Now that the OHL season has opened, it is time to take a look at the teams and how they should fare in the upcoming season.
1> Sault Ste. Marie
The Sault should come out on top in the West this year. They will be led by Cory Pecker and Ryan Jardine up front and Daniel Passero on the blueline. With those combinations they will definitely be able to score some goals. Rookies Trevor Daley and Jeff Richards have impressed in the early going. They will be looked upon to add some depth. The only real question mark for Sault this season will be in net where Jason Flick will carry the load. Look for a trade for Ottawa goalie Seamus Kotyk at the trade deadline. If that happens, they will be a force to be reckoned with, leading up to the play-offs.
2> London Knights
London has encountered some early problems this year. It looks as though Rico Fata will stick with Calgary. Tom Kostopoulous and Alex Henry have signed pro contracts so it has left them a little more thin than first expected. To add to that, Leaf pick, Peter Reynolds had demanded a trade before camp opened. He was traded for over age Brett Gibson and 2nd round 1999 NHL pick, Brett Angel. In my estimation, they did fairly well under the circumstances. It will take them a bit to adjust but the return of Chiarello in net will be a huge lift for the team. They still have some guns up front with Chris Kelly and Brett Gibson. Rookie Chris Albiani is off to a good start. Look for one of the aforementioned over age players to return half way through the season if things don’t go as planned in their pro career. The Knights will again be a second half team and may challenge Sault for the division title.
3> Sarnia Sting
Sarnia got a huge boost from the signing of Mike Van Ryn. They look a little thin with Cava, Novoseltsev and Sarno all gone from last years’ roster. However, Dusty Jamieson and Jeff Heerema are back to do a little scoring. The surprise so far is 4th round pick Eric Himelfarb. He has scored 7 goals in his first 7 games. Keep a close look on import Alexander Buturlin. He looks to be a steal for the Sting. They picked the Montreal Canadians 2nd round pick with the 22nd overall European pick. Greg Hewitt will take the lions share of net time this year. Look for the departure of Mike Van Ryan after Christmas.
4> Plymouth Whalers
Decimated. They have next to nothing back from last season. They have barely enough to form a formidable first line. After that it is up to the rookies. Gone are Legwand, Mara, Colagaicomo, Druken, Tselios and goalie Robert Holzinger. Rob Zepp will toil in net this year and 1998 1st round holdout; Aaron Molnar will back him up. It will be a long year in Plymouth. Playoffs may not come.
5> Windsor Spitfires
Only a quarter step behind Plymouth. Their offense will be lead by Mark Ridout and Jason Polera. They will be counting on the rookies to get things done this year. I like Leighton in net. He has a tendency to win games and he will have to this year.
1> Erie Otters
It almost pains me to pick an order for this division. So I closed my eyes and saw Erie in the lead. It looks like Tim Connolly will not return from the NY Islanders. There goes my pick for Player of the Year. I do like Brad Boyes to be near the league lead in scoring. He will be a top prospect for this years’ NHL Draft. They are very deep up front with Nash, Baird, Rupp and Boyes. They have Rekis, MacMillan and Dixon returning on the blueline, which is very solid. Netminding is up in the air. Perras is good but not a star. Batten could be a star if he wised up a little. The departure of Coach Paul Theriault could be good and then again could be disastrous. That pretty much sums up this team, a real wildcard. I think they will turn things around this year though.
2> Owen Sound Platers
They should still be strong this year after a loss in the semi-finals to London in last year’s playoffs. They have a really good group of returning players this season including Mike Dombkiewicz, Wes Goldie, player of the week in the first week Brian Kazarian and Curtis Sanford in net. A couple of trades have improved this team as well. The additions of Kyle McAllister and Derek Campbell will help tremendously. If Erie falters, look for the Platers to pick up the torch.
3> Guelph Storm
Guelph will be an interesting team. Charlie Stephens is probably the most important key to this years’ Storm team. Which Charlie Stephens will come out this year? Will it be the pathetic, underachieving one from St. Mike’s? Or will it be the emerging star from the second half with the Storm? If it is the latter, look for tremendous things from the Storm this year. They have a good core back this year with Beaudoin, Plunkett, Mitchell, McDonell, last years’ leading scorer Joe Gerbe and Chris Madden in net. They will be solid and will definitely push for the division lead. I am estimating that 1st-3rd will be separated by no more than 6 points.
4> Brampton Battalion
This may surprise some people. The departure of Jason Spezza will hurt a lot. They do, however, have a good cast coming back to start this year. Torres and Havel will lead this team up front but the addition of 1st rounder Jay McClement will be great. Jay Harrison and Jason Maleyko will anchor the blueline. David Chant is currently carrying the load in net. Look for the Battalion to trade the rights for 1998 Leafs’ 1st rounder, Nikolai Antropov. If they do, it will add enough depth to finish ahead of Kitchener and maybe a strong playoff position.
5> Kitchener Rangers
Last season was a disaster that culminated to a lost playoff birth at the hands of the Windsor Spitfires. At the trade deadline General Manager, Jamie McDonald offered any player to any team for the right price. That is a sign of desperation. He was obviously trying to light a fire under the team but they did not respond. I have a hard time believing one offseason will make a difference.
1> Sudbury Wolves
Sudbury had a year to gel together as a team last season. This team sports a tremendous amount of talent. They are loaded up front. Returnees Taylor Pyatt, Norm Milley, Derek MacKenzie, Jason Jaspers and Brian McGratton will add some scoring and some grit. Mike Fisher has signed with the Senators and will start the season with the NHL club. Returning D includes Brad Morgan, Corey Sabourin, import Alexei Semenov and Kip Brennen should form the nucleus of a fine defense. Mike Gorman will control the pipes and Bert Templeton will man the bench. A very slow 0-5 start to the season has scared off some of the early predictions but I think they will rebound to take the division. Look for Mike Fisher to be sent back just before the World Junior camp opens.
2> Barrie Colts
The Colts made a drastic move last year which threatens their future trading away some tremendous talent which included high NHL prospect Daryll Bootland for the Quinte four, Sheldon Keefe, Shawn Cation, Ryan Barnes and Mike Jefferson. It was supposed to solidify their playoff run last season. It proved not to be when Brian Finley went down with injury and the Colts bowed out to the Oshawa Generals in the second round. Gone are Daniel Tkaczuk, Martin Skoula, Andre Lakos, Jeff Tetzlaf and Chris Feil. That was a good mix of talent and heart. Some big players still remain. They include the best goalie in the league and possibly in all of Junior Hockey, Brian Finley along with 1999 NHL 1st rounder Denis Shvidki, 1998 NHL 1st rounder Michael Henrich and second year man Ed Hill. Ryan O’Keefe will take on a more leadership role on defense and they will need it. Bill Stewart is an outstanding coach with a wealth of experience and that will help. I’m just not sure where this team is going with the Frost Boys running the show (Keefe, Barnes, Cation and Jefferson). Barnes is already gone for 25 games and Cation for 15. Jefferson is due for a lengthy suspension sooner or later. This team probably has the most tallent from front end all the way back to the net. I’m just not sure how or if this team is going to gel.
3> Toronto St. Mikes
The team finally looks to be on the rise. Getting rid of the enigma, which was Charlie Stephens and then unloading the troublesome Quinte boys and Corey Batten all seem to be good moves for this franchise. All they need now is a positive season. That would be to make the playoffs. They should do it this year. They are led by top prospect Daryll Bootland. He should fill the void that was left by Stephens. He will be joined by Delaney, Corupe, over age Chad Woolard and hopefully Adam DeLeeuw. They may need to upgrade their goaltending. Dwayne Bateman is good but clearly near the bottom of all the starters in the league. They won’t crack the .500 barrier but a playoff spot is very much in sight.
4> North Bay Centennials
This team has been a mess for years. Ask the Ottawa 67’s who have a 28 game winning streak against them. Nothing this team does seems to have an impact since Bert Templeton left about 6 years ago. The only thing keeping this team out of the basement is the lowly Mississauga Ice Dogs. They do have some quality players. The newly acquired Peter Reynolds will help but they traded their top goalscorer and big Brett Angel to get him. I don’t think that improves their team this season. Maybe the 4th round pick they got in that package will help the future, but that does not do any good now. Chris Eade, new captain Mike Cirillo, Samu Isosalo, and Ryan Armstrong will help. They need a good season from highly touted European, Jonas Andersson to have a chance for a return to the playoffs. Alex Auld will be the most important part of this teams’ success. He has a habit of keeping his team in games. Hopefully, the rest of his team will take advantage.
5> Mississauga Ice Dogs
Grapes’ team is in for another long season. It will not be quite as long as last year, but long nonetheless. Jason Spezza will be an impact player. He will form a line with Dickinson and over age player Scott Page. This team is still building. It will be another “wait until next year” year. But just wait until they explode next year. They are just missing a couple pieces and if they can acquire them this season, they may challenge for the division lead next year. But that is next year. For now, let’s try not to run up the scores again.
1> Belleville Bulls
Last year’s OHL Champions will repeat again this year. This could be the strongest team the OHL has seen in years. They were good enough to knock off Ottawa last year and were oh so close to getting a chance for the Memorial Cup. The departure of captain, Ryan Ready will be a big loss. He was the heart and soul of that team. However, when you have the likes of Jonathan Cheechoo, Justin Papineau, Kevin Baker, Branko Radivojevic, Chris Stanley, Mike Renzi, Chris Newbury, Randy Rowe, Nathan Robinson and newly acquired Peter Campbell, where is the room for a rookie? That is just on forward. The defense includes Bertran, Policelli, Jacobsen, Paddon, Grady and the 1st round pick of the NY Islanders, Branislav Mezei. Team Canada Junior invitee and Memorial Cup Most Outstanding goalie; Cory Campbell will control the pipes. Look out. Belleville is for real. Lou Crawford is stacked.
2> Ottawa 67’s
Killer’s barber poles will have a new look. The 3rd jersey unveiled last season now has a home white version. The barber pole will stay but the old white jersey is gone. With it goes MVP Brian Campbell, Memorial Cup MVP Nick Boynton the Overtime goal scorer Matt Zultek and over age players Ben Gustavson, Dan Tudin and Justin Davis. That means there are no 1st and 2nd line wingers coming back. No all star defensemen either. Do not despair. The 67’s do have a load of talent coming back. Goalies, Levente Szuper and Seamus Kotyk are back. 2nd round NHL pick’s Luke Sellars and Jeremy Van Hoof are back. 1st rounder Mark Bell has been sent back from Chicago for another year. There is still a good nucleus. They will be having a bit of a rough start until the rookies lose their jitters and until they can find a couple of over age players to combine with returning centre, Dan Tessier. Look for them to be a little above .500 at the Christmas break and to start building momentum in the second half. They may be interested in unloading one of the goalies if it looks like they are missing something.
3> Peterborough Petes
The Petes look to be as strong as last year. Their big loss will be felt without the presence of LA King pick, Scott Barney. Jason Williams, Preston Mizzi and import Sergei Kuznetsov will be counted on for the scoring. They acquired some toughness with Bob Crummer from Guelph. Peterborough has a solid, hard working lineup from top to bottom with Matt Carkner and Steve Montador leading their defense and underrated Joey MacDonald in net.
4> Oshawa Generals
The Generals will be rebuilding this year. That is not to say they are going to be a poor team, it means that they will only be about .500. The departure of Kevin Colley and Bryan Allen will hurt this team. But most of all, Ty Garner will be missed. He was their leader and Derek Dolson just is not anywhere near as good as Ty. They have some great talent with newly named captain Brad Ralph. Brent Gauvreau, John Kozoriz and big Jonah Leroux will join him. There is still a chance that Bryan Allen will come back after he rehabs his knee. If he does, the Gens will have some added success. For now, they will be off to a slow start. Look out in the second half after the rookies get some ice.
5> Kingston Frontenacs
Kingston will be hard pressed this season. There are a few question marks. Will Patrick DesRochers be back? If so, their odds are much better. He probably will not return. This team now belongs to Mike Zigomanis. Sean Avery, Andrew Ianero and Jonathan Schill will help up front. There was some talk that Kevin Grimes may return. That would help the defense. Until then, Braff, Turner and Tennent will have to do. Newly acquired tough guy, Doug MacIver will help out the defense. The need for goaltending was helped by the acquisition of Andrew Raycroft from Sudbury. However, the Fronts’ will still be battling North Bay for the final playoff spot. Opposition beware. They come to play hard and nasty. You may be able to pile up some goals but be prepared to pay the price.
Some other predictions:
MVP> Justin Papineau-Bellevile
Defenseman> Daniel Passero-Sault
Goalie> Brian Finley-Barrie
Rookie> Eric Himelfarb-Sarnia
OHL Champion> Belleville Bulls