With several of the OHL’s top teams residing in the Midwest Division, it often gets compared to Major League Baseball’s American League East. The last five Western Conference teams to make the OHL finals have all been from the Midwest. The Erie Otters won the Midwest Division for the first time since 2002, and the division showed its depth with all five teams making the playoffs. With Connor McDavid and several others not expected back, the Otters might be in tough to duplicate last year’s success. They’ll be in tough against a strong London team, and a very improved Rangers team in Kitchener. Depending on who returns, Owen Sound and Guelph could be in rebuilding years, but those are two organizations that are tough to count out in September.
Erie Otters (50-14-2-2) 104 points – 2nd in Western Conference
WHAT WE KNOW: The top pairing on the backend is set, with Travis Dermott and Darren Raddysh returning. Having both back not only provides a steadying presence, but can push the play too. The forwards will be able to crash and bang in the corners, with six of them being 6’3 or taller. The team could be better than expected offensively too. Reigning rookie of the year Alex DeBrincat and Nick Betz can be counted on for points, while the rest of the forwards have experience. Devin Williams and Daniel DeKoning return as a solid tandem in the crease.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW: The Otters will lose 249 points with the combined graduations of Connor McDavid and Dylan Strome. While Strome could return, it is hard to envision Erie replacing that kind of production. DeBrincat will have to prove himself as a scorer, now that he will be the focus of other team’s defences. The D-core is largely unproven after their top pairing. As of this writing, it wasn’t known where Kings 2nd rounder Erik Cernak would play. The big D man would help bolster the defensive depth.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: After winning rookie of the year last season, the Otters will be looking to see what Alex DeBrincat can bring for an encore. While breaking the 100-point barrier again might be optimistic, he will certainly be depended upon offensively. Travis Dermott, a 2nd round pick, will bring back his steady, two-way play. The smooth skating D man should log plenty of minutes on a rebuilding defence group. Keep an eye on Taylor Raddysh. He scored 21 goals as a 16 year old, and should have more opportunity on a scoring line this season
WHO’S GONE: The big loss is, of course, Connor McDavid. There were other substantial losses though, with Remi Elie, Nick Baptiste, Troy Donnay and Kurtis MacDermid going pro, Cory Genovese heading to Queen’s of the CIS, and Patrick Murphy being traded to Sudbury. Dylan Strome could join the list if he makes the Arizona Coyotes. At the very least, he will likely miss time for camp, World Jr’s, and a potential 9 game audition.
EXPECTATIONS: The Otters head into the season with an outside chance at a championship. While I wouldn’t call them a front-runner, they have a lot of players who have played in big games. While graduations hurt them, the cupboards aren’t quite bare. If the defence can hold up, this is still a big, physical team that can score, and make a run in the playoffs. If Strome returns, Erie jumps into the “favourite” discussion
Guelph Storm (38-26-2-2) 80 points – 4th in Western Conference
WHAT WE KNOW: Now two years removed from their 2014 OHL Championship, the Storm figure to be in a development year. The team is set in net with overager Justin Nichols returning. As the netminder for Guelph’s championship, Nichols brings experience and a stabilizing presence. He will almost certainly hit the 100-career games mark this season. Robby Fabbri’s possible return could give the Storm a huge boost on the offensive end, or at the very least he can be a very valuable trade piece. C.J Garcia and Garrett McFadden are solid, experienced defenceman, while Noah Carroll had a strong season as a 16 year old. The rest of the defence corps is young, but got some experience last year, and could be a strength of the team.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW: The forward group contains a lot of question marks after Fabbri. The next highest returning scorer, Tyler Boston, had only 23 points last season. The Storm will have to rely on a breakout by one of their youngsters, or hope for strong contributions from their two import players, Timo Haussener and Vladislav Barulin. Finally, how will this team be able to perform without Robby Fabbri, who is set to miss time with the World Juniors and NHL camps, and perhaps even an extended stay with the St. Louis Blues.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: If Fabbri returns, he is absolutely a player to watch. Even considering the time he will spend away from the team, he has a chance to be among the top scorers in the league by the end of the season. Import Vladislav Barulin, already 19 years old, lit up the Russian junior league’s second division with 44 goals in 55 games. He’ll be expected to fill the net with pucks. Givani Smith’s 15 points in 30 games after being acquired from Barrie projects to 34 points over a full season, excellent production for a 16 year old.
WHO’S GONE: The Storm will lose a lot of the players that made up the 2014 championship team. Jason Dickinson, Tyler Bertuzzi and Zac Leslie are off to either the AHL or ECHL and Phil Baltisberger and Pius Suter will be returning to Europe, both signing with the ZSC Lions of the Swiss league.
EXPECTATIONS: Guelph isn’t going to worry about where they are in the standings this season. Looked at as a developing team, the team will consider the season a success if they manage to get growing returns from their young players. If everything goes perfectly, this team could break the top 5 in the conference, but more likely will be a fringe playoff team
Kitchener Rangers (32-26-3-7) 74 points – 6th in Eastern Conference
WHAT WE KNOW: The Rangers will be counting on their depth this season, especially in a tightly contested Midwest Division. New head coach Mike Van Ryan will have plenty of options among his forward group, with nearly all of last year’s forwards retuning, including leading scorers Ryan MacInnis, overager Brandon Robinson and Darby Llewellyn. Kitchener will miss Max Iafrate and Liam Maaskant on the backend, but should be able to handle the graduations through internal growth from players like Frank Hora, Dmitrii Sergeev and Doug Blaisdell. Newcomer Luke Opilka and the returning Dawson Carty should be an effective duo in net.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW: With so many players returning for Kitchener, we kind of have an idea of how this team will look. We just don’t know exactly how good this team will be, considering that their season will be totally dependant on internal development. Kitchener has forward depth, but they could lack top end offensive firepower unless one of their young forwards (like 2014 2nd overall pick Adam Mascherin perhaps) takes a leap in their development. The defense corps lacks a true puck mover to push the play up ice.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Big centre Ryan MacInnis looks primed for a big step forward after leading the team in scoring last season. Nick Magyar took a step back in the offensive department, look for him to fix that this year. Rangers fans got a glimpse of Adam Mascherin’s potential last season. The team will be looking for him to take a big jump after getting his feet wet last season. St. Louis draft pick Luke Opilka has a wealth of experience in net, both with the US development team as well as internationally, look for him to standout.
WHO’S GONE: Not too many losses for Kitchener. The defense lost Max Iafrate and Liam Maaskant. Iafrate will turn pro this year with the Providence Bruins, while Maaskant will suit up for Acadia University. The team also graduates goalie Jake Paterson to the pros, although he was only acquired to be a rental, so his loss was planned for.
EXPECTATIONS: The Western conference is going to be a tightly contested, but there is a good chance that the Rangers could be among the names at the top. Their roster doesn’t contain any glaring holes, they have a wealth of forwards to choose from, and the D corps is solid and proven. Look for Kitchener to get home ice for the playoffs and make a run deep into the playoffs
London Knights (40-24-1-3) 84 points – 3RD in Western Conference
WHAT WE KNOW: London is going to be fast. If their first preseason game was any indication, Budweiser Gardens is going to look more like a racetrack than an ice rink. Christian Dvorak returns alongside highly touted new additions Matthew Tkachuk and Max Jones. Add in the potential return of Mitch Marner from the Maple Leafs and the Knights forward group becomes downright scary. Aiden Jamieson and Chris Martenet should provide a veteran, stabilizing presence for a D corps in transition. London could easily roll four lines after their offseason additions.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW: Starting goalie Tyler Parsons impressed last season and in the playoffs, but he’s still just a sophomore. If Parsons falters, that will leave the Knights searching for a netminder. The defence will be relying on 17 year old Victor Mete and newcomer Olli Juolevi to not only play in the top 4, but also quarterback the power play. While they are likely up to the task, the Knights won’t have a puck mover on the back end if they struggle. If Marner doesn’t return, London could be thin at centre.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Christian Dvorak will look to build off of a breakout year, this time without Max Domi. Newcomers Matt Tkachuk and Max Jones will be trying to solidify their status as top prospects for the upcoming NHL draft. Tkachuk plays a smooth, skilled game, while Jones plays like a bulldozer, but has some skill of his own too. Victor Mete will be counted on to be the primary puck mover from the back end. Olli Juolevi could have an impact similar to fellow Finn, and former Knight Olli Maatta in his first year
WHO’S GONE: For the first time in 4 years, the Knights will head into a season without Max Domi. London will also be without another long time Knight, Matt Rupert. Young forward Zach Grzelewski was traded to make room for the new additions. Also gone is Josh Sterk , who came over from Oshawa around midseason. He was sent to Owen Sound. Finally Julius Bergman has graduated after one season in London.
EXPECTATIONS: If everything breaks right for London, and Marner returns, a fourth Memorial Cup appearance in five years is certainly possible. They have some of the top talent in the league, but that talent is still very young, with London relying on big seasons from a lot of 17 years old players. A more likely result is that this team makes a deep run in the playoffs, helping a lot of the newcomers get their feet wet in the playoffs, before making a title run in the 2016/17 season.
Owen Sound Attack (35-24-2-7) 79 points – 5th in Western Conference
WHAT WE KNOW: The Attack will be better at preventing goals than they will be at scoring them. While losing Chris Bigras hurts, Owen Sound’s projected top pairing of Thomas Schemitsch and Damir Sharipzyanov should be among the best pairings in the league. The rest of the D corps still stays intact from last season, giving Owen Sound enviable depth on the backend. Goaltending will also be a strength, with over ager Jack Flinn and Michael McNiven returning to share crease duties. Both posted solid numbers last season and should provide stability. The Attack have used a lot of assets to solidify their forward group, and those efforts should begin bearing fruit in 2015/16.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW: Owen Sound lost 4 of the team’s top 5 scorers to graduation. Those four players accounted for nearly 47 percent of the Attack’s total goals scored last season. While the forwards are young and have potential, the amount of scoring the Attack need to replace is huge. With Petrus Palmu and newly acquired Josh Sterk being the only established OHL scorers, a lot of pressure will be on those young players to step up. Is this team ready to contend now? Or are they another year away?
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Defenceman Thomas Schemitsch is the team’s leading returning scorer. After a 49-point season, he was rewarded by hearing his name called in the third round of this year’s NHL draft. Look for him to be a leader on this team. 5’6 Petrus Palmu can be an electrifying player, and he will be looked to for an offensive spark. While it might be premature, 2015 first round pick Nick Suzuki has a real opportunity to make an impact in his rookie season, with so many unproven forwards. With Chris Bigras gone, Santino Centorame could have a breakout season on the power play.
WHO’S GONE: The Attack were hit hard by graduations, losing forwards Kyle Platzer, Zach Nastasiuk, Daniel Milne, Erik Bradford, Holden Cook, and defenceman Chris Bigras. Those names made up six of their top eight scorers. Nastasiuk, Bigras, Platzer and Bradford are headed to the pros, while Cook will play in the CIS for St. FX.
EXPECTATIONS: A lot of the talk about Owen Sound has been that this is a team in transition, and that this season will be another step in the rebuild. However with one of the stronger defence groups in the league, and perhaps the top 1-2 tandem in net, don’t be surprised if the Attack make a stronger run than expected. Look for them to make the playoffs, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise if they end up higher in the standings than anticipated, perhaps even getting home ice.