Tuesday, September 18, 2018

2018/19 OHL Season Preview: Western Conference

Part two of my season preview brings us to the Western Conference.

At this point, I think we have to consider the London Knights as the front runners, even if the state of their roster is extremely contingent on NHL training camps. I expect Saginaw and the other teams in the Midwest to push them. Owen Sound could be extremely dangerous if they get good goaltending. And Guelph, well they should be great but they also give off a vibe that makes me somewhat nervous still. A lot of the West teams had terrific preseasons (dominating the East), but I'm just not sure that we can use those results to say that the West is that much better.

1. London Knights (Midwest Division Champions)
Evan Bouchard. Adam Boqvist. Alex Formenton. Brady Tkachuk. The Knights could get all of them, or none of them. And the timetable surrounding that decision is also of importance. If all four get NHL playing time to start the year, it could be November until we see them back. London can't afford to get off to the start it did last year in the first two months. But this year's team is most definitely deeper and should be able to withstand the uncertainty. The addition of Matthew Timms was a really savvy move to make sure that the team's powerplay and offense still clicks with Bouchard and Boqvist unavailable to start the year. And they still have Regula, Perrott, and Golden to keep them afloat (although I could see Golden being dealt at some point). Up front, Matvei Guskov was recently named to Bob McKenzie's early draft list and produced well in the preseason. And it's now a full year of guys like Foudy, Moskal, Dunkley, McMichael, etc, playing key roles that they excelled at in the second half last year. Did I mention that London also drafted extremely well this past year and added 3 fantastic young forwards (Stranges, Evangelista, Panwar) into the fold. The depth is there and the top end talent will eventually show. Between Kooy and Raaymakers, the goaltending should be solid. Even if London can go a few games above .500 for the opening month or two, once they get themselves to full squad (even if it's 3/4 of the above), they should still have enough to surge and take the Conference.

2. Saginaw Spirit (West Division Champions)
What a terrific offseason for General Manager Dave Drinkill and the Spirit. This was already a solid team coming into the year, but they managed to add Albert Michnac, Bode Wilde, Ivan Prosvetov, and Cole Perfetti into the fold. The results this preseason spoke for themselves. This is going to be a tough team to beat this year. At forward, the team doesn't have any stars, but what they do have is depth and heart. This team can roll three scoring lines that can match up against the opposition's best. In particular, I really think that Cole Coskey is an underrated player and he could emerge as an OHL star this year. And there's no way that Brady Gilmour can be as ineffective as he was last year. The defense though, that's the highlight. Like Oshawa in the East, size is a big time strength. Wilde, Middleton, Everett, Davis, Webb. They're all over 6'2. I'm very intrigued to see Wilde play. Also excited to see Ivan Prosvetov manning the pipes, as I've heard great things from those who watched him in the USHL. If London really does get off to a slow (or average) start, this Spirit team could have a chance to take this Conference.

3. Owen Sound Attack
Last year, the lack of goaltending really hurt this team, whose offense was fantastic; and quite frankly wasted. This year, goaltending is still a question mark, with the Attack banking on Mack Guzda to be a capable starter in his draft year. It's a safe bet IMO, as I'm a fan of Guzda and I obviously think he'll do just fine considering where I have the Attack ranked. I'm also operating under the assumption that Sean Durzi returns and solidifies a defense which is, IMO, one of the strongest in the OHL with him in the lineup. Durzi, Lyle, Phillips, Robertson/Bourque (if they keep Bourque as an OA) is very solid. And at forward, this team returns a lot of key players including Nick Suzuki who could be a front runner to lead the league in scoring. The Hancock/Suzuki pairing returns for a final kick at the can and they will be unstoppable. But Dudas and Sushko form a quality 2nd line that gives Owen Sound a terrific one/two punch. The team's preseason performance was very encouraging, especially given the performances of some players who would have otherwise been considered scoring depth (Robinson, Groulz, Pearson, Wilson, etc). All signs are pointing to this team being elite, yet again.

4. Guelph Storm
I'm doing it. Against my better judgment, I'm taking this team to have home ice in round one. I'm getting flashbacks to Mississauga and Peterborough of recent years, going off what should happen on paper. But I'm doing it. This Guelph team has been built to make this run; to make this the year that they compete for a Championship. A solid group of 99's, complimented by quality 2000's and you have a team that should be extremely competitive. Scoring goals will definitely be this team's strength. Ratcliffe, Hillis, Schnarr, Toropchenko, Hawel, Ralph, Bertuzzi, Poirier. That's 8/9 pieces to a terrific top three scoring lines. Ratcliffe is coming off a 40 goal season and you have to think he'll improve upon that even more. On the back-end, Ryan Merkley helps to elevate that terrific offense even more. But can they keep pucks out? Will Merkley round out his game? Will Samorukov take that next step? Is Chayka ready to play a key role? The Jack Hanley addition was a very good one as he provides stability to a back-end that was erratic at best last year. In net, Anthony Popovich is the man. And I like him. He had issues with consistency last year, but he stole some games for Guelph and has that game breaking ability. I see him improving and really being the solid backstop that this team needs (given the high risk style they are bound to play).

5. Windsor Spitfires
Proof that quality goaltending really can carry you a long way. Reigning OHL goaltender of the year Michael Dipietro returns and will be the veteran rock that this young team needs yet again. Will they or won't they trade him? That's the million dollar question. Until then, you have to operate under the assumption that this team will be competitive yet again. Their young talent stood out last year and now they're all a year older and stronger. And Will Cuylle and Jean Luc Foudy have been added into the mix. Cuylle was a standout in the preseason, taking little time to adjust to the league and should be a future star. Kind of like Barrie in the East, this forward group will scrape and claw it's way to goals and victories. Defensively, I'm most intrigued to see the improvements from Lev Starikov and Nathan Staios, as they will likely be responsible for primary puck moving duty. The Spitfires just recently picked up Sean Allen too, who is a nice addition because of the physicality he brings. This team will go through ups and downs because of the age of their key players, but that's where having Dipietro really comes in handy because the team doesn't have to be at their best to win. Not every team in the Conference can say that. In fact, very few can.

6. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Honestly, don't count this team out folks. See lots of people writing this team off, assuming that they will inevitably falter due to the rebuild carousel that is the CHL. But the Greyhounds still have star power and they've drafted so well in recent years that it is safe to assume that guys like Joe Carroll, Cole Mackay, LeGuerrier, Calisti, Roth, Trott, etc, are all capable of stepping up and finding success with larger roles. This team still has Morgan Frost. It still has Mac Hollowell. It still has Barrett Hayton, Jordan Sambrook, Matthew Villalta, and Keegan Howdeshell. Star power can carry you a long way in this league, especially if you have it at every position. I look down the middle and see Frost and Hayton, two of the best players in the OHL and have a ton of faith in their ability to elevate the production of their wingers, regardless of who they end up being. And while Villalta has his detractors, he's still a talented goaltender who is entering his 19 year old season. I guess the question I have is...if this team does find themselves in the middle of the pack, do they start looking at dealing Frost, Hollowell, Villalta, etc, to bring back the assets that they lost in recent years during their Championship runs (only one second in the next four drafts)?

7. Kitchener Rangers
Honestly, I found it really tough to put the Rangers at #7 because I still like their make-up and think that they're a quality team. IMO 3-7 on this list are pretty interchangeable heading into the season and I wouldn't be surprised at all if they finished only a few points from each other. Parity is great for the league. So why do I have Kitchener as the worst of the best? Ultimately I'm not convinced that this team has the offensive firepower to compete, day in and day out, with the big guns of the West. And I'm not convinced (even with Luke Richardson's terrific preseason performance) that this team will get the consistent goaltending that they will need to win lower scoring games. And while I like the size and physical make-up of their defense, I don't see someone who can be the primary puck mover and powerplay QB that this team will need. Michael Vukojevic could be that one day, but it would be a lot to ask of the talented draft eligible defender this year. Now, if Axel Andersson reports, then it's a different story. But that looks far fetched at this point. Up front, it will be on the likes Joseph Gareffa, Riley Damiani, Greg Meireles, and Rickard Hugg to be the primary focal points. The only issue is that their average height is about 5'9 (and none are above 5'10). Height doesn't measure heart, this is true. But having some support would be a big help and this is just a small forward unit overall. Could be tough for them to compete, night in, night out in a tough Western Conference. We'll see.

8. Flint Firebirds
They should be better this year, but are they a slam dunk as a playoff team? Likely not. I do have faith that they'll squeeze in because of a solid defense and some scoring up front. Ty Dellandrea is obviously the star here and this team only goes as far as he carries them. But I'm a big fan and I think he's up to the challenge. Look for some of his support wingers to have better years like Connor Roberts, Ethan Keppen, CJ Clarke, etc. I'd also expect a healthy Hunter Holmes to bounce back. As mentioned, this team's defense is a key component and is underrated IMO. I think Fedor Gordeev is going to have a big year. He looked very good the second half of last year and his size and skating ability should allow him to dominate at both ends. Dennis Busby, Riley McCourt, and Nilsen/Gretz rounds out the top 4 and all can move the puck and start the breakout. The acquisition of Emanuel Vella was a very smart one this offseason as he will help ease Luke Cavallin into the starter's role. There will be some nights that aren't pretty. This team is still rebuilding. But they're trending upwards.

9. Sarnia Sting
On paper, this team is probably better than Flint. But I do see them making some deals this year (guys like Ruzicka, McGregor, Leufvenius, Eliot, etc) to start the rebuild and help the team get back assets that they lost last year in trying to make that run. That could mean a rougher second half depending on when that trade frenzy starts. This team does start the year with a terrific group of overagers though and that can take you a long way in this league. In fact, the group is too strong as one will have to be moved between Mitch Eliot, Theo Calvas, Franco Spoviero, and Anthony Salinitri. This team does have some talent at forward with guys like Ruzicka, McGregor, Leufvenius, Jamieson Rees and the OA's. They all play the game hard and will at least make this team tough to play against. But preventing goals could be an issue. Not extremely confident in an Aidan Hughes/Ethan Langevin combo, especially considering that I'm also not confident in the team's defense to limit premium scoring chances. That said, this team does have heart and veteran leadership. I could see them getting into the top 6-7 in the Conference if their veterans all improve (similar to a Barrie situation last year).

10. Erie Otters
After some absolutely amazing years near or at the top of the Western Conference standings, the time has come for this team to find the bottom. It's the inevitable cycle that is the Canadian Hockey League. It already started with the Ivan Lodnia deal, but expect the exodus to continue through the season as the Otters try to bring back the assets that this team lost over that four year run. Overager Kyle Maksimovich is the big fish here, about as consistent as you can be offensively and would make a great addition to any team's top 6 for a playoff run. He'll lead the offense until he is dealt, along with Hayden Fowler, the big name acquired last year by the team. On defense, the best player may actually be 16 year old Jamie Drysdale, who will jump right into a key role and earn a ton of minutes, which will be great for his development. In goal, Daniel Murphy and Noah Battaglia will likely platoon, taking turns on who takes the barrage on any given night. Nothing to be ashamed about here though. This is the nature of the OHL and with some good trades, in addition to savvy drafting and recruiting, this team will be back in the playoff hunt again in a couple years. At this point, the Otters have to be considered the favourite in the Shane Wright lottery sweep stakes (assuming he does end up gaining exceptional status).

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