In a division that was settled by a single point in the standings last season, the two main combatants, the Plymouth Whalers and the Saginaw Spirit, maintain veteran-laden rosters that make a battle at the top between them again a likely scenario. The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Windsor Spitfires and Sarnia Sting have all made significant changes in various aspects of their organizations and are counting on those changes to provide a boost allowing them to challenge the expected Plymouth/Saginaw duel.
2005-06 Division finish/Overall record: 1st/ 35-28-1-4 (75 points)
Top Drafted Prospects: LW James Neal (DAL), C John Armstrong (CAL), RW Dan Collins (FLA), C Evan Brophey (CHI), G Michal Neuvirth (WAS)
2007 Draft Prospects: C Chris Terry, G Jeremy Smith, D Leo Jenner
Newcomers to watch: LW A.J. Jenks, C Vern Cooper, G Michal Neuvirth
Outlook: The Whalers have put together a roster clearly designed to make a run for a championship this season. Overage defenseman Steve Ward and overage forwards Jared Boll and Evan Brophey have been tapped early for leadership by being assigned captaincy responsibilities.
Yet, ultimately, the Whalers success could be determined by how quickly and how much their two highly-touted 16-year-olds, Cooper and Jenks can contribute. Jenks, in particular, became a steal for Plymouth as a sixth round OHL priority choice. Had he not committed to play for the University of Michigan only months prior to the draft, he undoubtedly would have been a high first round choice in the selection process. The slick, quick, but diminutive Cooper will be learning to add defensive responsibility to his avowed prowess on the offensive end of the ice.
Watch for: GM/Coach Mike Vellucci has a glut of goaltending talent to sift through in determining where the ultimate playing time will reside. Returning veteran Justin Garay is joined by Washington Capital draftee Neuvirth, Jeremy Smith and Kyle Jendra.
2005-06 Division finish/Overall record: 2nd/36-30-2-0 (74 points)
Top Drafted Prospects: D Matt Corrente (NJ), G Ryan Daniels (OTT), D Patrick McNeill (WAS), C Tom Pyatt (NYR)
2007 Draft Prospects: C Zack Torquato, C Tom Craig
Newcomers to watch: D Nick Crawford, C Andrew Clouthier, LW Tomas Zaborsky, RW Jan Mursak
Outlook: By trading for Windsor overage veterans, center Ryan Garlock and defenseman Mitch Maunu, the Spirit gave an early summer confirmation to the expectation that they would be gearing up to take another run at Plymouth and the division title. The Spirit need continued improvement from young center Torquato, defenseman Corrente and goaltender Daniels to supplement the core of veterans surrounding them.
Watch for: Import draftees Zaborsky and Mursak, as well as overage acquisition center Tyler Haskins, could potentially tip the scale as the Spirit continue their climb up the ladder toward a potential franchise first OHL title.
2005-06 Division finish/Overall Record: 3rd/32-29-3-4 (71 points)
Top Drafted Prospects: D Mike Weber (BUF), D Scott Todd (NAS)
2007 Draft Prospects: RW Kevin Hudes
Newcomers to watch: C Greg Nemisz, C Adam Henrique, D Mark Cundari
Outlook: The story in Windsor this season is how the long-awaited organizational front-office changes can start to show some benefit on the ice. When NHL vet Bob Boughner led a group to purchase the franchise, Windsor fans breathed a collective sigh of relief that led to an excitement around the franchise not experienced for years. The test for the Boughner/Warren Rychel tandem will be to start developing a young corps of players to mold into an eventual contender. They started that process early by trading veterans and utilizing several early priority selection draft choices to add Nemisz, Henrique and Cundari to the roster.
Watch for: Goaltender Anthony Guadagnolo nearly single-handedly led a second-half Windsor surge last year after his acquisition from Ottawa. If it becomes clear that the Spitfires youth will prevent them from contending, look for Guadagnolo to become an important bargaining chip to add even more youth to the Spitfire roster.
SAULT STE. MARIE GREYHOUNDS
2005-06 Division finish/Overall record: 4th/29-31-3-5 (66 points)
Top Drafted Prospects: RW David Kuchejda (CHI)
2007 Draft Prospects: D Jacob Muzzin, LW Payton Liske, RW Josh Moes, C Grant McGee,
D Michale Quesnele
Newcomers to watch: RW James Livingston, LW Sean Jones
Outlook: Last season’s team MVP, goaltender Kyle Gajewski will maintain his status as backbone of the team, but the question Coach Craig Hartsburg must answer will be who can step up and provide the offense that was so sorely lacking last season. Kuchejda and mid-season acquisition center Dustin Jeffrey are the two top returning scorers, yet neither of them topped 20 goals last season.
Watch for: As in Windsor, one of the biggest stories in the Sault is an off-ice matter. But, unlike Windsor, the story is the opening of the city’s brand new $25 million Sports and Entertainment Centre, replacing the venerable old Memorial Gardens. Windsor fans may only dream of having a new replacement for the “old barn” that is Windsor Arena, but Sault fans will be expecting an adequate product to be housed in their new facility. The Greyhounds open with eight straight road contests while the new facility is completed. How they handle that tough early stretch on the road could be an early indication of their potential for the season.
2005-06 Division finish/Overall record: 5th/17-46-2-3 (39 points)
Top Drafted Prospects: RW Tomas Pospisil (ATL), RW Trevor Kell (CHI), RW Harrison Reed (CAR)
2007 Draft Prospects: D Mark Katic, LW Daniel Lombardi, C Jared Gomes
Newcomers to watch: C Steven Stamkos, D Dalton Prout
Outlook: New coach Dave MacQueen can only improve on the dismal season the Sting suffered through last year. Off-season additions Kell, defenseman Ryan Wilson and goaltender Sebastian Dahm will help ease the growing pains.
Watch for: Sarnia’s “reward” for their last place OHL finish was the opportunity to select highly-touted center Stamkos with the first overall selection in last spring’s priority draft. Stamkos served notice that he may very well fulfill expectations with a three-point performance, including the game’s first two goals, in the Sting’s season opener against Plymouth. His development will be a key factor in the Sting’s comeback attempts this season.
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