Well folks, it's that time of year again. Training camps are under way and the preseason begins soon. The 2010-2011 Ontario Hockey League season is nearly upon us. That means it's time for every league prognosticator to look into their crystal ball and tell what they predict. I'm no different and as such, it is time for me to begin my season preview.
The season preview will come in four parts. Part one will examine the Eastern Conference. Part two will examine the Western Conference. Part three will take a look at some award predictions. And finally for part four, I've got something special planned for you. Any good season preview should weigh the opinions of resident experts. As such, I've asked several of the league's finest writers/media members to give their opinion on the upcoming season.
Keep in mind that predicting this league's results pre-season opening is incredibly difficult. This isn't like prognosticating in the NHL, where the team's best players are likely to remain the team's best players (barring some crazy trade). The OHL is the exact opposite. The unknown lies within the team's best players. What happens to Kitchener if Jeff Skinner makes the Hurricanes? What do the Spitfires do if Ryan Ellis and Cam Fowler aren't returned? Do Alex Hutchings, Dalton Prout and Alex Burmistrov return in Barrie? Star players can fall victim (hard to call it that) to making the National Hockey League, which means some teams have an air of uncertainty around them.
Today, I bring you part one of the season preview; The Eastern Conference.
1. Mississauga St. Michael's Majors
Did you really think it would be anyone else? The Memorial Cup hosts have the most talent on paper in the Eastern Conference and should run over competition in a much weaker Central Division this season. Last year, while the Majors were outstanding defensively, they just couldn't stack up offensively with Barrie (and nearly Ottawa). Ultimately, that lack of a dynamic offense really hurt them. This season, the Majors are not only returning their top five goal scorers from a year ago (Cizikas, Smith-Pelly, Mayer, Brace, Flick), but they've added Justin Shugg, Mika Partanen and probably Maxim Kitsyn. The question is...can that much firepower find success in Dave Cameron's system? In 2001/02 they did under Cameron, but that was the last time an OHL team coached by him had a player with over 75 points. Defensively, the system will be tested by the losses of Cameron Gaunce and Blake Parlett. However, the addition of Cantin in combination with other veterans (Flemming, Corrente, Billingsley) should cover up losses. Not to mention that sophomore Stuart Percy could be one of the breakout stars of this OHL season and emerge as a number one OHL defenseman. The real wild card for the Majors lies in net. Which JP Anderson shows up? Is it the one we saw in the playoffs of 2009? Or is the inconsistent one we saw all of last season? The Majors will need a steady Anderson at the top of his game to beat some of the Western Conference powers. And if he's not steady, they'll go out and get someone who is.
2. Ottawa 67's
The Eastern Division is clearly the cream of the crop of the Eastern Conference divisions this season, which means the competition for the top spot will be fierce. I truthfully would not be surprised at all if any of the five teams in that division reach first. If I was a betting man (which I am occasionally), I'd put my money on the 67's to repeat as the division champs. Here's why. They'll have two very balanced scoring lines (as they did last year), only the components of those lines are a year stronger and better. I wouldn't be surprised if Tyler Toffoli or overager Cody Lindsay are in the top five of OHL scoring at year's end. In goal, Petr Mrazek and Chris Perugini are a great 1/2 (even if I expect Mrazek to steal most of the starts as the superior goaltender). The question mark is on defense where Julien Demers and Tyler Cuma are gone. However, I think the concerns over the 67's defense are over stated. Overager Travis Gibbons is one of the most underrated players in the league and can be an anchor the way Steve Tarasuk was in London last year. Meanwhile, I'd expect Marc Zanetti and Cody Ceci to take big steps forward. They may need to go out and get a quality second pairing guy if no one steps up from the rest of the blueline group, but every team is going to have their holes.
3. Kingston Frontenacs
The Fronts finished 4th in the Eastern Conference last year after a bounce back season, so why shouldn't the expectations be higher this year (even if Fronts fans in the Mavety era continue to be skeptical)? Sure the loses of players like captain Brian Lashoff, goaltender Tyler Beskorowany, and forward Zach Harnden and Joe Pleckaitis hurt, but what team doesn't go through any changes? The key to the Fronts season is the return of Erik Gudbranson. I personally don't anticipate him being ready for the NHL this season after missing so much of last year with mono and injuries. But you never know how he performs in camp with Florida...and they do have some openings on the back end. But if Gudbranson returns to the OHL, the Fronts could have one of the strongest defensive units in the league. Gudbranson and Taylor Doherty (who's poised for a HUGE year) are a year older, wiser, and better and could make up (if the Fronts choose to) possibly the best top pairing in the entire OHL. Goaltender Philip Grubauer has a memorial cup ring and should provide the Fronts with the quality of goaltending Beskorowany supplied last year. The turning point for Kingston will be among their forward unit. There are a lot of question marks offensively for this team, and a lot of expectations being placed on young players (like Quine, Durocher, Froats). The key to all of this may be Nathan Moon. As an overager, perhaps he's motivated to have his best OHL season yet after being let go by Pittsburgh? Even if some things don't fall into place, there is likely enough of a veteran presence to make the Fronts offense passable. Which is all their defense will need if Gudbranson returns and Grubauer plays well.
4. Oshawa Generals
How about the positives? The Generals could have one of the most explosive, dynamic, and entertaining offenses in the league. New faces like Lucas Lessio, Nicklas Jensen, and Scott Laughton combine with old faces like Boone Jenner, Christian Thomas, and Alain Berger to form a lethal top 6. The Generals have enough forward depth among veterans to ice a solid forward unit overall too. So what are the negatives? The Generals may not be able to keep pucks out of their own net (as was the case last year when they gave up a league high 299 goals). It all comes down to whether the "De" twins return; Calvin de Haan and Tony DeHart. If both return, Oshawa's defense should be good enough to compensate for possibly average goaltending. But if both play professionally, it could get ugly. Realistically, I think DeHart comes back. I don't know if there will be room for him in the AHL and he could use another year in the OHL to build off his breakout season. On the flipside, I think de Haan is much more debatable. The smart thing would be to let him return to the OHL in order to make up for some development time lost last year. But the Islanders were apparently very impressed by him last year at camp and nearly kept him. The only thing that makes me think he won't make it is the fact that the Isles already have 8 defenseman with one way deals for next season, which means Calvin would have some serious competition. In goal, somebody's got to step up. Michael Zador is in his contract season and needs to impress Tampa if he wants a deal, so my money would be on him (over Bailie). It'd be a shame to spoil the efforts of a very talented offense if the Gennies can't keep the puck out of the net again. But, something tells me they'll be fine.
5. Peterborough Petes
The Petes are a very interesting team to me. On one hand, they are a veteran laden team who is returning a lot of players off last year's team. On the other hand, I'm just not sure the Petes have the offensive depth to compete with some of the other top teams of the East. Losing guys like Pat Daley, Brett Theberge and Mike Lomas could hurt more than Peterborough fans believe. Sure, Ryan Spooner, Austin Watson, and Matt Puempel should have VERY good years. But who else is going to score on this team? There isn't another player on the roster who's scored 20 goals before in this league. Are the overagers going to step up and fill in the gaps? Defensively, this team is very deep. Lots of veteran flavour and a good mix of offensive and defensive guys. That being said, is there a defenseman on the team who can step up and be the number one? Lastly, Jason Missiaen should return as an overager in net, but he's going to have to improve his consistency and help provide a stabilizing force behind a relatively average defense. I can totally see why there is optimism for the Petes heading into this season, but I think there are a lot of question marks surrounding them. I wouldn't be surprised if the team finished as high as winning their division, but I also wouldn't be surprised if the team squeaks into the playoffs yet again.
6. Niagara IceDogs
Marty Williamson's IceDogs could surprise a lot of people this year. Like any club, there are question marks, but there are a few things that I think point towards them having a great season. 1. Mark Visentin could perhaps be the best goaltender in the league this season and works harder to improve than most players in the league. Having quality goaltending goes a long way in this league and the Dogs should definitely have that. 2. On top of having good goaltending, the Dogs defense should be quite good this season. You may not know who a lot of their players are (outside of Dougie Hamilton, who should have a monster season), but they're tailored to the small ice in Niagara. Nearly all of their defenders can move the puck, and Hamilton and Mike Schwindt have the ice to close off gaps and scoring lanes. The thing holding back Niagara...as it did last year is their lack of secondary scoring. But the Dogs are returning pretty much all of their key forwards, and the hope is that many have gotten better going into this season. If players like Freddie Hamilton, Andrew Shaw, Andrew Fritsch, and Ryan Strome can step up, this Dogs team could push for home ice advantage in the first round.
7. Belleville Bulls
Quite often, it's hard to peg young teams as being successful, particularly when the Eastern Conference should be much better this season. The team's success will be riding on the development of draft eligible players like Michael Curtis, Austen Brassard, Tyson Teichmann, and Alex Basso, and 92's like Stephen Silas and Alex Aleardi. But I'm a fan of what George Burnett has done with this club and the talent that he's amassed. On top of young talent will be mixed veterans Luke Judson, Andy Bathgate, Paul Bezzo, Bjorn Krupp, Kyle DeCoste, and HOPEFULLY Richard Panik. Panik doesn't yet have a contract with Tampa Bay, despite rumours that they'd like him to play in the AHL this season. With the new regime in Tampa, I bet they let him play another year in the OHL to develop some offensive consistency. Defensively, I really like the base and Stephen Silas should have a tremendous year and establish himself as one of the best defenseman in the league. That leaves Tyson Teichmann, fresh off a convincing performance for Canada at the Ivan Hlinka. If he can play as well as he did for gold, then he'll be able to backstop this team back into the playoffs. I truly believe the Bulls to be one of the real wild card teams this season. If their young talent comes together, they could easily finish in the top four of the Eastern Conference.
8. Barrie Colts
If the Bulls are a wild card team, I'm not even sure what to call the Colts. A mystery? The unknown? There are SO many questions that this club faces heading into the season. Do Alex Burmistrov, Alex Hutchings, Kyle Clifford, and Dalton Prout return? If they return, do the Colts keep them or move them? Personally, I expect Hutchings and Prout to return, but Clifford and Burmistrov to not. The other questions revolve around the contributions of players who've never played in the OHL...or who have played very little? Just what can guys like Beyers, Hall, Scheifele, Smoskowitz, and Beranek do? Defensively, the team is a bit of a wreck, but overager Peter Di Salvo is a calming presence in net and should be able to do his best to help an unsettled defense. If Barrie returns all their players and get's heavy contributions from those unknown first year guys, than they could be a really solid team yet again this year. And if no one returns and the new guys crap the bed, it could be a long year all the way to the Jack Ferguson Award winner. Just a really hard team to project, but something tells me they could be better than I'm predicting.
9. Sudbury Wolves
No, this is not punishment for making me look bad last year when I had the Wolves finishing 4th in the East during my preseason predictions. Let's face it, the Eastern Conference is going to be more competitive this year and two teams are going fail to make the playoffs. I know Wolves fans have a TON of optimism heading into the season (and they should after a solid offseason), but here's why I think the Wolves under perform. I just don't think they've got enough talent to compete with the other teams in the Eastern Conference. While other bottom feeders from last year like Oshawa, Belleville, Niagara, and Peterborough have likely improved, I'm not sure the Wolves have. Sure, they've had a great offseason that has seen the team secure some quality players and go in a different direction, but I don't think that's enough. Although the defense has good depth, the top end talent isn't likely to overcome the lack of quality goaltending Sudbury is likely to get. Alain Valiquette is heading into his final OHL season and has yet to establish himself as a bonafide starter in this league. It's not likely to happen over night. Offensively, the additions of talented offensive players like Andrei Kuchin, Robert Visca, Mike Lomas, and Matthew Campagna should go a long way, but not far enough. The saving grace could be the return of overager Eric O'Dell if he doesn't recover from offseason heart surgery in time to make the AHL. But in that situation, I could see the Wolves dealing O'Dell to help the team build for the future. This team needs to be handed over to John McFarland. It's his team now and it's time for him to step up. Even if he does, I'm just not sure he has the necessary support to get the Wolves into the playoffs.
10. Brampton Battalion
When a defensively oriented team loses their top 3 defenseman (Clark, Peroff, Albert) and their starting goaltender (Killeen), it's not likely to be a pretty season. When a patch work and relatively raw defense sits in front of two very inexperienced goaltenders, it spells further trouble. The Battalion actually could ice a pretty solid forward unit. Outside of Cody Hodgson (who spent little time in Brampton last year anyway), Brampton is returning pretty much every key forward from last year's team. That kind of experience should help Brampton remain relatively competitive despite their defensive shortcomings, but I don't think it'll be enough to see them make the playoffs in a much stronger Conference this season. But then again, I vastly underrated the Battalion last season too. You can't underrate the value of good coaching.
Stay tuned for Part 2: The West!