Part two of my season preview for the 2016/17 season examines the Eastern Conference. As mentioned in the West preview, I'm just not enamored with what the East has to offer at this current time. Even the top teams have some serious holes and just don't have the same quality of depth (especially offensively) that the teams in the West do this year. Someone has to win it though. And that someone will no doubt improve their roster through trade at some point this year. One of these teams will have players step up that we don't expect. In other words, I'm not sure I'm going to want to look back at this prediction at the end of the year. I really don't know what to expect. But here's my best guess.
1. Mississauga Steelheads (Central Division Champions)
While I'm most certainly not crazy about their forward depth (which I think was shown in the preseason), I still think that they need to be considered the front runners right now because of their defense, powerplay, and veteran goaltending presence. With Matt Mancina in net and one of the deepest bluelines in the entire OHL, Mississauga shouldn't have much trouble preventing goals. Once Vili Saarijarvi returns from injury, Mississauga should look to trade from that surplus in order to acquire another forward. Quite frankly, you've got 4 players that I would consider legitimate top 6 OHL players (Mike McLeod, Ryan McLeod, Nathan Bastian, and Owen Tippett). And of those four, two are sophomores who are still improving. Being the go to offensive players for a team with Championship aspirations is a lot to ask of them. To start the season, this team will need Mike McLeod to put them on his back until re-reinforcements arrive.
2. Hamilton Bulldogs (East Division Champions)
I don't get the lack of love this team is receiving right now as a legitimate Eastern Conference contender. Sure, they lack star power. But this team played exceptionally well to close out last season and they're returning all their core pieces. They've got a veteran laden forward group which is also deep. The likes of Matt Luff, Niki Petti, Michael Cramarossa, and Trent Fox are legit talents who should be ready to truly breakout as offensive stars. Perhaps the most underrated part of this team is their defense. All the injuries they incurred last year likely actually helped them heading into this season because their young players got a ton of experience. And between Kaden Fulcher or Connor Hicks, this team should get some decent goaltending too. I definitely believe in the Bulldogs this year.
3. Peterborough Petes
The Petes look to be a solid, but unspectacular team this season. But in the East, that should be good enough to put them in the hunt for a top spot in the Conference. Their defense is anchored by two overagers, Brandon Prophet and Kyle Jenkins, along with defensive stalwart Matt Spencer. They've got a veteran laden forward group that has very strong depth down the middle (Lorentz, Ang, Tammela). I guess the real question is, how well will Dylan Wells play? I was a bit shocked when they dealt Matt Mancina in the offseason. I expected Wells and Mancina to share the load until the Petes were sure Wells could handle being the starter on a contending team. I definitely have faith in Wells as a player and prospect, but it's a risky move considering how lost he looked at times last year. If the Petes do get off to a quick start, I'd definitely look for them to add more veterans through trade.
4. Kingston Frontenacs
I've been seeing the Fronts down near the bottom of the conference in a lot of preseason predictions...and I don't get it. Remember, this is a league driven by stars and front line players. If you've got a handful of top notch players, you can always fill out the rest of your lineup with character players. I expect Lawson Crouse to back. Throw in Warren Foegele, Stephen Desrocher, and Jeremy Helvig, and you have a strong veteran core who make a consistent impact. Then you've also got Import Linus Nyman who looked unstoppable in the preseason. In addition to that, I really like their group of 99's led by Jacob Paquette, Jason Robertson, and Jakob Brahaney. Bottom line, I expect their stars to do their thing, and their young supporting cast to be up for the challenge. And Paul McFarland is one of the best coaches in the league IMO, so that also helps.
5. Oshawa Generals
Kind of similar to the Frontenacs IMO. Not completely enamored with their depth, especially at forward. But they'll be carried by some veteran forwards (Anthony Cirelli, Joe Manchurek, Kenny Huether, Domenic Commisso), and a very strong defense led by Mitchell Vande Sompel, (who I expect to be a contender for the Max Kaminski this year). The big question for me is in net. I'm not at all convinced that Jeremy Brodeur is a front line starter in the OHL. That's why the acquisition of Kyle Keyser was smart, because I do have faith in his ability to one day transform himself into an OHL starter. At the very least, with those two and Logan Gauthier, (and I suppose Nathan Torchia too), they've got depth. Another key for the Generals will be the improvements made by their 99's, like Jack Studnicka, Robbie Burt, Kyle MacLean, and Sullivan Sparkes.
6. North Bay Battalion
The Battalion franchise hasn't missed the playoffs since 2002. That's a pretty damn impressive streak. And I don't expect it to come to an end this year either. North Bay isn't the most flashy team, but they've got some pretty good depth that should allow them compete on a nightly basis. Their overall team defense should be a strong suit yet again. Cam Dineen, Adam Thilander, Brady Lyle, Riley Bruce, and Mark Shoemaker form a very solid blueline, while the team's top forwards like Brett McKenzie, and Zach Poirier are also dedicated two-way players. And the acquisition of Brent Moran should really solidify their goaltending. Scoring could be an issue, but if they can win their share of 2-1 hockey games, they should be right in the mix for a 5-8 spot in the Eastern Conference.
7. Ottawa 67's
Torn about where to place the 67's this year. On one hand, I think that they're going to score a lot of goals this year. I really like the look of their lineup at forward. Sasha Chmelevski and Austen Keating could both be in for massive draft years. I also am not worried about their goaltending as Leo Lazerev is a solid goalie (even if he's a bit unorthodox). But what I am worried about is their defense and their ability to keep the puck out of the net. I look at the 67's like the Saginaw Spirit last year. Lots of young talent at the forward position, but just couldn't keep the puck out of their net. Because their top forwards are also young, team defense and backchecking can be inconsistent, putting even more pressure on an inexperienced blueline. Jacob Middleton (the team's anchor) has twice as much experience as the rest of the defense...combined!
8. Sudbury Wolves
They should be better. Key word is...should. This is the first year (IMO) that will test how well they've drafted in the recent down years. Large group of solid 99's, but they need to really blossom this year in order for Sudbury to have the depth necessary to compete for a playoff spot. David Levin will need to be better and he should be. Ditto for Dmitri Sokolov, who apparently checked into Minnesota prospect camp at just over 200lbs. He could be in for a big offensive season. Kyle Capobianco will finally need to take that next step, especially as a defensive player. Lastly, they seem content to give the reigns to Jacob McGrath as their goaltender of present and the future. From what I saw of him at the Hlinka camp, that seems like a sound decision. Sudbury, IMO, has more depth and better top end talent than Barrie or Niagara, which should give them the edge when it comes to the final playoff spot in the conference.
9. Barrie Colts
Barrie has a decent defense...that might be the only good thing I can say at this point. Tom Hedberg looked legit in the preseason and Cam Lizotte and Justin Murray are at least tough to play against. But every other spot on the roster is a question mark. Cordell James is a solid OHL forward who competes hard at both ends of the ice, but a first line center he is not. And while Barrie does have three OHL goaltenders, I'm just not sure any of them are good enough right now to elevate Barrie to playoff contender. This team will be forced to play a lot in their own zone. Christian Propp certainly had a great preseason, so who knows. That's the challenge of the predicting the OHL. But on paper, this looks like a down year for the Colts.
10. Niagara IceDogs
Toss up between Barrie and Niagara here. Could go either way. Aaron Haydon and Ryan Mantha anchor a decent defense (just like Barrie). And Stephen Dhillon has flashed an ability to be a starter in this league. But the forward group is super young (outside of Graham Knott) and that's going to really make it hard for Niagara to score goals consistently. The preseason was most definitely pretty ugly for the IceDogs and I think that will be a precursor to how the rest of the season goes. Especially when you consider that a new coaching staff has been put in place. It's going to take some time for them to learn and for players to learn the system they attempt to employ.