Monday, September 22, 2014

2014/2015 Season Preview - Eastern Conference

The 2014/2015 OHL season starts up next 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 Fronts and Generals as high as I do if Sam Bennett and Michael Dal Colle crack the NHL? 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.

I honestly believe that the Eastern Conference is better than the West this year. It's completely wide open with many of the teams in the Conference having a chance to finish first. It will be a real dog fight for the playoffs this year and realistically, one pretty decent team is going to just miss. Many of the East teams are much improved, including Niagara, Belleville, Ottawa, and Mississauga. And the teams that got worse, didn't do so by a whole lot. As someone who sees a lot of action in Mississauga and Niagara, I'm excited to see it all shake down.

1. Niagara IceDogs (Central Division Champs)
By far the strength of this Niagara team is on the defensive side of things. They've got the deepest defensive unit in the league and perhaps the most talented. They return their top two pairings last year (Mercer/Haydon & Dunn/Siebenaler), all of whom will be a year stronger and more confident. In particular, I look for the Dunn and Siebenaler pairing to really blossom and become one of the league's premier two-way pairings. Then you throw a recent 4th rounder in Ryan Mantha into the mix with one of Alex Mikulovich or Zach Wilkie, and you've got the makings of a pretty solid team. While we don't really know what we'll get from Brent Moran in net, this defensive unit should play well enough in front of him to limit scoring chances and elevate his confidence. On the offensive side of things, they're a much deeper team than last year. The acquisition of Cody Payne helps a lot, when combined with the improvements that guys like Graham Knott, Jordan Maletta, Hayden McCool, and others are sure to make. And don't forget, they're returning one of the league's top lines from last year in Perlini/Verhaeghe/DiFruscia. Even with Brendan Perlini missing time with a broken hand, a guy like Knott or Payne should be able to step on to that first line and produce for the first 6-8 weeks. While the East is certainly wide open, I think Niagara is the most well balanced team in the conference and I like the mix of veteran leadership and improving youth on the roster. Perfect timing for a strong year with their new arena (the Meridian Center) opening in October.

2. Peterborough Petes (East Division Champs)
Let me preface this by saying that I fully expect the Petes to acquire a starting netminder by the start of the OHL season (someone like Matthew Mancina or Jack Flinn). This team is too good in every other area, and has too many veteran players to waste the opportunity to capture the division crown. They've got a great group of overagers (that probably sees Brandon Devlin as the man out) which really helps in this league. Michael Clarke and Josh MacDonald will provide secondary scoring and help this team to rolling out three very competent offensive lines. I like the Nick Ritchie and Hunter Garlent to continue to explore their chemistry together and they should both have monster seasons that have them up near the top of league scoring. Defensively, the acquisition of Dominik Masin was huge and I think he'll really solidify things on the backend. I also expect Matt Spencer to have a great year and establish himself as a NHL first round talent. While they won't be the best at creating offense from the back end, they should at least work hard to keep the puck out. And I should add that I have a lot of confidence in Jody Hull as a coach to get the most out of this squad.

3. Kingston Frontenacs
Kingston comes into the season as the top ranked club in the OHL, according to the preseason CHL top 10. Can't say I agree with that. Sure the Fronts have probably the most explosive offensive unit in the league, but they also have a ton of question marks surrounding the team. Firstly, will Sam Bennett return? I'd be surprised if he didn't, but stranger things have happened. Secondly, how will their goaltending be? It'll either be the relatively unproven Lucas Peressini, or the rookie Jeremy Helvig in net. Pretty hard to say how they'll react to being the starter. Thirdly, how will their defense shape up? Roland McKeown and Warren Steele are the only players returning who played an important role for the team last year. Having a relatively rebuilt defense, combined with unproven goaltending can be a very risky move in this league. All that said, I expect the Fronts to be a pretty strong team. I think Bennett returns and really leads this team. I also expect Ryan Kujawinski to finally stay healthy and be the leader of the second offensive unit. I also expect the goaltending to be decent as I have faith that Jeremy Helvig will be good and eventually emerge as the starter. And I think the defense will be as good as it has to be, considering that the Fronts hope to play an up tempo style that keeps the puck in the opposing end for the majority of the time. They should get home ice in the first round, but I don't agree with them being the best team in the OHL right now.

4. Barrie Colts
No Aaron Ekblad, no problem. I still think this Barrie team is going to have a good year. It all starts in net where Mackenzie Blackwood is going to emerge as a star in this league. He was already great last year and will be motivated to try and be the top netminder selected in the 2015 Draft, something he has a chance of being. His size and composure in the net are true assets. Offensively, this team will be better than some are giving them credit for. Veteran overagers Garrett Hooey and Joseph Blandisi are the types of hard working players who often explode offensively in their final years in the league. When you mix in gritty, yet skilled guys like Brendan Lemieux, Andrew Mangiapane, and Kevin Lebanc, you've got a recipe for success. Also look for rookie Roy Radke to have a big year (think Mark Scheifele), as he's been dynamite in the preseason. Defensively, the acqusition of Rasmus Andersson will help to replace Ekblad. He's a potential first round talent for 2015 and should step right on to the team's top pairing. Guys like Michael Webster, CJ Garcia, and Josh Carrick will really have to step up after playing more minor roles previously. I really like the make up of this team and I think that they could surprise people.

5. North Bay Battalion
As is the case with any Stan Butler team, defense is the strength of this year's Battalion squad. They return 3 of their top 4 in McIvor, Miller, and Wood, and they've got enough talented youngsters to fill in the gaps (Bruce, Locke), in addition to a hungry Miles Liberati. The team also has a forward group that's committed and talented on the backcheck. Team defense is the name of the game and they play it well. Coming off a strong season, Jake Smith returns with a lot of confidence and an equally talented defensive unit in front of him. No reason to believe that he won't have as good of a season. The real question mark for this team, as is usually the case, is on the offensive side of things. Mike Amadio and Brett McKenzie had good preseasons and look poised to be more consistent this year. But the real key will be the development of Nick Paul. He was such a monster in the playoffs alongside Goodrow and Thomson, but he won't have them this year. It will be all him and the team is going to need him to be their dynamic offensive leader. And I do think that will be the case. I think he'll have a big year, and really establish himself as the key piece of the Jason Spezza deal. In the end though, a lack of secondary scoring will prevent this team from being as effective as they were last year.

6. Belleville Bulls
I definitely did not expect the Bulls to be as bad as they were last year. Bottom line is that they were a younger team whose younger players did not take the necessary steps forward in their development. They just weren't ready yet. This year, those same players are another year older and hopefully have learned from the mistakes they made last year. That's definitely true of the forward group. Remi Elie was THE team on offense last year, but he's going to need some help this year in order for the Bulls to earn wins. I think some of the new players they've brought into the fold (Gustavsen, Saigeon, Luff) will really help to push the likes of Petti, Tomasek, and Cramarossa to be better. And I'm a big fan of new captain Jake Marchment. In goal, Charlie Graham is a better netminder than he showed last year. Consistently exposed to high end scoring chances, Graham should get more help in front of him this year. That said, he still needs to be better too...and I think he will be. On defense, I'm interested to see how a full year (if it lasts) of Stephen Harper on defense looks. Paired with Jordan Subban, the two could be a real force on the back end. I also look for Justin Lemcke to be a big time player for the club and solidify the second pairing (he was the club's most consistent defender last year as a rookie IMO). Like the majority of the teams I've got listed towards the bottom of the conference, the Bulls do have some holes, but I don't see them disappointing two years straight.

7. Oshawa Generals
Yup...I'm the guy who picked the Generals to finish 9th in the Conference last year. I thought Scott Laughton would be in the NHL, and I didn't have enough faith in their younger players doing things on their own. Boy was I wrong. This year, I'm not picking them 9th, but I'm also not putting them as high as I've seen others in their preseason predictions (division champs). Offensively, this team should be fine. Michael Dal Colle proved at the beginning of last year that he's capable of leading this team and they've got enough quality role players to roll out several hard working lines capable of putting the puck in the net. The only concern I might have is Cole Cassels and his mono. That can really wreck havoc on a junior player's season and he might not be at his most effective until midseason. The concern I have with this club is with keeping pucks out of the net. Ken Appleby is a veteran of the league but he's never been a starter before. And while the Generals defense does have some undervalued players (like Will Petschenig for example), they lack a true leader. Mitchell Vande Sompel is a solid prospect but I don't think he's ready to be his team's number one defenseman. The Generals will win some games and they'll play the game the right way (hard), but I don't think they've got enough difference makes in their line up to be a consistent force.

8. Ottawa 67's
Honestly, I've got a feeling about this year's 67's team, that they'll be better than I'm predicting them to be. I could actually see them up as high as 4th or 5th. BUT, a lot of things will need to happen in order for the 67's to find that kind of success and I'm just not sure they're at that level yet. However, I did feel it necessary to at least state that I think this team scares me the most about making me look bad about my predictions (ala Oshawa last year). At forward, I love the make up of this team and I'm going to try and get out to see them several times this year. They're incredibly well balanced up front. Smaller skilled players (Konecny, Salituro, Tyanulin), combined with big wingers to do the dirty work (Bell, Hill, Todd, Addison, etc). And all of their forwards play hard, with vigor. They'll be a difficult team to match up against because of their speed and forechecking ability. It's the defensive side of things where it gets murky. Ottawa was not good defensively last year. No question about it. Those same players are back this year and they're being asked to take major steps forward. Will Jacob Middleton and Alex Lintuniemi be the defensive leaders they're capable of being? Will Troy Henley emerge as the top talent he was touted to be? Will Zack Pittman fit right in? So many questions, and the reality is that not all of them are likely to be answered in a positive way. When you combine that with the fact that Ottawa will be going with an unproven starter (either Herbst or Lazarev), it screams potential disaster (Trudeau was a saving grace last year for Ottawa). All that said, if everything goes right for this team and everyone takes the steps forward that they should, this team could be very scary. Definitely a boom or bust type year depending on how the defense develops.

9. Mississauga Steelheads
I really do think that this year's Steelheads team is better than last year's. That's why it's tough for me to have them ranked where I do. But the East, in general, is much better and I just don't think they're quite at that level where they'll be able to compete consistently enough with the big guns. I love the young talent that they've assembled. With a core of Sean Day, Mike McLeod, Jesse Barwell, Austin Gerhart, Jared Walsh, Stefan Leblanc, etc, this team will be able to compete for the top of the Conference as early as 2015/2016. But they're still exceptionally young at forward, which often results in a poor standing in this league. If your forward group isn't lead by a strong group of overagers and 19 year olds, you'll usually struggle with consistency and look overmatched (think Niagara and Belleville last year). Defensively, while this team is talented, is also young. At this point, it's not fair to ask Sean Day to be a number one defenseman (even if it's something we asked Aaron Ekblad to do at the same age). The real saving grace for this club will be Spencer Martin. He wasn't good last year, and he'll need to be this year. As I said, this club will go through slumps. One game they're going to look great and the next they'll be bad. And in order for the Steelheads to win, they're going to need Martin to be at his best when the rest of the team is not. Likely playing in his last OHL season, he finally needs to live up to the hype that's surrounded him thus far. I do think he'll be better.

10. Sudbury Wolves
The trading of Mathew Campagna was only the beginning this year IMO. The Wolves are clearly the worst team in the Eastern Conference, and probably the entire OHL this year. But they've got a couple of terrific talents which will really garner attention on the open market (Baptiste, Pancel). If the Wolves are smart, they'll pick up some assets for them and try to start over. Offensively, this team just doesn't have elite talent down the middle and that's a huge driving force for success in the OHL. If you've got good wingers, but no one to get them the puck, what's the point? Defensively, the often injured Jeff Corbett leads the way, but even he is likely to be a trade chip. Kyle Capobianco has looked good this preseason, but he's not ready to shoulder the load yet. And in net, Troy Timpano (not yet ready), and Samuel Tanguay (and undrafted FA acquisition) will shoulder the load. Needless to say, things could get very messy in Sudbury this year, especially with the quality of talent being so high in the Eastern Conference.

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