Welcome to part two of the season preview, my look at the Western Conference.
Even with the improvements that most Eastern Conference teams have made, the Western Conference (as a whole) remains superior in my opinion. Teams near the bottom of these standings like Sarnia, Sault Ste. Marie, Saginaw, etc would likely be surefire playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.
Here is how I see it shaking down...
1. Kitchener Rangers
Come on, you had to have seen this coming. Is there anyone out there predicting anyone other than the Rangers to be the best team in the Western Conference this season? After such a strong performance last year, as a relatively young team, it comes as no surprise that they're the favourites to head to the Memorial Cup with Mississauga. I don't know if it's as clear cut as some analysts are making it out to be, but the Rangers do have great talent. The biggest wild card is whether Jeff Skinner returns. I think it's safe to say Jeremy Morin won't be back, which means getting Skinner back will be absolutely critical to the team's success. He is the heart and soul, as evidenced by last year's playoff performance. That being said, the team does have remarkable depth at all positions. Up front, returning players like Gabriel Landeskog, Jason Akeson, Matt Tipoff, and Tyler Randell are joined by incoming players like Tobias Reider and Matia Marcantuoni. One line in particular to look out for in the "size" department is that of Tyler Randell, Andrew Crescenzi, and Ben Thomson. On defense, The Rangers have added NHL draft picks Cody Sol and Julian Melchiori to dynamic sophomore Ryan Murphy. And in net, Brandon Maxwell is ready for year two in the league and should be one of the better tenders in the OHL. With Jeff Skinner, this team is the hands on favourite to win the West. Without him, they'll still be good, but quite possibly not good enough to hold off London, Guelph, Owen Sound, or Erie. The balls in your court Carolina Hurricanes.
2. Windsor Spitfires
But they're rebuilding! While that may be true, a rebuild for the Windsor Spitfires seems to be a little different than a rebuild for the Belleville Bulls or the Sarnia Sting (as you saw last season). We're talking about a team who'll still ice a quality top 6 that includes the likes of Zack Kassian, Kenny Ryan, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Alex Khokhlachev. And we're talking about a team who still has two NHL first rounders on defense to go with other quality youngsters like Nick Ebert, Craig Duininck and Steve Trojanovic. Sure, there's a chance that Ellis and Fowler don't come back. And if they do, there's a chance that they could be traded. But let's also remember two things. 1. The return for either of those players would likely (I'm sure Windsor fans would be HUGELY disappointed otherwise) include several quality young roster players. 2. The Spits could have the best goaltender in the OHL this season, Jack Campbell. Lastly, and I think this is the main reason I see the Spits still taking the division, I just don't see the competition in the West Division to be that strong. I think Sarnia and Saginaw have taken steps forward, while the Hounds and the Whalers have taken steps backwards. The wide open nature of the division also leads me to believe that Rychel and Co. also see this and will do everything in their power to remain competitive at the same time they attempt to re-tool.
3. London Knights
I'm not really sure why everyone is down on the Knights for this season. Sure, there's no Kadri, but the Knights have built up a very solid team, perhaps one that is more complete and well rounded than last year's Midwest division championship squad. For my money, they are the 3rd best team in the league heading into the season (behind Kitchener and Missy). Up front, a lack of size may be a bit of a problem, but speed and scoring shouldn't be. The Knights will probably be able to ice three scoring lines anchored by the likes of Jared Knight, overages Phil Varone and Chris DeSousa, and incoming Russian Vlad Namestnikov. Defensively and in net, the Knights will be equally as strong. Jarred Tinordi, Scott Harrington, and Michael D'Orazio make up a very solid two way top three, while either Igor Bobkov or Michael Houser should be excellent in net. While Bobkov's future with the Knights is still up in the air, I'd expect him to end up in London. We're talking about a veteran netminder here (1991 born player) and someone who could end up being the best goalie in the league this season. The Knights are just a solid all around team.
4. Owen Sound Attack
I have to admit, I'm a little bit afraid of putting Owen Sound this high after last season's disaster. But I'm willing to go on a little faith; faith that the kinks have been worked out and the team is ready to win again. They certainly have the talent for it. Up front, the team might have the best top six behind the Kitchener Rangers, with Garrett Wilson, Joey Hishon, Steve Shipley, Bobby Mignardi and probably Jason Wilson and Roman Berdnikov. If Hishon is healthy, he could challenge for the OHL scoring title, which would be a huge step forward in his development. On defense, the team is solid with a mix of size, skill, and two way talent. Jesse Blacker, Geoffrey Schemitsch, Matt Stanisz, Keevin Cutting, and Curtis Crombeen will all be expected to take steps forward in shoring up one of the league's worst defensive teams last year. The key ingredient will be Scott Stajcer in net. The Rangers draft pick is in his contract year and will need to put things together on a consistent basis this season. With the tightness of their division, if any of the above things falter, the Attack could be looking at another disappointing season.
5. Erie Otters
The midwest division is so strong this season. The Otters return all core players save leading scorer Zack Torquato, defenseman Paul Cianfrini, and goaltender Adam Courchaine. They have three 30 goal scorers (McKegg, Cazzola, Luciani) and 2 20 goal scorers (Yogan, Szydlowski) returning from last season. In fact, the Otters are one of only three teams in the OHL (Guelph and Ottawa are the others) who can say they'll be returning three 30 goal scorers; AND of those three, Erie is the only one returning more than one 20 goal scorer. Needless to say, the Otters could have an explosive offense. Defensively, the teams top 4 (arguably) return this season; Gaulton, Holden, Hostetter, and Shields. You can also expect behemoth Brady Austin to play a much larger role (no pun intended) this season. In net is where things get a little murky. Ramis Sadikov will likely carry the majority of the starts this season after backing up Courchaine/Janus last year. He was wildly inconsistent and will have to really step up his game if he wants to remain the starter all season. Maybe a rookie like Chris Festarini can push him to be better? Needless to say, a weakness in goal shouldn't hold back the Otters too much...and if it does, I'm sure Sherry Bassin makes a move to help.
6. Saginaw Spirit
Again, I'm not understanding the lack of love the Spirit are getting. I saw THN recently predicted they'd be at the bottom of the West standings. But I see a young, invigorated team who've got a potential top 2011 draft pick joining them (Brandon Saad), and one of the league's best goalies last year joining them (Mavric Parks). At forward, the Spirit could be three lines deep, depending on the progression of some younger players like Vincent Trocheck, Anthony Camara, Garrett Ross, etc. They'll be a hard working unit with enough skill to make you pay for your mistakes or laziness. On defense, they may not stack up quite as well as some other teams in the West, but they are by no means the weakest. All defenseman from last year return save Jordan Hill, but he's been replaced by overager Matt Ashman. Ryan O'Connor will likely try to make this defense his and take that next step in his development after getting passed over in the 2010 NHL Draft. And in goal, Mavric Parks is a tremendous goaltender who has the ability to bail out a defense who may or may not have some difficulty at times. I like the make up of this team, and I think they'll be the biggest challenge to Windsor for the division title.
7. Guelph Storm
While the Storm may not have the depth other teams in the league have, they have enough veteran talent to make me believe that they'll be strong this season. In particular, Taylor Beck and Peter Holland have a chance to lead the league in scoring this season. Steps forward from youngsters like Carter Sandlak, Cody McNaughton, and Zack Mitchell would go a long way in helping the team win games too. On defense, the acquisition of Daniel Maggio really helps what was originally looking like a lackluster unit. But Maggio should form with Sam Lofquist on the team's number one unit. A breakout season from someone like Tim Campbell or Matthew Maione would also be tremendous for the Storm, who'll likely need someone to step forward and become a legitimate top three defenseman in the league. In goal, Brandon Foote looks to build off last season's strong performance after returning from hip surgery. He was great for Guelph and really stabilized the team upon his return. With a season of good health, he could really make a name for himself in this league after starting his career so promising in Brampton only to fizzle from the spotlight. While Guelph does have some holes, no team in the middle of a conference is going to be perfect. The Storm have the best chance of ironing out some of those kinks in order to have a strong season, at least in my opinion.
8. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Last year, the Hounds won by playing solid in your face defensive hockey. They had the OHL defenseman of the year in Jacob Muzzin, and an OHL all star in Robin Lehner in net. This year, those two players are gone (in addition to Michael Quesnele and Jordan Nolan). Losing four key players in any year is tough, but when those players make up a large part of the team identity, it's even tougher. Are the Hounds going to be good enough on defense and in net to play solid defensive hockey again? And if not, is the offense going to be that much better to compensate? I'm hesitant to answer yes to both of those questions, which has me ranking the Hounds at 8th in the West. Yes, the offense should be better this season with the return of 40 goal scorer Brett Thompson (maybe the most underrated player in the league), and the inevitable improvements from Daniel Catenacci and Nick Cousins. But when you compare it to other units in the league (or the teams in front of them), is it better...or even equal? Defensively, the loss of Muzzin and Quesnele will hurt the most. Brock Beukeboom and Brandon Archibald are excellent defenseman, but I'm not sure they're ready to fill those shoes...especially on the powerplay where Sault Ste. Marie ranked 4th last season (thanks to 18 combined goals from Muzzin and Quesnele). And in net, Bryce O'Hagan has to step up. He started off last season tremendously, but once Robin Lehner got rolling, he was phased out and appeared to lose confidence. The Hounds need him to become that strong, dependable number one goaltender this season and whether he can do that or not remains a big mystery. So while many others seem to be pegging the Hounds for bigger and better things, I'm not quite as confident.
9. Sarnia Sting
One thing is for certain, the Sting should have a very exciting young team this season. Brett Ritchie, Brandon Francisco, Nail Yakupov, Nic Latta, Alex Galchenyuk. That's an exciting young make up at the forward position. Throw in a veteran like Kale Kerbashian and the Sting should be a difficult team to contain offensively. The question is, with so much youth, will that offense come in spurts, or will it be consistent? Quite often with young teams, there's a learning curve and I think at times this team could struggle. Defensively, the team looks identical to last season, which means guys like Nathan Chiarlitti and Joe Rogalski are going to have to step up their games to avoid giving up another 295 goals this season. This is especially true when the goaltending position is shrouded with mystery. Who's the starter? Shayne Campbell, last year's starter? The newly acquired John Cullen? The newly drafted Brandon Hope? Either way, I'm not sure I have confidence in any of those three to be good ENOUGH to backstop a young team and pull them through some rough patches. I love what the Sting have done moving forward to the future and next season, this team could be sensational...but right now I'm just not sure they'll be strong enough to seriously contend in the Western Conference.
10. Plymouth Whalers
Let me preface this one with, yes this ranking assumes Tyler Seguin will not be returning this season. Without Seguin, A.J. Jenks, Phil McRae, Josh Brittain, Ryan Hayes, and Joe Gaynor, this team is going to lose 131 goals from last season. That means Robbie Czarnik returns as the most accomplished goal scorer from last season with 17. No other team in the league is returning not a single 20 goal scorer from last season, and only two teams are returning one (Sarnia and Sudbury). That means the Whalers are going to be asking nearly every single forward on their roster to have a career season in the OHL. To me, that seems like an awfully tall order. Can R.J. Mahalak and James Livingston finally have big years? Is Garrett Meurs going to take over this team the way Tyler Seguin did last year? Are rookies like Adam Nanji and Rickard Rakell going to produce? I just don't see it happening. And while the Whalers could likely struggle offensively, they should actually be a pretty solid defensive club. Beau Schmitz, Austin Levi, Jay Gilbert and likely import Dario Trutmann (or vet Josh Bemis,/youngster Colin MacDonald) could make up a quality top four. And having Scott Wedgewood in net, ready to improve, should mean that the Whalers could be a tough team to play against. But being tough to play against and winning are two different things. I just think that offensively, this club has too many question marks to beat out other strong teams in the West for a playoff spot.
Stay tuned for part three: Award predictions!