Wednesday, March 22, 2017

2017 OHL Playoff Predictions: Round One

As is the annual practice, it's time for my playoff previews to begin. The OHL regular season wrapped up yesterday (after Mississauga and Sudbury played a rescheduled game) and the match-ups are set. Round one is set to kick off Thursday.

Last year I went 10-5. Maybe this is the year I go a perfect 15-0?

Here are my thoughts on the opening round:

Eastern Conference

1. Peterborough Petes vs. 8. Niagara IceDogs
Season Series: 3-1, Peterborough
Analysis: As much as I hated to see Stan Butler's playoff streak come to an end in North Bay, I'm definitely happy to see the IceDogs make the playoffs. They're a young team who has done a fantastic job with their rebuild. The Dogs got better and better as the season went on and they are an exciting team to watch. Unfortunately for them though, they draw the Petes in a 1 vs. 8 matchup. Peterborough has the advantage in pretty much every facet of the game. The only area that's remotely close is in net where Stephen Dhillon has been a revelation for the team as the busiest man in the OHL. I can see him stealing a game for the Dogs on their home ice. Otherwise, the young Dogs will be overmatched by the depth and experience of Peterborough. In particular, I think Peterborough's strong team defense approach will play well in the playoffs. You know, the old adage "defense wins Championships." As an interesting side story, Christopher Paquette gets to go up against his former team in this one.
Prediction: Peterborough in 5

2. Mississauga Steelheads vs. 7. Ottawa 67's
Season Series: 2-2, Tie
Analysis: Season series was a tie, but it's deceiving and why head to head records can often be worth a grain of salt when trying to predict the playoffs. The Steelheads and 67's played 3 out of 4 before the new calendar year. The only one played after the deadline, a 6-1 Mississauga victory in late January. Like Niagara, I love what Ottawa has done with this rebuild. They will be a great team in a few years. In particular, that young defense is going to be one of the strongest in the league in two years. The problem's one of the weakest in the league right now and the Steelheads are an offensive juggernaut. The size, speed, skill, and experience of Mississauga's top three lines is going to pose a massive problem for an Ottawa defense that lacks experience and composure. The one wild card is obviously the Steelheads' goaltending situation, which started off the year very poorly. But the second half has seen improved play from rookie Jacob Ingham, and especially, overager Matt Mancina. While I'm not convinced it will hold up to the test in the later rounds, it will be good enough for them to put their foot down on the 67's.
Prediction: Mississauga in 4

3. Oshawa Generals vs. 6. Sudbury Wolves
Season Series: 2-2, Tie
Analysis: Another series where you can throw the season matchup stats out the window. These two teams last played on November 13, 2016. The Generals are a vastly different team since then, and to a certain degree, so are the Wolves. Let's start in goal where the Generals have the clear advantage. Jeremy Brodeur has consistently been one of the league's best this year and as an overager, he has the experience to not be overwhelmed by the increased pressure of the playoffs. Jake McGrath has flashed some pretty fantastic potential in this league, but he's not yet at that level. Defensively, I think the Generals also play more effectively. Their forwards are all committed two-way guys and I don't think you can say that about Sudbury. At forward, I think things are relatively equal. Sudbury does have the size advantage up front though, with guys like Sokolov, Carson, Pezzetta, Dunda, etc. So where does that leave us? I think the powerplay will really go a long way to deciding this series. Both team's excel on the penalty kill, but struggle with the man advantage. Whatever team can get their powerplay rolling might be the one who takes this series. I'll go with Oshawa here because I feel more confident that their experience and defensive advantages will give them the edge.
Prediction: Oshawa in 6

4. Kingston Frontenacs vs. 5. Hamilton Bulldogs
Season Series: 3-3, Tie
Analysis: This is the one series in the East that I'm most excited to see the outcome of. We've got the best defensive team in the Eastern Conference going up against one of the best offensive teams. Which will win out? For as good as Kingston has been as a defensive unit this year, I'm worried that their lack of ability to put the puck in the net will prevent them from taking this series. Kingston only had 3 forwards score more than 15 goals this year. Meanwhile, Hamilton had 6 20+ goal scorers. And their 3rd line ain't so bad either with Studenic and Entwistle. Hamilton's goaltending will have to be better, no doubt about it. Dawson Carty was brought in to handle these games as a guy with playoff experience and he needs to step up. Kingston, on the other hand, is going to need more from every forward not named Jason Robertson. At the end of the day, I like Hamilton's experience advantage and depth to help them win out here. When this team is firing on all cylinders, they've proven to be one of the best in the OHL and the playoffs should bring out the best in their game.
Prediction: Hamilton in 6

Western Conference

1. Erie Otters vs. 8. Sarnia Sting
Season Series: 3-1, Erie
Analysis: No offense meant to Sarnia, but I just can't see them climbing this mountain. The Sting bring a ton of energy and offensively, they're a solid team. But defensively, they don't have the guns to fight off a relentless Otters' attack. In order for a team to upset one of these Western Conference juggernauts, they're going to need a goaltender to steal the show. The Sting don't have that, no offense meant to Fazio and Hughes. And while I do worry about Erie's goaltending as we move into the later rounds (like Mississauga), they won't need Timpano to stand on his head here. Debrincat, Strome, and Raddysh could combine for 30+ points in the four games I expect this series to go.
Prediction: Erie in 4

2. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds vs. 7. Flint Firebirds
Season Series: 3-3, Tie
Analysis: The Greyhounds probably would have felt a lot more comfortable playing any of the other three lower seeds than the Firebirds in round one, who have played them exceptionally tough all year. Even though it isn't SSM's style, I think we're going to see a real shootout type of series with some seriously high scoring games. Expect a lot of 6-5, 5-4 type wins here. I'm really curious to see who the Hounds go with in net. Matt Villalta has played a lot lately, but I do wonder if they'll turn to Raaymakers because of his experience. I think two things ultimately tip this in SSM's favour. The first is the team's depth at forward. They can roll three terrific lines who bring speed, tenacity, and skill and Flint's young(ish) depth players could have trouble keeping up. And second, the Hounds have the advantage on special teams, which are crucial for success in the playoffs. I've got more confidence in the Hounds' ability to kill off that late game penalty than I do the Firebirds. But this one will be closer than people think IMO.
Prediction: Sault Ste. Marie in 6

3. Owen Sound Attack vs. 6. Kitchener Rangers
Season Series: 7-1, Owen Sound
Analysis: The Attack finally seem to be getting the respect they deserve of late from the main stream media. The 2nd half that they put together was absurd (can count their losses on one hand and best record in the league since the trade deadline). While a lot of people are pointing to the team's first line (Suzuki, Gadjovich, and Hancock) as the catalysts, I think it all starts in net. Michael McNiven is a shoe in for goaltender of the year (at least he should be) and he'll look to rebound after struggling mightily in last year's playoffs. He's been unbeatable lately and I don't think the Rangers have the depth or firepower to truly test him. Meanwhile, the Attack will be able to capitalize on a banged up and inexperienced Rangers' blueline and inconsistent goaltending. I expect this one to be about as close as the season series.
Prediction: Owen Sound in 4

4. London Knights vs. 5. Windsor Spitfires
Season Series: 3-3, Tie
Analysis: THE series of the first round as we've got the defending Memorial Cup champions against the current Memorial Cup hosts. Let's break this down by team. First London. I think that this team has been slightly disappointing since the big splashes made at the deadline. The Knights' just haven't gelled the way many expected they would and it almost appears that there are too many cooks in the kitchen some nights. In order for London to take home the West (they're 7-15 against the other top 4 teams in the Conference), they're going to need the veterans on the team to get everyone on the same page. The Knights also need to stay out of the box. Windsor has one of the top powerplays in the league and they operated at an astounding 30% against the Knights in the regular season. Alright, now Windsor. First and foremost, this team needs to be healthy. They've battled injuries all year and they need a guy like Logan Brown to be 100%. Secondly, they need more from veterans like Sergachev, Jeremy Bracco, Graham Knott, and the aforementioned Brown. No offense meant to Gabe Vilardi, but if he's the best player for Windsor in the series, I don't think they're likely to win. The real matchup here is in net. Parsons vs. Dipietro. Two kids who have the ability to steal games, and steal series' for their teams. A prediction...well I have this feeling that Windsor will finally show up as a team many felt were the best team in the league coming into the year. That said, I just can't rule out a Knights' team that has the edge in playoff experience and who has a goaltender who already stole a WJC Championship for his team this year. Dale Hunter has shown in the past to have a profound ability to get the most out of his team in the playoffs; an ability to get them to by in when it counts the most. I'm going with London in what should be one hell of a series.
Prediction: London in 7

So...what are you predictions for round one?

Thursday, March 16, 2017

2017 Coaches Poll Results

Today, the OHL released the results of the 2017 Coaches Poll.

Here are the results

Of course, (as is tradition), I made my own predictions/ballot last week. You can find that here.

For record keeping sake, here are the results of previous years' Coaches Polls.

2013 - East, 2013 - West
2012 - East, 2012 - West
2011 - East, 2011 - West

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sunday Top 10 - Most Impressive 2000 Born Players

One of the many annual traditions I have on this blog is to rank the new batch of OHL rookies in order of the impression they left on me. Only the "true" OHL rookies have been included, thus why it's labeled the "Most Impressive 2000 born players." 

I always like to note that this isn't an early ranking for the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. This ranking isn't the order in which I believe these players should be ranked for the draft, but an order of which players impressed me most. It's not a draft prognostication, it's an acknowledgment of the significant impact these players have had on their teams this season.

As mentioned, this is a tradition, so here are the previous year's lists.  

1999's, 1998's1997's1996's1995's1994's1993's1992's.

Can we take a second to acknowledge the fact that we're currently about to talk about players born in the new millennium? Wow. Anyway, here's this year's list.

1. Akil Thomas - Forward - Niagara IceDogs
Probably a bit of a surprise that it isn't Ryan Merkley, but I'll explain my reasoning in Merkley's write up. For me, there hasn't been a better rookie in the league this year than Thomas. He's consistently been the straw that stirs the drink for the IceDogs and he has them in contention for a playoff spot in the East. He's proven to be exceptionally dangerous off the rush, using great speed, puck skill, and vision to be the team's top offensive catalyst (no offense meant to point leader Johnny Corneil). As early as next year, he could be one of the most exciting offensive players in the OHL. I'm excited to see what another year of offseason training can do for his game, as strength is about the only thing he's missing.

2. Ryan Merkley - Defense - Guelph Storm
Why Merkley could be number one: When he's playing well, there might not be a more dynamic offensive blueliner in the league. He's currently the rookie scoring leader in the league (for all players, not just defenders) and has consistently been one of the highest scoring blueliners in the league 5 on 5. His skating and his ability to keep the puck on a string are dazzling components to his game. Why Merkley isn't my number one: I've seen Merkley be the best player on the ice. But I've also seen him be the worst this year. Turnovers (due to poor decision making, tunnel vision, overhandling the puck) have been a big time issue. As have undisciplined penalties out of frustration. His game has some maturing to do before next year's NHL draft. But you simply can't ignore what he can bring to the table when he's on. At this point, you just have to hope that the weak parts of his game improve (which is likely given his age).

3. Giovanni Vallati - Defense - Kitchener Rangers
I've been so impressed with Vallati that I was actually considering placing him at #2 on this list above Merkley. The Rangers have had some brutal luck with injuries on the backend, losing Connor Hall and Doug Blaisdell, in addition to Frank Hora for less time. Without a guy like Vallati stepping up as one of the teams top defenders, there is no way they'd be sitting 6th in the West. First thing you notice about Vallati is his overall mobility and quickness. He skates with ease and does a great job leading the rush out of his own end. But his defensive game has been way better than anyone could have expected and he looks like a legit first round talent for next year's draft. 

4. Allan McShane - Forward - Oshawa Generals
The crown jewel of the Anthony Cirelli deal, McShane has been a consistent offensive contributor all season long, regardless of whether it's been with Erie or Oshawa. The former Toronto Marlboros captain has fit right in, in Oshawa and he's going to be a key player for them as they push for a Championship in the coming years. McShane definitely possesses elite hockey sense. He's one of those guys who the puck seems to find and he's got great vision for such a young kid. And while his first step quickness and top speed could use some work this offseason, he's definitely a shifty player who can excel in traffic by keeping his feet moving and anticipating scoring/passing lanes. In a lot of ways, he actually closely resembles that of the player he was traded for.

5. Jacob Ingham - Goaltender - Mississauga Steelheads
I say it every year because it's true, but it isn't easy being a 16/17 year old goaltender in this league. There's a reason why so few play at that age. Ingham's stats don't jump out at you, but he's been there when his team has needed him most. When Matthew Mancina was struggling through to the midpoint of the season, Ingham was helping the Steelheads climb out of the basement and his 14 wins thus far are a testament to that. He possesses the size and athleticism that pro teams covet nowadays and there's no denying that he's the goalie of the future in Mississauga. He'll take over the starting role permanently next year and it shouldn't be long before he's in the conversation as the league's best.

6. Dennis Busby - Defense - Flint Firebirds
Much like Vallati, Busby's impressive skating ability makes him a focal point when watching the Firebirds play. He consistently eludes the forecheck and has become more aggressive in leading the rush as the season has gone on. Again like Vallati, I've been impressed with his defensive game too. He's certainly not a strong physical combatant, but he always seems to find himself in good defensive position and doesn't chase the puck as much as most rookie defenders. Flint has been one of the biggest surprises this year. And while the new coaching staff and improvement from veteran players have been huge reasons for that, you can't undervalue the contribution from the team's rookies. There's a reason most experts were quick to hand out an "A" grade to the Firebirds after last year's Priority selection.

7. Danil Antropov - Forward - Oshawa Generals
Not eligible until 2019, Antropov is one of the youngest players in the OHL this year. The son of former Maple Leaf Nikolai, Danil is definitely an impressive physical specimen. The big winger is already pretty tough to stop off the rush, displaying great puck protection potential. He also has a very good shot, which has a lot of weight behind it. He's most definitely still a work in progress as a complete player, and as a skater, but the potential is definitely alluring and I think he's been a very impressive first year player this year.

8. Ty Dellandrea - Forward - Flint Firebirds
Another piece of evidence in regards to Flint's excellent draft in 2016. Dellandrea is a big center who has excelled in a scoring line role for the Firebirds this year. Hyped as one of the top puckhandlers and one on one players in the age group, Dellandrea has actually struggled in that regard because he doesn't yet possess the size/strength to consistently beat defenders. Where he has impressed is everywhere else though. Shows a willingness to fight in front of the net and in the corners and his hands are definitely top notch in close. He's also been a great presence at both ends for such a young player. At this point, I actually think Dellandrea could be the top challenger to Ryan Merkley for top OHL'er for next year's draft (given the NHL's infatuation with big, power centers).

9. Nathan Dunkley - Forward - Kingston Frontenacs
Dunkley is a high energy forward who has been a big part of Kingston's success this season. He's a terrific skater and I love his tenacity on the forecheck and in the corners, where he displays a great playmaking touch. One of those guys who always seems to be in the thick of things at both ends of the ice. As he gets stronger next year, I'm going to be really interested to see how his offensive game grows. There's definitely some Sam Bennett to his game.

10. Liam Foudy - Forward - London Knights
Tough to make an impression with such inconsistent ice time, but every time I watch the London Knights play, Foudy makes an impact in one way or another. And that's why he's on this list despite ranking 50th in rookie scoring. Like Dunkley, he plays with a lot of energy and is an impressively quick skater. He really gets after it on the forecheck and is aggressive in going to the net off the rush. You can just tell that he's got a ton of offensive skill in there waiting to come out when he gets the chance (like all London Knights prodigies from the past). 

Honorable Mentions (alphabetically)

Semyon Der-Arguchintsev - Forward - Peterborough Petes
Like Antropov, one of the youngest players in the league this year (he'll miss the 2019 draft by one day). Has incredibly slick mitts and is a noticeably impressive puckhandler and playmaker. Big part of Peterborough's future.

Aidan Dudas - Forward - Owen Sound Attack
Really impressed with Dudas' hockey sense at both ends of the ice. Occasionally dazzles with a really nice, creative play in the offensive end, but has played within the system in Owen Sound and knows his role.

Damien Giroux - Forward - Saginaw Spirit
Probably would have been number 11 on the list. Undersized guy who competes really hard and actually has had a lot of success in possession this year, despite lacking size. Has that low center of gravity that a guy like Max Domi had. Top notch playmaker.

Kirill Nizhnikov - Forward - Barrie Colts
Didn't report to Mississauga, was traded to Barrie and has had a tough go of it with injuries this year. But you can't deny the offensive talent that he possesses, which he has shown by scoring 10 goals in limited action. Elite shot and scoring instincts. He's going to be a player in this league.  

Connor Roberts - Forward - Hamilton Bulldogs
Hulking kid who impresses with his combination of size and skating ability. As a 17 year old, he has moments where he dominates coming off the wall, putting defenders on his back. A lot of things offensively do need refinement, but the offensive potential is sky high.

Tyler Tucker - Defense - Barrie Colts
Was the other guy who could have been #11 with Giroux. Barrie has been a relative train wreck defensively this year, but Tucker most definitely hasn't been. He's shown a real moxie on the back end, playing with a confidence and physical bravado that you rarely see in such a young defender. Definitely has the makings of being a top notch shut down guy. His skating has also improved a lot since September.

Monday, March 6, 2017

OHL Coaches Poll - My Ballot (2017)

Sometime in the next two weeks, the OHL will release the results of their annual Coaches Poll, where the league's bench bosses vote on a number of categories within their own Conference. As is the annual tradition, below you can find my own opinion on how the results should look.

One thing worth noting though. OHL teams are only allowed to submit the name of one player per category for the ballot, thus on the results you won't notice any teams having more than one player per category. On my ballot, you'll see that I don't follow that rule (and never have), as the intention of this from my end is to highlight the very best of the league without that restriction. So this works as both a prediction, and also a fake ballot if I were indeed an OHL coach (which I am obviously not).

It goes without saying that these are not the results and below is strictly my opinion. As mentioned, the results should be released this week or next.

One last thing. The Western Conference is so loaded with talent, a lot of these categories were really hard to trim down. Some of the guys that I haven't even listed in the West, might have been listed 2nd/3rd in categories of the East. The Western Conference is just that deep. So if your favourite player isn't apologies.

Most Underrated Player:

Eastern Conference
1. Matthew Timms
2. Domenic Commisso
3. Jason Robertson & Steve Harland

Western Conference
1. Petrus Palmu
2. Brandon Crawley
3. Nicholas Caamano

Most Improved Player:

Eastern Conference
1. Dylan Wells
2. Ryan Mantha
3. Dmitri Sokolov & Stephen Dhillon

Western Conference
1. Nick Suzuki, Jonah Gadjovich, & Kevin Hancock
2. Kole Sherwood & Ryan Moore
3. Conor Timmins

Smartest Player:

Eastern Conference
1. Spencer Watson
2. Steven Lorentz
3. Matthew Strome & Brett McKenzie

Western Conference
1. Taylor Raddysh
2. Petrus Palmu
3. Gabriel Vilardi, Dylan Strome & Janne Kuokkanen

Hardest Worker:

Eastern Conference
1. Michael McLeod
2. Jonathan Ang
3. Macauley Carson & Brett McKenzie

Western Conference
1. Alex Debrincat
2. Boris Katchouk
3. Jonah Gadjovich & Nick Suzuki

Best Playmaker:

Eastern Conference
1. Michael McLeod
2. Spencer Watson
3. Artur Tyanulin

Western Conference
1. Dylan Strome
2. Jeremy Bracco
3. Jordan Kyrou & Taylor Raddysh

Most Dangerous in the Goal Area:

Eastern Conference
1. Spencer Watson
2. Nikita Korostelev
3. Jason Robertson & Owen Tippett

Western Conference
1. Alex Debrincat
2. Jonah Gadjovich
3. Taylor Raddysh & Zach Senyshyn

Best Skater:

Eastern Conference
1. Michael McLeod
2. Jonathan Ang
3. Vili Saarijarvi

Western Conference
1. Victor Mete
2. Jordan Kyrou
3. Zach Senyshyn, Sean Day, Alex Formenton, & Mitchell Vande Sompel

Best Shot:

Eastern Conference
1. Owen Tippett
2. Dmitri Sokolov
3. Logan DeNoble

Western Conference
1. Alex Debrincat
2. Adam Mascherin
3. Mikhail Sergachev

Hardest Shot:

Eastern Conference
1. Nic Hague
2. Medric Mercier
3. Ryan Mantha & Stephen Desrocher

Western Conference
1. Mikhail Sergachev
2. Adam Mascherin
3. Kevin Spinozzi & Mitchell Vande Sompel

Best Stickhandler:

Eastern Conference
1. Artur Tyanulin
2. Dmitri Sokolov
3. Spencer Watson

Western Conference
1. Jeremy Bracco
2. Jordan Kyrou
3. Blake Speers, Dylan Strome, & Adam Mascherin

Best on Faceoffs:

Eastern Conference
1. Michael McLeod
2. Steven Lorentz
3. Sam Harding

Western Conference
1. Kyle Pettit
2. Cliff Pu
3. Drake Rymsha & Anthony Cirelli

Best Body Checker:

Eastern Conference
1. Zach Gallant
2. Sean Allen
3. Eemeli Rasanen & Nic Hague

Western Conference
1. Brandon Crawley
2. Givani Smith
3. Max Jones, Jacob Friend, & Cam Lizotte

Best Shot Blocker:

Eastern Conference
1. Justin Lemcke
2. Matt Spencer
3. Nic Hague

Western Conference
1. Darren Raddysh
2. Alex Peters
3. Brandon Crawley, & Cordell James

Best Defensive Forward:

Eastern Conference
1. Michael McLeod
2. Steven Lorentz
3. Jonathan Ang

Western Conference
1. Warren Foegele
2. Cordell James
3. Kyle Pettit, & Anthony Cirelli

Best Penalty Killer:

Eastern Conference
1. Brett McKenzie
2. Michael McLeod
3. Macauley Carson & Joe Manchurek

Western Conference
1. Nick Suzuki
2. Boris Katchouk
3. Darren Raddysh & Mitchell Stephens

Best Offensive Defenseman:

Eastern Conference
1. Vili Saarijarvi
2. Matthew Timms
3. Ryan Mantha

Western Conference
1. Mikhail Sergachev
2. Filip Hronek
3. Victor Mete & Darren Raddysh

Best Defensive Defenseman:

Eastern Conference
1. Matt Spencer
2. Justin Lemcke
3. Brandon Prophet, Nic Hague, & Jacob Moverare

Western Conference
1. Darren Raddysh
2. Victor Mete
3. Brandon Crawley, Frank Hora, & Conor Timmins

Best Puckhandling Goalie:

Eastern Conference
1. Jeremy Brodeur
2. Dylan Wells
3. Brent Moran & Dawson Carty

Western Conference
1. Tyler Parsons
2. Michael McNiven
3. Anthony Popovich

Best Shootout Shooter:

Eastern Conference
1. Nikita Korostelev
2. Will Bitten
3. Dmitri Sokolov

Western Conference
1. Anthony Cirelli
2. Janne Kuokkanen
3. Dylan Strome

Best Shootout Goalie:

Eastern Conference
1. Jeremy Brodeur
2. Dylan Wells
3. Jeremy Helvig

Western Conference
1. Michael Dipietro
2. Joseph Raaymakers
3. Justin Fazio

Stay tuned for the actual results. In the meantime, I'd love to see your predictions for certain categories.