Lighting It Up, October 2009

By Glenn Gawronski

Having spent the last few weeks bouncing around hockey rinks throughout Ontario, I’ve put together some early season notes from the OHL.

The most popular topic from both scouts and fans alike seems to be the Windsor Spitfires. Everyone has an opinion on just how good they will be this season. And as much as I like to offer a differing opinion at times, I have to go along with the consensus on this one. Windsor is the best team in junior hockey. And more than capable of being better than they were last season.

Their top-end talent is terrific and their depth is exceptional. On any given night, Taylor Hall, Greg Nemisz or Adam Henrique can take over a game and be the best player on the ice. And with secondary scoring coming from the likes of Justin Shugg, Richard Panik, Scott Timmins, Austin Watson and Eric Wellwood, the Spitfires are the most dangerous club in junior. One scout even commented to me the other day that the he considers Windsor’s third forward line to be better than several first line units in the league.

And on defense, you have two of the best junior age defensemen in the world in Ryan Ellis and Cam Fowler.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some potential weaknesses. Goaltending is a question mark. As good as Troy Passingham has looked in net, is he a good enough goalie for a Memorial Cup run? And what role will Josh Unice have on the club? The feeling seems to be that management will not want to take a chance that the team would be derailed by netminding problems. There will definitely be a move made to solidify this position.

And the other issue that Windsor will have to deal with is complacency.  The players know they’re good and there will be some games where their play is affected by that. The little things may sometimes go undone.  Some nights, the third line checking forward will want to be more of a scorer. Or the second line scorer won’t want to backcheck. Or the defensive defenseman may want to move up on the play. It’s a long season and there will be the usual share of ups and downs. But something tells me Bob Boughner is ready for this. His stock, like the rest of the Spitfires continues to climb. If they stay at the top of their game, a Memorial Cup repeat is in the offing.

As glowing a review as that may be, there are some challenges within the OHL. Windsor will be tested by a number of clubs.

One team that has caught my attention at this point is the Barrie Colts. Their core group of forwards is almost as deep as Windsor’s, although the Colts do lack some star power. Barrie is particularly strong down the middle. Coming up with the right balance on each line is going to be the key to their success.

Overage forward Luke Pither has returned for what should be his best season. Look for him to post impressive scoring totals this year. I won’t deny that he has a flaw or two in his game, but he does possess excellent puck skills and above average hockey sense and vision. The acquisition of Bryan Cameron provides scoring, leadership and experience, and you know exactly what you’re going to be getting from Stefan Della Rovere. And rookie Alexander Burmistrov is one of those players that you just enjoy watching. He has above average hands and can make plays at top speed. It’s going to be enjoyable to watch him develop and round out his game this season.

There’s enough forward depth in place that the Colts should be able to move a body or two up front in order to improve their blueline. I won’t characterize their defense as a problem, but it could use a bit of an upgrade. There aren’t many guys out there who fit the description, but if they can find a defenseman to log a lot of minutes and play on one of their top two units, Barrie will be in very good shape. And Peter DiSalvo showed last season that he is more than capable of being a No. 1 goalie. I have no concern here.

It’s hard to ignore the start that Sault Ste. Marie has had this year.  Everything is going right for them. They’re hustling, scoring big goals and playing with a lot of confidence. The organization is certainly going in the right direction, but I’m wondering if they’ll be able to sustain their play. At this time next year, they can be a legitimate contender, but right now it may be one year too early for them. I must admit that they’ve surprised me with their quick start out of the gate.

The goaltending tandem of Bryce O’Hagan and Robin Lehner is potentially among the best in the league. They’ve made the big saves so far, and they have the ability to steal a few games. I really like what I’ve seen from defenseman Brock Beukeboom. He’s stepped up his overall play and is rounding into an impressive overall player. He seems to have accepted more responsibility and seized upon the opportunity. One of the more overlooked defensemen in the league is Michael Quesnele. He may not be a top NHL prospect, but that doesn’t take away from what he brings to the Greyhounds. They really count on him on the blueline.  Fellow defenseman Brandon Archibald surprised a few observers by coming to the OHL last year. There was quite a learning curve for him, but he’s beginning to display that raw ability that scouts love. Keep a close watch on his development this season.

Vern Cooper has come over from Plymouth and responded well to the increased ice time. And after seeing his production and overall performance stagnate a bit, James Livingston is out to prove he’s a better player than he showed last year. This is his fourth year with the Soo. Now is the time for him to step up and re-establish himself as a go-to player. And top OHL draft pick Daniel Catenacci has had a relatively smooth transition to junior. You can already see that he’ll be a star in this league.

One team that may fly a little under the radar will be the Guelph Storm. They have the makings of a very solid squad and they will surprise some people this year. Getting a consistent effort out of the team can be an issue however. Guelph has some talented guys that show up to play every night. And a few more talented players who have been known to take an occasional night off.

Winger Matt Kennedy had a breakout year last season and has picked up where he left off. He has size and a good scoring touch. He also has the ability to make plays in traffic. Taylor Beck has 30-goal potential and pivot Michael Latta is ready for more ice time in his third OHL campaign.

It’s no secret that Peter Holland has been one of the players singled out for his lack of consistency. He’s a big, highly skilled forward who can skate and score. He can potentially dominate a game when he sets his mind to it. And for all the negatives about his play, just keep in mind that he still put up a point a game last year and it was considered to be disappointing. This gives you an idea about his upside. I think he’s going to be able to put all the pieces together.

You cannot underestimate the importance of getting Nazem Kadri back in the London lineup. It’s certainly not meant as a slight to the rest of the roster, but adding Kadri back into the mix makes the Knights significantly better. He may have played well enough in training camp to warrant a regular season look from the Maple Leafs, but the correct decision was to send him back to London. This is Kadri’s team now, and he will be expected to carry a lot of the weight. Given his skill and character, he’s well on his way to being a complete player.

London may not have the big-name star power that they have had in the past, but you know there’s talent there. Overage Justin Taylor is a workhorse who provides stability. I expect him to have a career year.  Philip McRae has been improving year by year, but I must admit he still leaves some observers wanting more. He hasn’t found his scoring touch so far, but be patient. Phil Varone and Daniel Erlich are proven OHLers, and after a rather unspectacular rookie season, I think Jared Knight is going to be a player to watch. He has the tools to be a lot more productive.

The Knights always manage to make a trade or two to improve their roster during the course of the season. They have the assets available to do it again. Maybe they upgrade their defense. Maybe they add a second line scorer. Either way, they will be near the top of the Western Conference standings.

Kingston’s improved play this year has been a result of three big factors. One is Doug Gilmour’s continuing influence. Two is the natural development and progression from the returning Fronts players. And the third item is that some timely off-season acquisitions have proven successful.

Adding veteran netminder Tyler Beskorowany in particular has been huge.  They have a reliable goalie who will keep them in games. Winger Michael Farrell has looked like a completely different player after spending two seasons in Owen Sound. It will be interesting to see if he can come close to maintaining this pace. Overage Zach Harnden will get a ton of ice time after coming over from Peterborough. 

With regard to holdovers, Ethan Werek is only scratching the surface of his potential. It was great to watch him develop last year. Every time I saw him, he seemed to add another part to his game. He’s looked very good so far. And with a top four defensive unit of Erik Gudbranson, Brian Lashoff, Taylor Doherty, and Jaroslav Kruzik, the backline is a definite strength.