The 2015/16 OHL season starts up this week and that means it's prediction time. As always, predicting the OHL can be a bit of a crapshoot. NHL teams may choose to keep certain players on their roster and that can negatively impact an OHL team. Would I have the Generals as high as I do if Michael Dal Colle cracks the Islanders roster? Definitely not. But I'm operating under assumptions with these rankings. Assumptions that certain players will return. Assumptions that certain players will take massive steps forward in their development. And even, assumptions that certain players could be, and will be traded.
The Eastern Conference looks quite solid again this year. While I would say London is the current favourite, there are a bunch of teams in this Conference that could really challenge them for superiority (Barrie and Niagara especially). It's also very deep in talent. Teams like Mississauga, and Sudbury should be much improved. Teams like Oshawa and North Bay have lost a lot of talent, but they still remain solid squads. It should be quite the dogfight for the 7-8 spots in the Conference.
1. Barrie Colts (Central Division Champs)
The Central Division is the the cream of the crop of the Conference, and I would even say the entire OHL going into the season. Barrie, Niagara, and Mississauga all have the capability to take the division and the Conference, depending on how things shake down in the first month. Right now, I'm giving it to the Colts. Very veteran laden lineup that has 3 solid scoring lines. The return of Kevin Labanc was huge and a big boost to an already deep lineup. This team already has great chemistry too, with their key offensive stars returning from last year. The defence is underrated. Michael Webster and Brandon Prophet are two key guys who don't get enough credit (Prophet has really turned the corner following the trade from Saginaw). And in net, you've got Mackenzie Blackwood, who could very well be the best goalie in the OHL this year. On top of Blackwood being a top contender for the Goalie of the Year, the Colts also have top contenders for the Red Tilson (Mangiapane) and the Max Kaminsky (Rasmus Andersson). I just like the makeup of this team.
2. Oshawa Generals (East Division Champs)
A VERY wide open division heading into the season. I don't think Oshawa, Ottawa, or Peterborough have exceptionally strong teams, but you know that one of them will emerge as better than expected. For me, I think that's still the Generals. That might surprise some people, but here's why. I still think that the Generals have a solid group of top 6 forwards. Michael Dal Colle should definitely be back, and guys like Anthony Cirelli, Sam Harding, Joe Manchurek, etc all look poised to excel in larger roles. Plus, import Lukas Lofquist has apparently looked great. You then throw in a wildcard like Matt Mistele returning, and you've got a solid group. On defence, the team is very underrated. Vande Sompel and Desrocher return as top 4 defenders from their Memorial Cup champion squad, and the team picked up veteran Jacob Graves to help mentor other younger players. In net, I do expect Ken Appleby to be back. Most seem to think that he signs in New Jersey after camp, but I think they'll be patient and return him. And even if that doesn't happen, Jeremy Brodeur should be ready for a larger role as he's proven this preseason. Again, this is a wide open division, but I think Oshawa has what it takes to bring it home.
3. Niagara IceDogs
Easily a top 2 team in the Conference heading into the season. They've got possibly the best defence in the entire OHL, a squad led by 5 terrific 96's (Dunn, Siebenaler, Mantha, Haydon, Mikulovich). The way this team played in the 2nd half of last year is the way I expect this team to begin the first half of this year. So why do I have the Dogs behind the Colts right now? For as good as their defence is, I do think that their goaltending has some question marks, just as it did last year. Brent Moran should be improved this year, but it's not a sure thing. Stephen Dhillon looked great in the preseason, but he doesn't have much experience. Offensively, I think they're about par with the Colts. I expect Josh Ho-Sang and Brendan Perlini to have monster years. In particular, Ho-Sang should be highly motivated after his highly publicized cut from Islanders training camp. And they've got some quality young players who should be able to provide scoring depth (such as Chris Paquette, who was great this preseason). As I said, super tight battle and I do expect both teams to crack the 90 point mark.
4. Mississauga Steelheads
The real wild card of the Conference. I honestly wouldn't be surprised if this team ends up winning the Conference (I could see them being aggressive on the trade market). Maybe Spencer Martin returns and quells the team's goaltending concerns. Maybe Jimmy Lodge returns and provides even more scoring depth to a team that already has an abundance of it. Maybe Sean Day takes that next step forward as one of the league's best defenders? If all three of those things happen, this team is right there near the top. As it is, this team is solid though. Good mix of veteran leadership (Burnside, Cianfrone) with young talent (McLeod(s), Nylander, Bastian, etc). Make no mistake, this is not the Steelheads team that had trouble scoring the last few seasons. Defensively, I expect this group to be fine. Lots of experience and several players who will be looking to prove something (Day, Leblanc, Walsh). Nick Hague was a dynamite pickup too. The obvious question mark, as I've already stated, is in net. If Martin returns, no worries. If he doesn't (and it's starting to look that way to me), this team needs to go out and acquire a goaltender. Not two months into the season. Right away. The team's goaltending in the preseason was downright awful. Should be several guys on the market from rebuilding teams and they need to bring them in quickly if they're serious about being a contender.
5. Peterborough Petes
Might get some flak for putting the Petes ahead of the 67's, but I call it like I see it. Peterborough has really disappointed the past few seasons, but I think this is the year they finally put it together (at least to some extent). While the team does go into the season with some question marks offensively, their core group has tons of experience (Cornel, Lorentz, Betzold, Garlent), and I expect guys like Jonathan Ang, Logan DeNoble, Zach Gallant, and Adam Timleck to be capable contributors. Defensively, the team has a very solid top 4; a top 4 that should be quite hard to play against (Masin, Spencer, Lizotte among them). The real wild card is in net. It's tough to expect a young goaltender to be able to carry a team, but I see great potential in Dylan Wells. He was great in spurts last year. He was great for Team Canada at the Ivan Hlinka. I think he's ready for a starring role and I see him as the real difference maker this season, as he emerges as a star in the Ontario Hockey League.
6. Ottawa 67's
Receiving a ton of praise right now in the media (e.g. honorable mention in the CHL preseason top 10), but I'm just not buying it. Will they be a solid team? Absolutely. But I just don't think they've got the depth (especially on defence) to hang with some of the big boys in the Conference. This team will score a lot of goals. Travis Konecny and Dante Salituro are in for big years. And I really like OA's Sam Studnicka and Nathan Todd. But preventing goals will be the issue, just like last year. Jacob Middleton is going to be relied upon to be the team's number one, and as much as I like him as a player, I don't think he's the type of guy who can do everything himself. If anything, history has proven that his game is at its best when kept simple. And outside of Middleton, Nevin Guy and Evan De Haan are really the only ones with any experience...AND one of them has to go (can't see the 67's trading Studnicka or Todd). Liam Herbst is a good goalie. But he's not a great one (yet). With the amount of rubber he's going to face, some of his faults could be exposed (rebound control, quickness). The 67's will be able to beat up on the weaker teams in the league because of their offence, but when it comes to playing the big boys, I could see them struggling (thus a finish in the middle of the Conference).
7. North Bay Battalion
Stan Butler always seems to get it done. Just like Mike Vellucci (formerly of Plymouth), Butler seems to be in the thick of the playoff race every year. True rebuilds rarely happen. That's because Butler always seems to get the best out of his 19 and 20 year old players. Armed with a very solid group of overagers (Mathew Santos, Miles Liberati, and Jake Smith), the Battalion should manage to remain competitive. Sometimes it won't be pretty (this team could have some difficulty scoring goals consistently), but I have faith that they'll keep their heads above water. The real test for Butler this year is an exceptionally green defensive group. Outside of Kyle Wood and Miles Liberati, this team doesn't really have anyone with significant experience. And they just lost first rounder Brady Lyle for a few months. But, as I said, I have faith that a team defense approach can get the job done enough for the Battalion to sneak into the playoffs.
8. Sudbury Wolves
I'm seeing them at the bottom of the Conference in a lot of predictions. I think people are underrating this team based on how horrible they were last year. Will the Wolves be a great team? No. But do they have a shot of being a playoff team? I certainly think so. The team has a very young forward group, but they are very talented. There will be games where they will be blanked, but there will be others where the likes of Dmitri Sokolov, David Levin, Michael Pezzetta, Brady Petaki, and crew will be electric. Throw in veterans like Jacob Harris, Matt Schmalz and (potentially) Pavel Jenys, and you've got yourself a solid group of forwards. Defensively, the team is inexperienced. But Kyle Capobianco is better than people realize and I think he really takes a step forward as a defensive player this year. Patrick Murphy was a solid, under the radar acquisition too. And in net, Troy Timpano is also better than people realize. If I were the Wolves, I'd be talking to London right now about their glut of defenders to try and strengthen their group. But as is, I still like the potential of this young team to surprise people.
9. Hamilton Bulldogs
This is a way lower position than I'm seeing in a lot of predictions, so maybe I get criticized for this one. Especially since they were solid in the preseason. But I stand by it. This is a team that has struggled the last two seasons, even though they squeaked into the playoffs as an under .500 team last year. From last year's team they're losing their top two scorers (Subban and Gustavsen) and 4 of their top 7 goal scorers (Welychka and Tomasek, along with the other two). They're also losing 3 of their top 4 defenders from last year (Subban, Yuill, Bignell). I expect Stephen Harper to have a big year as an overage player (especially now that he's back at forward), but I don't have enough confidence in the supporting cast to score enough to overcome their extremely raw defence (Justin Lemcke is being counted on to be the top defender and leader as the only guy with 2 seasons under his belt). And yes, Charlie Graham is a good goaltender, but he's been one the last few years too and that hasn't helped the franchise be a playoff contender. Bottom line is that this team's rebuild hasn't gone according to plan and they'd be smart to deal away Harper and Graham for picks to secure a top 3 pick in 2016. That could set them up for a nice run in the next couple of years. Tough call though, as they're trying to sell the game in a new OHL environment and get butts in the seats.
10. Kingston Frontenacs
Tough call, but I just can't see the Fronts being a playoff team this year. The top end talent level is undeniable (Crouse, Watson, McKeown, Peressini). But the depth is almost non existent. Kingston just hasn't drafted well enough outside the first round in recent years and it's hurt them going into this year. The team would be wise to trade those aforementioned star players to bring in some quality young OHL players and draft picks, to truly start a rebuild. Even trading a guy like Crouse would be a smart move, because I don't expect him to be in the OHL for two more years (if he even comes back this year). The return for those four guys could net the Fronts at least 3 quality 98's and a boatload of 2nd/3rd round picks. Best case scenario, those four really step up their games and Kingston squeaks into the playoffs in a weak division. Worst case scenario, the team trades those 4 players and are the clear front runner for the Jack Ferguson. But…in my opinion, the even worse case scenario is the team hanging on to its stars and getting nothing for them, setting the Fronts back even further (when they'll be even worse off in 2016/2017).