OHL Western 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 final 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 have been presented in alphabetical order, concluding with the Western Division of the OHL’s Western Conference.

PLYMOUTH WHALERS — You could forgive Whalers’ fans for counting to nine this year — as in the number of games that super forward Tyler Seguin (BOS) can play in the NHL before he must be returned to the junior ranks, lest he use up a year of eligibility. Of course, you could forgive Whalers’ fans if they curse the name Marc Savard, as his injury has significantly increased the likelihood of Seguin’s donning of the black and gold with the Boston Bruins long-term.

The players are saying all the right things and there is some promise in Plymouth — but it’s undeniable that the Whalers’ short-term prospects look a whole lot better with the second-overall pick in the NHL draft suiting up for them.

The Whalers also lost its second-leading scorer in A.J. Jenks (FLA) and its top goaltender, Matt Hackett (MIN). But some shrewed player movement has brought Plymouth some excellent early returns. Alex Aleardi was brought back home in a trade with Belleville and he’s put up some excellent early numbers. He’s joined by Tyler Brown, Rob Czarnik (LA), James Livingston, Garrett Meurs (who is being projected as a second-round selection in the NHL draft), and Stefan Noesan as players looked upon to be offensive catalysts for the club.

Austin Levi (CAR) and Beau Schmitz serve as the veteran anchors of a very capable defensive corps, which includes some intriguing prospects such as Dario Trutmann (a potential late second-rounder) and local boy Max Iafrate — a big name, with a big shot, who has already shown that he’s going to need a fair bit of time getting up to speed.

Between the pipes, Scott Wedgewood (NJ) has put in his time backing up former starter Matt Hackett, and has first rights on the goaltending duties, but Matt Mahalak has shown enough to work his way into the crease for more than a few starts.

— The Saginaw Spirit have the right mix of veterans, returnees, and new blood in key roles to make a strong run to the post-season — and they also have a player to watch for NHL draftniks.

Brandon Saad is ranked just outside of the top five NHL draft prospects this year, but a strong performance by both himself and the team could propel the left winger up the draft boards. The Spirit recruited him away from the United States National Team Development Program in a bit of a surprise and he’ll be looked upon to immediately replace some of the offense lost with the graduation of Jordan Skellet (26 goals, 88 points) and Tyler Murovich (24 goals).

However, the responsibility won’t fall exclusively on Saad’s young shoulders. Josh Shalla (32 goals) and Phoenix Coyotes prospect Jordan Szwarz (26 goals) return and will be expected to improve their numbers, while projected mid-second-round pick Vincent Trocheck will also be expected to chip in some offense.

While Saad may have been the move that got the most attention by fans, the acquisition of oft-travelled goaltender Mavric Parks may be move that has the greatest impact. Last season, in splitting time between the Kitchener Rangers and Barrie Colts, Parks compiled a 25-5-2 record with a 2.34 GAA. If he can approach those numbers, Parks can solidify a shaky goaltending situation and afford the Spirit a little leeway with its less-than-stellar defensive corps.

— Last year the club hit rock bottom: last in the league, at or near the bottom in goals for, goals against, and most major success factors. From the depths of that season, the Sting aren’t quite ready to reach new heights, but they can see better days ahead.

Finishing last means you get to pick first — and the Sting picked up a pair of dynamic players in first-overall priority selection Alex Galchenyuk and top import selection Nail Yakupov.

The Sting also features one of the league’s best feel-good stories in overager Tyler Peters. The 20-year-old forward walked onto the roster last year after not being drafted in the league, and finished with 19 goals. This year, he’s off to a torrid start, amongst the lead leaders with a two-point-per-game pace.

Youth will be served in Sarnia as they are still in the early stages of rebuilding. Kale Kerbashian will be counted on to improve his 26-goal performance from last year and 16-year-old Brandon Hope will get a chance to earn some vital experience behind the veteran John Cullen between the pipes.

At best, the Sting will be battling with the Greyhounds for best-of-the-worst honours. However, with some smart drafting already, and the prospect of high priority picks in the not-too-distant future, the Sting could be back on the OHL radar within the next couple of years.

— While the Greyhounds may have lost some key players — including last year’s OHL defenseman of the year Jake Muzzin (LA) – they will return many of their players from last season.

The Greyhounds are led by a solid defensive corps including Dylan King, Brock Beukeboom (TB), and Brandon Archibald (CLB).

The offense is led by returning leading scorer Brett Thompson, Nick Cousins, and Vern Cooper. The club is counting on a marked increase in production from Daniel Catenacci — a center who could sneak into the first round of the NHL entry draft.

The Greyhounds also lost Robin Lehner (OTT), a rock in net upon whom the club’s climb out of the league’s basement was built. Bryce O’Hagan is the veteran presence who backed up Lehner, but has been inconsistent to date — he’s paired with Matt Murray, who is likely represents the future, but keeping pucks out of their own net will be a challenge for the Soo.

— The Spitfires are in tough to three-peat as Memorial Cup champions, but two years of achieving the ultimate playoff goal has battle-hardened this group of Spitfires and given them game experience that is unparalleled throughout the CHL.

Of course, the return of Ryan Ellis (NAS) and Zack Kassian (BUF) helps. And if Cam Fowler (ANH) returns from his NHL sojourn, this club could remain dangerous throughout the OHL campaign.

No one is going to replace Taylor Hall (EDM) and his 40 goals and 66 assists. And it would be folly to undervalue the impact that the loss of Carolina draft pick Justin Shugg (39 goals) and New Jersey prospect Adam Henrique (38 goals) will have. But the addition of Alexander Kokhlachev — a potential top-15 prospect in the upcoming draft — and a full season of Kassian in the line-up may help to off-set those departures. Add to that the maturity and leadership imparted by Ellis, Fowler (potentially), and overager Stephen Johnston, and the Spitfires are a balanced, experienced team that will give most club fits on most nights.

The club also brought in highly regarded defenseman Nick Ebert to help fortify the blue line.

The Spitfires have added some world-class talent to its goaltending corps in the form of Jack Campbell. The Dallas Stars’ first-round selection only led Team USA to a gold medal at last year’s World Junior Championships, so the prospect of playing in big games shouldn’t be so daunting.