The last time the Western Conference didn't have a team under the 50 point mark was 2010/2011 (Sarnia and SSM finished with 57 and 56 points at 9th and 10 place). In 2001/2002, nearly every team in the Western Conference had at least 60 points (the 10th place Battalion had only 59). I see this year's Western Conference battle shaking down quite similarly. Quite honestly, I could see any team I've got ranked 4 through 10, being one of the two who misses the playoffs. They're all quite close to each other, with all having strengths, but also potentially significant weaknesses. For that reason the Western Conference is not as strong as the East this year (even if they've got likely the two best teams in the league in Plymouth and Sault Ste. Marie).
The interesting thing (or what will jump out at you) is the fact that I've got the Spitfires and the Knights finishing out of the playoffs. That's certainly not a common occurrence and I'll try to explain why I think this happens below.
1. Plymouth Whalers (West Division Champs)
What a difference a year makes. Last year, the stellar Alex Nedeljkovic kept the Whalers in the playoffs, something the team would not have sniffed had he not stood on his head. This year, the team returns many of those same players. So why the change? It's more than just the acquisition of Mathew Campagna and Sonny Milano (although that certainly is a part of it). The Whalers now have a very experienced forward group, with many of their key players being 19 year olds. Guys like Matthew Mistele, Connor Chatham, and Victor Crus Rydberg will all be better this year after struggling with consistency issues last year. This is especially true because Campagna and Milano will be there. One of the main reasons that the Whalers struggled offensively last year was that they had no one to get their wingers the puck. Too many players with similar skill sets. Milano and Campagna are those playmakers. Of course Milano is out until late October with facial fractures, but that shouldn't affect things too much. And of course, the strength of this team will be preventing goals. Nedeljkovic needs no explanation, but the defence in front of him is big, mean, and mobile. In particular, I look for Alex Peters to have a fantastic year. The one wild card is how much the loss of Mike Vellucci affects this club, but I don't anticipate it being much of an issue.
2. Guelph Storm (Midwest Division Champs)
While this team won't be as good as last year's model, they'll still be pretty good, and in a weaker Midwest division, I think that will be enough to get them the division. Even though many veterans of the 2013/14 squad have moved on to the professional ranks (Rychel, Kosmachuk, McGinn, etc), the Storm had such remarkable depth last year that they've got more than enough players ready to flourish in expanded roles. One of those guys is Jason Dickinson, who along with Robby Fabbri, will be counted on to be the go to offensive guy. Based on what I saw from him last year, playing in more of grinding role, I think he's ready for that. And Pius Suter, who steps into the second line center role, is a vastly underrated player. Defensively, Zac Leslie returns and he'll be an anchor. And Ben Harpur and Phil Baltisberger are ready to be more than the third pairing guys that they were last year. In goal, you've got Nichols and Mancina, possibly the best tandem in the league (even if I expect Mancina to be dealt by the end of September). Bottom line, this team is still good enough to compete for the Conference title for another year behind several veteran workhorses leftover from the previous year.
3. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Second best team in the Conference. They could easily end up the best team instead of Plymouth. The key? Brandon Halverson. This team will have no trouble scoring goals. They will have little trouble defensively. But what can we expect from Halverson? I know the Hounds have a lot of faith in him, but the reality is that he's got 19 games of OHL experience thus far. How he responds to the starter's role remains a bit of a mystery. Of course, another mystery is what comes of Darnell Nurse. I'd be VERY surprised if he doesn't get some NHL games this year, but I do expect him to be back (which contributes to this ranking). He'll anchor a very big and physical defensive unit that closely resembles the group that Plymouth will be sending out this year. As I previously mentioned, the forward group of the Hounds is probably the best in the West. New addition Gabe Guertler looks like an OHL star in the making and his addition will help to ease Jared McCann back into the line up following his bout with mono. Guys like Bryan Moore, Michael Bunting, and David Miller all bring a balance of skill and tenacity and should be in for big seasons. And of course there's Sergei Tolchinsky, who IMO, is the second most likely candidate to lead the league in scoring this year behind Connor McDavid.
4. Owen Sound Attack
I see this year's Attack team closely resembling last year's North Bay team. Not a ton of difference makers, or elite level talents. BUT, they'll work you hard and win the majority of those one goal games, especially since they'll get good goaltending from Brandon Hope. Zach Nastasiuk returns as captain and I think he really puts his stamp on this team, leading by example while having a breakout offensive season. Owen Sound's two overage forwards are better than people give them credit for too (Holden Cook and Daniel Milne). Like Nastasiuk, they bring both a skill and grit element to the ice. See the pattern? Up and down this line up, you've got guys who will push your buttons to grind out victories. There's been some talk of Chris Bigras having a chance to making the Avalanche, but I don't see it happening. He anchors the defence, a defence that plays as hard as the forwards, but is considerably bigger. And as I mentioned, Brandon Hope is a great netminder. As an overeager, he's going to be motivated to try and earn a professional contract. I think they'll use Jack Flinn has trade bait to make the team better (or to get picks which can be used to make the team better). When you've got a team which buys into the team concept as much as Owen Sound is likely to, it usually bodes well (see every Stan Butler coached team in history).
5. Erie Otters
I see a lot of people picking the Otters to finish towards the bottom of the Conference, but I just don't see it. I've said it many times, but it's pretty uncommon to see a team struggle when they've got two fantastic centres and a solid goaltender. As you saw in the preseason this year, when you're as talented as Connor McDavid and Dylan Strome, you're going to make your wingers better (see Nick Betz and Alex Debrincat). There won't be much depth offensively, but there won't need to be for this team to creep up into the middle of the Conference. In particular, I'd be surprised if McDavid and Strome didn't play on the power play together, and that will be a VERY dangerous thing for the opposition. And since Erie knows it's McDavid's final year, I'd be surprised if they don't go out and add a forward or two over the course of the season (they'll have Import spots open). On top of an explosive top two lines, Devin Williams should be a rock in net, as he proved last year when stealing the starting gig away from Oscar Dansk. The big question mark remains a young defence. But, we're not talking about absolute scrubs here. Cole Mayo, Jesse Saban, and T.J. Fergus all have the potential to be quality OHL players. AND I still think Troy Donnay comes back at some point. And did I mention that Travis Dermott is a stud? Honestly, teams with this much top end talent don't miss the playoffs, even with some holes on their roster.
6. Saginaw Spirit
A young team that I have faith in. I think they end up being better than they look on paper. All that said, defence and goaltending are potential issues. Part of me is afraid of ranking them this high because they remind me of Belleville last year. If their young forwards don't progress, and their goaltending and defence struggles, it'll be a long year. For that reason, I could see the Spirit anywhere from 5 through 10. So why have them 6th? For one, I think their younger players are better than Belleville's were last year. Mitchell Stephens showed at the Ivan Hlinka and in the preseason that he's ready for a breakout season. Blake Clarke is just too talented to repeat last year's disaster. Tye Felhaber might be the most talented '98 in the league. The most important piece of the puzzle might actually be Jimmy Lodge and his ability to stay healthy. This brings us to the goaltending. It's Nikita Serebryakov's show and he's got to be better and more consistent than he's been in his OHL career thus far. He has tons of talent, as he's proven in stretches, but playing 50 or so games is a different story. But, since I've got them 6th, I obviously think he'll be good enough to help out a younger defence.
7. Sarnia Sting
As they probably proved this preseason, the Sting are likely to be a better team than people think they will be. Depth wise, they aren't a top team. But they've got great high end talent at forward and on defence. Pavel Zacha looks like the real deal at forward after a tremendous preseason performance. He's going to make whoever he plays with a lot better. I think Nikita Korostelev is in for a big year too. And this without factoring in Nikolai Goldobin (who is said to be either on the trade block or likely to get an audition with San Jose). Defensively, Anthony DeAngelo is a near shoe in to lead the league in defensive scoring. The question is, how will his defensive game grow in his 4th and final OHL year? Jakob Chychrun will go through his growing pains, but he's too talented to not be a difference maker on many nights. Throw in some underrated guys like Chapman, Spinozzi, and Schllichting and the Sting could actually have a half a decent blue line. In goal, overeager Taylor Dupuis won't be remarkable, but he'll get the job done, at least to the extent that's required to get the Sting into the playoffs.
8. Kitchener Rangers
On paper, this team should probably be better than I have them ranked. It's more than just a feeling or a hunch though. I truly worry about the team's goaltending. I don't think Jordan DeKort or Matthew Greenfield are starting netminders in this league. And with how close the battle will be for the playoffs, that could really hurt their ability to put up 'W's consistently. This is especially true because I don't think that the Rangers defence is tremendous. Max Iafrate is the workhorse, but that was the case last year when the Rangers finished out of the playoffs. While it's likely a few of their younger defenseman take steps forward, it's also highly unlikely that all of them do and that still would leave Kitchener with some gaps on the back end. Now, I've still got the Rangers in the playoffs and there's a reason for that; their offence should be fairly solid. Kitchener will roll out three strong scoring lines. But, this hedges on guys like Ryan MacInnis, Justin Bailey, Brandon Robinson, Brent Pedersen, being significantly better than last year. This is no sure bet. I do think they'll struggle with consistency, but will be good enough to win games.
9. Windsor Spitfires
I do expect to take some heat from the passionate fan bases of Windsor and London for the next two predictions, but the reality is...someone has to finish out of the playoffs. I absolutely love the make up of this young Windsor team moving forward. They've rebuilt and done it the right way. Kids like Luke Kirwan, Logan Brown, Logan Stanley, Ryan Moore, Andrew Burns (etc) are extremely talented. This Windsor team will definitely be able to score goals. I expect Josh Ho-Sang to have a big year offensively as he looks to prove the naysayers wrong. And there's definitely scoring depth. However, I think this team will really struggle defensively. Trevor Murphy and Patrick Sanvido probably enter the season as the team's top pairing. Again, there's talent on the blueline, but the West has some teams with serious offensive firepower (especially in their division) and I don't know if they'll be able to keep up consistently. And Alex Fotinos is a decent goaltender, but I don't think he's the type of top flight starter that can steal them games the way others in the conference can. As I did say at the beginning of this article, I think any team near the bottom could easily be up near the top. If Windsor's defenders get better and better as the season goes on, then they'll be able to really compete with the strength of their offense. They could easily be up near 5 or 6 if everything goes perfectly.
10. London Knights
And that brings us to the London Knights. This was a tough prediction. They've got three top flight talents who are possibly going to be NHL'ers (Max Domi, Bo Horvat, and Nikita Zadorov). If they all come back, there's no question that this London team will be better. At this point, I'm not expecting that though. And I also think that if one of these guys come back (especially Zadorov), I could see them being dealt. London has spent the last few years in true contender mode and because of that, the young talent on the roster doesn't have the experience of some of the other teams in the league. They need to spend this year recouping some draft picks and acquiring young talent (Victor Mete was a great start). It's a perfect year to rebuild because they must know that their defense and goaltending won't be good enough to compete for home ice in the first round. That said, I've heard great things about Tyler Parsons and his future potential in the league. In 2015/2016, this team could be really good again if they do things properly this year and retool. Again though, like Windsor, this team could easily be much higher and much better than I'm predicting. Even without Domi and Horvat, this team has some weapons up front (Marner, Rupert, Welychka, McCarron). And if Victor Mete proves ready for the second pairing already, the defense could be better than we think. The goaltending will still be a sore spot, but that won't prevent them from finishing in the 5-6 range if everything else falls into place. What a tough year to predict the OHL standings.