2013-14 OHL Preview: Wolves looking to prey on Central rivals

By Jason Menard

Nick Baptiste - Sudbury Wolves

Photo: Sudbury Wolves forward and Buffalo Sabres prospect Nick Baptiste will lead the offense of a Wolves squad that could make some noise in the 2013-14 season (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

 

This is part two of a four-part series previewing the 2013-14 Ontario Hockey League season. We continue in a division that saw all of its teams qualify for the 2012-13 playoffs — including the eventual Eastern Conference champs. We look at the OHL’s Eastern Conference's Central Division.

Barrie Colts

Last season, 44-20-2-2, 92 points, 1st in Central, 2nd in Eastern Conference. Lost to the London Knights in the OHL final.

The Colts made a deep impression on the league during the OHL’s post-season, rolling through the first two rounds of the playoffs, winning eight straight en route to coming within one goal of a Memorial Cup berth.

With the loss of key players like Anthony Camara, Mark Scheifele, and netminder Mathias Neiderberger, the Colts will be hard pressed to repeat their performance from last year. But players like Andreas Athanasiou and Josh MacDonald, along with draft-eligible standouts like Aaron Ekblad, Kevin Labanc, and Brendan Lemieux, will have the opportunity to step into more prominent roles. They’ll be ably assisted by expected returnees Zach Hall and Mitchell Theoret, who will fill overage roles on the squad.

The biggest battle will be between the pipes. Neiderberger was one of the league’s top netminders and provided the Colts with the extra security of knowing that he could cover up any mistakes made up front. This year’s squad won’t have that luxury and will be pressed into playing a stronger defensive game.

Returning to the squad and looking to step into the starting role is Alex Fotinos. The 18-year-old netminder is entering his third year with the Colts and has appeared in 33 regular season games and three playoff games over the past two seasons. The role is likely his to lose, but there are two contenders to the crease of note. The club has 16-year-old (but 6’4) Mackenzie Blackwood in the system, who has interned in the junior B ranks, and the Colts also used an import selection on Slovakian Daniel Gibl. If Fontinos falters, expect Gibl to get the first crack at the starting role.

Despite the turnover, there are those who feel the Colts aren’t too far away from elite contention. They earned an honourable mention in the BMO CHL Top 10 preseason ranking, and have players who have benefited from that deep playoff run last season to get on-the-job experience for this year’s main event.

North Bay Battalion

Last season, 34-25-3-6, 77 points, 2nd in Central, 4th in the Eastern Conference. Lost to the Sudbury Wolves in the Eastern Conference quarter-finals.

The biggest change this year? A new postal code. The Battalion received their marching orders in Brampton and have set up camp in North Bay, a city that’s been starved for OHL hockey since 2002 when the Centennials crossed the border and ended up in Saginaw.

Instead of an expansion franchise, though, North Bay welcomes a solid and stable OHL franchise, one that’s been in the playoffs for a decade straight and just signed its coach/GM Stan Butler to a five-year contract extension.

The club will be looking to get bigger contributions from its second-year forward, Blake Clarke, who netted 19 goals and 32 assists last year as a rookie, but will be counted upon for more — and scrutinized much more — in his draft-eligible year.

He’ll be joined up front by returnees like Matt MacLeod (19 goals last year), Brandon Robinson (17 goals), and, likely, the team’s leading scorer Barclay Goodrow, who could return as an overager this year. Former first-rounder Brett Mackenzie will also get a strong opportunity to make an impact on the lineup.
 
The blueline features a deep and veteran squad, led by fourth-year defensemen Dylan Blujus, Marcus McIvor, and Brendan Miller. Should Zach Bell return to the squad, he would round it out as an overager.

And the Battalion are going to need that depth. Standout netminder Matej Machovsky left the squad over the summer to return to the Czech Republic, leaving the team with question marks between the pipes. Jake Smith likely has the inside track on the number-one job, but the club obtained some insurance in Sudbury’s Brendan O’Neil.

Regardless of how the team fares on the ice, though, they will be a success. Brampton consistently performed before the smallest crowds in the league and now the franchise moves back to a hockey-mad region where they will be the top game in town. The Battalion has been a model of consistency over the years, so a move a few hundred kilometres north shouldn’t change that.

Sudbury Wolves

Last season, 29-27-5-7, 70 points, 3rd in Central, 5th in the Eastern Conference. Lost to the Belleville Bulls in four straight in the Eastern conference semi-finals.

The Sudbury Wolves have been gearing up for this season and, if a recent trade means anything, the squad looks like it’s planning on making a run for the Memorial Cup.

The Wolves recently obtained Montreal Canadiens’ prospect Connor Crisp in a significant trade with the Erie Otters. In addition, the Wolves received defenseman Jimmy McDowell. Crisp will join a deep and talented forward group that includes Nick Baptiste, Mathew Campagna, Nathan Cull, Dominik Kubalik, and Brody Silk.

Behind the bench, the Wolves imported some Western Conference talent in head coach Paul Fixter and associate coach David Matsos.

Between the pipes, Sudbury is looking for a full season of excellence from netminder Frank Palazzese, who was obtained from Kitchener at last season’s trade deadline. He provides the Wolves with the veteran stability needed to balance a young but promising blueline corps, that is also augmented by the veteran presence of Kevin Raine and the recently arrived McDowell.

In a season where many of the Eastern Conference’s traditional powerhouses have taken a step back, this may be the year that Sudbury steps up to claim the other OHL berth in the Memorial Cup. If London is as good as advertised and runs the table in the OHL playoffs, the winner of the East will earn that second spot. With three-line deep depth and veteran goaltending, the Wolves are poised to make a run.

Niagara Ice Dogs

Last season, 30-34-2-2, 64 points, 4th in the Central, 6th in the Eastern Conference. Lost to the Oshawa Generals in the Eastern Conference quarter-finals.

Last year, many pundits expected the IceDogs to unload veterans like Brett Ritchie and Ryan Strome to jump start the rebuilding process, once Dougie Hamilton stuck in the NHL. Instead, they held on and made a run for it. Unfortunately, the best laid plans didn’t quite work out as the IceDogs were bounced in the first round of the OHL playoffs by the Oshawa Generals.

This year, the rebuilding process begins in earnest. Expect the IceDogs to hit bottom in their final season at the Jack Gatecliff Arena before rebounding next year when they open their season at the all-new Meridian Centre. Until then, it could be a long year for IceDogs fans.

The club will be counting on overage netminder Christopher Festarini to provide a semblance of a foundation for the squad. He’ll likely see plenty of rubber behind a young and untested defense. Jesse Graham and Luke Mercer will likely be the workhorses on the blueline, especially over the first half of the season as they assume the burden of replacing Aaron Haydon’s minutes. Haydon, who was poised to play a key role on the defense, suffered an injury at a golf tournament, where he suffered a fractured ankle stepping from the grass onto concrete.

Up front, Leafs’ prospect Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony DiFruscia will be the keys to the club’s offensive game, and there’s ample opportunity for some of the younger players to step up and gain experience in all facets of the game.

For a franchise that’s been amongst the OHL’s elite for a number of years, this marks a dramatic change in how the club will face the season. In years past, younger players had to bide their time and make the most of their limited opportunities as the IceDogs were deep and talented. This year’s version of the squad will allow the younger players to learn on the job. The on-the-fly training should bode well for future years, but Niagara’s final season in its old barn won’t be all that memorable.

Mississauga Steelheads

Last season, 26-34-0-8, 60 points, last in the Central, 8th in the Eastern Conference. Lost to the Belleville Bulls in the Eastern Conference quarter-finals.

Last campaign, the first under the Steelhead moniker, marked a tale of two seasons for the Mississauga franchise. It started the season hot, rising to second overall in the Eastern Conference before a second-half swoon found them scratching and clawing for a playoff spot.

This season’s iteration of the Steelheads will be young, but unlike some of the other teams in its division that are pondering goaltending questions, the young Mississauga franchise could lay claim to having the league’s best netminder in Spencer Martin.

Martin, drafted in the third round by the Colorado Avalanche, put up extremely solid numbers for the Steelheads, finishing the year with a 3.02 GAA and .906 save percentage in 46 games. His win-loss numbers were decent too, finishing 17-21-4 on a squad that was well under .500. He’ll be expected to carry even more of the load now that Tyson Teichmann has been shipped off to the Kitchener Rangers.

While Martin may steal some games throughout the year, it’s safe to say that another player will be catching most of the fans’ — and the pundits’ — eyes. Sean Day, the third player of recent vintage to be granted exceptional player status, will be lining up as a 15-year-old on the Steelheads’ blueline. And he may be doing so with a chip on his shoulder, as three teams bypassed Day at the 2013 OHL Priority Selection — an unprecedented occurrence with an exceptional player.

Day will have plenty of opportunity to learn from one of the league’s best offensive blueliners, as Trevor Carrick will likely be back to anchor Mississauga’s point on the power-play and play significant minutes at even strength. These two will be the focal points of a young defensive corps that’s got to find a way to make up for the loss of veterans Dylan DeMelo and Stuart Percy.

Up front, the club will be counting on 18-year-old forward Josh Burnside to improve upon his 12 goals from last season, as the club has lost a tremendous amount of its limited offensive play to graduation with the loss of Riley Brace. Dylan Smoskowitz will be back for an overage year and will need to at least match the totals he put up last year en route to finishing as the Steelheads’ second-leading scorer.

Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @JayCMenard

 

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