Part two of my season preview examines what to expect from the Western Conference. I think that the Conference is very top heavy this year with a few teams at the top being considerably better than the rest. That's not to say that I believe the rest of the Conference to be poor, just that I really like the make-up of a couple teams near the top.
1. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (West Division Champs)
A weaker division leads me to believe that the Greyhounds should be the top team in not only the Western Conference, but the entire OHL. This is a tremendous team and they could very well be playing in the league's weakest division this year too. Usually a recipe for success. Offensively, this team is super deep and they play the game extremely hard. A top 6 of Morgan Frost, Boris Katchouk, Jack Kopacka, Tim Gettinger, Barrett Hayton, and Hayden Verbeek should be among the best in the league. I look at Hayton, in particular, as a big time breakout candidate in his draft year. Conor Timmins, Noah Carroll, and Mac Hollowell make up a veteran top 3 on the back-end, with one of Anthony DeMeo or Jacob LeGuerrier sliding into the top four. Timmins should have another monster season. And lastly, the Hounds enter the season as one of the few contenders in the Conference without a question mark in goal. Matthew Villalta will be the starter and should build off of a solid rookie season last year. Joseph Raaymakers continues to hold out at home, awaiting a trade. With the number of teams needing a starter in the league, I'm actually shocked that he hasn't been moved yet. I wonder if the Hounds can get a veteran defender back for him.
2. Owen Sound Attack (Midwest Division Champs)
Should be another strong season for the Attack. Owen Sound is returning the vast majority of their forwards from last season, including their entire first line of Nick Suzuki, Jonah Gadjovich, and Kevin Hancock. Another year wiser, and stronger, that top unit should absolutely tear apart the OHL. Some combination of Alan Lyszczarczyk (who was a great pick up), Ethan Szypula, Maksim Sushko, Aidan Dudas, and Matthew Struthers will provide the secondary scoring for what should be one of the highest scoring teams in the league. I suppose the one question I have is how well will they keep pucks out? I'm not convinced that Zack Bowman can be the top line starter that they need him to be. And I'm also not convinced that the team won't feel the loss of Santino Centorame. Markus Phillips is a guy who will need to play at the level he was at in the second half last year. He needs to emerge as one of the league's elite defenders to bring this team to the top of the Conference. I also look to Jacob Friend to stay healthy and contribute more on the offensive end. Even with a few minor question marks, I'd be shocked if this team wasn't one of the best in the league.
3. Kitchener Rangers
Maybe a bit of a bold prediction. But this is a strong team on paper and I just have a gut feeling that it will translate to a terrific performance this year (and the exhibition season indicated that as well). Healthy, I see Adam Mascherin having a beastly season that could see him as a Red Tilson candidate. He's supported by a very deep group of forwards like the underrated Connor Bunnaman and the highly motivated Greg Meireles. Also feel that the two imports Kitchener brought in (Hugg and Liska) are going to be impact players. Additionally I really like the way Kitchener's defense is lining up. A ton of size. A ton of truculence. This should be a tough unit to line up against. I suppose there are some questions as to who moves the puck, but Logan Stanley, Connor Hall, Doug Blaisdell, and Gio Vallati are a terrific top four. The question mark is in net, but many of the West contenders are entering the season with similar concerns (London, Guelph, Owen Sound). With all the guys that Kitchener has brought in to the fold (like OA Anthony Dumont-Bouchard), you have to think one guy can step up to provide quality goaltending. Ultimately, I think that guy is Luke Richardson, but I guess we'll see. Again, I just like the make up of this team and have high expectations.
4. London Knights
Hard to imagine London struggling this year, even with some major graduations from last year's team (especially Tyler Parsons). This is still a very talented team. I wouldn't be shocked if Max Jones spends time in the NHL this year and is returned late, but Cliff Pu, Robert Thomas, Alex Formenton, Jesper Bratt, and Sam Miletic will hold down the fort and should give the Knights a consistent scoring attack. And Victor Mete and Evan Bouchard are an excellent guaranteed top 2 on the back-end, and it looks like Olli Juolevi could be back thanks to a poor training camp in Vancouver. Certainly not as good of a defense as in year's past, but those three could all see 30+ minutes a night. And in net, Tyler Johnson and Jordan Kooy should provide a decent 1/2 punch. Bottom line, this London team is going to have to score goals to win hockey games without Tyler Parsons back there and they've got the offensive talent to do that.
5. Guelph Storm
Big jump for the Storm this year but they're talented enough to do it. Their talented youngsters are another year older and are now supported by the likes of Alexei Toropchenko, Cam Hillis, Owen Lalonde, and Mark Shoemaker. Up front, I absolutely love this team and I can't wait to see what they can do at full staff. Givani Smith, Isaac Ratcliffe, Nate Schnarr, James McEwan, Toropchenko, and Hillis is an excellent top 6 and one that should be very exciting to watch. But the depth on the 3rd and 4th lines should be better now with the addition of Zach Poirier and improvements from Liam Hawel and Nick Deakin-Poot. This team will score goals. Defensively, the addition of Owen Lalonde was huge and just what this team needed. Merkley, Lalonde, Samorukov, and Garrett McFadden. That's a defensive unit that can create offensively. Again, this team will score goals. Don't take penalties against this team as their powerplay should be deadly. The huge question mark is in net and it makes or breaks this team as a potential top 4 team in the Conference. Ultimately, I think they go out and get a goalie (Raaymakers?), but until then Popovich and Daws will hold down the fort. Because of the high risk/high reward style I expect Guelph to play, goaltending will be critical.
6. Saginaw Spirit
Hey, look, someone else from the West Division is going to need to play well and end up as a middle of the Conference team. Quite frankly, it could be any of Saginaw, Sarnia, Flint or Windsor. But here's why I think Saginaw is the best bet. Defense and goaltending. Even though Evan Cormier hasn't really established himself as one of the league's elite yet, it's his overage year and he's fighting for a contract. So he needs a big year. And on defense, you've got a solid top four of Marcus Crawford, Keaton Middleton, Hayden Davis, and Caleb Everett. Preventing goals with a similar unit was an issue last year, but hopefully that's corrected this year with more motivated players. Offensively, this is an underrated team. No true star, but a lot of quality top 9 forwards who can bring speed and tenacity. Brady Gilmour should be better this year. You've got some talented 2000's in their draft year (Giroux, Grondin), and I actually think recently drafted 2001's Nick Porco and Aiden Prueter could have big seasons. With the right mind set and game plan, this is a team that could find success in a weak division. And if they don't, and disappoint again, ownership needs to come up with a new game plan.
7. Erie Otters
This team could be a lot better than people are giving them credit for. If they played in the West Division, I'd have them much higher in the Conference. But I'm not sure they've got the depth this year to consistently beat the likes of Kitchener, Owen Sound, London, and even Guelph. Someone has to finish at the bottom of that division. I also think that at some point this season, the Otters deal off talent (even if Dave Brown says otherwise), to recoup assets lost over the last few years. It's certainly rare for all five teams in a division to end up with winning records and a playoff birth, but it happens, and it happened in the West as recent as 2014/15. Up front, Erie should be able to put the puck in the net with two solid scoring lines and a quality powerplay unit led by Taylor Raddysh and Ivan Lodnia. The defense is a veteran laden group (although less so when they figure out their OA situation, likely) led by Jordan Sambrook. And in net, Troy Timpano is good enough and consistent enough to get this team to the playoffs yet again. You win on the back of your stars and Erie has those. At least until January, I expect this team to be pretty solid.
8. Sarnia Sting
If I was a betting man, I'd put my money on one of Saginaw or Sarnia to be that other team from the Midwest to make a bit of noise. But they're very different teams. Sarnia has top end talent but little depth, which is different than the deep/balanced team I analyzed earlier in Saginaw. The Sting will score goals, just as they did last year. Jordan Kyrou is going to have a monster year (so long as he returns from Blues camp). Drake Rymsha will be better. Adam Ruzicka will be better. Anthony Salinitri will be better. Ryan McGregor will be better. This team will put the puck in the net. But will they keep the puck out? I'm just not sure. A very young defense in the Western Conference can be a dicey proposition. You could be in trouble if you're relying on a guy like Nick Grima to be a top 2 defender and one of your veteran leaders on the back end. And I just don't think Justin Fazio is a good enough goaltender to carry a young defense to a significant record. I suppose the real question is, if Sarnia ends up near the bottom of the Conference again (which seems inevitable to me), do they move Kyrou to a contender for a King's ransom? I think the answer to that has to be yes.
9. Flint Firebirds
Slight step backward here for the Firebirds after a tremendous season last year. I have full belief in this team moving forward. They've drafted well and they have a great coaching staff. But I just don't see them being able to make a consistent impact this year. A super young defense (although talented) and weak goaltending (even if Cavallin will be great one day) will mean a lot of pucks in the back of the net. Lots of rumours out there about Dennis Busby suffering an injury that will keep him out for at least the first month and that only makes matters worse. Although the Nic Mattinen acquisition does help a bit, I don´t think it will help enough. Nick Caamano, Ryan Moore, and Luke Kirwan form a great veteran back bone offensively, but I'd expect Caamano to be dealt at some point this year so that Flint can further support their rebuild.
10. Windsor Spitfires
Yes, I know that they've had a great preseason. But the preseason means very little for team performance in the OHL. And you guys know how much love I have for Mike Dipietro. He's a stud and he's going to steal some games for this team. But here's what you have to ask yourself. Who's scoring goals and who's playing defense? Gabe Vilardi sounds like he's out for some time again after hurting himself in the offseason. When does he start up? Sounds like Ottawa intends to give Logan Brown every opportunity to make their roster and at the very least, he may get a 9 game look and not return until January. Mikhail Sergachev recently stated that he's done with the OHL and wants to be loaned to a European team should he not make the Lightning. And even with those guys, the depth just isn't there to compete consistently in the Western Conference. Now, of course, if all three of those guys return, certain guys step up, and Dipietro stands on his head, I could look like a fool here. But that's a lot of if's and buts that I just don't see happening.