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 third 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.
These previews will be presented in alphabetical order, continuing with the Mid-Western Division of the OHL’s Western Conference.
ERIE OTTERS — Greg McKegg is looking to continue his impressive off-season that saw him turn heads at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ rookie tournament. Last year, he exploded with 37 gaols and 85 points and the club’s recently named captain will be the key to Erie’s success this year, along with Mike Cazzola (36 goals last year) and Anthony Luciani. The club will be counting on big things from forward Andrew Yogan, a New York Rangers fourth-round selection, who is expected to miss the better part of the first half of the season recuperating from shoulder surgery.
They’ll have some big skates to fill in light of Zack Torquato’s (DET) graduation to the pro ranks — taking his 93 points with him, but the Otters have a deep group of forwards, returning three 30-goal scorers, and two others who cleared the 20-goal mark.
The Otters have some size on the blue line, first and foremost with 6’4, 220-pound second-year blueliner Brady Austin. He’s joined on the point by 6’3, 215-pound veteran David Shields (STL) to anchor a solid, but unspectacular defensive crew.
Speaking of size, the Otters will be counting on 6’4 goaltender Ramis Sadikov to hold the fort between the pipes in Erie. After splitting the duties last season, Sadikov will get some run as the main man this year for the Otters.
GUELPH STORM — After last year’s Taylor/Tyler debate, one would thing we’re fed up with that name. Well, the Storm are hoping to add a third into those lofty ranks with Nashville Predators’ prospect Taylor Beck who is coming off a superlative 39-goal, 93-point performance.
The draftable ranks look slim in Guelph this year, although Carter Sandlak — son of former NHLer Jim — is projected as a possible late-second-round selection and will be looked upon to provide secondary scoring to the Storm’s impressive top line of Beck, Michael Latta (also a Predators’ prospect), and Anaheim Ducks’ draft pick Peter Holland. The three members of the top line accounted for over 100 goals last year and look poised to at least repeat that remarkable feat.
Guelph’s defense took a hit with the loss of its top two blueliners in Corey Syvret and Adam Comrie (FLA). However, in an attempt to offset that damage, the Storm obtained Daniel Maggio (NYR) from the Sudbury Wolves and are looking for him to play a key role in their own end this year.
He’ll join a veteran-laden blue line, which includes Sam Lofquist, Tim Campbell, and Chris Van Laren, which should help keep the crease clear in front of expected starter Brandon Foote. The 19-year-old netminder was impressive last season, winning 20 of 29 starts, but will have to remain healthy this year, after missing 39 games to a rib injury during last year’s campaign.
KITCHENER RANGERS — The Rangers entered this season as many observers’ pick to join the Mississauga St. Mike’s Majors as the OHL entrant into the Memorial Cup. The rationale behind that belief is solid — Kitchener is icing a deep and talented team.
Many in Kitchener were holding their breath at the prospect of losing Carolina’s seventh-overall selection, Jeff Skinner; Jeremy Morin (CHI), who obtained the rights to play in the AHL; and Leafs’ prospect Jerry D’Amigo. It now however looks like all three will be spending their rest of their hockey careers in the professional ranks.
Replacing Morin, with his 50-goal potential, and Skinner, who scored 50 goals last year (and added 20 in the playoffs), will be difficult but Jason Akeson and Gabriel Landeskog — a Swedish winger who surprised many with 24 goals in his rookie campaign will be expected to pick up the slack.
The blueline is led by Ryan Murphy, a 5’11 defenseman who has top-10 NHL draft potential. He’s joined by veterans Julian Melchiori (ATL) and Cody Sol (ATL), obtained from the Saginaw Spirit. And the club recently added Jamie Doornbosch of the Peterborough Petes to round out a solid, minutes-eating quartet in front of goalie Brandon Maxwell (COL).
LONDON KNIGHTS — Ever year, OHL observers expect a rebuilding year from the London Knights; and every year, the Hunter brothers deliver a reloading campaign to guarantee that those 9,100 seats in the John Labatt Centre stay filled. After losing hometown hero Nazem Kadri the Hunters decided to go big.
The club has added Montreal Canadiens’ first-round selection Jarred Tinordi to its ranks. Tinordi, at 6’7 would be a big addition on his own — but the club also added the Donnay brothers, Cody and Troy – the latter, 6’7 and only 17 years old, to fortify the blueline. They join Mike D’Orazio, Reid McNeil (PIT), Jake Worrad (currently injured), and Scott Harrington — expected to be a late first-round selection in this year’s draft — to form an impressive (and imposing) defensive corps in front of the minding duo of Michael Houser and Russian import Igor Bobkov (ANH).
The Knights have also added a little Russian flair to their lineup in the form of import Vladislav Namestknikov. The Russian has top-10 draft-level talent and should help to offset the offense lost with Kadri’s departure. He joins USNTDP transfer Danny Elser, Boston prospect Jared Knight (36 goals last year), and San Jose prospect Phil Varone as players looking to shoulder an increased offensive burden.
OWEN SOUND ATTACK — With such a top-heavy division, even an incremental improvement likely won’t save the Attack from relegation to the bottom of the pile, but there is reason for hope in Owen Sound.
First off, their first-round selection, Jarrod Maidens, looks to be a keeper and integral to a more competitive Attack squad in a couple of years. Some considered him the top pick overall, and he brings elite hands and a scorer’s touch to the squad. He’ll have an excellent role model on hand, as well, with the return of Joey Hishon (COL). Although suffering a hand injury, Hishon should be a steady influence on Maidens in the short term — although he could be traded for futures at the deadline.
Scott Stajcer (NYR) is a great goaltender stuck in a bad situation. On a better team, he’d easily be considered one of the league’s top netminders, but due to the lack of talent in front of him, he has to be superlative just for the Attack to have a chance.
Up front, the Attack have some good quality talent, but they just don’t have the depth required for a sustained run. On defense, they have a solid but unspectacular crew lead by second-year blueliner — and Tampa Bay prospect — Geoffrey Schemitsch, who scored 40 points as a rookie. He’s joined by veterans Jesse Blacker and recent acquisition Matt Stanisz, who has OHL finals’ experience as a member of last year’s Barrie Colts.