OHL Central Division 2010-11 season preview

By Jason Menard

With only a handful of prospects still on the NHL bubble, by this point of the young season — only a handful of games into the campaign — most OHL teams, and their observers, have a solid sense of how the teams will match up.

This is the first of four division-by-division previews, looking at the key changes, additions, and prospects for all of the Ontario Hockey League’s 20 franchises. The OHL, as always, remains a league to watch as the past four first-overall draft picks have come from this subsection of the CHL.

While early projections don’t seem to have anyone from the OHL ready to keep alive the streak started by then-London Knight Patrick Kane (CHI), and continued by Sarnia Sting Steven Stamkos (TB), London Knight John Tavares (NYI), and last year’s winner of the Taylor/Tyler debate: Windsor Spitfires’ Taylor Hall (EDM), the season is still young and one of a handful of elite prospects could rise up and assume their spot in that impressive lineage.

These previews will be presented in alphabetical order, starting with the Central Division of the OHL’s Eastern Conference.

BARRIE COLTS — After losing their top three scorers to graduation this year in Luke Pithier (PHI), Alex Hutchings (TB), and Bryan Cameron (CAL), the Colts will be hard-pressed to come anywhere near their superlative level of play from last season — a campaign in which they finished with 116 points and only nine losses.

The club were hoping that Atlanta Thrashers’ prospect Alexander Burmistrov might have helped to replace some of the 136 goals that the aforementioned trio took with them. Burmistrov, the eighth-overall selection in the 2010 NHL entry draft, finished last season with 22 goals and 65 points and the club was expecting him to play an increased role this season. However, Burmistrov has opened the regular season with the NHL’s Thrashers and is a candidate to stick for the year after signing a three-year entry-level contract. If he’s returned to the OHL, however, his NHL experience and offensive prowess will be a welcome addition to a Colts’ lineup that’s woefully thin on scoring.

As if GM Dale Hawerchuck didn’t have his hands full enough this season. It’s a rebuilding campaign and the club will be led by a pair of rookies: Mark Scheifele and Dylan Smoskowitz. Also look for Steven Beyers, who the club obtained from Sudbury, to play a key role.

The Colts have gotten off to a slow start this season, registering their first win in their sixth game. As well, they’re averaging five goals against per match, which is a reflection of the defensive challenges the club will be facing. Even the presence of overage netminder Peter Di Salvo won’t be enough to stem the tide. It was always going to be a challenging year for this perennial Eastern powerhouse, but if Burmistrov doesn’t return, there will be plenty of long nights for Colts’ fans used to seeing their hometown club on the other side of the won/loss ledger.

— The Battalion is looking towards the future in this rebuilding year — and leading the troops into the future is Swiss netminder Dennis Saikkonen. The netminder will have huge skates to fill with the departure of Patrick Kileen (PIT), who was a huge part of the reason why the team only allowed 181 goals last year.

Unfortunately, they only scored 167 and will have to look to internal growth from players such as Sam Carrick (TOR), Scott Tanski, Phil Lane (PHO), and overager Sean Jones — the club’s leading scorers from last season — to pace the attack this year.

It will be interesting to watch the Battalion’s defensive play as only two of their blueliners are over 18. A young and unproven defense combined with a young and inexperienced goaltender could make for some shoot-out games in Brampton this season.

MISSISSAUGA ST. MIKE’S MAJORS — As host of this year’s Memorial Cup, the Majors face the dual challenge of knowing their ticket’s punched to junior hockey’s marquee event, while still wanting to ensure that they represent themselves, and their league, well despite the automatic bid.

Last year, the club posted an impressive 42-20-4-2 record and have loaded up for more thanks to a roster that’s largely intact from last season, along with a couple of nice additions — including one with NHL lineage.

The Majors have added Kerby Rychel, son of Windsor Spitfires’ GM (and ex-NHLer) Warren Rychel, in a pre-season trade. Rychel was the Colts’ first-round selection, but decided against reporting to Barrie’s training camp as he wanted to play for his father. Mississauga St. Mike’s obtained his rights, in the expectation that he could be parlayed into a veteran player from the defending Memorial Cup champions to bolster Mississauga’s own Memorial Cup aspirations. In the interim, Rychel is suiting up and contributing to the Majors’ efforts.

The Majors also obtained Windsor’s Justin Shugg (CAR), a 39-goal scorer and Belleville’s netminder Anthony Peters to bolster their roster. In addition, with returning forwards Casey Cizikas (NYI) and Devante Smith-Pelly (ANH), and Jordan Mayer, all of who scored 25 or more goals last season, the Memorial Cup hosts boast a strong offensive contingent.

On the blue line, the club is led by David Corrente and veteran Marc Cantin, and the scouts’ eyes will be fixed upon 6’1 blueliner Stuart Percy, who is projected to be a second or third-round selection in the 2011 NHL entry draft.

NIAGARA ICEDOGS — Although this is a squad that’s experienced a copious amount of change both on and off the ice. Which makes the IceDogs a bit of an unknown quantity.

Marty Williamson was with Barrie last year when he traded Ryan Strome to Niagara. Now as head coach and GM of the IceDogs, he’s been reunited with his former player. Add to that a trio obtained in separate deals from the Owen Sound Attack in Steven Shipley (BUF), Myles Doan, and Jason Wilson (NYR), who should complement returning leading scorers Andrew Agozzino, Alex Friesen (VAN), and Freddie Hamilton (SJ), and the IceDogs should be a much deeper squad than last season.

One of the sure-to-be-most-watched players on the Niagara squad is Dougie Hamilton. The 6’4 blueliner is projected to be a first-round selection in the upcoming draft and earned accolades from Canadian television network TSN who ranked him the eighth-best prospect in their pre-season ranking of top NHL prospects.

The club also features a well-rounded OHL veteran in Mark Visentin (PHO) between the pipes to help steady the transition as the IceDogs accilimatize to all the new faces throughout the organization.

— One Foligno’s back; the other’s gone. While the elder Foligno, Mike, moved on to an assistant-coaching role with the Anaheim Ducks, his son Marcus (BUF) continues on the Foligno legacy in Sudbury — one also upheld by Marcus’ older brother Nick, now a member of the Ottawa Senators.

And Foligno’s going to have to play a major role in any success that the Wolves have this season. He and John McFarland (FLA) will be called upon to lead a young and inexperienced Sudbury squad that will be hard pressed to improve upon its 26-win season last year.

The duo of Blaine Smith (manager) and Trent Cull (coach) have used this season as the foundation for future growth, obtaining draft picks and youth. In the absence of departed marquee players like forward Eric O’Dell (ATL) and netminder Andrew Loverock, the aforementioned Foligno (14 goals last season) and McFarland (20 goals) will have to improve their offense output dramatically, and goalie Alain Valiquette will have to get used to seeing a lot of rubber in what promises to be a very long season for the Wolves.