Part two of my season preview looks at the Western Conference. While the West has good depth and a few really good teams, I do think that London is currently the cream of the crop. However, I do see the West Division being extremely competitive and a great battle between four teams (all of whom have a chance of taking the division crown). The 4-7 spots in the Conference should also be very competitive. All the teams that I have slated to finish in those spots are very interchangeable depending on different circumstances.
1. London Knights (Midwest Division Champs)
Easily the best team in the OHL on paper heading into the 2015/2016 season. The depth is just ridiculous right now, so much so that this team is definitely going to need to make some moves before the start of the season (they have 9 quality defenders for 6 active spots). Ditto for the forward position where they've got at least 15 capable players for only 12 game spots. If London was smart, they'd try to package a few of these young guys to pick up another quality top 4 defender (with experience), as I see that as the area they'll look to improve over the course of the season. At forward, you've got a bit of everything. Size, speed, and skill. In particular, I'm excited to see Max Jones and Matthew Tkachuk suit up in the OHL. In net, Tyler Parsons is a younger net minder, but he proved to be a capable starter last year and I don't think they'll need to upgrade there. As mentioned, if you're going to nitpick it's the defence. For as talented and deep as it is, it's relatively inexperienced. Adding another quality '96 (like a Roland McKeown or Alex Peters) would go a long way to making this team even more dominant.
2. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (West Division Champs)
As I mentioned, I think the West division will be incredibly tight this year. Four really good teams. So why the Greyhounds? I just really like the makeup of this younger team. They will be relying heavily on some younger players to take massive steps forward this year (Senyshyn, Gettinger, White, etc), but they still have a very solid veteran core (McCann, Speers, Hore, Guertler, Halverson, etc). Thanks to how well they've drafted over the past couple of years, they'll also work in some really interesting rookies (Kopacka, Katchouk, Hawel, etc). All of that points the Hounds in a positive direction, not just this year, but for years to come. One guy to really watch out for is Colton White on defence. I think he has a breakout year with increased ice time. Another situation to watch is in net where Brandon Halverson will have high expectations placed upon him and a talented draft eligible net minder (Raaymakers) breathing down his neck.
3. Kitchener Rangers
If Kitchener struggles this year, it will be a major disappointment. With a roster deep in '96 born talent, the Rangers were built for a run this year. That's why they went out and got Jake Paterson last year, to give this roster some playoff experience heading into this season. That said, I don't expect them to struggle. At forward, this team is very deep and very talented. This is especially true down the middle. Ryan MacInnis really needs to have a big year to prove his worth as a quality NHL prospect and his strong supporting cast should make that happen. The real difference maker could be the signing of Luke Opilka. That's because the weak spot of this team is definitely on defence (at least in comparison to the other top teams in the league). In reality, I think this team is a top 4 veteran defender (in particular an offensively oriented one) away from competing for the division against London.
4. Saginaw Spirit
Definitely a young team, but a team that I see surprising a lot of people this year. A well balanced roster that has a lot of toughness and tenacity. On defence, Keaton Middleton and Markus Niemelainen are twin towers and Will Petschenig was a tremendous under the radar pickup. Chase Stewart is another underrated player and a tough guy to play against. In goal, Evan Cormier is a very good young goaltender who will be looking to impress in his draft season. Up front, the team is pretty young, but they are not short on talent. Dylan Sadowy will lead by example and I expect guys like Mitchell Stephens, Tye Felhaber, Artem Artemov, Jesse Barwell, etc to have big years too. Stephens, especially, can be a real difference maker at both ends of the ice. Also worth mentioning that first rounder Brady Gilmour lead the preseason in scoring, so we'll see what that means for his contribution this year. My ranking of them is definitely aggressive, but predictions are all about making bold statements and I see this Spirit team being a tough team to play against on a nightly basis.
5. Erie Otters
Offensively, this team is still going to be dynamic. Up front, the team boasts a terrific top 6 made up of Dylan Strome, Alex Debrincat, Nick Betz, Taylor Raddysh, Mason Marchment and likely Jake Marchment. Size, skill and experience. The power play for this team will be dynamite. But on the backend, Travis Dermott and Darren Raddysh can't be on the ice every minute of the game. The team just doesn't have much experience back there outside of those two, nor do they have much size. With all the high powered offences in the West, they could really struggle to keep the puck out of the net. This is especially true when you consider how inconsistent Devin Williams has been as an Otter. He's the key to their season this year (or Jake Lawr who is a former high selection who looked great this preseason). The goaltending is going to need to be stellar to help level out an inexperienced and undersized defence. If it's not, the Otters offence isn't going to be able to carry them consistently.
6. Sarnia Sting
I seem to be lower on this team than others. I certainly respect the possibility that Sarnia could be a top 4 team in the Conference (as I mentioned above), but I think pretty much everything would have to go right for that to happen. Here are my concerns: While this is definitely a veteran laden lineup up front, and they've got some good size there, I worry about the lack of difference makers skill wise. Jordan Kyrou is a great young player. Pavel Zacha can be a beast. Nikita Korostelev has to be better than last year. But, is Sarnia's offence better than Sault Ste. Marie's? Erie's? I don't think so. Defensively, again, some good veteran players, and Jakob Chychrun could be the Max Kaminsky winner if he's healthy. Also think that the Josh Jacobs acquisition will be huge for them. But, can Chychrun stay healthy? In net, the Sting face a predicament. Three net minders, all of which have yet to truly establish themselves as starters in this league. In addition to Chychrun's injury concerns, will Pavel Zacha survive a whole year? Will he even return from New Jersey? Tons of question marks here. I expect the Sting to still be a solid team, but I'm just not as high on them as other people seem to be.
7. Windsor Spitfires
Like Erie, the Spitfires should have a great offence. The additions of Christian Fischer and Bradley Latour should really help a team that struggled to score consistently last year. You have to figure that Logan Brown, Luke Kirwan, Hayden McCool, Gabriel Vilardi, and Daniil Vertiy will keep getting better too. No concerns up front. The concerns I have are defensively and in net. When you put those two together on the flag list, it can be pretty concerning. On defence, the team is really banking on Import rookie Mikhail Sergachev being a top pairing guy, and for 2014 first rounder Logan Stanley to take a massive step forward. Trevor Murphy would have been the veteran leader, but he recently signed with Nashville. That's a huge blow. In net, who really knows. Rookie Michael Dipietro? Sophomore Brendan Johnston? FA signee Mario Culina? The team just acquired overager Michael Giugovaz too (although I see him as a short term stop gap until others get healthy). Not a ton of experience there and that has to be concerning. At the end of the day, the Spits will probably need an Alex Nedeljkovic, J.P. Anderson style rookie season from Dipietro to push them into home ice advantage in round one. Or they'll hit the trade market (for someone better than Giugovaz).
8. Owen Sound Attack
Quite frankly, I don't expect any of these bottom three teams in the West to be particularly good this year. But one of them is going to make the playoffs and I think the Attack have the best chance. Owen Sound is going to have their difficulties scoring goals (no one on their roster has scored 25 goals in the OHL before). But they do have a hard nosed group of forwards who will wear you down and work hard for the production they do manage to create. In particular, I expect Jonah Gadjovich and Liam Dunda to have nice breakout seasons (potential 20 goal guys). The bread and butter is a solid defensive unit led by solid two-way guys in Thomas Schemitsch, Damir Sharipzyanov, and Santino Centorame. Size and physicality is a trait that their defence also possesses. However the team was dealt a big blow when Schemitsch broke his wrist at the Panthers rookie camp. He won't return until (likely) November. In net, one of Jack Flinn or Michael McNiven will provide steady goaltending (I expect one to be dealt this year). Team defence and physical play should allow the Attack to grind out enough victories for them to reach the postseason.
9. Flint Firebirds
Another team changing locations that I expect to have some difficulties this year (along with Hamilton). For Flint it's all about preventing goals. Alex Nedeljkovic is one of the best, if not the best, goaltenders in the OHL. He'll do his best to help this Firebirds team win hockey games once he recovers fully from offseason hip surgery. On defence, the team has a solid group of veteran blue liners (Alex Peters, Mathieu Henderson, and Josh Wesley), in addition to OA acquisition Zach Pittman, and rookie import Vili Saarijarvi. However, offensively the team is quite void of legitimate, veteran talent. Will Bitten is a great young player, but as we've seen time, and time again, sophomores just can't handle the offensive load alone and it's unfair to ask Bitten to do so. Another factor that leads me to believe that Flint will finish out of the playoffs is that I anticipate them to be active on the trade market as sellers. Guys like Nedeljkovic, Peters, Wesley, etc would bring back pretty nice returns. The Firebirds will already have two top picks in 2016, so it would be smart for them to rebuild for a run again in a few years, rather than try to sneak into the playoffs.
10. Guelph Storm
Going to be a very long year in Guelph IMO. I definitely really like some of the younger talent the team has (Noah Carroll, Givani Smith), and CJ Garcia is criminally underrated. But this Storm team just doesn't have the talent or depth to compete with the big boys of the West. Obviously, the one wild card is Robby Fabbri. But even if he returns (which I don't think he will), I anticipate that he'll be traded pretty quickly. Ditto for Justin Nichols, who should generate a lot of interest from teams looking to improve their goaltending situation (his wealth of playoff experience should be very attractive). At forward, the two Tylers (Boston and Hill) look ready to lead the team offensively, but again, I just don't see the depth (and experience) necessary to win in the West. It's probably a toss up between Flint and Guelph for last, depending on who starts rebuilding first. Along with the Frontenacs, I see both as front runners for the Jack Ferguson (first overall) in 2016.