Last season’s battles for playoff positioning in the Tier II Junior ‘A’ Ontario Junior Hockey League’s South Division were as tight as they could be with one point separating second and third, and two points separating fourth and fifth.
This year looks to be no different as four teams have a legitimate shot at winning the division that produced two of the three players taken in last June’s NHL entry draft from the OJHL.
Here’s a preview of what to expect from the six teams in the group:
Toronto Lakeshore Patriots
2011-2012 Regular Season Record: 27-17-5 (3rd in Division)
Home: Mastercard Centre for Hockey Excellence, Etobicoke
Head coach and GM Mike Tarantino’s team enters the season as the class of the division, especially after their impressive late-season turnaround and run to the conference finals last year.
Bringing in sniper Nathan Feric from St. Mike’s in exchange for young Cornell commit Matt Buckles makes up for the loss of leading scorer Robbie Murden, and is a good indicator that the Patriots are ready to go all the way. Captain Kyle Dutra is a solid two-way presence up front, and brings the experience of a World Junior A Challenge silver medal to the table. Daniel Tedesco broke out last year with 60 points in 48 games, tying Murden, and he will look to duplicate his production. Mike Vallescuro also brings an injection of speed into the Patriot attack.
On the backend, Alex D’Oliveira, Tyler Enns, and Michael Apreda are a steady group looking to make up for the loss of BCHL-bound James de Haas, Luke Shiplo and Rob Simpson. Brody Heleno is one of the tougher players in the league. The highly athletic Joseph Pianta was superb in net in the second half and in the playoffs last season despite less than impressive numbers.
St. Michael’s Buzzers
2011-2012 Regular Season Record: 37-8-4 (1st in Division)
Home: St. Mike’s Arena, Toronto
Coach Rich Ricci’s group were extremely disappointed to be beaten by the Cinderella Lakeshore Patriots in the division finals last year, yet the difficulty of keeping a team focused after clinching so early in the season clearly got to them.
They’ll look to reload up front instead of rebuild, and it won’t be easy. They lost their top five scorers from last year, as well as their captain Michael Neville and their assistant captains Tommy Sumi and Mark Cooper. At a strapping 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, centre C.J. Shugart will look to lead the top line for the Buzzers this season, supported by the speedy David Italiano. The robust Matt Buckles, and the tenacious Troy Josephs will look to come into their own, making the Buzzers a potentially dangerous squad.
Although Erlich Doerksen and Jacob Luongo are both gone from St. Mike’s defence, Patrick McCarron, Jordan Schneider, and Jake Clements are all above 6-foot-3, and will be expected to shut down the opposition. Meanwhile, Mike Lansdowne is the only real puck mover of the bunch. Adrian Ignagni, and his .923 save percentage from last season, is experienced, athletic, and is widely considered the best in the OJHL.
North York Rangers
2011-2012 Regular Season Record: 20-24-5 (4th in Division)
Home: Herb Carnegie Arena, North York
Sophomore head coach John Dean has a team that is highly talented, but with so many new faces that chemistry may be hard to come by early. Indeed, only eight players of the 20 on their 2012-2013 opening-day roster were Rangers last year. Nevertheless, they are a serious threat to the Patriots.
Ernesto Valente, Luke Colavecchia, and Skyler Mota are all gone, but filling their skates up front has not been difficult. Corey Kalk is slight of build, but is talented and he will be counted on to be among North York’s top scorers again this year. Overager Chris Aitcheson is back for his last season, while another veteran, Adam Valadao, is being expected to take steps forward offensively. Jacob Crow has come from prep school in Connecticut, and by all accounts has next-level ability. A maturation to match the high skill level of former Vaughan Vipers Liam Kerins and John Carpino would also be big for the Rangers.
Patrick Piacentini, the third of the former Vaughan Vipers on the team, is intelligent and fundamentally sound, and looks poised to have a serious breakout year. Overagers Scott Maguire and Dana Tenenbaum will be looked to for leadership, with the former bringing composure with the puck and the latter a tremendous physical presence. Avery Allen is the undisputed starting goaltender and is highly athletic, but needs to find more consistency this season.
2011-2012 Regular Season Record: 31-12-6 (2nd in West Division)
Home: Sixteen Mile Sports Complex, Oakville
Contraction meant realignment in the OJHL, and coach Matt Moore’s Blades were forced to move from the West to the South for this season. As much as last year’s team had as high hopes as any in the league, it appears a rebuild is in order.
Only a handful of players remain from last year, as the Blades’ entire Top-6 forward group is gone. The diminutive and skilled Renouf twins, Jonah and Nathan, have been brought in from Milton and will be counted on for scoring. Todd Bannerman and his 19 points from last year is the highest producing player remaining from 2011-12, although the overager from Georgetownis solid and expected to contribute, along with fellow overagers Brock Battochio and Ashton Anderson.
Captain Aidan Orbinski is a steady, physical presence at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds as is the 6-foot-4 and 210-pound Patrick Arnold. Puck movement and mobility may be an issue for this group, though Kyle Jenkins could be a key contributor. Evan Buitenhuis, a capable netminder that transferred from Jr. B Thorold, will have the net.
Toronto Jr. Canadians
2011-2012 Regular Season Record: 18-24-7 (5th in Division)
Home: Chesswood Arena, Toronto
New head coach Mario Cicchillo inherits a team that struggled with depth all over the ice last season, and early indications do not seem to point to an improvement. They were booted in the second round of the playoffs last year, but it seems like just making the post-season with this group will be an accomplishment.
The question is how they will replace their top eight scorers from a year ago, including stars David Friedmann and Matt Carey. Overager Joseph Santino will be heavily relied on to put up points, as will big Connor Prudames. Robert Cammalleri was highly productive in Brampton last season, and was salvaged from the folded Capitals in the off-season. The Jerzabek brothers, Nicholas and Christopher, will also need to be consistent for this team to go anywhere.
Defender Michael Whiteside was everything to this team last year, including their captain, and finished the year with 16 more points than any other Jr. Canadian defenceman; losing him will hurt. Veteran puck mover Derek Perl will log big minutes than he ever has in junior hockey, as will Daniel Lombardi. Journeyman goaltender Denny Dubblestyne will take the net, his fourth OJHL team in three years.
2011-2012 Regular Season Record: 11-38-0 (6th in Division)
Home: Port Credit Memorial Arena, Mississauga
Mid-season locker room turmoil, mixed with poor defensive performances saw the Chargers fall out of the playoffs entirely last year, overtaken by Pickering the last couple days of the regular season. Yet there is promise for head coach Joe Washkurak as he brings a team that looks to be competitive in spite of the disappointing 2011-12 campaign.
Captain Trevor Warnaar will be counted on to have a great year offensively for Mississauga after his spectacular 22 points in 13 games in an injury-shortened season. Jimmy Cusan showed loads of potential last year, finishing second in team scoring behind the departed Ralph Cuddemi. Danish import Nikolaj Bendsen has experience playing against men back in his home country, although he did not show much in a short stint last year for Toronto Lakeshore.
Mississauga was poor defensively last year, but Will Irons and Nick Tetley will play a big part if the Chargers plan on turning that around. Tetley is a strong puck mover, and will play big minutes this season. Nicholas Palumbo also showed strong potential as a midget call-up for Vaughan last year.