Top 10 OHL Stories for the Coming Season
OHL training camps start in less than a week but some storylines have already emerged over the course of the summer. This year promises to bring the spotlight squarely on the OHL, which is hosting the Memorial Cup and is home to the two-time defending Memorial Cup Champion Windsor Spitfires. The summer created interesting player dramas from the May Priority Selection and June Import Draft to summer trades and the Ivan Hlinka Tournament.
Will Windsor three-peat? How will Mississauga manage the Memorial Cup? These questions and many more hang over the Ontario Hockey League as we roll into September once more.
This topic comes up every year seemingly. The advent of the new CBA puts a premium on the ability of NHL teams to draft, cultivate and employ cheap, young talent on entry level deals. In '06-'07, the Knights lost Sam Gagner and Patrick Kane to the NHL effectively forcing London into a retool and prompting the Steve Mason trade later that season.
This year, Windsor stands to lose Taylor Hall, Greg Nemisz, Harry Young, Dale Mitchell, Scott Timmins, Adam Henrique and Marc Cundari which will significantly hamper their ability to repeat as Champs. They might also lose Ryan Ellis to Nashville and Cam Fowler to Anaheim if the cards fall accordingly
Meanwhile, their foil last season, the Barrie Colts, stand to lose Alex Pietrangelo, TJ Brodie, Nick Crawford, Bryan Cameron, Luke Pither, Stefan Della Rovere, Zac Rinaldo and Matt Kennedy. The Colts may fall into the cellar of the OHL's Eastern Conference as a result.
But more than Barrie and Windsor could be effected by graduation this year. Kitchener might end up losing Jeff Skinner and Jeremy Morin, Plymouth could lose Tyler Seguin, Kingston might have to part with Erik Gudbranson. All of these teams are poised for long playoff runs if these players returns but they'll have to cope with the reality that they might not.
9. Eastern Emergence
Last year, only two East Division teams were above .500 and ther were the Division Champion Ottawa 67's and Kingston Frontenacs. This year, all five teams in the East Division have a chance at eclipsing the .500 plateau.
In debates between fans of the respective Conferences, fans of the West have always pointed to the aenemic East Division as one of the reasons that the OHL's West is the superior Conference. However, a lot has changed this year.
The Belleville Bulls, ravaged by graduation last season, added Alex Aleardi and Austin Brassard via trade. This year they'll team with Belleville drafted and developed Stephen Silas, Tyson Teichmann and rookie Brendan Gaunce to give the Yardman a new era of excitement.
In Peterborough, one of the League's best trios of Ryan Spooner, Austin Watson and Matt Puempel promises to reek havoc on the rest of the League.
Oshawa might have missed the playoffs last year but the additions of Nicklas Jensen, Scott Laughton and Lucas Lessio to a forward corps that already includes Boone Jenner and Christian Thomas should make for some serious firepower.
Kingston's usually moribund franchise has been revitalized by Erik Gudbranson, Taylor Doherty, Ethan Werek and Alan Quine but Doug Gilmour's tutelage is the catalyst in the Limestone City.
The Ottawa 67s returning corps of overagers in addition to Tyler Toffoli, Ryan Martindale, Petr Mrazek and Cody Ceci has the makings of a potential Division Championship repeat.
8. European Emigration
Last year's emergence of Alexander Burmistrov (pictured) and Ivan Telegin opened the doors to the OHL for high profile Russian prospects. These prospects previously would have simply stayed in Russia and been content to put in time for the scouts as third liners on their KHL club teams in the hopes that playing against men instead of teenagers would mitigate some of their Draft issues.
This year, the two top Russians for the NHL Entry Draft, Alexander Khokhlachev and Vladislav Namestnikov, are both slated to play in the OHL's Western Conference. Older Russians Alexander Burmistrov and Ivan Telegin will be joined by Andrei Kuchin, Igor Bobkov and maybe even Maxim Kitsyn whose rights are owned by Memorial Cup hosts the Mississauga Majors. While the two biggest offseason additions to the Sarnia Sting, Alexander Galchenyuk and Naill Yakupov are both eligible for next year's (2012) draft.
But the European emigration doesn't end in Russia. Germany's top two junior aged prospects, Tom Kuhnhackl and Tobias Rieder, will be playing in the OHL this season joining Philip Grubauer. Denmark's top prospect for the coming draft, Nicklas Jensen, is slated to play for the Oshawa Generals while Swedish power forward and projected Top 15 pick Gabriel Landeskog spent last season in Kitchener and will return this year.
7. Rebuilding or Retooling in London?
The London Knights are regularly the class of the OHL. Even the most ardent supporter of one of the Knights' closest rivals would have to admit that the Hunters have built a tradition of winning since taking over the program. But many are expecting a rare down year for the Knights this season.
Why? Well, the biggest reason is a significant loss of offensive firepower. Last season, Mark Hunter traded Phil McRae (pictured) and Zac Rinaldo. Over the summer he stands to lose the team's biggest offensive weapon, Nazem Kadri, to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Knights will also lose power forward Leigh Salters, Captain Justin Taylor, starting goaltender Michael Hutchinson and two important top four defensemen in Kalle Ekelund and Steve Tarasuk. For most teams, this would be enough to launch them into a full scale rebuild. But their is room for optimism in the Forest City.
First, Phil Varone isn't a lock to stick with the San Jose Sharks' AHL affiliate in Worcester and could return for an overage season which would take some of the offensive burden off Jared Knight and Daniel Erlich. Second, the Knights have added three huge pieces to replace some of what they've lost. Russians Igor Bobkov and Vladislav Namestnikov will fill the voids in goaltending and goal scoring. Meanwhile, Hunter was able to lure Montreal Canadiens first rounder Jarred Tinordi away from Notre Dame.
Add this to the progression of dynamite sophomore Scott Harrington and the Knights could still be a force to be reckoned with the OHL's West.
6. A Seguin Sequel?
Usually, the salary cap and the CBA make it more profitable for teams to keep young players. But in this one case, the CBA might keep the Boston Bruins from being able to add a young player they would very much like to see making the rounds at the TD Garden this winter.
Tyler Seguin took the OHL by storm last season. He had many, including yours truly, believing that he should be the first overall selection in the NHL Entry Draft. This increased profile led to his being drafted second overall by the Boston Bruins but this created a whole other set of problems for Bruins management. Albeit, problems they're happy to have. Boston regularly spends in the neighbourhood of the cap ceiling and they currently have a couple cumbersome contracts that are hindering any available cap space (I'm looking at you Michael Ryder and Tim Thomas!). Seguin's Entry Level Contract is for the rookie maximum or roughly $3.75 million dollars per annum including bonuses. The heft of that contract means the Bruins may have no other option but to send Seguin back to Plymouth if they can't move out Thomas or Ryder by the start of the season.
This creates another issues. The Plymouth Whalers loaded up for last season adding Josh Brittain, Phil McRae, James Livingston only one of whom - Livingston - will be returning. They also lost starting goaltender Matt Hackett. While some talent will be returning like promising sophomore Garret Meurs, the Whalers are unquestionably rebuilding. Whalers Coach/GM Mike Vellucci has stated he won't trade Seguin if the centre is returned, the annual Arms Race that is the OHL Trade Deadline might prove too tempting a market to pass up...
5. Windsor Waning?
Hockey fans love their dynasties. Whether they win the Memorial Cup this year or not, that's likely what the Taylor Hall era Windsor Spitfires will go down as. The Graduation of some of the eras main characters like Hall, Nemisz, Henrique, Young, Mitchell, Timmins and Cundari does mean that this year's Spits will have a very different flavour.
How different remains to be seen.
Much has been made this season of the Anaheim Ducks dissembled defence corps and it's no coincidence that Cam Fowler, the Ducks first pick in the last draft and a highly touted puck moving defenseman, was signed to his Entry Level Contract before Anaheim's prospect camp even opened. There are those who expect Fowler will at least start the year in Anaheim, which would mark a further loss for the Spits.
All that having been said, Windsor does stand to return Zack Kassian, Kenny Ryan, Stephen Johnston and likely Ryan Ellis from last year's team which gives them a core of players that's already formidable. They're adding Tom Kuhnhackl and Alexander Khokhlachev from Europe but first year import players can sometimes take a while to adjust to the smaller ice and longer schedule. Jack Campbell is also coming in to take over the duties between the pipes. That kind of talent infusion might just be enough to propel the Spits to a third consecutive OHL crown.
4. Kitchener Komeback
Your team gets to host the Memorial Cup, they lose in a close final game and graduation so decimates the team that they finish 18th in the 20 team league the next season. This is where Kitchener Rangers fans were at this time last offseason.
But a lot changes in a year.
The upstart Rangers were last year's Cinderella playoff story, defeating their rival London Knights in seven high scoring games before taking the defending Champion Windsor Spitfires to seven games in what many have since dubbed the "true" OHL Final. And as difficult as it is to believe, this year's edition could be better.
A lot depends on the return of Jeff Skinner and Jeremy Morin from their respective NHL clubs. Kitchener Coach/GM Steve Spott seems sure that the Chicago Blackhawks will assign Jeremy Morin to their AHL affiliate in Rockford but CHL President David Branch is in negotiations with the NHL to clairify a rule loophole. Morin signed with the Rangers prior to being draft into the NHL in 2009 and as such, could count as an OHL drafted player, meaning he couldn't be sent to the AHL. Skinner's case is more plain, the Hurricanes have made it known to the Rangers that if Skinner isn't in the top six, he's headed back to the OHL.
Kitchener was affected by the graduation of Captain Dan Kelly, Swede Patrik Andersson, top defenseman John Moore and overager Christ MacKinnon in the offseason but most of that production will be replaced from within. Ryan Murphy made huge steps forward in last year's playoffs and the Rangers swung trades to acquire Julian Melchiori and Cody Sol to replace Moore and Kelly. Meanwhile, the Rangers will bring in top German prospect Tobias Rieder and youngster Matia Marcantuoni who was considered the top forward available in the 2011 OHL Priority Selection but fell after posturing about a commitment to the University of Michigan.
There's a war going on. It's a recruiting war between the NCAA and the OHL. And the NCAA is being routed.
Last year, the College Ranks were pilloried, even the big programs. Boston College lost Kenny Ryan to Windsor, Michigan lost Robbie Czarnik to Plymouth, Colorado College lost John Moore to Kitchener, Notre Dame lost Cam Fowler to Windsor, the list goes on. Sam Lofquist even defected from the University of Minnesota midseason to join the Guelph Storm.
This year, Jack Campbell, Lucas Lessio and Matia Marcantuoni all ditched Michigan for the OHL (for Windsor, Oshawa and Kitchener respectively) while Jarred Tinordi left Notre Dame for London and Julian Melchiori shrugged off UMass-Lowell to chase a championship in Kitchener.
The proliferation of Americans into the OHL seems to grow every year. Even Canadian prospects like Lessio, Marcantuoni and Melchiori who would have been considered safe college prospects five years ago are now snidely referred to as "faking" commitments in order to gain prime playing opportunities in top programs.
This is a trend that promises to continue as other players currently with the USNTDP like John Gibson and Tyler Biggs are rumoured to be jumping ship to the OHL next season.
2. Will They or Won't They?
Every year, every fanbase has a few players they're holding out for. In the summer, the question of "will they or won't they show?" Is played around the league. Last year, Kingston fans awaited Brock Higgs' decision in the hope that the forward would elect to break an NCAA commitment to help lead his hometown Frontenacs back to respectability.
In the fall, the questions turn from "will they or won't they show?" to "will they or won't they perform?"
This year, it seems like everyone has those questions. In Windsor, they wait on the possibility of Stephen Johns ditching Notre Dame while they pray fervently that Alexander Khokhlachev and Tom Kuhnhackl can help the Spits continue their winning ways.
In London, the hope for Adam Clendening's arrival has been given up on but there's still some praying that they'll see Chase Balisy before the year is out. Meanwhile they too are praying for a good year from Vladislav Namestnikov.
Down the 401 in Kitchener, they're hoping the Maple Leafs will assign Jerry D'Amigo (pictured) to the seemingly Championship-bound Rangers and that Scott Mayfield, a highly touted defenseman with Youngstown of the USHL will join them for a run.
Memorial Cup hosts Mississauga have arguably the most riding on the "will they or won't they?" sweepstakes. They selected big Russian forward Maxim Kitsyn in the CHL Import Draft and are hoping that the LA Kings who got Andrei Loktionov into Windsor a few years back, feel so inclined toward this Russian prospect. More importantly, they're waiting on the future of their franchise as American defenseman Nick Ebert ponders whether to jump from the USHL's Waterloo Blackhawks to the Majors.
1. A GTA Memorial Cup
There was rampant discussion last spring about which OHL team should be given the privilege of hosting the 2011 Mastercard Memorial Cup. The two leading contenders were, by most people's reckoning, the defending Champion Windsor Spitfires and the Mississauga Majors.
In the end, the Majors were awarded the event but it wasn't a decision without risk.
Mississauga was second to last in regular season attendance last year and it doesn't take doctorate in Public Relations to know what a catastrophe it would be for the League if the host team had trouble selling the event to what has, thus far, proven a very reluctant customer base in the GTA. By the way, the only team with worse attendance figures than Mississauga? Their GTA cousins down the 407 in Brampton.
There are other factors at work here. Obviously a Toronto-adjacent Memorial Cup will make media coverage easier. Majors owner, Eugene Melnyk who also owns the Ottawa Senators, has the deep pockets to throw a heck of a party for the League and to ensure that the off-ice festivities rival anything seen in recent years in Vancouver, Kitchener or London.
The Majors under the current Dave Cameron regime have been noted for playing uninspired and listless defensive, trap-based hockey that has the effect of stifling the offence of their opponent and the interest of their audience. That too could play a factor as the Memorial Cup season revs up.