OHL East Division preview

By Sean Keogh






OHL Eastern Conference Preview- Part 1: East Division

The East Division should be a close race as it was in
2003-04, when it took until the last game of the season for the Ottawa 67’s to
clinch the division title over the Kingston Frontenacs and Oshawa Generals.
Since the league went to four divisions back in 1998-99, no team has won a
division title with as low a point total as Ottawa’s 71 last year. Ottawa was
only three games over the .500 mark, Kingston only two, and Oshawa only one.

 

Heading into the 2004-05 season, the 67’s are the odds-on
favorite to win the division crown, despite the loss of two-time league top
player Corey Locke (MON), who signed a pro contract. The
Peterborough Petes, who had only 22 wins last year, may give them their best
challenge. Neither Kingston nor Oshawa looks impressive going in, and the
Belleville Bulls will likely once again finish in or near the basement of the
league. For the 67’s, if nothing else, they have arguably the Conference’s top
offense, and one that could compete with the London Knights for tops in the
league.

 

Belleville Bulls

 

After roughly a six-year run as one of the better teams in
the OHL, the Bulls came crashing down last year. They had the fewest wins in
the league and tied Saginaw for the fewest points with 39. While former Bulls
from that strong run such as Jason Spezza, Matthew Stajan, Branko Radivojevic,
Jonathan Cheechoo and Justin Papineau are now making their mark in the NHL,
their top offensive player last year was Marc
Rancourt
.

 

Rancourt returns as an overager, on what will again be a
relatively young team. Mike Roelofsen
along with Cody Thornton and John Adams were among the team’s other
better forwards last year, and are all 17 or 18 years old. Another notable
young forward is Michael Lombardi
who had 12 points in 27 games after being acquired from Plymouth last year as a
16-year-old. Lombardi has size and skill and could move up the charts in his
draft year. Because of their lack of success last year, the Bulls had the first
overall pick in the summer draft, and used it on John Hughes from Whitby, Ontario. Hughes lacks size but has plenty
of skill, and he’ll get more than enough chances to put it on display. On
defense, much will be asked of overage acquisition Pat Sutton who played the last two years in Owen Sound. The hulking
Josh Francis along with Kyle Sonnenburg and Geoff Killing all return, although none
has proven much at the OHL level thus far. The team’s two import picks from
last year, Martin Novak and Lubomir Stach, will be asked to inject
some offense into this group that otherwise lacks talent.

 

In goal, the Bulls return all three goalies that played for
them last year, including Eric Tobia,
who is an overager this season. The veteran Tobia played in 55 games last year,
and saw plenty of rubber in just about every one of them. This season, Tobia
can expect more of the same, although he should have more offensive support as
the young kids start to blossom. A playoff spot is possible, but this team is
still very young and inexperienced in general.

 

Kingston Frontenacs

 

On paper, the Frontenacs could have been a powerful team
last year, and if nothing else, should have beaten out the 67’s for the East
Division crown. With Eric Himelfarb (DET) back for his overage season, Bryan Rodney putting up huge points
from the blueline, and power forward prospect extraordinaire Anthony Stewart (FLA) pulling on the
Frontenacs sweater, the team was good on paper. This year, while Himelfarb has
graduated after a sensational season, the other two are expected back, among
other veterans.

 

Although there may still be hope for NHL fans that there
will be hockey this year, the Frontenacs hope there isn’t, because in that
case, Stewart will assuredly be in uniform this coming season. This is vital to
their success because while Stewart is not only a great goal scorer, he is so
big and physical that he opens up space for smaller players such as Evan Kotsopoulos and Danny McDonald. The Frontenacs also
have some good young forwards such as Bobby
Hughes
and 2003 third overall pick Tony
Rizzi
, who will be asked to contribute more this year. Rodney will once
again patrol the blueline for the Frontenacs, which is good news for all
concerned, as Rodney, who has 136 points in the last two years, is a
sensational player, especially on the power play. Fellow overager Justin Suda returns for a fourth season
with the Frontenacs, and will be asked to keep up his strong all-around play.
Otherwise, the defense is young with sophomores such as Kyle Raftis and Trevor
Waddell
being asked to play a greater role this year.

 

Last year, Chris
Beckford-Tseu
was brought in early on to stabilize the goaltending
situation. This year, Dayne Davis
and Matthew Spezza will play between
the pipes for Kingston. Davis was the back-up last year in his first full
season in the OHL despite being 18. This year, the bulky Davis will need to
prove he is physically able and adequately conditioned to handle the starting
duties. The Frontenacs should contend, although they will not quite be with the
class of the East.

 

Ottawa 67’s

 

The 67’s are a team that will match any team’s offense, but
is young both on defense and in goal. Although the 67’s enter the 2004-05
season as the defending East Division champions, they were not clearly better
than other teams. The defense was young and inexperienced and struggled at
times, the goaltending failed to cover up the numerous defensive miscues, and Locke aside, the offense was nothing
special. This year, if nothing else, the 67’s will be a powerful offensive
juggernaut.

 

While it appeared Locke might return for an overage season,
the player that will go down as one of the best ever to wear the barber pole
signed just before the NHL dropped its curtains for the lockout. While there is
a slim chance Locke could still end up back in Ottawa, Mark Mancari (BUF), Peter Tsimikalis and Bryan Bickell (CHI), arguably the team’s three best forwards after Locke last
year, all return a year older and a year wiser. But to make up for the lost
offense from Locke, will be a potent combination of import forwards with 2004
first round pick Lukas Kaspar (SJ)
and fellow Czech import and good friend Jakub
Petruzalek
(NYR) playing together. The two Czech imports both had fantastic
training camps displaying not only a high skill level but a great amount of
chemistry.

 

Jeremy
Akeson
and Brody Todd
are two overagers who will provide some offensive support as well as a physical
edge. Pierre Mitsou, the team’s
leader on defense, is the only graduation, but Will Colbert and Kyle
Wharton
(CLB) will be asked
to carry a heavy load. Colbert last year was among the top defensive defensemen
in the league, but he needs to take on a greater amount of offensive
responsibility as well. Second year players such as Elgin Reid, Robbie Lawrence
and Tyler Aitcheson will need to
keep progressing at a nice rate. One thing to watch for is where Mancari plays.
The big Sabres pick played most of last year on Locke’s wing, but has played
defense in the past and did play there at times in training camp. Should the
defense struggle, Mancari may be pulled back to stabilize things.

 

The biggest question is in goal where Danny Battochio and Anthony
Guadagnalo
will battle for the No. 1 position early on. In the event that
neither takes off, Kilrea may go out early and acquire a veteran goaltender as
legendary coach and GM Brian Kilrea did in the 2001-02 season when a young John
Ceci struggled when asked to be the starter.

 

Oshawa Generals

 

Year after year, it seems the Generals are if nothing else a
physically tough team. Last year, despite having no player with more than 56
points, they were in the thick of the race for the divisional crown right until
the end. But arguably their top forward, Ben
Eager
(PHI), and top
defenseman, Paul Ranger (TB), are both likely playing in the
AHL this year rather than returning as overagers.

 

While Eager is gone, Oakville native Tyler Donati returns after leading the team in scoring as a
17-year-old rookie. This is Donati’s draft year, and while he lacks size, he
has plenty of skill, and should be a force to be reckoned with. Tyler’s twin
brother Justin Donati also returns,
and should improve as well. A big acquisition over the summer was Brett Trudell, who will play as an
overager this year after two years with the Guelph Storm. In last year’s
playoffs, the bulky Trudell had 13 goals in 22 games and was a dominant force
for the Storm. Adam Berti (CHI), Brandon McBride and Chris
Hulit
all provide more skill and size up front. This group should crash,
bang and score a fair bit this year, as it will be a veteran group.

 

On defense, Ranger’s graduation is a major blow, and will
force Chris Petrow to step up as the
leader on the blueline. The time is also now for 2003 first round pick Justin Wallingford to take on a greater
role with the team. A huge defenseman at 6’6 and 226 lbs, Wallingford needs to
develop a mean streak and play with more consistency in his draft year. David Halasz was acquired from Ottawa
at the import draft, and will be asked to play the power play and use his
smarts to log significant minutes.

 

In goal, Dan Turple
(ATL) and Ryan Gibb split duties
last year, but Turple, who is 6’5 and was picked in the sixth round in the 2004
draft, should play more games this year. This area should be solid as both
goalies have experience starting at times, and have room to improve on last
year. This is a veteran team up front, that should be solid in goal but needs
their defense to hold together with their long time field general having moved
on.

 

Peterborough
Petes

 

Often a
mediocre team, the Petes haven’t been a top team since the days of Cameron Mann
and Zac Bierk, and last year they were quite poor, finishing third last in
points with only 50. But there is some hope for Petes fans as their team should
ice if nothing else, a competitive team. Up front, the Petes should be speedy and
talented, and a treat to watch.

 

The
strength of the team will be up front, where Liam Reddox (EDM) and
Jamie Tardif (CGY) return as two talented, hard working forwards. Also
returning is top 2005 prospect Daniel Ryder, who was the team’s third
leading scorer last year as a 16 year old. His brother Michael took the NHL by
storm last year for the Canadiens, and Daniel plays a similar game. There are
also other support players such as Brad Bonello and Jordan Morrison
as well as the third Staal brother Jordan Staal, who was the
third overall pick in last year’s OHL draft. The Petes boast plenty of talent
and depth up front, and will most likely be strong next year as well. On
defense, the return of Mark Flood (MON), arguably the team’s
best player last year, is a major boost, and Columbus prospect Trevor
Hendrikx
(CLB) is primed to build on a break-out year last year. Big, tough
and improving offensively, Hendrikx will get help from Aaron Dawson (CAR)
and Bryan Young (EDM) on defense, to form a big, strong, no-nonsense
crew on the blueline. Rounding out the top four will be import defenseman Niko
Vainio
(DAL). Vainio will provide some much needed puck movement
skills, and will assuredly be given plenty of power play time.

 

In goal, Jeff
MacDougald
is going to be the main man between the pipes. The solidly built
goaltender split time last year, and is ready to take on the full load of work.
If MacDougald can hold up, this is a team that could push for the division. The
defense is strong defensively and loves to punish the opposition, as well as
having one of the league’s top defencemen in Flood.  The forwards,
although not big and powerful like the Generals crew, are slick and skilled.
Reddox especially could be among the league’s top scorers if he can stay consistent.

 

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