OHL Western Conference prospects to watch in 2009-10

By Jason Menard

The Windsor Spitfires completed an unlikely comeback at last year’s Memorial Cup, eventually raising the championship trophy in a thrilling final. They’re loaded up for a second trip but will face stiff competition from London Knights who will be looking to avenge their heartbreaking semi-final loss last year. 

All eyes will be in the West again this season, as the conference also features some of the top prospects for the 2010 NHL entry draft, with new teammates Taylor Hall and Cam Fowler hoping to boost their individual profiles in conjunction with the Spitfires’ fortunes.

Erie Otters
Lost in first round of playoffs. Finished the season with 73 points.

Colorado’s second-round pick last June, and the former first-overall OHL draft pick, Ryan O’Reilly should enjoy a breakout year once he’s returned to the Otters. The Avalanche have been impressed with O’Reilly’s performance to date in camp, signing him to a three-year deal, but he’s expected to return for another year of junior. 

The Otters made huge strides last season, making the playoffs before bowing out in the first round. Another year of experience and another year under head coach Robbie Ftorek’s tutelage should serve to make the club far more competitive.

Helping those fortunes will be the return of Zack Torquato, who is returning for an overage season as an NHL free agent, and 2010-eligible Andrew Yogan looks to continue his stellar play in an Otters’ uniform. Since coming over from Windsor last year,he played at a point-per-game rate, and will be counted upon to continue.

Guelph Storm

Lost in first round of OHL playoffs. Finished the season with 77 points.

Matt Kennedy, the club’s captain and offensive sparkplug (33 goals last year), returns after failing to sign with the Carolina Hurricanes and will certainly help to fire up the Storm’s offense. They also return Taylor Beck and Michael Latta, both Nashville draftees, so another year of experience should serve the Storm well and return them to the post season. And let’s not forget the impact that returning first-round NHL selection Peter Holland (ANA) will have. Last year he enjoyed a breakthrough campaign, and is looking to build upon those numbers with another year of experience — and growth.

Joining the roster is Carter Sandlak, who has the bona-fide bloodlines courtesy of his father Jim. One question mark is who will step up between the pipes. Former Harvard prospect Matt Hoyle will battle with Cody St. Jacques to fill the void left by netminder Brandon Foote’s injury.

Kitchener Rangers

Missed playoffs. Finished the season with 57 points.

An infusion of American talent — in each section of the rink — may help propel the Rangers back to their customary post-season position. Brandon Maxwell (COL) stands between the pipes, John Moore (Columbus’ first-round selection) mans the blueline, and Jeremy Morin (ATL) looks to help fill the opposition’s net. They’re also receiving an infusion of Swedish talent in the form of Gabriel Landeskog and Patrik Andersson.

The Rangers should bounce back from what would be considered a rebuilding season last year. After competing for the Memorial Cup two years ago, the perenially strong Rangers are prepared and loaded up for a playoff run.

Jeff Skinner also returns from a solid rookie campaign in which he led the team with 27 goals and he will likely be among the league leaders in that category this season.

London Knights
Lost in the OHL championship semi-finals. Finished the regular season with 101 points

How good the Knights are depends strongly on who comes back. Although impressive at the Maple Leafs camp, first-round selection Nazem Kadri likely will return to power the Knights attack. Blueliner Michael Del Zotto is more of a question mark, as he’s been outperforming the competition at the New York Rangers‘ camp and could be able to crack a roster that’s light in defensive contenders.

As it seems is the case every year, the Knights have another highly-touted draft prospect in rookie blueliner Scott Harrington, who decided to forgo his NCAA eligibility to join the London franchise. Unfortunately, Harrington’s season has started off on the wrong foot — or wrist, as the case may be. The Knights’ first-round selection in the OHL draft is out for the next few weeks with a broken wrist.

The Knights are already gearing up for an expected showdown with the Spitfires, acquiring netminder Michael Hutchinson from Barrie and blueliner Michael D’Orazio from Owen Sound. Returning to the roster are elite prospects like Philip McRae (STL) and Justin Taylor.

Owen Sound Attack

Lost in first round of playoffs. Finished the season with 67 points.

Owen Sound lost one of its key weapons already this season when D’Orazio requested a trade. While the return, which included promising forward Jason Wilson, was solid, losing D’Orazio for a rebuilding club will be tough.

Joey Hishon is the engine that moves the attack. He’s a late ’91 and enters his draft-eligible year, which bodes well for his production. Hishon has already shown that he’s in mid-season form, leading Canada at the Ivan Hlinka in scoring, with five goals and five assists in six games. Hishon and Steve Shipley both entering their draft year, should pace the team in scoring and boost their collective fortunes.

Between the pipes, the Attack has the always-solid Scott Stajcer (NYR), and their defense should be bolstered by the arrival of the highly-touted Curtis Crombeen — the club’s first selection in this year’s midget draft.

Plymouth Whalers
Lost in the second round of the OHL playoffs. Finished the season with 79 points

The Whalers announced their arrival in a thrilling six-game playoff series with Windsor. Matt Hackett (MIN) is back between the pipes and he will likely be tested early and often. Plymouth does not have a great deal of offensive firepower returning, so the defense will be asked to carry the club this season.

Up front, the club lost Chris Terry (CAR) and Matt Caria, who were among the OHL’s top-five scorers last season. Tyler Seguin enters his draft year highly regarded and will be asked to take a lead role in the club’s offensive fortunes.

Saginaw Spirit

Lost in the second round of the playoffs. Finished the season with 80 points.

The club returns a solid core of youth in the form of Joe Pleckaitis, Jordan Skellet, and Jordan Szwarz. They’re joined on the Spirit roster by a trio of 16-year-olds, possibly signifying a lessening of expectations in the club’s roster.

Although they lost a key player in the form of Jack Combs, who combined scoring with scrapping, the club brought in Russian forward Ivan Telegin to help add a dose of offensive flair to a solid, but unspectacular lineup.

The one thing to note about Saginaw is that the club will likely be in every game — that’s courtesy of having Ed Pasquale (ATL) between the pipes. The netminder racked up 36 victories last season and was the league leader in the category of shots against.

The club is going to need Pasquale’s steadying presence as the blueline is peppered with young players who will be counted on to grow into their roles. T.J. Brodie (CAL) returns, however, to lend a veteran presence to the Spirit’s defensive corps.

Sarnia Sting
Lost in the first round of the playoffs

After a few years of solid competition, Sarnia fans are going to have to steel themselves for a long season. This club is young, rebuilding, and very thin on offensive talent. In fact, the club’s leading returning scorer is Steve Reese, who finished with only nine goals and 32 assists last year.

The club added Kale Kerbashian in a trade with London late last season, and he’s shown flashes of offensive ability. Other than that, the pickings are slim and the Sting will be looking to the future.

And in several cases, that future — or at least glimpses of it — is now. The Sting loaded up at the OHL draft on forwards, likely to combat its poor offensive outlook. Brett Richie, the club’s first-round pick, will be joined by fellow draftees Craig Hottot, Brandon Francisco, and JC Campagna, will all be suiting up in the Sting’s colors and will see significant ice time all season.

The fortunes don’t look any better between the pipes, as Shayne Campbell and Jesse Raymond will battle it out for the starter’s minutes — although neither are yet considered elite goaltenders.

Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Last year missed playoffs. Finished the season with 42 points.

It looks to be another long campaign in the Soo, but at least the signs are pointing in the right direction to an eventual resurgence in the storied franchise’s fortunes. Helping to bridge that competitive gap will be the return of overage blueliner Jake Muzzin. After taking part in Nashville Predators camp, Muzzin was returned to the Greyhounds and will be counted upon to eat up major minutes on the blueline this year.

Jordan Nolan will be looked upon to pace the offense — although that will be difficult to do at the beginning of the year, as he’ll be spending some time in the press box serving a suspension. Sault Ste. Marie also welcomes Dan Catenacci to its roster — the first overall selection in the OHL draft. James Livingston (STL) returns to the club, bringing offense and consistency.

Windsor Spitfires
Last year: won the OHL championship, won the Memorial Cup. Finished the regular season with 115 points.

All eyes will be on Taylor Hall, last year’s OHL playoff and Memorial Cup MVP, as he hopes to lead the Spitfires back to the top of the Canadian Hockey League. But Hall’s not alone in the race for first overall in the 2010 draft — in fact, he’s not even the only one on his own team. American import Cam Fowler mans the blueline and has many wondering how high up the draft board he’ll climb this season.

Fowler, the Spitfires’ imported blueliner is in the mix for the honor of being drafted first overall. With Fowler joining the complement of returning blueliners including veteran Harry Young, Mark Cundari, and Jesse Blacker, along with the expected return of Nashville’s first-round selection Ryan Ellis and the defensive unit should be the strength of the squad. And should someone slip by, Josh Unice is more than capable at filling a crease vacated by OHL single-season record holder for wins, Andrew Engelage.