OHL 2008 Western Conference preview

By Jason Menard

The 2008-09 OHL season is about to get underway. Whereas last year’s campaign featured Steven Stamkos in the starring role, this year’s edition will be headlined by John Tavares. The Windsor Spitfires are an early favorite, but there are plenty of other plot lines ready to be explored.

The OHL’s Western Conference features last year’s champion and Memorial Cup runner-up, the pre-season league favorite that includes last year’s potent rookie of the year, and a recent Memorial Cup-winning squad reloaded for another run at glory.

MIDWEST DIVISION

Kitchener Rangers (Memorial Cup Runner-Up, OHL Champion)

The Kitchener Rangers could have been excused had they decided to let their foot off the accelerator during last season’s Memorial Cup championship run. After all, they were the host team. But instead, the powerful club barged through the front door, earning a tournament berth as the OHL champion following a 4-3 series victory over the Eastern Conference representatives from Belleville.

The Rangers loaded up for a Memorial Cup run last season, with the marquee addition coming in the form of  Team Canada gold-medal-winning goaltender Steve Mason. As is often the case in junior hockey, a championship run should be followed by a fall — just how precipitous that fall will be is the question.

This season looks to be a bit of a rebuilding campaign — as evidenced by another trade with the Knights, which saw Nazem Kadri, a potential top pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft peddled off for a pair of future second-round selections, and one third rounder.

The changes haven’t been restricted just to the on-ice product, either. Highly-touted head coach Peter DeBoer made the jump to the NHL, now leading the Florida Panthers. In his place, Steve Spott parlayed eight years in the organization into a head coaching job.

There will be some stability in the ranks. Goaltender Josh Unice will return for another season, but will be hard pressed to come close to his impressive 30-6-1-2 rookie campaign. Unice also got some valuable — albeit unexpected — post-season experience following an injury to Mason. In 16 games, he compiled an 11-3-1 record behind a 2.41 GAA.

London Knights (pre-season CHL #3-ranked club)

This season’s edition of the London Knights is looking to return to the lofty perch upon which it has grown accustomed to resting. Following the loss of Pat Kane and Sam Gagner to the NHL and the mid-season trade of netminder Steve Mason, the club relinquished its four-year grip on the Hamilton Spectator Trophy, handed out to the club with the most regular-season points.

The Knights are loaded and poised to make a return to the top of the standings. In return for Mason, the club obtained Phil Varone and Steve Tarasuk from Kitchener, along with a player with top-10 draft potential in Nazem Kadri. They join a club that already features Akim Aliu (assuming he returns from the NHL — a fairly safe assumption), Justin Taylor, and Chris MacKinnon (who potted 25 between Sault Ste. Marie and Owen Sound). And, as per the usual, a handful of Hunters will be around to steer the ship (Mark and Dale off the ice; Tucker and Garett on it.)

Guelph Storm

Dave Barr jumped to the NHL and relinquished the reins of the club to long-time assistant Jason Brooks. And you could forgive the rookie head coach for casting numerous sideways glances westward to Los Angeles. Defenseman Drew Doughty was taken second overall by the Kings and will be given a good, long look under the Hollywood lights. A return to Guelph, however, would make the Storm’s future outlook a lot less — well — cloudy.

Returning for an overage season is last season’s leading scorer, Brandon Buck. However, the club looks to start the season without their main man between the pipes — at least for the time being. Thomas McCollum, drafted in the first round by the defending Stanley Cup Champions, will stay in Detroit for a little while longer at camp, leaving the Storm lean in net to start the season.

Owen Sound Attack

The Attack found themselves out of the playoffs last season and their prospects don’t look a whole lot better this year. With Tyler Beskorowany off at Dallas’ camp, the Attack find themselves thin at the last line of defense. While he should return, this is a club playing with a slim margin for error.

One bright spot from last season was the arrival of then-underage forward Joey Hishon, who accounted for 20 goals and added 27 assists. He will be expected to increase that production and team with Marcus Carroll to spur on the Attack’s attack.

Erie Otters

The Otters fell short of the playoffs last season, and if they’re to make a run for the post-season it will have to come, in large part, on the hands of players like Zach Torquato, Nick Palmieri, and 2009-eligible Ryan O’Reilly.

Unfortunately for the Otters, and head coach Robbie Ftorek, the club will be missing Torquato, Palmieri, Luke Gazdic, Justin Hodgman, and big Josh Kidd to start — all of whom are at pro camps.

Look to O’Reilly to really take a step forward. The former first-overall selection in the OHL in 2007 came one goal shy of 20 in his rookie season, en route to 52 points. Jaroslav Janus, a second-year netminder out of Slovakia, returns to provide a steadying presence and defensive anchor between the pipes.

WEST DIVISION

Windsor Spitfires (pre-season CHL #1-ranked club)

While much of the talk this season will be about whether Tavares can maintain his tether on the first-overall selection in the NHL entry draft, there will be some discussion about the 2010 version of the draft and Taylor Hall’s place in it.

Last season, the highly touted Hall entered the league as a 15-year-old and promptly accounted for 45 goals and 84 points in 63 games. This season, alongside last year’s club scoring leader — and ninth-overall draft pick, Josh Bailey —  Hall is expected to help lead the Spitfires to the Promised Land. The powerful Spitfires are also buoyed by the inclusion of NHL draft picks Greg Nemisz (CAL), and New Jersey properties Adam Henrique and Harry Young.

Unfortunately, it will be a trip tinged with sadness. February marks the anniversary of the untimely death of the team’s captain, Mickey Renaud, and the club will be playing for glory in his memory. Renaud’s jersey will be retired by the organization on Sept. 25, 2008.

Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds

The Greyhounds topped the West Division, but fell to the Rangers in the conference final. This season, the club will be hard-pressed to maintain that level of excellence considering the number of departures from last year’s ranks. And the losses start right at the top, as Craig Hartsburg left his post in the Soo to take over the head coaching job in the nation’s capital.

Also gone from last year are players like netminder Kyle Gajewski, and approximately 130 goals from last year’s offense with the departures of players like Dustin Jeffrey, Arron Alphonso, and Brandon MacLean. In loading up for a playoff run, the club obtained players like Josh Godfrey and Wayne Simmonds. And while the move appeared to work in the short term (Godfrey and Simmonds scored 17 and 16 goals, respectively, in 31 games), those players too are no longer with the organization.

So who fills the void? First and foremost Tomas Rachunek, the club’s first selection in the CHL import draft. The Greyhounds will also need to see increased production from players such as Anthony Peluso and James Livingston.

Sarnia Sting

It could be a long season in Sarnia. After all, when you lose the top overall draft pick at the NHL entry draft and your top defenseman, that’s a lot to rebound from.

There’s a chance, ever so slight, that Stamkos could return to the Sting. But after being so heavily promted by the Lightning, it’s pretty clear where he’s going to be. A less-heralded signing was Calgary’s inking of the Sting’s captain Ryan Wilson. An offensive stalwart from the blueline, his presence will be dearly missed on a club looking to replace some of the offensive spark that Stamkos offered.

To help shore up the netminding situation, Sarnia recently obtained overage goalie Matt Hache. The club will rely heavily on the offensive prowess of Justin DiBenedetto, but he — and his 39 goals and 93 points — remain on Long Island at the Islanders’ camp.

Saginaw Spirit

The Spirit will be in tough again this season to make the playoffs and will rely upon the steadying veteran presence of Florida draft pick Adam Comrie. Comrie’s offensive abilities from the blueline starting the rush will be much needed this season to help stimulate an underwhelming Spirit attack.

Defense should prove to be the club’s strong point, as Comrie’s also joined by Calgary prospect T.J. Brodie. Up front, the club would love to have Jack Combs and his 42-goal, 100-point production back in the lineup as an overager, but Combs is reportedly making a strong impression at Colorado’s camp and may earn a pro contract for his efforts. And the club will be looking for Ed Pasquale, a netminder obtained last season, to anchor the club’s goaltending situation.

Plymouth Whalers

The Whalers received a welcome addition to their blueline corps, with the arrival of Beau Schmitz from the U.S. under-17 program. He will join a young, but developing defensive crew that’s buoyed by the knowledge that steady veteran Jeremy Smith returns for another season between the pipes.

Up front, the club will be looking to Carolina prospect Chris Terry to lead the way, following a 101-point season last year. The captain, along with returning forward A.J. Jenks, will be looked to continue his progression and set the offensive pace for a solid, but unspectacular squad.

This season will be the first full one behind the Whalers’ bench for Greg Stefan, who took over the help midway through last season.