals during the 2008-09 season. There’s optimism and there’s realism. I just can’t see the Sting getting out of the 9th or 10th hole in the West this season.
Once again, feel free to leave comments or your own predictions!
Stay tuned for the Final part tomorrow, where I'll unveil my awards and other miscellaneous predictions.