With only a handful of prospects still on the NHL bubble, by this point of the young season — only a handful of games into the campaign — most OHL teams, and their observers, have a solid sense of how the teams will match up.
This is the second of four division-by-division previews, looking at the key changes, additions, and prospects for all of the Ontario Hockey League’s 20 franchises. The OHL, as always, remains a league to watch as the past four first-overall draft picks have come from this subsection of the CHL.
These previews will be presented in alphabetical order. We continue with the East Division of the OHL’s Eastern Conference.
BELLEVILLE BULLS — The Bulls are looking to the future — mainly because their recent past hasn’t been much to celebrate. Last year the club flamed out with only 48 points, finishing at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. However, from the ashes of that season come some embers of hope — and Belleville hopes those embers can be fanned into flames of potential for this season.
While the OHL club enjoyed little success, some of its players did. Four members of the club, including netminder Tyson Teichmann, were key parts of Team Canada’s gold-medal performance at the under-18 tournament in Slovakia. The club was so encouraged by Teichmann’s performance that they felt confident enough to trade their veteran goaltender Anthony Peters heading into camp.
Forward Austen Brassard was also a member of the U-18 squad and the club is expecting big things from this young forward. Projected as a late first-round/early second-round selection in the 2011 NHL entry draft, scored 10 goals and 29 points in a season split between Windsor and Belleville. He’ll be counted on for much more this year, and will be joined up front by Luke Judson who must improve on his 29-goal campaign from last season for the Bulls to have any chance of enjoying their 30th anniversary celebration this year.
KINGSTON FRONTENACS — Depending on how he handles the situation, the Florida Panthers’ loss may be Kingston’s huge gain. Elite blueliner Erik Gudbranson was returned to the junior franchise just a couple of days ago after he and the NHL club failed to reach an agreement on a contract.
Gudbranson, the third-overall selection in the NHL entry draft, had made the club based on talent, but finds himself back in junior due to a business decision. How he handles this demotion will play a critical role in the Frontenacs’ fortunes.
If he comes back with a positive attitude, he has a chance to not just impact Kingston’s present, but play a mentoring role to Ryan Murphy — a 5’11 blueliner who is projected as a top-10 talent for the upcoming NHL entry draft. In addition, this year it’s a family affair on the Frontenacs’ blueline as Gudbranson’s younger brother Alex has joined him on the roster.
The club returns Ethan Werek (NYR) and Nathan Moon to their roster and both are being counted on to play key roles in the club’s offensive play. They’ll be joined by Swedish forward Gabriel Landeskog, a 6’1 winger who is expected to be selected in the top 15 of the upcoming draft.
In net, the club lost Tyler Beskorowany (DAL) but managed to replace him with German-born netminder Philipp Grubauer (WAS), who brings Memorial Cup experience to the club as he served as Windsor’s back-up last season. And, now in the third season of Doug Gilmour’s coaching regime, the club is starting to show the work ethic and edge that typified its coach’s NHL career.
OSHAWA GENERALS — The Generals’ success this season, in large part, will be owed to John Tavares (NYI). No, the former first-overall NHL entry draft selection won’t be parachuting in from the New York Islanders — rather, the club will be counting on the players it received from the London Knights in the January 2009 trade of their star forward to propel the club into the playoffs this season.
Christian Thomas (NYR) will be counted on to repeat his 41-goal campaign from last season, Scott Valentine (ANH) will be expected to lend a stabilizing, veteran presence to the blueline, and the hope is that netminder Michael Zador (TBL) will finally realize the promise that led him to be a first-round OHL priority selection.
But that’s not all of the bounty the Generals received in return for their all-world forward. One of the second-round selections (Oshawa received four of London’s second-rounders, along with London’s third-round selections in 2010 and 2011) was used to obtain the rights for highly touted forward Lucas Lessio from the Niagara IceDogs. Lessio, who is projected to be a late first-round selection in the 2011 NHL entry draft, was committed to joining the University of Michigan but was wooed to the Generals this season.
Lessio is joined on the Generals by a pair of other highly ranked forward prospects in Boone Jenner and Nicklas Jensen. Jenner, at 6’1, 200-pounds, is a top-15 talent, while Jensen, 6’2, 190 pounds, is expected to fall in the mid-to-late first round of the NHL entry draft. All three are expected to play pivotal roles offensively for the club with Jenner, specifically, looking to use his 19-goal, 49-point campaign from last season as a foundation for this year’s growth.
The club received a big boost on the blueline recently with the return of Calvin de Haan from the Islanders earlier this week. He joins fellow Islanders’ blue line prospect Tony DeHart and the aforementioned Valentine to form a solid veteran trio that will be asked to minimize the chances against the club’s heretofore shaky goaltending. Both Zador and Kevin Bailie had goals against averages of over four last year, but with the offensive firepower that Oshawa has, that may not matter during the regular season. However, if the club is looking forward to any post-season success, one of these two former first-round OHL selections will have to step up their game.
OTTAWA 67S — Ottawa’s first post-Brian Kilrea year was a phenomenal success as the club finished second-overall in the conference. With a healthy complement of returning players, including solid goaltending, expectations are high again for the 67s.
Cody Lindsay returns to the club as an overager and should build upon his 39-goal, 43-assist campaign from last season. He’s joined by returning veteran Tyler Toffoli who added 37 goals and 79 points and is expected to hit the 40/100 plateau this year.
The club lost both Tyler Cuma (MIN) and former captain Julien Demers (SJ) from its blue line and the position may be Ottawa’s only area of weakness. New addition Ryan Shipley is an exciting prospect, but will likely not be counted on to play a major role on the club. There are a few veterans on the roster who will be counted on to step up their roles, and none more so than Cody Ceci. The second-year blueliner has shown impressive growth and looks to assume the mantle of Ottawa’s top blueliner.
Between the pipes, Ottawa has Petr Mrazek (DET) who enjoyed a solid showing at the Detroit Red Wings’ rookie camp, along with Chris Perugini. Both netminders shared the goaltending duties relatively equally last year, and it will be interesting to watch the 67s to see how they handle this enviable situation throughout the year. Both goaltenders have value and could bring a solid return in a trade, but with the 67s expected to make a run at repeating their first-place finish from last season, they may choose to keep both in the fold.
PETERBOROUGH PETES — It’s likely to be a long season in Peterborough as an off-season of off-ice change has brought in a new attitude, but not enough new players, to improve upon last season’s disappointing 29-win campaign. At the very least, Petes’ fans will have the opportunity to watch Matt Puempel work towards the NHL entry draft — where it’s expected he’ll hear his name called very early.
Puempel took home the OHL’s rookie of the year award last season, based on a strong 33-goal, 31-assist campaign. The 6’, 205-pound forward is expected to be selected in the top five of the draft and he’ll have plenty of opportunities to grow and develop his game with the Petes this season.
Ryan Spooner (BOS) was enjoying a solid season last year before he was shelved with a broken collarbone. This year, he’s looking to bounce back and play a key offensive role for the club. He’s already scored three goals in five games and will likely top his 30-goal rookie campaign. He’s joined up front by Nashville prospect Austin Watson and diminutive addition Lino Marschini — a 5’5 forward who brings an exciting flair to his game.
Peterborough has a big question mark in net, with Montreal Canadiens’ prospect Jason Missiaen between the pipes. The 6’6 netminder was selected in the fourth round of the 2008 NHL entry draft, but his play hasn’t lived up to his stature. For Peterborough to have any chance at improvement this year, he’ll have to use his big frame to keep those pucks out of the net, while hoping that the young forward corps can continue to progress.