2013-14 OHL Preview: Storm could challenge Knights for top spot in Midwest

By Jason Menard
.Connor McDavid - Erie Otters

Photo: While the Erie Otters aren’t the cream of the crop in the OHL, Otters’ forward Connor McDavid is likely to draw a great deal of attention during the 2013-14 season (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

 

Every year, the Ontario Hockey League brings its share of excitement and surprises to the Canadian Hockey League. There are surprise teams and disappointments; breakout players and those who fall short of expectations.

What we know for sure is the following: the London Knights will host the Mastercard Memorial Cup at the Budweiser Gardens, and will be one of two OHL representatives in the tournament. We also know that this is the year that Aaron Ekblad will attempt to parlay his exceptional player status into a first-overall draft grade. We also know that the Battalion has marched out of Brampton and have found a welcome home in North Bay, a city that’s been without OHL hockey since the Centennials left town for Saginaw in 2002.

Everything else? Well, that’s why they play the games. This is part one of a four-part series previewing the 2013-14 Ontario Hockey League season. We start where the season will end — in London with the Knights.

London Knights

Last season: 50-13-2-3, 105 points, 1st in the Midwest Division; 1st in the Western Conference; OHL champion.

What we do know is that the London Knights will make their third consecutive trip to the Memorial Cup. We also know that the Forest City will serve as host for the second time in a decade. The Knights defeated the Sidney Crosby-led Rimouski Océanic in the 2005 Memorial Cup to claim junior hockey’s crown in front of the hometown faithful.

The past two seasons, the Knights have enjoyed incredible success. Two years ago they made it to the Memorial Cup finals, losing to the Shawinigan Cataractes; last year, they made it to the tournament but failed to reach the final. This year could prove to be the Knights’ most successful season ever — one in which they could challenge their 2004-05 numbers, when they compiled a 59-7-2-0 record en route to 120 points. The club has already started the season atop the BMO CHL Top 10 pre-season rankings.

The Knights will attempt to walk into the Memorial Cup through the front door — the only question is, which players will be on this year’s squad?

As NHL camps opened, an incredible 17 of 19 players were with NHL camps. While the vast majority should be returned to the Knights, there are still some questions when it comes to key players. The Knights had four players drafted in the first round of this year’s NHL Draft: Bo Horvat, Max Domi, Nikita Zadorov, and Mike McCarron (who decided to join the Knights instead of going the U.S. college route). While the latter two should find their way back to the Knights fairly quickly, both Horvat and Domi have a good shot at sticking with their clubs.

Horvat, who was essentially traded for Cory Schneider, would benefit from a year back, not so much because he’s not capable of playing key minutes in the NHL, but because the pressure on him to ‘replace’ the popular netminder (not to mention getting caught up in the Luongo soap opera) would be intense. Domi should also be back in the OHL, but the Phoenix Coyotes may want to benefit from the name-brand recognition (father Tie played for the Coyotes’ franchise when it was in Winnipeg).

Defensemen Olli Maatta and Alex Broadhurst (who would come back as an overager) may also stick with their respective clubs, but would make strong captain material should they return. The Knights have already said goodbye to rock-steady blueliner Scott Harrington and forward Seth Griffth.

Regardless, not too many teams will be crying for the Knights, nor will they be taking them lightly. The team has made some room by trading overager Justin Sefton to the Saginaw Spirit for conditional picks (North Bay’s third-rounder and Saginaw’s sixth-rounder should Sefton play in just one game for the Spirit — exhibition or regular-season) and Corey Pawley to the Kingston Frontenacs.

Mitch Marner surprised some by joining the Knights this season, and they’ve added McCarron. Players like Josh Anderson, Remi Elie, Kyle Platzer, the Rupert twins, and Chris Tierney are ready to step up and play greater roles, benefitting from another year’s worth of experience.

The Knights were one of the league’s most offensively proficient teams last year whlie being one of the stingiest defensively. That looks to be the case again this year.

The only question lies in net. The old hockey adage is that when you have two number-ones, you really have none. Jake Patterson and Philadelphia Flyers’ 2012 second-rounder, Anthony Stolarz, will battle it out in camp to be the number-one. Last year, Stolarz’ late arrival and stumbling in the playoffs muddied the frozen waters of the Knights’ crease. This year, someone’s going to have to step up and lead the squad into the Memorial Cup Tournament.

Owen Sound Attack

Last season: 44-18-1-5, 94 points. 2nd in Midwest, 3rd* in Western Conference (*Plymouth automatically earned second place as a result of winning the West). Lost to the Plymouth Whalers in the Western Conference semi-finals.

The Attack is commemorating its 25th anniversary in Owen Sound during the 2012-13 season. But with some key departures and a young roster, the returning core of players will have to work hard in order to give its fans something to celebrate.

Owen Sound was the OHL’s most stingy defensive team last year, allowing only 165 goals against. However, one of the main catalysts in that defensive formula is no longer with the squad, as Jordan Binnington has graduated to the pro ranks. Last year, Binnington appeared in 50 games and was a solid last line of defense for the Attack. This year, the hope is that four-year veteran Brandon Hope, who appeared in 20 games last year, is ready to step up and assume the reins. The most games Hope has appeared in was 29 as a member of the Sarnia Sting in 2011-12. If he falters, the Attack could be in serious trouble as all the netminders in the club’s pipeline are young and untested.

The Attacks' blueline is relatively young, but will be supported by a trio of veterans with Chris Bigras, Kurtis MacDermid, and overager Brayden Rose likely seeing a lot of ice time. The club went all in on Cody Ceci last year, who now finds himself in the Ottawa Senators’ pro ranks, so the trio will have to step up to fill his sizeable void.

Up front, the team will look to Cameron Brace, Gemel Smith, and Zach Nastasiuk to pace the club offensively with last year’s leading scorer, Daniel Catenacci, likely not returning for an overage year.

Sadly, one player that many were looking forward to finally seeing on the ice again appears to have suffered a setback in his progress. Jarrod Maidens suffered a concussion in November 2011 and has been out of action ever since. He joined the Senators’ camp at the end of August, but was sent home after suffering from recurring concussion symptoms, something that has kept him out of action for over a year.

Owen Sound has been a tough stop in the OHL midwest for a number of years, but celebrations for this 25th anniversary season may be harder to come by in 2013-14.

Kitchener Rangers

Last season: 39-20-1-8, 87 points, 3rd in Midwest, 4th in Western Conference. Lost to the London Knights in the Western Conference semi-finals.

While the departure of the club’s head coach could be incredibly challenging and prompt a re-evaluation of the organization’s philosophy for many teams, don’t expect a massive upheaval in Kitchener. Although Steve Spott has moved on to the AHL's Toronto Marlies, the institutional cohesiveness will remain as Troy Smith slides over after seven years as an assistant coach, and Murray Hiebert, the club’s Director of Scouting, now steps in as the franchise’s General Manager.

But, while the organization can expect no fall-off at the management level, the team itself has a number of holes to fill and will likely take a step back this season as it rebuilds. The club not only loses its top five scorers from last season, but it’s also losing its number-one goaltender. That type of upheaval may be too much to overcome for this edition of the Rangers.

The Rangers are saying goodbye to Frank Corrado, Josh Leivo, Matt Puempel, Tobias Rieder, and — possibly most irreplacably — team captain Ryan Murphy.

Netminder Josh Gibson also joins the pro ranks, so the Rangers went and obtained a bridge-year replacement by trading a conditional 12th-round selection to the Mississauga Steelheads for overager Tyson Teichmann.

So one supposes that on a franchise that’s known for its continuity, there’d be no room for anarchy — or even its sons. While the Rangers obtained Teichmann to provide some stability between the pipes, he’ll have to leave his “Sons of Anarchy”-themed helmet on the side. The team and player came to a mutual understanding about the helmet, which he’s used in the preseason, as the homage to the biker-gang show does not fit with the team’s branding.

The Rangers will still be competitive and in the hunt for a playoff spot this season. Players like returnees Radek Faska and Ben Thomson will be counted on to provide offense up front, and a solid returning blueline, headlined by Evan McEneny, Max Iafrate, and Ben Fanelli, will have to step up collectively to replace the all-around excellence that’s departed with Murphy’s departure. The club will also be looking at a pair of OHL first-rounders to add some offense this year — their own in 2013 selection Mike Davies, who recorded 73 points in 61 Tier-2 games last season; and Mississauga’s Scott Teskey, whom they acquired in return for a 10th-round selection and hope that a change in venue may boost his offensive totals.

And this year, Iafrate won’t be the only Ranger with NHL blood coursing through his veins as forward Ryan MacInnis, son of Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Al MacInnis, will be counted on to play a contributing role this season.

The Rangers are likely two years away from elite contention, but this is a franchise that has been consistently good for years and there’s no reason to expect this iteration of the squad will be any less than competitive night in and night out. Even in a rebuilding phase, the Rangers should not be overlooked.

Guelph Storm

Last season: 39-23-2-4, 84 points, fourth in the Midwest; 5th in Western Conference. Lost to the Kitchener Rangers in the Western Conference quarter-finals.

The Guelph Storm has been on an upswing the past couple of years and, with a bevy of NHL-drafted prospects on its 2013-14 roster, the Storm may be ready to hit the OHL hard.

At the very least, the Storm has attracted attention as the team has been ranked fifth overall in the BMO CHL Top-10 preseason rankings. And this is despite huge question marks in between the pipes.

Garret Sparks is no longer with the squad, leaving the team with the relatively untested pairing of Jason DaSilva and Matt Mancina to back up a talented and deep roster.

That depth? The Storm has showcased it right on the team’s website. There you’ll find photos of eight NHL-drafted players, including Dallas Stars’ first-rounder Jason Dickinson, and a trio of second-round selections in Tyler Bertuzzi (Detroit), Matt Finn (Toronto), and Brock McGinn (Carolina). They, along with the highly touted draft-eligible forward Robby Fabri, will help power the Storm this season.

The club is not expected to lose to the NHL any players who are eligible to return to the OHL this year. And that bodes well for the squad as they’ll benefit from the return of its leading scorer, Winnipeg Jets’ prospect Scott Kosmachuk. Finn also is a welcome returnee after he was held to only 41 games last season due to a knee injury.

If someone can step up and provide the Storm with solid play between the pipes — or if the club goes out to obtain a proven veteran — then there may be a challenger in line to disrupt the Knights’ coronation.

Erie Otters

Last season: 19-40-4-5, 47 points, last in the Midwest, last in Western Conference, missed playoffs.

For years, the Otters have served as one of the OHL’s doormats. The arrival of the much-heralded Connor McDavid (who won’t be eligible for the NHL Draft until 2015) last season was the first evidence of light at the end of the tunnel, and last year’s rookie of the year will only get better. Many eyes will be on Erie watching McDavid’s progress, including his attempt to be the first 16-year-old member of Team Canada since another junior phenom, Sidney Crosby.

Fortunately, he’s starting to be complemented by some talent on the Otters’ roster. And this could be the year that the Otters swim their way out of the league’s basement.

The club acquired the services of Washington Capitals’ first-rounder Andre Burakovsky, who will be counted on to add secondary scoring. The Otters have talent in Leafs’ prospect Connor Brown and Stephen Harper and draft pick Dylan Strome (brother of former Niagara IceDog Ryan) will be counted on to add size and scoring.

On the blueline, the team is led by Adam Pelech, who is supported by a functional — if not exactly name brand — defensive corps which will benefit from Troy Donnay’s steady experience.

And one of the squad’s strengths lies between the pipes as Oscar Dansk is the unquestioned starter for the squad. Despite being on a team that allowed 312 goals last season, Dansk is a solid netminder who, with a little more support from a stronger team in front of him, should enjoy a better season.

Making the playoffs is the goal — and one that’s likely realistic — but a good start for the Otters is to find their way to respectability. McDavid is the clear star, but the rest of Erie’s squad has a chance to shine a little themselves.

Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @JayCMenard