Thursday, September 1, 2011

2011-12 Season Preview - Eastern Conference

Another Ontario Hockey League season is upon us. That means it's time to play the role of prognosticator, predictor of the future. The season preview will come in three parts. This is part one, an examination of the Eastern Conference. The other two parts will look at the West and at the awards to be handed out in 2011-2012.

The thing that makes predicting outcomes in the OHL so difficult, is the uncertainty surrounding the return of certain star players. You've got several players in the league who are candidates to play in the NHL next year. You've also got a lot of overage players trying to earn contracts or the chance to play in the AHL. The return or departure of these players can make a big difference. For example, what happens to the Eastern Conference favourite Niagara IceDogs if Ryan Strome and Dougie Hamilton make the NHL, and Alex Friesen impresses enough at Canucks camp to earn a contract and a spot in the AHL? Are they still the favourites of the East? The unpredictability is exciting (and nerve racking) for fans and league executives alike.

Here's my preview of the East.

1. Niagara IceDogs
While the Generals and 67's should have terrific teams this season, I think it's safe to say that Niagara is the favourite to win the East right now. And why shouldn't they be? Their offense is anchored around an extremely veteran presence. Besides Ryan Strome, their top 6 forwards will be comprised of 19 and 20 year olds. They've got a very well rounded defense that is anchored by lottery pick Dougie Hamilton, and playing in net is arguably the league's best goaltender, Mark Visentin. The core of this team has been through a couple fairly long playoff runs and they know what it takes to win. Couple that with the fact that they've got a large advantage when playing in the smaller confines of the Jack Gatecliff. The only thing stopping them is the potential departure of Ryan Strome or Dougie Hamilton to the NHL. The loss of either would be a significant blow, although one would have to think that Marty Williamson would be quick to fill the void via trade.

2. Oshawa Generals
The East Division should be a real dogfight this season, between the 67's and Generals. Two very dangerous offensive line ups, but I'm giving the nod to Oshawa because I think their veteran laden defense (anchored by overagers Scott Valentine and Danny Maggio) will stand up to the rigors of the OHL season a tad better. Their forward group is damn scary and possibly the best in the entire league. Just how much better will players like Nicklas Jensen, Lucas Lessio, Boone Jenner, Scott Laughton, etc be this season? It was a young line up last year and this year they should be stronger and more consistent. The real wild card for the Generals is...or at least was in net. The acquisition of Daniel Altshuller should help Oshawa fans sleep a little more easy. But as much as he's accomplished this early in his career (Gold at the Under 17's and at the Ivan Hlinka), is he truly ready to be a top flight goaltender in this league?

3. Ottawa 67's
With Tyler Toffoli and Shane Prince (and maybe even Ryan Martindale), the 67's will definitely be able to put the puck in the net. Sean Monahan is a potential break out candidate if he ends up centering that dangerous first line. In net, the 67's have the energetic Petr Mrazek, who has proven himself to be one of the better goaltenders in this league. He'll be playing in his third OHL season and should have a fantastic year. I think the question mark lies in the team's defense. Overager Marc Zanetti will be the anchor with Cody Ceci providing solid support in his draft season. But can enough of the young guys step up to fill in the gaps like Ryan Shipley or Taylor Fielding, or can Jake Cardwell or Michal Cajkovsky really up their game?

4. Sudbury Wolves
IMO the Wolves are one of the most intriguing teams going into the season. They finished last year with a lot of momentum and are returning most of their critical components. Team chemistry is huge and if the Andrei Kuchin, Michael Sgarbossa, Josh Leivo first line can really find that magic again, Sudbury would be provided with a dynamic offense. The defense is identical to last year, and again, chemistry will play a large part (like the solid duo of Justin Sefton and Frank Corrado). The big question mark will be in net. Import and Blackhawks draft pick Johan Mattsson comes after having success in Sweden, but who really knows how well he adapts to the OHL? If Mattsson plays well and some of the team's younger forwards (Kontos, Silk, Schutt, Campagna, etc) show significant improvement, I could actually see the Wolves challenging for 3rd in the Conference.

5. Mississauga St. Michael's Majors
There is absolutely no denying that the Majors will not be as good as they were last year. As what happens with most Memorial Cup challengers the following season, the team is faced with filling the voids left by several key contributors of 2010-2011 (such as captain Casey Cizikas). But, I don't think this is a full on rebuilding least not yet. The Majors still have veterans Devante Smith Pelly, Stuart Percy, and JP Anderson (among others), and should get increased offensive contributions from the likes of Joe Cramarossa, Mika Partanen, and Jordan Mayer. Import Sergei Kuptsov has been turning heads in camp so far too. But there is some uncertainty surrounding the team. Just how well does the team play without Dave Cameron (even if James Boyd employs a similar system)? What happens if Devante Smith Pelly makes the Ducks (as some Anaheim fans are envisioning)? The Majors should be good, just not great this year.

6. Peterborough Petes
I think everyone was disappointed with the season the Petes had last year. Goaltending was terrible. Injuries plagued the team. Key players failed to take steps forward. So what makes them resistant to a repeat performance again this season? I think you have to point to a few good things that happened this offseason. One was the acquisition of Mike Morrison from Kitchener, who proved himself a very capable goaltender last year and is now a solid veteran presence. The second was the selection of Peter Ceresnak in the import draft, who should help to solidify the team's defensive situation (along with an improved Slater Koekkoek and hyped second rounder Steven Varga). This will be a big year for Matt Puempel and Austin Watson, who shouldered a lot of the blame for last year's poor performance. Hopefully these two can have excellent offensive seasons and get the Petes back some respect.

7. Brampton Battalion
I thought Brampton would have been one of the worst team's in the league last season. And even though they were atrocious offensively, they won games thanks to the always dependable defensive system employed by Stan Butler. Of course it always helps when you've actually got a great defense like Stan Butler should have this season. While they're young, they have the potential to be one of the league's best defenses in a few years. Offensively, the team will likely still be challenged to score on a consistent basis, even if the team's forwards are a largely veteran group. They'll need a better performance from the likes of Sam Carrick and Phil Lane if they want to finish higher than the bottom of the East.

8. Belleville Bulls
You have to be curious about the Bulls and their progression as a team. This is a young team with a lot of good young talent. But also a team that appears to be surrounded by a bit of turmoil. Gone are four of the players that they team hoped would really explode as OHL players last season (Andy Bathgate, Tyson Teichmann, Steven Strong, Alex Basso), however the team is still left with a lot of quality young talent...especially at forward with the likes of Austen Brassard, Michael Curtis, Brendan Gaunce, and Carter Sandlak. The question is whether these players finally take that next step or not. One thing is for sure, the Bulls believe they've got a quality starting goaltender in Malcolm Subban. I'm quite curious as to how he handles a full season as the team's unquestioned starter. Really, the Bulls could finish anywhere from home ice in the first round (if the team's young talent explodes), or out of the playoffs (if those same young players falter again).

9. Barrie Colts
There is absolutely no denying that this year's Colts' team is better than last year's. There is also no denying that being better than last year's team is pretty damn easy. But the team made some very shrewd moves this offseason which should definitely make Barrie a contender for a playoff spot. They added Ivan Telegin to give Mark Scheifele some help down the middle and added Reid McNeil and Derek Hartwick to provide veteran presence on the blueline. It also remains to be seen just how large of an impact Aaron Ekblad will have, considering his age and the position he plays. But with the aforementioned Scheifele and Telegin, along with Colin Behenna, Eric Locke, Steven Beyers, amongst others, Barrie's offense could actually be quite strong. I think, like most teams, one of the keys will be in net. Seems like Clint Windsor will probably be relied upon as the starter, with other characters looming in the shadows. If Windsor shows solid progression and can play consistently, Barrie could be a surprise team.

10. Kingston Frontenacs
I'm sad to say it, but I think it's going to be a very ugly season in Kingston this year. I just don't see any way that this team can be a playoff team. On defense, the team has a total of two players who have over 10 games experience in the OHL (Alex Gudbranson and Jeff Braithwaite). Offensively, the Fronts have only one forward who's scored more than 15 goals in a season (Ryan Spooner). And in net, the team is relying on Igor Bobkov, who despite all the hype, was quite bad for London last year. For my money, Kingston has to be front runner for the Jack Ferguson Award winner of 2012.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in the coming days.

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