The OHL's West is a meat grinder. In the Midwest, Erie and Owen Sound are regular forced into the role of Baltimore and Toronto in a division that is the OHL's equivalent of the AL East. Kitchener is favoured early but their interests might run contrary to that of several NHL clubs. Guelph is in the last year of their competition window and should get reliable goaltending all season which is a marked difference from last year. And there's always the London Knights.
In the West Division, Windsor looks less formidable than past entries but isn't about to be unseated. Saginaw, Sarnia and the Soo are all gaining steam but none will be ready to compete until next year.
So, let's see who's gonna be up and who's gonna be down...
Key Losses: Chris MacKinnon, John Moore, Dan Kelly, Jeremy Morin*
Key Additions: Tobias Rieder, Cody Sol, Julian Melchiori, Matia Marcantuoni
Needs: Help from the NHL
If This Team Were a Rock Song or Album? Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen. Given this team's depth, but also it's fate being dependent on Jeremy Morin, Jerry D'Amigo and the Carolina Hurricanes, the iconic Springsteen album is a perfect fit. Not to mention the team colours!
There should be a huge asterisk with putting Kitchener here. They need to return Jeff Skinner, that's non-negotiable. Most people think Skinner has a chance to stick with the Canes but he should be returned for one more OHL season. The 50 goal man from last year's Rangers would leave a massive hole as the team's first line centre, best scoring threat and likely Captain if he weren't returned.
Jeremy Morin and Jerry D'Amigo are slightly different stories. Morin's status had been the result of a dispute between the NHL and CHL with the NHL ruling this week that the 19 year-old Auburn, New York native was eligible to play in the AHL this season. Morin is playing in the Leafs rookie tournament for the Blackhawks this week but according to even most Blackhawks beat writers, hasn't impressed. He may end up Kitchener because his game simply isn't pro-ready yet.
As for D'Amigo, the consensus opinion at the moment seems to be that he'll at least start the season in the AHL Toronto Marlies. Recent hints dropped by the Toronto media, some Leafs brass and even Kitchener Coach/GM Steve Spott have suggested D'Amigo might be sent to Kitchener after the World Juniors.
As for the team as it remains in place in Kitchener, the Rangers show serious offensive depth. Returnees are highlighted by Swedish power forward Gabriel Landeskog who TSN's Bob MacKenzie has listed as #4 for the upcoming draft. Landeskog is backed up by fellow import Tobias Rieder, overagers Jason Akeson and Matt Tipoff, Bruins prospect Tyler Randell and highly touted Matia Marcantuoni who broke a commitment to Michigan to suit up in Kitchener this season.
Rangers goaltending and defence look solid. Brandon Maxwell and Mike Morrison are a solid 1-2 tandem in net while one should expect the Rangers to add a blue-line piece during the season.
Key Losses: Taylor Hall, Greg Nemisz, Harry Young, Adam Henrique, Philip Grubauer, Justin Shugg, Marc Cantin, Dale Mitchell, Scott Timmins, Marc Cundari, Eric Wellwood, Cam Fowler*
Key Additions: Tom Kuhnhackl, Alexander Khokhlachev, Nick Ebert, Jack Campbell, Nick Czinder
If This Team Were a Rock Song or Album? "The Boys Are Back in Town" by Thin Lizzy
The Hall era is over. Welcome to the Ebert era. Many believe Nick Ebert could be the top pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, following in the footsteps of fellow Windsor alum, Taylor Hall. Ebert is an American defender with high end hockey sense, great mobility and deadly poise with the puck.
The Spits still retain enough firepower to do some serious damage. Up front, they return Zack Kassian, Kenny Ryan and Stephen Johnston which is a decent veteran core to insert talented first year players around. Kuhnhackl and Khokhlachev make for a couple interesting inserts into the line up. Both are incredibly talented. Kuhnhackl and American forward Nick Czinder will help infuse the Spits line up with size. Khokhlachev has some serious talent and should provide a solid offensive catalyst to back up a lot of what was lost in the offseason.
On defence, things remain interesting. A lot depends on Cam Fowler's return. You could put a good bet that the Ducks will return Fowler after nine games in Anaheim but if he impresses like Michael Del Zotto did for the Rangers at the start of last season, he could stick. Especially on that thin Anaheim defence corps.
Ryan Ellis will most likely be returned from the Nashville Predators but there are significant well-founded rumours that Ellis is going to be moved at the deadline to Mississauga for Kerby Rychel.
Jack Campbell will take over goaltending duties in Windsor and may prove himself to be the best puckstopper in the whole league. Good enough, maybe, to lead the Spits to a third straight regular season western conference title.
Key Losses: Cory Syvret, Adam Comrie, Matt Sisca
Key Additions: Daniel Maggio
Needs: Reliable Goaltending
If This Team Were a Rock Song or Album: "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad" by Meat Loaf. Offence and Defence are present in Guelph, goaltending questions remain.
The Storm ebbed and flowed with their goaltending last year. Before Brandon Foote returned, they were a sub-five hundred team that was on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. After Foote returned, they went on a long run that put them one Saginaw Spirit victory away from finishing sixth in the Conference.
Then it all fell apart. Foote became very mortal, very fast in the playoffs. The London Knights ran all over him on their way to sending Guelph home in five games. Now the question remains, do the Storm, with several NHL drafted 1991 born players in their last year of junior eligibility, really feel comfortable with Brandon Foote as their starting goaltender?
On defence, the Storm are reliable. Sam Lofquist was a rock on the blue-line for the Storm after arriving from the University of Minnesota last season. He'll join forces with Daniel Maggio on a top pairing that could see as much as 30 minutes a night.
The second pairing of Tim Campbell and Chris Van Laren make a decent second pairing that should be a reliable shutdown group.
On the third pairing, youngster Matt Finn joins import Andrey Pedan. This is where the Storm would like to make a trade for some depth. In big games, you want to be throwing a reliable body over the boards in the 4/5 slot rather than a first year player.
Up front the Storm have a very deep attack headlined by returnees Peter Holland, Taylor Beck and Michael Latta. They'll be supported by draft eligibles Zack Mitchell, Carter Sandlak and Cody McNaughton.
Key Losses: Nazem Kadri, Michael Hutchinson, Leigh Salters, Justin Taylor, Steve Tarasuk, Kalle Ekelund
Key Additions: Vladislav Namestnikov, Jarred Tinordi, Igor Bobkov*
Needs: Game-breaking forward
If This Team Were a Rock Song or Album? "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Rolling Stones.
A lot in London this season will depend on whether Igor Bobkov gets cleared by the IIHF to play in the CHL. As it stands, he only has clearance to play in the NHL or AHL. If Bobkov isn't cleared to play in the CHL, the Knights goaltending will rest in the uncertain hands of Michael Houser. Anyone who saw Houser play in the OHL playoffs last year might understand the apprehension of some Knights fans with handing him the reins.
On the defence, the Knights have some good stalwarts. There have been some rumours that overager Michael D'Orazio could stick at a pro camp but I expect he'll be back at the JLC this winter. He'll re-team with super sophomore Scott Harrington to form one of the Knights' defensive pairings.
The inclusion of Jarred Tinordi into the mixture in London will bolster the Knights' defensive depth and he'll be augmented by Reid McNeill, Troy Donnay and Jake Worrad to round out the defence.
Up front, the Knight have some good depth with Jared Knight, Daniel Erlich, Michael McDonald and likely Phil Varone but they lack that kind of elite game breaking offensive catalyst that they've usually needed for success in the pack. There is no evident heir to Nazem Kadri, Patrick Kane or Robbie Schremp in this bunch. The above listed players are more supplementary offensive players rather than catalysts. The Knights are praying import Namestnikov adapts faster than imports usually do.
Key Losses: Michael Quesnele, Jacob Muzzin, Robin Lehner, Jordan Nolan
Key Additions: Gianluca Cucuruto
Needs: Puck-moving defenseman
If This Team Were a Rock Song or Album: "Move it On Over" by George Thorogood & The Destroyers
The Hounds are in a bit of a precarious position. They have the ability to be a step above the teams below then but they're also clearly a step below the teams above them.
The Hounds have problems. Losing Robin Lehner leaves a huge hole in net. One that Bryce O'Hagan might not be up to the task of filling. While O'Hagan looked good for stretches last year, he was never able to string together enough consistency to push Lehner in any serious way after December. He'll have to be better to keep the Hounds in the race.
On defence, the Hounds find some strength in returning the twin towers of Brock Beukeboom and Brandon Archibald will anchor the first pairing while Dylan King will provide some depth into the second pairing. The question is going to be how fast they want to bring along rookie Gianluca Cucuruto. The rookie came into last May's OHL Priority Selection as a highly touted defenseman with good puck skill. That skill with the puck is what the Soo will be trying to replace with the loss this offseason of Michael Quesnele and Jacob Muzzin.
Up front, the Hounds are gonna rely on scoring by committee. But it's not a bad committee to rely on. Veterans Brett Thompson and Vern Cooper return as the Hounds two most productive forwards from last season while sophomores Daniel Catenacci and Nick Cousins will look to build off strong rookie campaigns. Add in Carson Dubchak and Jake Carrick and there should be enough offence to keep the Soo securely in the five spot.
Key Losses: Jordan Skellet, Tyler Murovich, Jordan Hill, Eddie Pasquale, Cody Sol
Key Additions: Brandon Saad, Justin Kea
Needs: Defensive depth
If This Team were a Rock Song or Album? "TNT" by AC/DC. This team is all offence and they're gonna have the chance to explode for some real barn burning games this season.
The Spirit could definitely surprise this season. The graduation they faced last year could have wiped the team out. But smart moves to deal out Nick Crawford and TJ Brodie allowed the Spirit to withstand that graduation and even add a couple strong pieces for this season.
There should be no question about this team's ability to score. Two thirds of last year's top line are returning with Josh Shalla and Ivan Telegin venturing back to Central Michigan. Last year's rookie surprise, Vincent Trocheck, will be back and rejoined with Jordan Szwarz to give the Spirit some depth. Michael Sgarbossa and Anthony Camara will give the organization further depth.
The real acquisition though, is Brandon Saad. Saad could be a top 5 pick in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. A power forward with serious goal scoring upside, it's easy to slide Saad in next to Shalla and Telegin on the top line to create a unit that can simply overpower most defence pairings.
On defence, the Spirit return offensive defenseman Ryan O'Connor who will run the powerplay and log some serious minutes. But the absence of a big minute munching defenseman who can play all situations has to be a concern for Coach Todd Watson. Peter Hermenegildo and Joe Underwood will back up O'Connor but that's not a lot of depth.
In goal, the Spirit are searching for the heir to Eddie Pasquale. Mavric Parks, acquired from Barrie in the offseason, looks to be the answer. Parks led the OHL in save percentage for much of last season and will likely be able to cover the mistakes made by a thin Saginaw blue-line.
Key Losses: Zack Torquato, Paul Cianfrini, Adam Courchaine
Key Additions: Chris Marchese
Needs: A number one defenseman
If This Team were a Rock Song or Album? "Break on Through (To the Other Side)" by The Doors.
The Otters are finally starting to do things the right way again. The franchise, which hasn't been taken seriously since the days of Brad Boyes and Carlo Colaiacovo, is starting to turn a corner in terms of team building. Losing Ryan O'Reilly to very early graduation last season set back the plans a year but the Otters were lucky to have Greg McKegg behind him, ready to fill his shoes.
McKegg returns with running mate Mike Cazzola to lead the Otters offence this season. While they're missing linemate Zack Torquato, the two of them will receive a boost from big sophomore power forward David "The Brolling Ball" Broll. Broll's addition to the top unit will create a different dynamic and give the Otters some physical punch to go with the offensive fireworks.
Behind the top line, Anthony Luciani and Andrew Yogan will be joined by two forwards from the best draft class Erie has had in a very long time. Chris Marchese was touted as a strong two-way centre coming out of the last priority selection and will likely start on the third line. Conor Crisp was touted as a top power forward and will like bounce between lines through the course of the season. Timofei Tankeev joins the team and will likely be helped with the off-ice adjustment by fellow Russian Rasmus Sadikov.
In goal, Sadikov will get the lion's share of the work backed up by youngster Chris Festarini. Festarini wasn't strong last year but there is a belief that he's capable of playing at the OHL level and he'll be given a more consistent chance this year.
On defence, it's going to be about making sure the top four play the way they did last year when every last one of them exceeded expectations. Mitch Gaulton is the closest thing to a big name in the lot, he's backed up by Tyler Hostetter, Derek Holden and David Shields. The lack of a true #1 puckmover should be a concern.
Key Losses: Kyle Neuber
Key Additions: Alex Galchenyuk, Nail Yakupov
Needs: One consistent goaltender
If This Team Were a Rock Song or Album? "The Kids are Alright" by The Who
I went back and forth on who should get the final playoff spot in the West. Eventually, I arrived at the Sting. My reasoning is simple. In knocking young teams in this league, everyone talks about how inexperienced they are. What you eventually come to realize after watching this league for a while is that eventually, talent just takes over during the regular season.
In Sarnia, it's all about the offence. The Sting have four young forwards that should jump charge the attack. Brandon Francisco and Brett Ritchie return from last year's squad. Ritchie caught fire near the end of last season and carried that momentum through to a very strong Ivan Hlinka Tournament in August. Ritchie is the easiest to project over the course of the coming season because as he learns to use his frame more effectively, he'll begin to dominate games. Early indications are he's starting to do that.
The Russian invasion of Sarnia will be another storyline on offence. Alex Galchenyuk was the first overall pick in last spring's Priority Selection out of the Chicago Young Americans midget program. The forward carries all the hope of Sarnia's last first overall pick, Steven Stamkos. Joining Galchenyuk is Russian, and early favourite to go number 1 in 2012, Nail Yakupov. Yakupov's deadly hockey sense, puck creativity and skating will make him a terror for opposing defences.
On defence, the Sting are a middle of the pack team. Most of the big minutes will be handled by Joe Rogalski, the Pittsburgh prospect has shown some adeptness on both sides of the puck and will run the powerplay. His likely defence partner will be Nathan Chiarlitti. Chiarlitti played for Canada at the Spring Under-18s but went undrafted. He, like Rogalski, possesses some skill on both sides of the puck.
The second pairing will see a couple of veterans in Brent Sullivan and Ron Soucie paired up to stabilize the back end.
In goal, Sarnia has a good problem. 1992 netminder Shayne Campbell has been injured for much of the preseason. If this continues, the Sting will have to lean on veteran John Cullen, acquired from Kingston in an offseason trade. Cullen's numbers far outshine Campbell's and he may find when he returns from injury that he's lost his job. Cullen will be backed up in the early going by 1994 goaltender Brandon Hope.
Key Losses: Tyler Seguin, AJ Jenks, Phil McRae, Matt Hackett, Josh Brittain, Ryan Hayes, Michal Jordan, Joe Gaynor, Leo Jenner
Key Additions: Max Iafrate
Needs: Offensive depth
If This Team Were a Rock Song or Album? "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" by Billy Joel
The Whalers built a big, rugged team last year in the hope that they would be the ones who knocked off the Windsor Spitfires. They were swept. And they lost most of their offensive firepower in the offseason in addition to losing the best goaltender in the league.
There are some good pieces to build around in Plymouth. The Whalers still have their last two first round picks in Garret Meurs and Max Iafrate. They drafted two young Europeans this offseason in Rakell and Truttmann who should slide ably into the lineup and they should have another young stalwart in goal in Scott Wedgewood.
But they lack an offensive gamebreaker, they lack general offensive depth in anyway. They lost two of their top three defensemen, returning only Beau Schmitz. Schmitz will be joined with big Austin Levi who will be expected to fill the shoes of Plymouth's long time shutdown presence, Leo Jenner.
Plymouth doesn't usually miss the playoffs. They're considered one of the "have" franchises in the OHL. And you can never count out a Mike Vellucci coached team. The Whalers will be in it until the very last weekend of the season but the Sting will beat them out.
Key Losses: Michael McGurk, Marcus Carroll, Milan Doczy
Key Additions: Jarrod Maidens
Needs: A prayer
If This Team Were a Rock Song or Album? "The Song Remains the Same" by Led Zeppelin
I'm gonna catch some flack for this but it makes absolute sense. Ask yourself, what is actually different in Owen Sound this year?
Think about this. Three of the teams I've got ranked in the Top Four of the Conference for the coming season are in Owen Sound's division. London is as good as last year. Guelph is better than last year. Kitchener should be as good, if not better. Owen Sound will play 20 games against those three teams. They were 0-6 against Kitchener last year, make of it what you will.
Hishon, Shipley, Mignardi, Berdnikov and Garret Wilson are all returning. They were all here last year and they weren't good enough to get the Attack into the playoffs. Why is there an assumption that they will suddenly be good enough this year?
Move to the blue-line. Owen Sound is returning three of their top four defensemen from last year. Consider the following. Jesse Blacker will play in the number one spot, he's an effective puckmover with a good physical game. He was a team worst -22 last season.
Keevin Cutting hasn't lived up to the billing that accompanied his entry into the league. This year is his draft year and he's all but fallen off the radar. He'll be the number three defender and was a -21 last season.
Geoff Schemitsch is a superb puck moving defenseman with great hockey sense. He makes one of the best first passes in the League. He was a mere +1 last season
Notice a theme yet? The Attack are losing their best shutdown defender in Mike McGurk and have no one to replace him. He was a +10 on last year's dreadful Attack team. Why is this significant?
Scott Stajcer doesn't look like the same goalie he was when he was stopping 60+ shots a night against Windsor in the 2009 playoffs. He was mediocre last season and without McGurk in front of him, he's going to be lacking a stable defensive presence. Back up Jordan Binnington hasn't shown himself capable of carrying the load if Stajcer continues to falter.
Hart Trophy: Jeff Skinner
If he's returned, he'll be the number one centre, best player and likely Captain of a team that is an odds on favourite to be playing in Mississauga in May.
Rocket Richard Trophy: Jeff Skinner
He's the OHL's only returning 50 goal scorer.
Art Ross Trophy: Jeff Skinner
Vezina Trophy: Jack Campbell
This kid has all the tools to be a franchise goaltender in the NHL. Once he acclimatizes to the OHL game, he'll be lights out.
Norris Trophy: Ryan Murphy
Jarred Tinordi will contend as well. Ryan Ellis would have a lock on this award but for the fact that everyone's expecting him to jump conferences midseason. Murphy has the ability to put up an ungodly amount of points.
Calder Trophy: Nail Yakupov
There are a lot of touted rookies in the West this year with names like Yakupov, Ebert, Khokhlachev, Galchenyuk and Marcantuoni. Yakupov's skill will be given the opportunity and linemates to succeed in Sarnia this year and that's a potent mix.