OHL Eastern Conference prospects to watch 2009-10

By Jason Menard

If all eyes are on the west, where the elite players and elite teams seem to have congregated, the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors are looking to crash the party and bring the OHL championship back to this conference.

There are a lot of question marks on the various rosters, specifically when it comes to players who are on NHL roster bubbles. A team like Brampton could be poised for a precipitous fall if all their key players stay in the pro ranks, or they could take home the OHL title should everyone return.

With so many teams rebuilding, or on the way back up, and really only one elite squad, this year’s OHL Eastern Conference is completely up for grabs.

Barrie Colts

Lost in first round of the playoffs. Finished the season with 65 points.

The Colts are poised to rise in the Eastern Conference, returning most of their main players, including winger Alex Hutchings (TB). He’s joined by key forwards such as David Archibald, Josh Brittain (ANA), and Stefan Della Rovere (WAS) on potent attack that should only be made more dangerous by the arrival of Luke Pithier, formerly of Belleville.

In fact, the only loss of note for the Colts is the departure of Michael Hutchinson from between the pipes. The Colts moved Hutchinson to London and handed the reins to Peter Di Salvo — the goalie who claimed the starting job in last year’s playoffs. 

After a couple of years sub-.500, the Colts have the talent and depth to make a deep run in the playoffs. Their blueline, with solid but unspectacular players like Ryan Gottschalk, Matt Stanisz, and Dalton Prout manning the point, may be the team’s weak link. However, the club should more than compensate for any defensive deficiencies by being among the top-scoring squads and combining that with solid goaltending.

Belleville Bulls
Lost in third round of the playoffs. Finished the season with 98 points.

Belleville is in the midst of its own rebuilding program, evidenced by the fact that only four players are over the age of 18. The kids are alright in Belleville, and they’ll be looking to Stephen Johnston (DET) and Matt Tipoff for leadership. The club also imported a pair of overagers (Daniel Lombardi and Tyler Taylor) to help offset that general lack of experience.

Of course, with youth comes promise, and this looks like the season that Andy Bathgate starts reaching his potential — and living up to the heavy expectations that come with having a name so steeped in hockey tradition. Look to Sean Lalonde to play a key role on the blueline. The OHL all-star is one of the league’s best skaters and his wheels will be on full display this season.

Mike Murphy, one of the top goalies in all of the CHL, has left Belleville for the professional ranks with Carolina, removing a huge eraser for the team’s miscues. The odd man out on the roster appears to be overage forward Bryan Cameron, who will likely be peddled to a contender for help in the rebuilding efforts.

Brampton Battalion

Lost in the OHL final. Finished the season with 96 points.

No team stands to lose as much from last season as the Bulls. Their leading scoring unit: Cody Hodgson (VAN), Evgeny Grachev (NYR), and Matt Duchene (COL) — the third pick in the NHL entry draft — are gone, leaving little behind up front. Compounding those losses is the departure of veteran netminder Thomas McCollum (DET).

So what’s left? Future potential and a rebuilding campaign. Thomas Stajan will be looked upon as the team’s offensive leader, even though his skill set lends to a more two-way game. They’re going to throw first-round pick Sam Carrick right into the fray, hoping he can pick up some of the offensive slack. And there’s always a capable blueline led by Matt Clark, a second-round selection of the Anaheim Ducks.

Now, if Hodgson, Grachev, and Duchene — all of whom have junior eligibility remaining — fail to stick with their professional clubs, then enjoy the ride as Brampton looks to redeem itself for last year’s loss in the Eastern Conference final.

Kingston Frontenacs
Last year missed the playoffs. Finished the season with 46 points.

The Frontenacs have been the league’s doormats for a while now, but the arrival last season of head coach Doug Gilmour seemed to spark his charges and a full season under his tutelage, along with the development of some key players, could signal the return to the playoffs for Kingston.

Ethan Werek (NYR) led the club as a rookie last year with 32 goals. He’ll pair with Nathan Moon (PIT) to pace the club up front, and look to Erik Gudbranson to continue his progression up the draft boards as an elite blueliner. Gudbranson has Brian Lashoff (DET) and Taylor Doherty (SJ) on hand to provide experience and support in the defensive zone. 

Between the pipes, the Frontenacs feature a legitimate starting netminder capable of being a difference-maker in games this year. Tyler Beskorowany (DAL) was traded from the Owen Sound Attack and will get the bulk of the starts in the Kingston net.

Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors
Lost in second round of the playoffs. Finished the season with 81 points.

If there’s a team from the east that can challenge the Windsor/London elite this season, it’s Mississauga St. Mike’s. Combining a solid complement of forwards, elite depth on the blueline, and good goaltending, the Majors should be the cream of the eastern crop this season.

Up front, Mississauga boasts a solid collection of offensively-gifted forwards, including Casey Cizikas (NYI), Jordan Mayer, and William Wallen. They also added an elite prospect in the form of Gregg Sutch (Sarnia) to help bolster the attack.

On the blueline, Cameron Gaunce (COL) leads the charge both defensively and offensively. Look to him to improve upon his 17-goal campaign last year. And in net, Chris Carrozzi (ATL) will start, and backing up is J.P. Anderson, a highly-touted prospect who will not only push Carrozzi for playing time, but will likely be one of the first goalies taken in next year’s NHL entry draft.

Niagara IceDogs
Lost in the second round of the playoffs. Finished the season with 63 points.

The biggest question facing Niagara is on the blueline. How Alex Pietrangelo goes, so too do the Ice Dogs. Their expectations for the season will be greatly increased if the talented blueliner returns to the lineup from the St. Louis Blues.

That said, there’s still some solid talent throughout the roster. Andrew Agozzino and Chris DeSousa will pace the club offensively. Mark Visentin returns to the IceDogs cage, although he’ll be pushed by Finnish Import (and this year’s Mr. Irrelevant) Petteri Simila (MTL). However, without Pietrangelo in the ranks, the blueline depth looks paper thin. Mike Schwindt and Reggie Traccitto are nice complementary players, but are not top-caliber defensemen. They’ll be asked to bear an unfair burden if Pietrangelo doesn’t return.

The immediate future doesn’t look bright and the IceDogs will be in tough for a playoff spot. And the team is also dealing with off-ice issues, manifested by the recent firing of Mario Cicchillo, who was replaced by Mike McCourt. 

Oshawa Generals

Last year missed the playoffs. Finished the season with 58 points.

For the first time in a long time, the Generals won’t be starting a season with "The Next One" in the ranks. However, the team’s fortunes should be bolstered by the return they received after renting John Tavares to the London Knights last year.

Christian Thomas (Stumpy’s kid) should be among the team’s scoring leaders; Scott Valentine will be a steadying presence on the blueliner; and Michael Zador (TB) finally gets a chance to show he’s ready to be a No. 1 goaltender. The former Knights will join a number of holdovers, especially on the blueline, who are expected to return Oshawa to non-Tavares-influenced respectability.

Calvin de Haan, picked in the first round by the New York Islanders, will surprise fewer and fewer people as he looks to lead a strong defensive corps. He’s joined by Tony De Hart and new draft picks like Kyle Hope and Colin Suellentrop. 

Up front, the club hopes that Brett Parnham can repeat his 50-goal campaign from last season — that is if he’s back on the roster. He earned a free-agent invite from Ottawa and may make the jump to the pro ranks. The club also took advantage of a new OHL rule on trading first-year players — obtaining Lucas Lessio from the IceDogs.

Ottawa 67’s
Lost in the first round of the playoffs. Finished the season with 87 points

Ottawa is in a transition period this season. Long-time scorer Logan Couture (SJ) has exhausted his eligibility, but the key loss comes behind the bench. Legendary coach Brian Kilrea has finally passed the torch to Chris Byrne, and how successful the transition from an OHL legend to a relative neophyte is will go a long way to determining Ottawa’s success.

Anthony Nigro (STL), in his first full season with the 67s, should lead the club in scoring and could crack the 50-goal barrier. His breakout scoring last year was due to being put in a different role.

"In Guelph I was looked at for more of a shut-down role, playing against the other team’s top line," he told Hockey’s Future. "They weren’t looking at me too much for goal-scoring. I got traded to Ottawa and Mr. Kilrea told me he wanted me to play a little more offense. Put me on the wing, which helped a lot."

Nigro came into camp a bit lighter this year, told to work on his fitness by the Blues. He’ll continue to work on his skating this year as well.

The club was counting on a significant contribution from overager Corey Cowick, but they’ll have to wait for that impact as he’s currently out with a shoulder injury and won’t be back until the New year.

Tyler Cuma (MIN) anchors the blueline and is out to prove that he’s among the league’s elite. Again, the question remains as to whether Cuma will be on the roster, as he could stick with the Wild.

Goaltending is a question as neither Chris Perugini (PHO) nor Czech import Petr Mrazek has indelibly staked a claim on the crease.

Peterborough Petes
Lost in the first round of the playoffs. Finished the season with 59 points.

The Petes are in tough again this season and could slip out of the playoffs. A lot will depend on the play of netminder Jason Missiaen (MTL). Last year, the Petes sent Trevor Cann (COL) to the London Knights to clear out room for the tall, lanky goaltender. Unfortunately, the 6’6 netminder didn’t live up to the opportunity and the Petes struggled for it.

This year, Missiaen is on a redemption tour. Although the club did add a third-round pick to the mix in Andrew D’Agostini, the position is Missiaen’s for the forseeable future.

Up front, the Petes have size and skill — sometimes in the same package. Zack Kassian returns to the club after being drafted in the first round by the Sabres. Look for him to improve upon his 24-goal campaign as he continues to add strength and size. All Ryan Spooner did last year as a 16-year-old was score 30 goals in 62 games. He’ll be at least a point-per-game player, and he could find his name at the top of the OHL scoring lists.

The club has the potential for a great blueline crew. Unfortunately, they seem to be a year or two away from reaching that lofty perch. Barron Smith (TOR), Derek Holden, and Jeff Braithwaite look to anchor the blueline and they’ll be capably assisted by Adam Sedlak and Jamie Doornbosch.

Sudbury Wolves
Lost in the first round of the playoffs. Finished the season with 59 points.

Sudbury’s going to be in a dog fight to make the playoffs. And when you’re in a dog fight, you want to have an alpha dog at your disposal. Eric O’Dell (ATL) needs to grow into that role if the Wolves are to have any shot at the post season.

O’Dell is the team’s past and present, but it may be time for its future to take a starring role. John McFarland, the first overall selection in the 2008 OHL draft is primed for a breakout campaign, and he’s shown great leadership capabilities in captaining the Canadian squad to Under-18 gold at the Ivan Hlinka. Family ties are strong again in Sudbury, with both Jared Staal (PHO) and Marcus Foligno (BUF) back to play key roles in Sudbury’s offensive production.

The Wolves’ defensive corps is young and capable, but they’ll benefit from a solid netminding tandem in the form of Andrew Loverock and Alain Valiquette.

Holly Gunning contributed to this article.