With the Ontario Hockey League regular season set to kick off next Friday, there are plenty of story lines to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
Now that seven of the top 10 scoring leaders from last year have moved on to the next level, there will be plenty of opportunity for individuals and teams to make their mark on the league in 2010-2011.
2009-10 Season: 50-12-1-5 (106 points, 1st place in Western Conference), OHL & Memorial Cup Champions
The start of the post Taylor Hall era is set to commence in Windsor and it’s not going to be easy.
Aside from Hall’s graduation to the Edmonton Oilers, Windsor also lost its other top-four goal scorers and could be without top point-producing defencemen Ryan Ellis and Cam Fowler, who have a good chance at sticking it out in the pros this season.
But perhaps the biggest loss, aside from Hall, is the departure of coach Bob Boughner to the NHL.
Fortunately for the passionate fans in Windsor, General Manager Warren Rychel brought in American goaltending phenom Jack Campbell, who should immediately become one of the best in the league.
Rychel also recruited super-talented American defenceman Nick Ebert, who will be looked upon to play a big role on a rebuilding team.
The forward unit will be frustrating at times, especially considering the firepower the Spits have had in the recent past, but import Alex Khokhlachev, Tom Kuehnhackl and Kenny Ryan should make an impact in the goal-scoring department.
After losing over 200 goals of the 331 scored last year with the mass player exodus, the Spits will need to rely on sturdy defensive play if they plan on making a run at a third-straight Memorial Cup title.
2009-10 Season: 38-27-1-2 (91 points, 4th place in Western Conference)
The fate of the Plymouth Whalers in 2010-11 lies squarely on the return of OHL MVP Tyler Seguin.
After being selected second overall in the NHL draft by the Boston Bruins, Seguin will push hard to earn a spot on the black-and-gold.
Fortunately for Whalers GM Mike Vellucci, the cap-strapped Bruins will have to move out a body or two if they are to accommodate Seguin’s salary.
Aside from Seguin’s possible departure, Plymouth will also be without second leading scorer A.J. Jenks and all-star goaltender Matt Hackett. Scott Wedgewood put up respectable numbers in a back-up role last season and should fill the vacancy in goal.
If the Whalers are to return to the playoffs this season, they will need Robbie Czarnik to carry a bulk of the load up front while also receiving increased contributions from sophomores Garrett Meurs and Stefan Noesen.
Beau Schmitz should make big strides this season and will need to be the rock on a relatively weak blueline.
Without Seguin, Jenks or Hackett, the Whalers could be in big trouble this year. But if the co-leading scorer from a season ago makes his return to Plymouth, playoffs are certainly in the cards.
Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
2009-10 Season: 36-27-1-4 (77 points, 5th place in Western Conference)
Like most teams in this preview, and in the OHL in general, the Greyhounds have lost some important pieces that helped bring them from the league basement to respectability.
Those pieces are OHL defenceman of the year Jacob Muzzin and standout goaltender Robin Lehner — two very good players who helped forge an identity for the upstart Greyhounds.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as the Greyhounds still have leading scorer Brett Thompson, a young defensive tandem in Brock Beukeboom and Brandon Archibald, as well as super-sophomores Nick Cousins and Daniel Catenacci.
Although the development of Catenacci, Cousins, Thompson and rookie Brett Findlay will provide a boost on the score sheet, keeping the puck out of the net might pose a major hindrance.
Bryce O’Hagan backed up Lehner last year, but has been inconsistent at best over the past two seasons and will need to step it up if he is to take the torch as the Greyhounds number one.
The Soo were fourth in the conference in goals against a season ago, but eighth in scoring. If they are to have similar success to last year, they will need a boost up front in order to supplant the expected drop in defensive proficiency.
2009-10 Season: 34-27-4-3 (75 points, 6th place in Western Conference)
The Spirit pulled off one of the biggest coups of the offseason when they recruited 6-foot-2, 195 pound winger Brandon Saad from the United States National Team Development Program — a projected top-10 pick in next year’s NHL draft.
Saad is expected to make an immediate impact and will join another sizable forward up front in 6-foot-3 centre Ivan Telegin.
Along with Saad and Telegin, Josh Shalla and Vincent Trocheck will be looked upon to provide the bulk of the offence.
Another shrewd move by the Spirit was the acquisition of overage netminder Mavric Parks. Despite being traded four times in his four-year career, Parks went 25-5-1 with a league best 2.34 goals against average last year while splitting time between the Rangers and Barrie Colts.
The only real downfall for the Spirit is their watered down defensive corps. Aside from 18-year-old Ryan O’Connor, Saginaw lacks significant punch on the back end, but should make due with a group relatively similar to a season ago.
If Saad lives up to expectations and Parks maintains the pace he was at last year, the Spirit could be one of the most compelling teams to watch in the Western Conference.
2009-10 Season: 17-46-3-2 (39 points, 10th place in Western Conference)
The good thing for Sting fans is that it can’t get much worse than the debacle that was the 2009-10 season. Last in the league, last in almost every statistical category, but first in the OHL Priority Selection and that is the kicker.
While it’s a bit premature to suggest the Sting have remedied the varying problems that plagued the team last year, the additions of first overall pick Alex Galchenyuk and No. 1 import selection Nail Yakupov is a step in the right direction.
They will be given every opportunity to succeed this season, playing alongside other promising youngsters such as Brett Ritchie and Brandon Francisco.
Much like the forward group, the defence and goaltending situation in Sarnia is also undergoing a youth movement.
There are several pieces on the back end that are improving, but it will still be a major weakness for the Sting this year.
The same could be said of the goaltending situation, as a bona fide number one starter has yet to emerge.
Given the circumstances, the Sting have nowhere to go but up. Sarnia will ice an exciting young team, but growing pains should be anticipated and expectations tempered.
2009-10 Season: 49-16-1-2 (101 points, 2nd place in Western Conference)
Nobody expected the Knights to win 49 games last year, and after losing leading scorer Nazem Kadri and top-defenceman Steve Tarasuk, London would be an easy team to write off once again.
But as per usual for Knights GM Mark Hunter, he made a big splash in restructuring his team this offseason.
First was the acquisition of Montreal Canadiens first-rounder Jarred Tinordi, a towering defenceman who will anchor the Knights’ blueline alongside the emerging Scott Harrington and brothers Cody and Troy Donnay, the latter a 6-foot-7, 17-year old behemoth.
Then Hunter brought in highly touted Russian prospect Vladislav Namestnikov, and American standout Danny Elser from the USNTDP to add to a top-six that includes 36-goal-scorer Jared Knight. They are currently in the process of bringing over 6-foot-4 Russian goaltender Igor Bobkov, as well.
Although there are question marks up-front, London should have enough talent to fill the net while relying on its mammoth defence corps and solid goaltending to keep the puck out of the net.
2009-10 Season: 42-19-4-3 (91 points, 3rd place in Western Conference)
If the Rangers do not join the Mississauga St. Michaels Majors in the Memorial Cup in 2011, it will come as a huge disappointment.
There is no team in the Western Conference, or the OHL for that matter, that has the depth and skill of Kitchener.
Jeff Skinner scored a remarkable 70 goals last season, including playoffs, and should return to those heights again in 2010-11 if he is returned from NHL training camp.
Even with 47-goal scorer Jeremy Morin looking more likely to land in the pros, the Rangers have plenty of other scoring threats to fill the void, including Jason Akeson, Gabriel Landeskog and rookie Matia Marcantuoni.
On the back end, the Rangers boast super-stud Ryan Murphy, who will be complimented by Julian Melchiori and Cody Sol.
In goal, Ben Maxwell has proven to be a capable starter, but will need to be more consistent if the Rangers plan on hoisting the J. Ross Robertson Cup at season’s end.
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the Rangers should prove they are the best in the west.
2009-10 Season: 35-29-3-1 (74 points, 7th place in Western Conference)
With the amount of top-end talent the Storm have up front, you would think they would be sure-fire contenders.
But regardless of the goal scoring prowess of Taylor Beck, Peter Holland and Michael Latta, the Storm lack the depth required to compete with the league’s elite.
That could all change, however, if sophomores Cody McNaughton, Carter Sandlak and Francis Menard continue to improve and provide some much needed secondary scoring.
Even though Guelph didn’t lose much firepower up front, they did lose its top-two defencemen in captain Corey Syvret and points-leader Adam Comrie, an area that needs to be eradicated from within or through trade if the Storm plan on making a run for the Memorial Cup.
Moving up from seventh in the conference is attainable, but they will need a healthy season from goaltender Brandon Foote, who put up decent numbers despite missing 39 games due to injury.
With Beck and Holland up front, anything is possible. If Foote remains healthy and some of the youngsters continue along their developmental path, the Storm should be a better team in 2010-11.
2009-10 Season: 33-28-5-2 (73 points, 8th place in Western Conference)
Another leading scorer bites the dust, as 93-point centre Zack Torquato will not be returning to junior.
But finding other options to fill the net should not pose a threat to the Otters chances.
Erie will be returning three 30-goal scorers, and another two who broke the 20-goal plateau.
Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Greg McKegg will play a vital role this season along with another 2010 draft pick, Andrew Yogan.
They will be joined by snipers Mike Cazzola and Anthony Luciani, in what could be one of the league’s most potent offensive units.
On defence the Otters aren’t too shabby either. While they lack much flair from the point, the top-four from last season look like they will return, along with 6’4”, 220-pound sophomore Brady Austin.
If the Otters are to be exposed, it will be in net. Ramis Sadikov is the most experienced of the group, and he will need to take his game to another level if he plans on holding onto that role in Erie.
Top-flight forwards combined with a steadying presence on the back end should bode well for an Otters team entering their prime.
Owen Sound Attack
2009-10 Season: 27-33-4-4 (62 points, 9th place in Western Conference)
The Attack justified their position in the standings last year by finishing second last in goals for and goals against.
Considering they rolled out a relatively experienced squad last year doesn’t bode well for Owen Sound this time around, either.
If the Attack plan on escaping OHL obscurity, they will need a full season from Joey Hishon, an evasive and gifted first round pick of the Colorado Avalanche.
Along with Hishon, Steven Shipley, Garret Wilson and Bobby Mignardi will need to replicate, if not improve upon, their individual success from last year.
While they aren’t deep on defence, Leafs’ prospect Jesse Blacker and Toronto-born Geoffrey Schemitsch provide a decent 1-2 punch for the Attack, although they are fairly thin after that.
In goal, Scott Stajcer is the best bet, and performed relatively well for stretches last season despite playing on one of the worst defensive teams.
It could be another long season in Owen Sound, but simply because they lack the top-to-bottom build required to survive the rigors of the tough Western Conference.
For a look at the Eastern Conference click here.