With the majority of OHL teams at or very close to reaching the half way point of the 2009-10 season (34 games), I figured this would be the perfect time to review the biggest stories of the season thus far.
10. Not a Very Strong Storm in Guelph
Picked by many prognosticators (including myself) to finish near the top of the Western Conference, the Storm have done the exact opposite, currently finding themselves tied for dead last in the West. Now granted, the Storm have had their share of injuries, the biggest being the long term injury of their captain Matt Kennedy. But for the most part, others have rotated in and out of the line up. The biggest problem has been team defense and goaltending, with the Storm having the second worst goals against average in the league at 4.1 goals given up per game. The team brought in two netminders this season to try and rectify a situation that looked like it could have been ugly, NCAA defector Matt Hoyle, and OHL veteran Cody St. Jacques. Neither has been the answer. First step to rehabilitation is getting healthy. Hopefully in the second half of the season, the team can get their offensive stars healthy and on the ice at the same time. Second step will be an improvement in net. The question then remains, rather than going out and trying to improve, do the Storm instead become sellers and move attractive pieces like Adam Comrie, Matt Kennedy, and Matt Sisca in order to pick up pieces that could help the team more next season?
9. Disaster in Niagara
It has not been a good year in St. Catharines for the Niagara IceDogs. Let's recap the year so far. Coach Mario Chicillo gets fired just before the start of training camp, an odd time to make a coaching and philosophy change. Top 10 pick Lucas Lessio fails to report, deciding to make a verbal commitment to Michigan instead. The team fails to get defenseman and captain Alex Pietrangelo back from the St. Louis Blues. And lastly, one of the teams best and longest serving players, Chris DeSousa walks out on the team demanding a trade. Add that all up and you get an IceDogs team who currently holds down last place in the OHL. Jeez, remember when I had the Dogs finishing 7th in the conference in my season preview and some of their fans called me a fool for having them too low? Not looking so good now. But let's be honest, there is talent in Niagara and they are definitely underachieving. However, a change needs to occur. The team needs to get this DeSousa situation sorted out soon and get a half decent warm body back in return. An overall roster shake up, or another coaching change probably wouldn't hurt either. There's a reason we play 68 games in a season and not 34. The Dogs have time (and the talent) to turn things around and try to put a bright spot on an otherwise dim season.
8. What? There is an Overage Player Limit? Crap! - "The Windsor Spitfires"
Obviously Warren Rychel and Bob Boughner did realize that there is an overage player limit in this league, but what they could not have predicted was the number of overage players returned to them. When the season started, it was a pretty common assumption that defenseman and captain Harry Young would be returned for another year. However, pretty much every fan of the Spitfires had written off the returns of Scott Timmins and Dale Mitchell. But here we are, middle of the December and both are back and playing for the Spits. Windsor started the year with four overagers (Young, Unice, O'Donnell, Baldwin). Now they've got three, only one of which was on the roster to start the season. Obviously this is great news for Windsor as both Timmins and Mitchell return to provide veteran leadership and scoring and make the team that much stronger. It also serves an important purpose in that the team now has more depth at forward and could possibly afford to trade some of that depth in return for a starting goaltender.
7. Not to Toot My Own Horn or Anything (Cough, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Cough)
Nearly every OHL prognosticator had the Soo Greyhounds near the very bottom of the league in their preseason predictions...save one. ME! I said that solid team defense and excellent goaltending would make that Hounds team a surprise of the Western Conference (here). Sure enough, here we are at the half way point and the Hounds currently sit...5th in the Western Conference. They started the year red hot and had everyone jumping on their bandwagon. Then they went ice cold and people shot them down as a pretender and a team now showing their true colours. However, I never lost faith. As a young team, they will go through their ups and downs, but they have the talent to finish right near the middle of the West when all is said and done. I'm curious to see if they make a move for another quality forward to help them in the playoffs.
6. Saginaw's Loss is Barrie's Gain
At the beginning of November, a huge trade sent shock waves through the entire OHL. The second place Saginaw Spirit had traded their two best defenseman, T.J. Brodie and Nick Crawford to the Barrie Colts in exchange for sophomores Ryan O'Connor and Michael Sgarbossa. While the trade made sense (and still makes sense to me considering how much it will help the team next year and the year after), it had to be tough for Spirit fans and players to swallow the move. Admittedly...I didn't think the trade would effect Saginaw as negatively as it has. Just look at the records of before and after the trade. Before the trade Saginaw Spirit: 13-6. After the trade Saginaw Spirit: 3-10. The team has not adjusted well to the change at all. Meanwhile, the trade has paid HUGE dividends for the Barrie Colts who've won 19 games in a row with Brodie and Crawford in their line up and look poised to be Memorial Cup contenders.
5. The Cody Hodgson Saga
Rewind to the beginning of August. Cody Hodgson is not only expected to make the Vancouver Canucks, but he's being penciled in as the favourite for the rookie of the year over first overall pick John Tavares. That's when things started to go bad. Hodgson struggled terribly at Canucks camp, citing a bad back as the reason. The Canucks cut him, something that seemed impossible to start the season, and news broke that Hodgson's back was worse than previously thought. Fast forward to the present, and Hodgson still hasn't played a game with the Brampton Battalion this season, and has dropped out of the Canadian World Junior camp because his back is still not at 100%. He's been practicing with Brampton for a while now, but has still yet to play. Which makes you wonder, will he ever play this season?
4. Will the Real Leader of the East Division Please Stand Up?
The Eastern Conference's East Division has been the black mark in the OHL so far this season. Four teams going back and forth from below .500 to above it, with no team looking head and shoulders above the other. The Peterborough Petes have had the division lead for the majority of the season, but each of Kingston, Oshawa and Ottawa have had their hot streaks. Heck, at this point even the Belleville Bulls aren't out of the running, should they get hot in the second half. The division as a whole is just not very strong, with every team having holes in their line up. The question then remains, will someone step up in the second half and claim themselves the true cream of the crop in the division?
3. The Hall, Seguin, Fowler Debate
Once considered the hands on favourite to be drafted first overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Taylor Hall now finds himself with competition. It's not as though Hall's played poorly, it's that two other players have stepped up to compete. Cam Fowler came into the league with a ton of hype this offseason and hasn't lived down the expectations, leading OHL defenseman in scoring. Tyler Seguin is the one who's really exploded and entered the discussion with a tremendous first half to the season. In fact, NHL's Central Scouting currently has Seguin rated first overall. The debate between these three will go the rest of the season and right up until the entry draft in June. For my money though, I still take Taylor Hall.
2. The Dominance of the Barrie Colts
While many expected the Colts to finish first in the Eastern Conference (myself included), I did not expect them to be THIS dominant. Winners of 19 in a row and counting, the Colts went a huge stretch without even losing a period to another team. They've just flat out been running over the competition. They ice three scoring lines that can out skate you, out score you, check you, and beat you up. The balance is just incredible. The addition of Brodie and Crawford to the blueline has really made this team more complete. If their goaltending can hold up, they could really give Windsor a run for their money. I don't know about you, but I've got January 14th marked down in my calendar (the first meeting of the season between Barrie and Windsor).
1. The Michael Liambas Hit on Ben Fanelli
It's been debated to death, was it clean, was it legal, was the suspension merited? Truthfully, I didn't want to put this at number one considering the black mark it left on the league in the National media. However, you can't argue that it wasn't the league's top story of the first half. Everybody and anybody was talking about it. That being said, let's look at the positives now that we're a month and a half separated from the incident. Rangers defenseman Ban Fanelli is alright and recovering from the skull fracture and concussion he suffered. The early consensus is that there will be no lasting effects on his playing ability and that he should be able to continue his OHL career in due time. Meanwhile, Liambas has moved on as well, signing a professional contract with the IHL's Bloomington Prairie Thunder. The only negative thing left over from this incident appears to be the president it set for league suspensions. From now on, any hit deserving a suspension in this league will be compared to this incident (as it has already this season). And unfortunately, the league's consistency will be called into question time and time again.
What are your thoughts on the first half of the 2009-10 OHL season?