West Division Preview

The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds won more games (54) and scored more goals (365) than any team in the entire OHL last season to secure the Hamilton Spectator Trophy as the league’s top regular season team. Whether or not the Greyhounds were going to win their 2nd straight West Division was never really in question, finishing the season 55 points ahead of second place Sarnia. The success of the Greyhounds was not shared throughout the division as Sarnia, Saginaw, Plymouth and Wndsor rounded out the bottom four teams in the Western Conference. The division looks a bit different with Plymouth moving to Flint, but it might still shake down the same as last year . The Soo could very well win the division a third straight time, but much better seasons are expected from the Sting, Spirit, Firebirds and Spitfires.

Flint Firebirds (23-38-5-2) 53 points – 9th Western Coference

WHAT WE KNOW: After the franchise moved from Plymouth during the offseason the Firebirds will have plenty to build on in Flint. Alex Nedeljkovic will once again handle the majority of the workload in net, and a lot will be expected during his 4th and final season in the OHL season. Nedeljkovic has some familiar faces on the blueline in front of him with Josh Wesley, Mathieu Henderson and captain Alex Peters expected back. Injuries limited Peters to just eight games last season, so a healthy season from the Blythe native will be a welcome addition in Flint.  The departures of Curcuruto, Jones and Rathgeb means it could once again be a busy year for Nedeljkovic, who faced a league high 1,994 shots last season. Will Bitten just keeps getting better, from the Under 17 tournament last November to the Ivan Hlinka Tournament, he has continued to impress.

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW: The Firebirds will lose some fire power up front, with their top three scorers from last year (Sonny Milano, Mathew Campagna, and Victor Crus Rydberg) all moving on. Will Bitten and Connor Chatham are the two leading scorers among returnees. They will need to find other ways to generate offense if they hope to make the playoffs in their first season after moving to Flint. Jr. B teammates Zach Grzelewski and Dane Johnstone will both have an opportunity to make an impression early in the season.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: A lot will be asked of Will Bitten during his second season in the OHL. He helped lead Canada to gold at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and will be a go to guy up front. Vili Saarijärvi could provide a lot of offence from the back end. He was the 9th overall pick in the Import Draft, and although he’s on the smaller side, his offensive skill more than makes up for it. Import pick Matyas Kanter will also be one to keep and eye on. Returnees Cullen Mercer, Francesco Vilardi and Bryce Yetman could all excel with bigger roles this season.

WHO’S GONE: Quite a few graduates, especially for a team that missed the playoffs last year. Plymouth’s three leading scorers (Sonny Milano, Mathew Campagna, and Victor Crus Rydberg) wont be suiting up for Flint, neither will two of their top Dmen in Gianluca Curcuruto and Yannick Rathgeb.

EXPECTATIONS: Plymouth had to deal with some significant injuries last season, especially on the blue line, and we unable to make the playoffs. Flint will likely be a bubble team again this year, with bigger things to come next season. If this is the case, look for Peters and Nedeljkovic to receive a lot of attention from contending teams. Saying that, a young team up front and good goaltending could surprise early in the season. Don’t expect Flint to contend in a tough Western Conference, but a playoff birth is not out of the question. With a whole new coaching staff, and a slew of prospects, the Firebirds have an opportunity to grow as a group.

Saginaw Spirit (29-36-2-1) 61 points – 8th Western Conference

WHAT WE KNOW: Saginaw was one of the youngest teams in the entire Canadian Hockey League last season but a late season surge still helped them lock down the 8th and final playoff spot. They have a good chunk of their core returning, so expectations will be bigger this season. Evan Cormier was great in net after coming over in a midseason trade from North Bay. Saginaw will likey rely on a handful of players to provide the offence, with Mitchell Stephens, Tye Felhaber, Artem Artemov and Dylan Sadawy expected to be the biggest offensive threats for the Spirit.

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW: Although it’ll be an older team the last year, the Spirit’s blue line will still be quite young with just two guys older than 18. Will Petschenig came over from Oshawa during an offseason trade after winning a Memorial Cup with the Generals last season, he will need to be a leader on the back end. Secondary scoring could be a concern for Saginaw depending on what they get from younger players. Draft picks Brady Gilmour and Kirill Maximov could both get plenty of opportunity to chip in on the offense.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Tampa Bay drafted Mitchell Stephens 33rd overall after a break out season from the Peterborough native last year. He’ll likely be on Saginaw’s top line with Dylan Sadowy, who may be one of the more underrated scorers in the league. Sophomore Tye Felhaber has continued to get better and could put up some good numbers this year playing on the top line. Felhaber, along with Keaton Middleton will garner a lot of attention from NHL scouts ahead of this year’s draft.

WHO’S GONE: With a large returning core, just three members of last year’s team will be moving on. Vladislav Kodola, Adam McPhail and OA Dman Jacob Ringuette are the only players not returning to the Spirit this season.

EXPECTATIONS: More will be expected out of Saginaw this year. After a late season surge helped the Spirit get into the playoffs last season, they should have an easier time cracking the top eight this time around. Saginaw will be dangerous offensively, if they can get consistent scoring, take care of their own zone and get good goaltending from Cormier, they should be right around the middle of the pack in a tough Western Conference.

Sarnia Sting (29-32-4-3) 65 points – 7th in Western Conference

WHAT WE KNOW: A more experienced blue line paired with some youthful skill upfront, the Sarnia Sting will be a much tougher team to face this season. The Sting will still be a very young team, but with only four payers for sure not returning from last year, guys like Jordan Kyrou, Anthony Salinitri, Nikita Korostelev and Jeff King will have the opportunity to thrive. Sarnia has one OA set to return with Daniel Nikandrov, meaning the team could add a veteran 20-year-old if they’re looking to add experience down the road. It’s something the Sting says they might look at doing, but with plenty of talent in the system, they aren’t in any rush.

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW: There are still plenty of ‘unknowns’ surrounding the Sting. Justin Fazio was great when called upon last season, but will have much more responsibility in his first season as an OHL starter. What jersey Pavel Zacha will wear this season is also a question mark. While many think Zacha would benefit from another year in junior, his fate lies with the New Jersey Devils. Lastly, Derian Hatcher is entering his first season as an OHL head coach, he’s one of several coaches beginning their first season behind the bend of an OHL team.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Jakob Chychrun is expected to be a top pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, if he stays healthy he will continue to do big things in Sarnia. Jordan Kyrou took huge strides last year, the slick playmaking forward could be a 1st rounder in this year’s NHL draft if he continues his path of development. Josh Jacobs will be counted on to anchor the Sting’s blue line, he was named to the Big Ten’s rookie team while playing with Michigan State last season. Pavel Zacha is likely the largest uncertainty, will he be back with the Sting this year, in New Jersey, or elsewhere.

WHO’S GONE: The Sting bring back a large crop of returning players, gone are the three over agers from last year (Taylor Dupuis, Stephen Pierog, Josh Chapman) as well as Davis Brown. With Dupuis graduating to the CIS ranks means the crease is Justin Fazio’s to start the season. Pavel Zacha’s return still up in the air.

EXPECTATIONS: With a much more experienced blue line this season, Sarnia will take big steps towards competing in the OHL’s Western Conference. With new ownership, the organization expects a lot from a team that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2008. Sarnia could very well finish closer to the top of the conference than the bottom, and home ice in the first round of the playoffs isn’t out of the question.

Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (54-12-0-2) 110 points – 1st Western Conference

WHAT WE KNOW: After a record breaking season last year, leading the OHL in wins/points/goals for, the Greyhounds could be well equipped to do damage once again this season. Despite a long list of graduating players, the Greyhounds will still have guys up front like McCann, Speers, Guertler and Senyshyn who will be counted on for the majority of the offence. On the back end, White, Hore and and Bourammen will be relied on heavily. In net, New York Rangers prospect Brandon Halverson has goaltender of the year potential, behind him, Joseph Raaymakers may be one of the league’s best back ups.

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW: With the graduation of several key players there will be a few more holes on the Greyhounds roster compared to last year. This is an opportuniy for guys who excelled in support roles last year to become go-to guys for the hockey club. Replacing 342 goals and a top D pairing of Anthony DeAngelo and Darnell Nurse is no easy task. Also, in what seems to be a reoccurring theme around the league, the Greyhounds will also start the season with a new head coach as Drew Bannister takes over Sheldon Keefe.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Zach Senyshyn will be one to watch this year. He came on strong in the second half last year and impressed scouts during his limited playing time. The Bruin’s first rounder will have an opportunity to prove himself with a much bigger offensive role this season. Blake Speers is another guy, his 67 points would have been enough to lead eight OHL teams in scoring last year, but on a stacked Greyhounds team he finished 6th. Colton White and Gustav Bouramman will be the go to guys on the back end.

WHO’S GONE: Darnell Nurse, Nick Ritchie, Sergey Tolchinsky, Anthony DeAngelo and Justin Bailey will all graduate to pro hockey as they hope to make their NHL clubs. OA’s from last year, Bryan Moore, Jean Dupuy, Connor Boland are also moving on, leaving plenty of roster spots in the Soo.

EXPECTATIONS: Even with several players moving on, the Greyhounds had one of the deepest teams in the CHL last year and have plenty of guys willing and able to jump into bigger roles.It wont be a powerhouse Greyhounds team that won 54 games last year, but with a good returning core, the Greyhounds may once again find themselves on top of a young West Division, and maybe even the Western Conference.

Windsor Spitfires (24-40-2-2) 52 points – 10th Western Conference

WHAT WE KNOW: Windsor will have a much better season this year, but how much better remains to be seen. Goaltending could be a question mark off the hop, 18-year-old Brendan Johnston will see more rubber this year with Alex Fotinos moving on, but there is little doubt Michael DiPietro is the Spitfires goalie of the future. The 16-year-old has been impressive at camp, and could battle with Johnston for playing time this year. The addition of Christian Fischer adds to a young and talented forward group that includes Logan Brown and Luke Kirwan, both potential first round picks this year.

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW: Only the Sudbury Wolves allowed more goals than Windsor last season. The team should allow less than the 305 goals they gave up last season, but the blueline is still quite young. If goaltending stumbles out the gate Windsor could have some real trouble keeping the puck out of their own net again this season. Rocky Thomson takes over behind the bench for Bob Boughner, who will be behind the San Jose Sharks bench this season.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: The Spitfires received a huge boost with the commitment of Christian Fischer, the 2nd round pick of Arizona will be another big body upfront for Windsor who can contribute in both ends of the ice. A lot will be expected from Logan Brown and Luke Kirwan in whats a big year for them, their NHL draft year. Christiano DiGiacinto’s 45 points last year are the most among returning players.  2014 first round pick Logan Stanley and 2015 CHL Import Draft selection Mikhail Sergachev will also draw a lot of attention head of the 2016 NHL draft.

WHO’S GONE: The Spitfires lose their top two scorers from last season. They were hoping that Trevor Murphy would return for his OA season, but the offensive defenceman recently signed an entry level deal with Nashville and will move on to pro hockey. He was the Spits best player last year, his absence will impact Windsor in both ends of the ice. Slater Doggett scored 51 points during his OA year last season, he’s now playing with Queen’s University (CIS). Alex Fotinos is gone in net, meaning Brendon Johnston and Michael DiPietro will battle for playing time between the pipes.

EXPECTATIONS: After missing the playoffs two of the last three seasons, Windsor should find themselves among the top eight in the Western Conference. The addition of Bradley Latour helps, who won a Memorial Cup with Oshawa last season, his experience will be a welcome addition to a young Spitfires team. If last year is any indication, expect Logan Brown and Luke Kirwan to lead the Spits up front.

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