The 2015-16 season is officially underway in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). The Oshawa Generals have begun the defense of their OHL and CHL titles as they try to become the first OHL team to win back-to-back dual championships since the Windsor Spitfires did so in 2008-09 and 2009-10.
Hockey’s Future will preview the OHL’s four divisions for 2015-16, beginning with the West Division in the league’s Western Conference. The West Division features a Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds club that was considered a favorite to win the OHL title in 2014-15, but fell short of that destiny when their plans were derailed by Connor McDavid and his Erie Otters’ teammates. The division also sports the team formerly known as the Plymouth Whalers, now dubbed the Flint Firebirds after a move to Flint, Michigan.
Here, then, is the preview of the OHL’s West Division for 2015-16.
The Plymouth Whalers are dead. Long live the Flint Firebirds. After moving to the Vehicle City, the Flint Firebirds are hoping to blaze a trail to the OHL playoffs after missing the postseason on-ramp last year in its final season in Plymouth.
The Firebirds are poised to compete in every game, thanks in large part to the presence of veteran netminder – and 2014 OHL Goaltender of the Year – Alex Nedeljkovic. The Firebirds will be relying heavily on goaltending and defense – the club features some solid blueliners in Mathieu Henderson, Josh Wesley, who is returning after an injury-marred 2014-15 campaign, and new addition Vili Saarijarvi.
Up front, the team lost a lot of its offensive leadership and talent with the departures of Mathew Campagna, Victor Crus Rydberg, Gianluca Curcuruto, and Yannick Rathgeb. Meanwhile, Sonny Milano has been reassigned to the Lake Erie Monsters of the AHL, making the offensive prospects for the Firebirds downright offensive.
Will Bitten will be counted on to dramatically improve his 15-goal output from last year. And overager Connor Chatham and former London Knights’ forward Zach Grzelewski will have to assume much of the offensive responsibility for the fledgling Flint franchise.
With Jacob Ringuette being the only notable departure, the Spirit returns pretty much its entire team this year and should benefit from the shared experience.
On the blueline, the team returns a solid and deep collection of defensemen, including Marcus Crawford, Greg DiTomaso and Will Petschenig. And between the pipes, Evan Cormier will have a full season to show that he’s ready to lead the team to the playoffs again, after being obtained mid-season last year from the North Bay Battalion.
It will be interesting in Sarnia this season, as many of the top scouts will be watching with interest the continued progress of highly-touted blueliner Jakob Chychrun. Behind the bench, Derian Hatcher will guide his progress as the student looks to surpass the teacher – himself a former eighth overall pick in the NHL Draft.
Last season, as a 16-year-old, the 6’2”, 215-pound blueliner had 16 goals and 33 points in a 42-game injury shortened season – a season in which he was named an alternate captain. He may be the most massive defensive prospect – in every sense of the word – since the departure of Aaron Ekblad. With older blueliners like Zach Core and Jeff King, the Sting blueline should be solid, but where the team really shines is up front.
Especially if they get NHL first-rounder Pavel Zacha back.
Even if Zacha doesn’t return, the team will be counting on the continued development of Nikita Korostelev and Jordan Kyrou to help power an offense that includes 23-goal man Hayden Hodgson.
The only question lingering for the Sting lies between the pipes. Justin Fazio enters the season as the nominal starter, but he’s not a proven commodity at this time.
Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
It’s going to be a huge transition year for the Greyhounds. On the back end, they lose stalwart blueliner Darnell Nurse to the pro ranks and dynamic rearguard addition Anthony DeAngelo. Up front, Justin Bailey, Nick Ritchie, and Sergey Tolchinsky are just a handful of the departures that account for nearly half of the club’s scoring last year.
The cupboard is not exactly bare, though. Jared McCann brings back his 34 goals from last season, hoping to improve on those totals. He’s joined by Zach Senyshyn and Blake Speers. And between the pipes, the club has the steady Brandon Halverson to keep the opponents at bay.
A repeat of last year’s 54-win season is out of the question, but with a strong top-end forward core and steady goaltending, the club should remain very competitive in the West.
The Spitfires are continuing their rebuild and, while the playoffs may be a challenge this season, with promising players like draft-eligible Logan Brown and overage blueliner Trevor Murphy (who led the team in scoring last year), there will be some entertaining games at the WFCU Centre.
The goaltending situation has been stabilized with the addition of former London Knights’ overager Michael Guigovaz. And he’ll see plenty of rubber this season.
Luke Kiran, Christian Fischer, and 21-goal man Cristiano DiGiacinto will have to step up their roles this year to keep the Spitfires in games. And on the blueline, Murphy is joined by a pair of towering defensemen in 6’5” Patrick Sanvido and 6’6” Logan Stanley.
Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @