Tuesday, September 19, 2017

2017/18 OHL Season Preview: Eastern Conference

Tis the season again. The 2017/18 OHL season kicks off this coming Thursday night (the 21st). It´s time to make some predictions.

The Eastern Conference should be quite interesting this year. We have a few teams that look very strong on paper (Peterborough, Mississauga, Hamilton, for example). Also have some young, up and coming teams like Niagara and Ottawa who could surprise and compete earlier than expected. Even a team like Barrie could be better than people are giving them credit for. Basically what I am saying is that I see this as a very tough year to predict. But I´m going to try anyway!

1. Mississauga Steelheads (Central Division Champs)
Just going on a hunch here. I feel like the Steelheads are the most balanced team in the Eastern Conference with a quality goaltender, a solid top 5 defense and depth (and talent) up front. The other teams have some question marks for me. Of course, Mississauga has to worry about a few of their players making the NHL/AHL this year. With the Travis Zajac injury, I would actually be shocked to see Michael McLeod back to start the year. I think (at minimum) he gets a 9 game look which would mean that Mississauga will have to go at least a half a season without him (similar to Erie last year with Strome). Nathan Bastian appears to be 50/50. From a recent article, Devils coach John Hynes stated that they'll give him every opportunity to make the AHL, but if he's not ready, he'll return to the OHL for an OA year. At the very least, he won't be starting the season with the club. But I don´t see Tippett making Florida. Combine that with an emerging talent like Ryan McLeod, and veterans Trent Fox, Jacob Cascagnette, and Brandon Harrogate and you have the depth to cover Mikey´s (and possibly Bastian's) promotion. Jacob Ingham looks to be solid heading into his NHL draft season and will likely be one of the league´s best this year. And the addition of Merrick Rippon should really help an already quality blueline (consisting of Hague, Moverare, Gibson, and Osmanski). Again, this is a well balanced team built around veterans and that is usually a recipe for great success in this league. They just can´t afford to start as slowly as they did last year.

2. Peterborough Petes (East Division Champs)
The East Division is going to be super competitive this year. And all of them have some question marks too. Quite honestly, I would not be surprised at all if any of the 5 teams end up as division champs. So why Peterborough? Admittedly they´ve been very shaky this exhibition season with an inexperienced back-end. But, with Dylan Wells in net and maybe the deepest forward unit in the entire OHL, I have faith that they will figure it out (although I could see them starting slowly like Mississauga did last year). Without question Wells is the back bone and they will need him to be huge this year. The improvements he showed last year will need to be built upon as he will have to consistently bail out an inexperienced blueline that has seen a lot of turnover. Timms and Alex Black should form a nice top pairing, but they will need a guy like Declan Chisholm or Cole Fraser to really step up as a solid number 3; solidifying their second unit. Aforementioned, their offense should not be an issue. This team will score goals. This is especially true if Nikita Korostelev returns from NHL camp without a pro contract. I expect OA Logan DeNoble and veteran Jonathan Ang to have huge years.

3. Hamilton Bulldogs
Really the only question mark I have about this team is in net. I am not worried about Hamilton´s forward group. Will Bitten and Matthew Strome lead a very talented group that will play hard for coach Gruden. Good mix of veterans and youth. In particular, I think Artur Kaliyev has to be considered a favourite for rookie of the year. I am also not worried about Hamilton´s defense. This is a veteran laden group, led by the likes of Justin Lemcke, Cole Candella, Ben Gleason, and Connor Walters. This group has been through a lot the last few years and I expect them all to have good seasons. Where I am worried is in goal. Kaden Fulcher could be a quality goaltender in this league, but as of yet he hasn´t taken that next step forward to be a consistent starter. The defense should make things easier for him this year, but he will still have to come up with some big saves and a few off nights could be the difference between first and third in a very tough/evenly balanced division. If Fulcher takes that step forward, this Bulldogs team could not only take the division, but also the Conference.

4. Oshawa Generals
Oshawa is set to be a pretty solid overall team this year on paper. Not overly dominant in one area, but well rounded. Up front, they've got a solid young group of forwards led by new captain Jack Studnicka and supported by the likes of Allan McShane, Domenic Commisso, Danil Antropov, and Serron Noel. OA's Mason Kohn and Kenny Heuther could be big producers too. On defense, I look for Riley Stillman to take that next step as one of the better two-way defenders in the league this year. And the group, as a whole, is big and mean and will make life difficult for opposing forwards in the offensive end. I'm curious to see how highly touted Swiss defender Nico Gross adapts and performs as a rookie. I guess the one real question I have is how well Kyle Keyser performs as a starter this year. I think he's going to be solid, but it is his first year being handed a starter's role so you never know how he'll handle it. Look for the Generals to be in the middle of the pack in the Conference this year with an aim at being at the top for 2018/19.

5. Ottawa 67's
Big believer of this solid young team. The 67's have drafted exceptionally well the last few years and the rebuild of this storied franchise is in full swing. On paper, there's certainly some question marks. Who will step up to be a dominant and reliable scorer? Sasha Chmelevski? Austen Keating? Travis Barron? Tye Felhaber? Four guys who were highly touted but haven't delivered the goods consistently yet. However, they are supported by a host of quality young players (rookie or not). While not all of these guys will work out, odds say that only a couple need too for the 67's to have a half decent offense moving forward. I look for Kody Clark to have a breakout year, in particular. It's the young defense that I really like on this team. Noel Hoefenmayer and Kevin Bahl could make for a fantastic young pairing. And Russian Nikita Okhotyuk is the real deal. This is a potential superstar in the league. Also curious to see how Carter Robertson and Peter Stratis develop this season. In net, with OA Leo Lazerev finally moving on, the keys have been given to Olivier Lafreniere, with newly acquired Olivier Tremblay there as a mentor and fall back option. There will be some hiccups with this team, but I think they have enough talent to be a middle of the pack team this year.

6. Niagara IceDogs
Look, someone else from the Central Division is going to have to be a solid team. We're not going to have Mississauga at the top and the rest at the bottom. I think the upstart IceDogs are best positioned to be that team. Even though he's been a bit shaky this preseason, Stephen Dhillon was an absolute work horse last year, emerging as one of the more consistent netminders in the Conference. While his defense might not be as good as last year, I do like the acquisitions of Elijah Roberts and Zach Shankar and I think both fit in well with this team (Roberts as a puck mover and Shankar as a people mover). The defense is certainly a question mark though. And that means the offense is going to need to score goals. I think they can do that. Akil Thomas should have a huge draft year and is supported by breakout candidates like Kirill Maksimov, Ben Jones, rookie Philip Tomasino, and veteran Johnny Corneil. I think a healthy Matthew Philip is a sleeper breakout candidate too. Even with a questionable preseason performance, I like this team to be a playoff team in 2017/18.

7. Kingston Frontenacs
Quite often it's hard to be bad in this league if you've got star talent. 2-3 outstanding players can be enough to make you a playoff team and that's what I see in Kingston this year. Really, they're a similar team to the one that finished with home ice advantage in the first round last year (finishing 4th). But I think the Eastern Conference is better and deeper this year and that pushes this Fronts team down a peg or two. Jason Robertson is a legit offensive talent and he's going to have to do the majority of damage by himself yet again. Nathan Dunkley and Linus Nyman are solid supporting characters, but this was a team who finished dead last in goals scored last year and I don't see there being a ton of improvement coming. So that begs the question, can their defense be as good as it was last year? I'm just not sure. Rasanen, Paquette, and Liam Murray form the backbone, but I think this Kingston team will miss Stephen Desrocher and Nathan Billitier. In net, Jeremy Helvig is a solid veteran presence, but he's going to have to have an other worldly year to get this team back into the top four of the East IMO.

8. North Bay Battalion
Did you really expect me to predict a Stan Butler team to miss the playoffs two years in a row? Honestly though, it's going to be a close battle for the final few spots in the East, just as it was last year. I could easily see this Battalion team finishing last in the Conference, or I could see them as high as 5th or 6th. So why North Bay for the 8th and final spot? I like their defense. A healthy Cam Dineen. A year older Brady Lyle. A year more experienced Adam Thilander. A motivated Riley Bruce. A veteran Jesse Saban. This is a quality defense and potentially one of the better ones in the Eastern Conference. Will they be able to cover up massive question marks in net? I think definitely some nights. And others, likely not. Offensively, Brett McKenzie returns as an OA and he could have a big year. Also look for Adam McMaster to have a breakout season offensively. That's a solid 1/2 punch down the middle and should give the Battalion enough to crack the playoffs.

9. Sudbury Wolves
Probably not the prediction Wolves fans wanted to see from this article, but here's my thinking. This is a team that gave up 265 goals last year which was among the league's worst. And quite frankly, I think the defense is worse this year. Gone are veterans Patrick Sanvido, Aiden Jamieson, Kyle Capobianco and youngster Owen Lalonde. Jacob McGrath and Marshall Frappier are two quality young goaltenders who will be quality players in this league, but I'm just not sure they're good enough to prevent a puck turnstile in Sudbury's net. In order for this team to make the playoffs, they will need a potentially solid offense to really step up. Dmitri Sokolov should be in store for another excellent season. And Macauley Carson is a solid contributor. But the team needs former high picks David Levin and Michael Pezzetta to step up and become consistent offensive stars to give Sudbury a two line attack. I'm just not sure that I'm a believer. Tough times in store for Sudbury fans this year I think.

10. Barrie Colts
No doubt, this Colts team should be better this season. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised at all if this team was in the top 6 of the Conference. But, as mentioned earlier, I think it's also important to note that the Eastern Conference has improved as a whole. Let's talk about an explosive offense first. Andrei Svechnikov. Alexei Lipanov. Ryan Suzuki. Kiril Nizhnikov. Those are some pretty damn good players. Even if they don't win games, this Colts team will be infinitely more entertaining to watch this year. The Leo Lazerev acquisition was a smart one too as it gives Christian Propp a great mentor to take some pressure off of him. Defensively though, this team will not be strong and neither Lazerev nor Propp are good enough to overcome that, at least IMO. Quite frankly, as much as fans probably wouldn't want to admit it, finishing near the bottom of the league again would be best for this franchise. Lipanov and Svechnikov are likely gone next year (Lipanov can play in the AHL early), which means that another top 3 pick would really help this team in their rebuilding efforts. 

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