It's that time again! The 2018/19 season starts this week so it's time to make some predictions.
At this point, I see the Eastern Conference as a three horse race between Oshawa, Niagara, and Ottawa with Oshawa as a front runner. Barrie and Sudbury could surprise and contend, especially as they push Niagara for the division. But I think the Generals, IceDogs, and 67's are the cream of the crop right now because of their depth and the veteran talent they have at their disposal.
1. Oshawa Generals (East Division Champions)
Fresh off a perfect preseason performance that saw them play mostly without their big guns, the Generals look poised to take a serious run at an OHL championship this year. No question, Oshawa is the most well rounded team in the Conference, perhaps even in the entire OHL; star talent and depth at every position. It starts in net with Kyle Keyser, who emerged as one of the league's elite last year and with a better team in front of him, he has to be considered a front runner for the Goalie of the Year award. Their defense is scary, especially if Matt Brassard returns for an overage year (which I assume he will). Nico Gross is the smallest player at 6'1 and nearly every defender brings an element of physicality to the table. Up front, captain Jack Studnicka is the star and should be one of the top players in the OHL this year; his final one in the league. But they've got great depth and a lot of really underrated players (like Kyle Maclean, who I think could have a big year now that he's finally healthy). New import Nando Eggenberger looks like a beast too, as one of the top goal scorers this preseason. Now, if Studnicka makes the Bruins and Brassard doesn't return, things become more complicated, but I see that as being far fetched.
2. Niagara IceDogs (Central Division Champions)
I really like how this IceDogs team has come together heading into the season. Bringing in Ivan Lodnia gives the team a much needed veteran injection into their top 6 and should give them two terrific scoring lines centered by Ben Jones and Akil Thomas. I also expect Kirill Maksimov to have a massive year where he could contend for the goal scoring title as a potential 50 goal scorer. In net, Stephen Dhillon returns as an OA and I would expect him to continue to improve his consistency and be a rock for the Dogs as he searches for an NHL contract. My only true question mark is the size of their back-end. They are relying on a lot of undersized defenders in key roles, with no guarantee that a guy like Daniel Bukac becomes a dependable rock. But this isn't 1999. Puck movement and mobility on the back-end are critical in today's game and Niagara will be able to play an uptempo style that puts pressure on the opposition and keeps it out of their end. A guy like Liam Ham is such an unheralded player, as he's a reliable force at both ends. The powerplay also needs to be better this year, which means that guys like Ham, Constantinou, Roberts has to step up as a top flight point man. But I like this team as a favourite for the Central Division, even with a few minor question marks,
3. Ottawa 67's
The depth that this team has accrued is insane. They have drafted very well the last couple of years and it has made them four lines and three pairings deep. Let's not forget that Ottawa has a thousand second round picks at their disposal should they want to upgrade at some point. While young talent up front is exciting (Graeme Clark, Marco Rossi, Jack Quinn, Cameron Tolnai, etc), it's veteran leaders like Chmelevski, Felhaber, Kody Clark, and Austen Keating that are the lifeblood here. In particular, I think Chmelevski and Felhaber are going to have huge years and I would expect both to be top 10 in scoring or close to it. The improvement that Chmelevski showed last year as a three zone player was staggering. Defensively, they're going to need a big year from Noel Hoefenmayer who is playing for an NHL contract. But I also expect a big step forward from Nikita Okhotyuk in his second year in the league. The real question mark is in goal. Most people have linked the 67's to a guy like Michael Dipietro or another trade target. And that may end up needing to be the case. But Cedrick Andree was sensational this preseason and he'll be given every chance to prove he can be the guy. Management just can't allow this season to go like Owen Sound's did last year, where goaltending was a constant lingering issue yet never truly addressed and prevented a talented roster from going deeper than they could have.
4. Barrie Colts
No Andrei Svechnikov, no problem. This team returns most of it's core and has added two premium imports in Matej Pekar and Maksim Zhukov. Ryan Suzuki looks poised for a huge draft year after a strong Hlinka and preseason. But I just love the lunch pail mentality of their forward group; the same one who surprised last year (thanks to guys like Willms, Peca, etc). Not sure they'll get Zach Magwood back, but that would be a huge boost too. The defense largely returns intact too, led by Joey Keane, who IMO is a front runner for the Max Kaminsky this year. Nathan Allensen should be able to replace what TJ Fergus brought to the top 4 too, as he will be hoping to be an impact player in his draft year. In goal, the Colts have a logjam which is a great problem to have. Between Zhukov, Jet Greaves, and returnee Kai Edmonds, goaltending should not be an issue. The Colts are flying under the radar right now because they're not the prettiest bell of the ball, but I think they'll be an effective group with a clear team identity and some strong top end talent in place. Don't be surprised if this team quietly pushes for the division.
5. Sudbury Wolves
Am I crazy? Predicting the Wolves to finally break out of their funk and be firmly in the playoff picture? Not this year, even if their preseason record wasn't pretty. Quinton Byfield is for real and that first line with Carson and Levin looks like it will be deadly. But a second line anchored by Blake Murray and supported by the Pilon twins could be equally as dangerous and give the Wolves a serious one/two punch. The depth may not quite be there yet up front, but a solid one/two punch is often good enough to make you a solid playoff team in this league. This team will score goals but will they be able to prevent them? The defense is still a little rough. Cole Candella needs to be an anchor as an OA and a guy like Liam Ross needs to take a big step forward too. But the real difference maker will need to be Ukko-Pekka Lukkonnen. Team defense will be a weakness here so he is going to need to be able to stand on his head at times and shut the door when needed. No guarantee he does that, but I like the dynamic make-up of this team and I think they'll get better as the season goes on.
6. Hamilton Bulldogs
No question, losing Ben Gleason hurts, as the talented blueliner signed on with Dallas last week. He was set to be the rock of a pretty decent defensive core. Not only have they now lost their rock, but they've also lost their powerplay QB in what I figured would be a major strength for them this year. This is going to put a lot of pressure on Nic Mattinen as a returning veteran as he will now be looked upon to play a ton, and in all situations. This is even more troubling considering the Bulldogs look like they'll lose Kaden Fulcher to the pro ranks and have to roll with Donofrio or Roy as their starter. They struggled in the preseason. But this team still has a ton of firepower up front with Matthew Strome, Mackenzie Entwistle, Arthur Kaliyev, Isaac Nurse, and a few young players ready to step into larger roles. It won't be pretty at times, but I could see them figuring out how to put it together at some point.
7. Peterborough Petes
I honestly don't know what to expect from Peterborough this year. I could easily see them finishing out of the playoffs. Or I could see them surprising and finding their way into the top 4/5 of the Conference. Predicting them 7th seems like a solid middle ground. Up front, there is talent. This team will score goals. Der-Arguchintsev, Gogolev, Gallant, Robertson, Paquette, Timleck, and more. I think Nick Robertson is in for a big year as a draft eligible player. But goaltending and defense are major question marks. Can Hunter Jones be a top flight starter? He struggled last year and wasn't great this preseason, but he's their goalie of the future and they need to ride him to see what they have. On defense, the same players who struggled last year, return. Chisholm, McNamara, Beraldo, Supryka. These are guys that this team needs more from this year. Ditto for their veterans in Cole Fraser and Austin Osmanski. Hamilton and Peterborough are pretty interchangeable for me here, as both will not struggle to score. Ultimately whoever figures out how to keep pucks out is going to be a potentially solid playoff team.
8. North Bay Battalion
A lower prediction for them than what I've seen so far. Again, I think that the 5-10 spots in the Eastern Conference are pretty wide open and interchangeable. So why is North Bay on the bubble for me? This defense is just so young and there are going to be some major rough patches. Cole Cameron was a terrific pick-up though and he's going to be a great influence on this team, especially on the penalty kill. The goaltending should be pretty reliable with Christian Propp, but I'm just not confident that they can stop the offensive firepower of Niagara, Barrie, and Sudbury within their own division. On the flip side, Justin Brazeau looks poised for a monster year and the combination of he and Matthew Struthers is going to be an absolute load for the opposition to handle, especially on the powerplay. Brandon Coe should also take a nice step forward. But I'm not sure this team has the depth or defensive ability to win consistently. A true toss up though.
9. Kingston Frontenacs
A lot of people seem to have the Frontenacs as a shoe in for the bottom of the Eastern Conference. It's certainly possible, but I don't see it as a slam dunk. On the blueline, their top 3 consists of OHL veterans Jacob Paquette, Jakob Brahaney, and Mitchell Byrne, all of whom were big components of a strong Frontenacs team last year. They can serve as great role models to talented youngsters like Evan Brand and Jake Murray. And let's not forget that this team still has Jason Robertson, one of the most talented forwards in the OHL, AND could still get Gabe Vilardi back thanks to his back flaring up again. But it's not just those two. Solid group of 98's and 99's here up front with guys like Ryan Cranford, Matt Hotchkiss, Tyler Burnie, and Brett Neumann. That's a lot of veteran talent for a last place club in this league. That said, goaltending is going to be a major issue in all likelihood. And depth is a real issue too. Plus, I see this team having a massive firesale at some point with guys like Robertson, Paquette, Cranford, etc all being shipped off to recoup assets. Kingston doesn't have a 2nd until 2026 and they don't even have a 3rd rounder until 2021. If it's the choice between finishing 7th and 10th, this team badly needs to replenish the system by dealing off the veterans that they do have. Until that happens though, they could be a half decent team.
10. Mississauga Steelheads
Just way too much pressure on Jacob Ingham heading into this year IMO. He struggled in his draft year with consistency and now he's going to be faced with the task of being the last line of defense behind a blueline that is weaker than last year's. Reagan O'Grady is a solid OHL defender, but if you're asking him to be your team's number one, I think you're going to be in a bit of trouble. Owen Tippett is a major wild card. IF, he returns to the OHL (which is a big if), it likely won't be until November (IMO). And then he's likely dealt soon after to help the Steelheads with their rebuild. That leaves Ryan McLeod as the go to leader and I think that's a lot to ask of him. And he's a likely trade candidate too. The 2001 and 2002 crop for the Steelheads looks quite strong and it's time for the team to start the rebuild and gather assets to surround that age group. Like Kingston, the Steelheads need to trade off veterans to get back the draft picks that they've used over the last few years to stay competitive (only one 2nd rounder in the next 5 drafts).
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