The 2013-14 season opens up on Thursday, which means it's time for every prognosticator to look into their crystal ball to predict the future. As always, I'll be releasing my season preview in three parts; a breakdown of the East, West, and concluded with an awards prediction.
The OHL will certainly undergo a power shift this year, with how strong the Eastern Conference is. There are 4 or 5 teams in the East who would be 2nd best team in the West (behind London), which definitely hasn't been the case in recent years. Having said that, it should go without saying that the East is going to be very competitive and hard to predict this year. There are a lot of strong teams, but also teams with question marks. How will Barrie and North Bay's goaltending be? Will the Petes stay healthy and finally live up to expectations? Can the youthful Frontenacs play like a veteran squad?
Here's how I think it will all play out...
1. Barrie Colts (Central Division Champs)
Their dominance this preseason was no fluke. The Colts are a team that will be a force to be reckoned with at the top of the Eastern Conference for the third year in a row. The big question mark is how will their goaltending be? Alex Fotinos is returning and is a former higher draft selection by the team. But with Mathias Niederberger holding down the fort the last few years, his development hasn't really gone the way they might have anticipated. That's why they've brought in another Import, Daniel Gibl, who has apparently looked very strong so far. Between the two of them, I think the Colts will at least get adequate goaltending, that will be slightly masked by the strength of their forward and defensive groups. At forward, it's a heavily veteran group lead by one of the strongest OA groups in the league; Mitchell Theoret, Zach Hall, and Tyson Fawcett. I also expect Andreas Athanasiou to have a huge season, after last year's breakout. Their forwards all play the game hard, protect the puck well, and excel at both ends. The Colts' defense is obviously anchored by Aaron Ekblad. He'll be flanked by Jonathan Laser, and the two of them have developed terrific chemistry. Jake Dotchin is the real key on the backend, as for the first time in his OHL career, he'll have to play a critical role. I think he's up to the challenge. The overall experience level of Barrie's core players is the reason why I've got them pegged for first in the Conference.
2. Kingston Frontenacs (East Division Champs)
Sort of the opposite of the Colts, the Frontenacs are a largely young team who relies on a solid group of 95's and 96's to do most of their damage. The rebuilding process has certainly come along quicker than anticipated due to some great drafting in Kingston. I do admit that this might be an aggressive ranking, but I have a lot of faith in the Fronts young leadership group. Offensively, they're about as deep and talented as any group in the league. They'll be able to roll out three scoring lines who can do damage. The best of the bunch will obviously be the re-united Bennett, Watson, and Ikonen line, which should be one of the best in the entire OHL this year. All three players could eclipse the 80 point mark this year IMO. Defensively, this team is as strong as it's been in years. The thing that I really like about this group is that they're all capable of moving the puck. That will help their transition game a lot and should limit turnovers in their own end. I'm particularly interested to see how Roland McKeown develops this year and whether he becomes the team's leader on the backend, as he showed flashes of becoming already last year. In goal, the acquisition of Matt Mahalak was a good one. Not too long ago, he was an excellent goaltender in this league. Last year was one for him to forget, but he should be motivated to try and earn an NHL contract as an overager. I think he'll do a fine job for them. Despite the inexperience this team has compared to some of their competitors, I think the talent level is too high to keep them from earning home ice in the first round.
3. Sudbury Wolves
There is absolutely no question that the key to this season's success for the Wolves is the development of their defense. The rest of the pieces are there, but their defense definitely have some question marks. The team's potential top defenseman, Jeff Corbett, isn't even incredibly experienced and he's been unable to avoid injury during his young career. And the likes of Stefan LeBlanc, Kyle Capobianco, David Eccles, and Conor Cummins are all young and lacking OHL experience. OA veterans Jimmy McDowell and Kevin Raine, while solid, have also never been workhorses in their OHL careers. Having said all that, I'm cautiously optimistic that they'll figure it out. I think Corbett will stay healthy and he'll have a big year. I also really like their young defenseman, in particular LeBlanc and Capobianco. And it's not like they've got to be perfect, since the Wolves might have the best goaltender in the Eastern Conference in Franky Palazzese. I think he's going to have a terrific year. Offensively, this team has a balanced attack. If his performance at the Traverse City tournament is any indication, Nick Baptiste is ready to take that next step forward and be a more consistent player. "The Dominik's", Sudbury's returning imports, should also be better with a year of OHL experience on their belt. Adding Connor Crisp was also a great move, as he's going to bring some size and truculence to the top 6 that this team was previously lacking IMO. He could be a big asset on the powerplay this year. As long as their defense comes together, I think the Wolves will have a solid year.
4. Peterborough Petes
Making this prediction, I have to ask myself, "are you really putting the Petes this high again after they've burned you the past two years?" Maybe I'm nuts, but I couldn't help but do it again. I think this team is just too talented on paper to suggest otherwise. And the way that this group played for Jody Hull down the stretch last year was incredibly encouraging. The key to their season will be the health of Nick Ritchie. Offensively, they're going to run through him. If he can stay healthy, he's going to have a monster season and as their sole game breaker, he's going to take a lot of pressure of their 2nd and 3rd offensive units. The development of Eric Cornel will also be critical, as he's going to need to be the team's 2nd or 3rd line center this year. Just how effective their secondary scoring is will be dependent on how far he's come. Judging from what I've heard from sources I trust, he's looked good this preseason and at the Ivan Hlinka camp (even though he didn't make it), which suggests he should be ready for that aforementioned larger role. I think goaltending will also be a strength for this team as Andrew D'Agostini will return as an overager and Michael Giugovaz will be a year more experienced. Between the two of them, Peterborough's goaltending should be in good hands. Like Sudbury, their defense is a bit of a question mark, but I do have faith in Brandon Devlin and his ability to develop into a top flight OHL defender. I also think Matt Spencer is going to come in and be an immediate impact player, giving the Petes a solid top four with Seymour, Boland and Trojanovich (some combination of the three). While they've got some warts, I firmly believe that Hull will get this team playing top flight hockey and put them in contention for a top four seed.
5. Belleville Bulls
The Bulls are certainly the one team that I might be underselling here. They certainly have the talent to be higher on this list. They have a great depth at center (Gaunce, Quine, Cairns, Hooey, Petti, etc), which is very important in this league. In particular, Gaunce (should he return from Vancouver, which I anticipate he will) and Quine (assuming he returns) could be two of the top centers in the league and will instantly make any winger they play with better. The problem (for me) is the lack of depth on the wings, even if a few of the guys I mentioned above play out of position on the wing. I don't see a ton of goal scoring potential on this team and I think they could struggle to be a consistent offensive force, at least in comparison to the other top teams in the East. Defensively, they're going to need Brady Austin to be much better this year, after last year's disappointing step backwards. He needs to be the team's rock defensively, while Subban and Worrad run the offensive side of things. All in all, it's a younger defense that could struggle at times on the big ice, with more space for opposing forwards to operate. In net, Charlie Graham should be good. With Malcolm Subban gone, the crease is his now and it'll be interesting to see how he handles the increased workload. With the inconsistencies I expect from this team offensively, and the shakiness defensively, he's going to really have to be on his game, night in and night out. Overall, the Bulls have some strong veteran talent and that will take them pretty far, I just don't think they're as talented and deep as some of the other top contenders in the East.
6. North Bay Battalion
Like any good Stan Butler squad, the strength of the Battalion will be on defense. Only Cameron Wind is gone from last year's already strong defense. Workhorses Zach Bell, Marcus McIvor, Dylan Blujus, and Brendan Miller (likely) return to give North Bay a very solid and veteran oriented blueline. Blujus and Miller will anchor the powerplay, while Bell and McIvor will hold down the fort shorthanded. One thing to keep an eye out for is Bell's situation in the Winnipeg organization. He was recently assigned to St. John's camp (their AHL affiliate) with the chance to crack that roster. He's obviously impressed Jets management enough to earn a longer look. His loss would be felt hard. Another question is, just how much can this defense make up for inexperienced (and perhaps weak) goaltending? Butler's system will mask this deficiency to some extent, but I don't think it will be good enough to vault this team to the upper echelon of the conference. Up until today, the real question mark has been what's going on with Barclay Goodrow? The team's captain has been a no show thus far and was trying to earn a pro contract in the Detroit system. But he's informed Stan Butler that he's returning for his overage season. While the likes of Blake Clarke, Brandon Robinson, Nick Paul, Mike Amadio, and rookie Brett McKenzie are all terrific players and key offensive cogs, none bring the leadership capabilities and overall game that Goodrow does. So his return comes with a sigh of relief. But I still wonder if Stan's system can work without an elite and confident goaltender. Offensively, this team could still struggle to be consistent and that could hurt them in higher scoring games. But...if the goaltending ends up being surprisingly strong, and the young forwards all take steps forward, the Battalion could be a lot stronger than I'm predicting. My only goal this season is to avoid calling them Brampton.
7. Ottawa 67's
I don't think it's going to be quite as bad of a year in Ottawa as some are predicting. This is a better team than last year's last place squad. Even if Sean Monahan sticks in Calgary (and if he doesn't, he's probably trade bait), I have faith in Ottawa's ability to make the playoffs. They've got a couple of talented young centers in Dante Salituro and first overall pick Travis Konecny and they're going to flank them with some great size on the wing (Van Stralen, Hill, Bell, Fielding). Based on his preseason performance, it looks like Clint Windsor is determined to end his OHL career on a high note. If anything, having a very experienced goaltender can help calm a younger and developing defense. And while this defense is young and inexperienced, it's not without talent. The likes of Jake Middleton, Alex Lintuniemi, Mike Vlajkov, and Troy Henley can play both ends of the ice and should only get better as the season goes on. All that said, the obvious and largest question looming over the Capital right now is, "will Monahan return?" I expect him to at least stick for a few games, which would delay his return until a month into the season. And should that happen, the 67's would be incredibly smart to deal him and get assets back that can make this team better next year and the year after. The core of this team is 95-97 based, so getting players back in that age group would be great for them.
8. Niagara IceDogs
The Dogs are an interesting squad this year. They've got a lot of talent, but are incredibly inexperienced. In a lot of ways they remind me of the Frontenacs last year, who managed to squeak into the playoffs. I think the strength of this team will be in goal. I think Brent Moran will take a big step forward in his 2nd year in the league (just as Spencer Martin did last year), and if he doesn't Chris Festarini will continue to be a solid and reliable veteran. The two of them should team up to give Marty Williamson consistent goaltending. Offensively, the Dogs will undoubtedly be very inconsistent. A lot of younger players (like Carter Verhaeghe, Perlini, DiFruscia, Maletta, Protapovich, etc) are being thrust into roles that they're likely not ready for. But that doesn't mean they're void of talent. They will go through their ups and downs. Defensively, this team will lean heavily on Jesse Graham and Luke Mercer as a number one pairing. The two will have to eat a ton of ice time until Aaron Haydon is completely healed up and talented youngsters like Mikulovich and Wilkie get more confidence. One thing is for certain though, the Dogs look well on their way to having a terrific team when the new arena opens up and the ups and downs this team experiences this year will only help them be better in the future.
9. Oshawa Generals
I think it'll be a trying year in Oshawa after last year's mass exodus of talent. That mass exodus will pack even more of a wallop when Scott Laughton sticks in Philadelphia (as I'm expecting him to), leaving Oshawa with a ton of question marks on the offensive side of things. Michael Dal Colle and Cole Cassels are great young players, but they aren't ready to carry an offense. Similarly, the defense lacks top end talent and I think could struggle, especially when it comes to moving the puck and escaping the forecheck. Josh Brown and Colin Suellentrop are going to have to take massive steps forward in order for this team to play above it's predicted level. The one plus is that the team is returning Daniel Altshuller in net. He should be a relatively stabilizing force, even if he's facing a ton of rubber. But, will he be in Oshawa all year? There are several teams (in the East and West) with goaltending concerns and he's likely to generate a ton of interest. Trading him would be the smart thing to do, in order to aid the rebuilding effort. A guy like Suellentrop could also be a target for a team looking to fill an OA spot on the blueline. Even if Scott Laughton is miraculously returned, I still can't see this team escaping the bottom rung of the Eastern Conference.
10. Mississauga Steelheads
It's going to be a very ugly year in Mississauga. When all is said and done, I'll be very surprised if they don't finish with the worst record in the Eastern Conference and the entire OHL. With the strength of the Conference this year (and their division), the Steelheads will be hard pressed to crack the 15-20 win total. Offensively, there isn't much in the form of a gamebreaker. While they've got a lot of guys who'll work hard and battle, it won't be enough to put pucks in the back of the net on a consistent basis. On the defensive end, Trevor Carrick is going to have to be MUCH better this year, now that he's the team's number one defenseman. I am incredibly excited to see Sean Day play a lot though. I just hope he's given some freedom to reign a bit and gain confidence as an offensive defender. In net, Spencer Martin is going to be VERY busy. Last year he started so strong, but faded down the stretch due to some lingering injury issues. He's a good goaltender and he should be able to steal a few games. But ask the Otters last year if Oscar Dansk was able to prevent them from losing nearly 50 games. The Steelheads just have to keep drafting well and build up a solid group of '98 players around Day. The future looks bright, just not the present.
Stay tuned for the Western Conference tomorrow!