The London Knight will be looking to recreate this pose as OHL champions but they will have to beat some powerful teams along the way

OHL Western Conference preview

London Knights look to repeat but have some challengers in Kitchener and Plymouth

Erie Otters

2011-12 Record: 10-52-3-3

Playoff Result: Did not qualify

With the addition of centre Connor McDavid, only the third player to be granted exceptional player status as a 15-year-old, the Otters will improve on last season’s dreadful 10 victories.  However, Erie simply doesn’t have as much talent as the other teams in the Western Conference and will likely live and die by the efforts of McDavid and goaltender Oscar Dansk.  Realistically the Otters will probably fight for one of the last playoff spots and will certainly close last season’s glaring gap from the basement to the playoff teams but don’t expect them to contend with the top teams in the OHL.

Players to watch:  Connor McDavid (skilled forward), Oscar Dansk (athletic goaltender), Adam Pelech (offensive defenceman), Dane Fox (power forward)

 

Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds

2011-12 Record: 29-33-2-4

Playoff Result: Did not qualify

The Greyhounds are on the verge of being a strong team in the Western Conference despite missing the playoffs by a single point last season. They have a lot of weapons on offence, including Nick Cousins, defenceman Ryan Sproul and Michael Schumacher, and shouldn’t have any trouble scoring. In net is Matt Murray, who has yet to prove himself as a viable number one netminder. And a youthful defensive core in front of him could cause all kinds of havoc in the Greyhounds end. This team will likely end their two-year playoff drought, but how good this team actually is will depend on how well the young developing core matures in support of the talented offensive players returning from last year’s squad.

Players to watch: Nick Cousins (leading scorer ’11-12), Ryan Sproul (offensive defenceman), Sergei Tolchinsky (skilled forward drafted 12th in CHL Import Draft), Michael Schumacher (skilled forward)

 

Windsor Spitfires

2011-12 Record: 29-32-5-2

Playoff Result: Swept by eventual OHL champion London in 1st round

The Spitfires are a relatively young team as they continue to rebuild their organization after winning two straight Memorial Cups in 2009 and 2010. Offensively this team is led by third-year players Kerby Rychel, Brady Vail, and Chris Marchese.  However, the loss of Alexander Kohkhlachev is devastating for the Spitfires and they will likely struggle to find scoring outside of these players. Meaning Windsor will have to rely heavily on netminder Jaroslav Pavelka to keep the puck out of the net. If Pavelka can be consistently solid then Windsor may challenge for one of the final playoff spots but expect the Spitfires to be somewhere in the bottom of the Western Conference.

Players to Watch: Kerby Rychel (two-way forward), Jaroslav Pavelka (goaltender), Nick Ebert (puck-moving defenceman), Josh Ho-Sang (highly touted rookie)

 

Guelph Storm 

2011-12 Record: 31-31-2-4

Playoff Result: Lost to Plymouth in 1st round

Offensively there’s some talent on this team, including 37-goal scorer Zack Mitchell, and third-year player Scott Kosmachuk, but unless they can continually have big nights they will only go as far as goaltender Garret Sparks takes them. The Storm lack a couple of stay at home defencemen to help reign in the efforts of offensive defencemen Matt Finn and Andrey Pedan, and with Sparks in net the Storm are playing with fire. Guelph, however, will be able to score enough to keep games in reach so expect this team to be somewhere close to .500 for the second straight season.

Players to watch: Zack Mitchell (talented goal scorer), Scott Kosmachuk (power forward), Matt Finn (offensive defenceman)

 

Owen Sound Attack 

2011-12 Record: 32-29-3-4

Playoff Result: Lost to Kitchener in 1st round

With 18 returning players the Owen Sound Attack should be among the best teams in the Western Conference and will likely improve on last season’s standings. However, whether they can compete with the elite teams in the will be a daunting task. It will likely depend on netminder Jordan Binnington and if they can replace the offence from the loss of last year’s ninth highest scorer in Mike Halmo. With Gemel Smith, Daniel Catenacci, and Cameron Brace returning it looks like the Attack will be able to find that missing scoring. Expect a good year from the Attack but if they’re looking to take the Western Conference by storm they will have to be able to beat the best teams.

Players to watch: Gemel Smith (speedy forward), Jordan Binnington (goaltender), Daniel Catenacci (power forward)

 

Saginaw Spirit

2011-12 Record: 33-27-1-7

Playoff Result: Lost to London in 2nd round

Saginaw was one of the biggest surprises last season but don’t be shocked if the Spirit have some regression this year.  They’ve lost two of their top four socrers up front and it’s reasonable to believe they were playing above their heads last season. However, if Jake Paterson plays like he did in the playoffs the Spirit should be in most games. This team is not among the elite, but it should easily make the playoffs.

Players to watch: Vincent Trochek (skilled forward), Garret Ross (two-way forward), Jake Paterson (netminder)

 

Sarnia Sting 

2011-12 Record: 34-27-2-5

Playoff Result: Lost to Saginaw in 1st round

With Alex Galchenyuk, and Charles Sarault the Sarnia Sting will not have trouble scoring season. And if Nail Yakupov were to stay in the OHL the Sting will be able to score with the elite teams in the league. However, their actual dominance will come if they can stop some more pucks from going in. Last season the Sting had the most goals allowed of any playoff team and then got kicked out of the first round of the post-season. They’ll have to improve on those numbers this season if they want to challenge the top teams.

Players to watch: Alex Galchenyuk (skilled forward), Charles Sarault (skilled forward), Nail Yakupov (1st overall pick in NHL draft 2012)

 

Kitchener Rangers

2011-12 Record: 42-24-1-1

Playoff Result: Lost to London in Western Conference final

Kitchener is going to be a very strong team again this season after upsetting Plymouth in the second round of the playoffs last year. With a strong goaltending duo and skilled forwards the Rangers sit right on the fringe of the two elite teams in the West.  And although another third place finish seems likely, don’t be surprised if they sneak in and grab the second playoff seed on the strength of their goaltending and their maturing talent on offence.

Players to watch:  John Gibson (netminder), Radek Faksa (skilled  forward), Tobias Rieder (skilled forward)

 

Plymouth Whalers

2011-12 Record: 47-18-2-1

Playoff Result: Lost to Kitchener in 2nd round

The Whalers will be among the OHL’s elite this season. Goaltender Matt Mahalak is a more than suitable replacement for Scott Wedgewood in net for a team that allowed the fourth least goals last season. Mahalak, plus 15 other returning players from last year’s second-place finish means Plymouth will be a force to be reckoned with. They are an all around team that can score, play defence, and bring a special teams unit that was 3rd in both penalty killing and power play in 2011-12.  This is probably the most well balanced team in the entire league and you can expect them to challenge for the OHL championship by season’s end.

Players to watch: Stefan Noesen (power forward), Mitchell Heard (overage forward), Simon Karlsson (CHL Import draftee)

 

London Knights

2011-12 Record: 49-18-0-1

Playoff Result: OHL Champions

The Knights are going to be fighting all season with Plymouth for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. They are extremely talented up front and probably have the most depth and talent through all four lines than any team in the league. And with Scott Harrington and Olli Maatta on defence the Knights should have no trouble stopping the opposition as well.  However, their sustainability as an elite team in the OHL will reside on the play of their goaltending.  Michael Houser was by far the best goalie in the league last year, and replacing him is a daunting task.  Luckily, the Knights have so much skill, talent, and depth in the position players they can afford to wait on determining if what they have in net currently will be enough for a second-straight Memorial Cup appearance.

Players to watch: Seth Griffith (two-way forward), Max Domi (second-year skilled forward and son of Tie), Olli Maatta (offensive defenceman)