The 2016/17 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. Erie is a perfect example of that with Dylan Strome. 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.
Not only do I see the West as completely stacked this year, but I also see it as completely open. I said it on twitter recently, but I truly do believe that "on paper" the top 5/6 teams in the Western Conference are currently better than any team in the Eastern Conference. The Conference should be a dogfight. The divisions should be a dogfight. Heck, teams like Saginaw and Guelph should be much better and I've still got them at the bottom of the conference. Nothing will surprise me when it comes to looking back at this at the end of the year.
1. Windsor Spitfires (West Division Champions)
Like I said, this was a tough call. But this team has a ton of talent already, and with them hosting the Memorial Cup this year, I don't think there's any question as to whether they'll make acquisitions throughout the year to stock up. They're loaded up front, led by the monster Logan Brown and the tenacious Christian Fischer. But they've got lots of depth too and shouldn't have any trouble scoring goals or intimidating opponents. On defense, they return every member from last year's squad, which means a lot when talking about team chemistry. Pairings can be the same and they should get off to a quick start. And in net, Michael Dipietro will be this year's breakout star. This kid is an unbelievable talent in the crease and as London proved last year, you can definitely win with an 18 year old in net if they're good enough.
2. London Knights (Midwest Division Champions)
Tough call, but even with Mitch Marner likely gone (at least I sure as hell think so), this team is so ultra talented. Matthew Tkachuk, Olli Juolevi (I think so anyway), Pu, Jones, Mete. The list goes on. Well actually, IMO the list should start at Tyler Parsons. He was unbelievable for the U.S. in the U20 Summer series and I think he comes in and has an even better year than last. With some fantastic goaltending, this team could really contend again. And there's no doubt that their powerplay will be top notch, which is of course incredibly important in this league. The real wild card here is Jack Roslovic. Hasn't been much noise about him lately, but with NHL training camps not far off, I still wouldn't write him off coming at some point.
3. Kitchener Rangers
I think people are underrating this team right now. They don't have the star power of some of the other teams in the West (only 4 NHL draft picks, which isn't a ton when we're talking about competing teams), but they're a very solid squad up and down. Lots of depth at every position to cover for injuries. The real question mark for them is in net. But I believe in the tandem of Luke Opilka and Dawson Carty. Opilka was excellent last year until he came down with that mysterious illness and was a mess upon returning. But you have to think that he'll return healthy. At forward, the Rangers have some extremely talented newcomers. Cedric Schiemenz might have been the player that impressed me the most this preseason. And Greg Meireles and Eric Guest also looked terrific this preseason. Another guy who I think could have an absolutely monster year is Dylan Di Perna. Is he on the path to a Jake Muzzin style breakout overage season?
4. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
While I do have some questions about their defense and goaltending, I think their offense is absolutely legit. I certainly don't put a ton of stock in preseason performances, but they were downright dominant in the exhibition season. 23 goals in 4 games? That's pretty damn impressive. Easy to see why they did it though. They have at least 10 guys that I would consider top 2 line talents in this league. They'll be able to roll three scoring lines and a fourth line that will be better than many 3rd lines in this league. Get ready to be holed up in your own end for extended periods of time against these guys. Getting the forwards to really buy into a team defense approach will be key to their success, to help cover up for a blueline that lacks star power and inexperienced goaltending (even if Joseph Raaymakers is a talented player).
5. Owen Sound Attack
Don't sleep on this team. They don't have the raw offensive fire power that other teams in the Conference possess, but they've got a great defense, a great goaltender, and a hard working group of forwards that grind you into submission. The Attack won't win a ton of very pretty games this year, but I do expect them to win their fair share. As mentioned, I think Michael McNiven is one of the league's elite goaltenders. I expect him to have a monster year. On defense, they have size, play physical, but can also push the pace of play. One of the keys to their season is the progression of Nick Suzuki IMO. Quite often, a team in the OHL is only as good as their first line center (drives the powerplay too), and Suzuki is that guy. I think he's in for a big year.
6. Sarnia Sting
A little bit worried to have the Sting down this low because of the star power they possess. If there's one thing I've learned about covering this league, it's that if you've got a small collection of star players, they can really help the rest of your lineup to overachieve. Lots of question marks here though. Safe to assume Pavel Zacha is as good as gone. But Travis Konecny? I think it's 50/50. Good news is that both Imports Sarnia brought in this offseason (Ruzicka and Helt) looked very good in the preseason and they should have big offensive seasons. I'm also really looking forward to seeing how Jakub Chychrun deals with the adversity of his draft +1 season. I wonder if he plays with a serious chip on his shoulder this year. I do have concerns about the crease though. Not sure if Justin Fazio is a legitimate number one in this league, and also not sure if Aidan Hughes is ready. But as Kingston proved last year, your star players can take you pretty far.
7. Erie Otters
See Sarnia. Lots of star power still left over from some pretty successful seasons. The question is...will Dylan Strome be in the OHL next year? I don't think so, but stranger things have happened. I tell you what though, Ivan Lodnia is a legit talent and he should be able to give Alex Debrincat a quality running mate. I'm just not sure they've got the depth offensively of some of the other big teams in the West this year. Quite frankly, they might be smart to do what Oshawa did last year and sell off some big assets to accelerate their rebuild (like Debrincat). Defensively, I actually really like this unit. Star power? No. But Raddysh, Fergus, Sambrook, Byrne and a few quality rookies could form a very solid unit. But to go with the scoring depth issues I see, I also wonder about their situation in net. Troy Timpano was brought in, and at one point I really believed in his talent level. But is he ready to be as good as he'll need to be to get this team home ice in the first round? I really don't know.
8. Saginaw Spirit
The preseason certainly didn't go as they would have liked. But, I still believe in this team. They have a very solid young nucleus. In particular, I really like the way that they upgraded their defense this offseason. Bringing in CJ Garcia was a great move (he's a very underrated defender). Also adding Filip Hronek in the Import draft should help too. This is a team that gave up way too many goals last year, so improving from the defense out was smart. But they need to get the young forward group to buy into this concept. They also need Evan Cormier to be consistently better. But, I see a lot of potential in this team. They could start out rough, but really improve as the season goes on.
9. Guelph Storm
Here's a rebuilding team that should already be significantly better next year thanks to some good drafting. Young players from last year should be better (Givani Smith, Issac Ratcliffe, etc). But they're also injecting some serious talent with the likes of Ryan Merkley, Dmitri Samorukov, Nate Schnarr, and others. I also really liked the acquisition of Liam Herbst in net to help stabilize things. Guelph is certainly on the up and up again. Are they good enough to sneak into the playoffs? I think they very well could be. But I think it's more likely that they're just not quite at that level yet. They did have a very good preseason though, so you never know.
10. Flint Firebirds
Let me say this first. I REALLY liked what this team did in the offseason. Bringing in quality hockey people with lots of OHL experience was the right thing to do. They also drafted extremely well. But it ultimately wasn't enough, as Flint has since lost their best forward (Will Bitten) and their starting goalie (Kyle Keyser) to trades or trade demands. And even if they have a half decent defense led by some solid veterans (Peters, Smereck, Henderson), there just isn't enough offensive talent to compete with the juggernauts of the Western Conference. Flint should compete with Niagara for the 1st overall pick.