2011-12 OHL Western Conference Preview

By Jason Menard
Photo: Having spent last season in the NCAA ranks, Jamie Oleksiak (DAL) will be spending the 2011-12 season in the OHL. (Photo courtesy of DJ Powers/HF)

The Western conference has long been the OHL‘s powerhouse side of the bracket and while this season marks a bit of a re-building season for many of the traditional top talents, there are a few clubs looking to make an impact en route to a Memorial Cup berth.

Last season, the Owen Sound Attack surprised many by claiming the OHL crown from the prohibitive favorites Mississauga St. Mikes. Owen Sound is one of many teams that suffered significant losses due to graduation, which leaves the field wide open with almost all clubs believing they either have the goods to make another run, or join past favorites at the top!

Erie Otters (Last Season: 40-26-1-1)

The club features arguably one of the league’s top talents in Toronto Maple Leafs‘ prospect Greg McKegg. Last year he fell one goal shy of the 50-goal plateau, but all signs point to him cracking both that mark and the 100-point threshold.

Mike Cazzola joins him as an overager and the Otters will look for him to rebound from an off season of just 20 goals. They also feature strong goaltending with 20-year-old netminder Ramis Sadikov holding the fort between the pipes. They also have a strong back-up tandem in 18-year-olds Christopher Festarini and Tyson Teichmann.

The one question mark on the Otters’ roster falls on the blue line. Yes, they have a strong prospect in now-17-year old Adam Pelech, and also have some veteran depth with both Brett Cook and Derek Holden returning, but the remainder of the blue line crew is populated with question mark, including four rookies who will see time on the back-end.

Guelph Storm (Last Season: 34-27-4-3)

This season will mark a fundamental overhaul at the upper tier of the Storm’s roster. They have lost significant firepower to graduation with the departures of Taylor Beck (NAS), Peter Holland (ANA), and Michael Latta (NAS). However, players such as Francis Menard and Cody McNaughton have been groomed to fill those roles. This year, the Storm’s success will depend largely upon whether these players are ready for prime time.

On the blue line, Guelph has dedicated two of its overage slots to defensemen Kyle Pereira and Stephen Gaskin. They will need to be a steadying influence on a young blue line corps, but will also benefit from the presence of veteran netminder Brandon Foote between the pipes.

They’ll need his experience and calming demeanor as the Storm doesn’t appear to have the dependable firepower to overcome their significant losses.

Kitchener Rangers (Last Season: 38-21-4-5)

The loss of team captain Gabriel Landeskog (COL) is huge, but that could be compounded dramatically should dynamic blue liner Ryan Murphy succeeds in his bid to stick with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Forwards like Micahael Catenacci and Tobias Rieder (EDM) will have to prove that they can, at least, match their previous point totals without Landeskog’s presence, and Matia Marcantuoni will have to translate his prodigious offensive potential into performance this year to pick up the slack.

The Rangers are a tale of two blue lines. With Murphy, they have one of the league’s elite defensive corps; without his presence, they’re still talented by lack that "it" factor that would propel them to the upper echelon. Ben Fanelli returned to the club this season and he’s joined by potentially dynamic (and unquestionably of good blood lines) Max Iafrate. Cody Sol (WPG) and Julian Melchiori (WPG) lend a steadying veteran presence as overagers.

Goaltending will be a strong spot for the club as they’ve signed John Gibson (ANA), the gold-medal winning net minder for the Americans during April’s under-18 tournament.

London Knights (Last Season: 34-29-4-1)

London tends to avoid the rebuilding phase that’s the norm in the OHL, instead reloading last year with a surprisingly talented corps of youngsters led by future goal-scoring star Andreas Anthanasiou and rugged twins Ryan and Matt Rupert. The youth movement received a huge boost over the off-season when both Bo Horvat (draft) and Max Domi (trade) were added to this potentially dynamic offensive corps. And this doesn’t even mention the return of Jared Knight (BOS) and Vladislav Namestnikov (TB) — two of the club’s leading scorers who will be poised to reclaim their spot atop the OHL’s

Recently a sore spot for the roster, defense is now the team’s strength. The recent return of Scott Harrington (PIT) and Jarred Tinordi (MTL) bolsters a defensive crew that also features some beef in the form of Jake Worrad and the first-overall selection in the import draft, Finnish prospect Olli Maatta. The club also enjoys steady netminding from Michael Houser, who earned the top spot over last year’s expected starter (and recently traded Anaheim prospect) Igor Bobkov. Houser is backed up by recent acquisition, 17-year-old Jacob Patterson.

Owen Sound Attack (Last Season: 46-17-1-4)

The Attack is another club that has lost a significant segment of its offensive corps with the graduation of Joey Hishon (COL), Robby Mignardi, and Garrett Wilson (FLA). Look for former first-overall selection Daniel Catenacci (BUF) to enjoy a coming out party and be joined by a maturing Jarrod Maidens.

Owen Sound is strong between the pipes with Jordan Binnington (STL) and he’ll be aided by a deep, veteran blue line corps that features Kevin Cutting, Jay Gilbert, Matt Petgrave, and Geoff Schemitsch (TB).

Plymouth Whalers (Last Season: 36-26-2-4)

While most of the other Western squads are rebuilding, Plymouth enters the season with a strong returning corps of veterans at all locations on the ice.

Alex Aleardi, Garrett Meurs (COL), Stefan Noesen (OTT), and Rikard Rakell (ANA) are back to shoulder the offensive burden, and they’re joined by former Bull Andy Bathgate who brings a solid overall game (and unquestionable bloodlines) to the Whalers’ lineup. The Whalers also will benefit from the presence of New York Rangers‘ first-round draft pick J.T. Miller.

Austin Levi leads the blue line corps and will be ably assisted by returnees such as Beau Schmitz and Dario Trutmann — the club’s three top-scoring defenseman from last season. And they’ll feel more comfortable pinching in and taking chances knowing that Scott Wedgewood (NJ) is the veteran starter between the pipes and is backed up by another known commodity — Matt Mahalak (CAR).

Saginaw Spirit (Last Season: 40-22-4-2)

The Spirit have brought in John McFarland (FLA), a former number-one selection, to bolster their offensive production. He and Brandon Saad (CHI) will be the club’s lynchpins on offense, but should receive ample assistance from players like Anthony Camara (BOS), Michael Fine, and Vincent Trocheck (FLA).

The club also has solid, veteran blue line depth led by overage defenseman Peter Hermenegildo, power-play quarterback Ryan O’Connor, and beefy Dallas Stars‘ first-rounder Jamie Oleksiak.

Sarnia Sting (Last Season: 25-36-5-2)

The Sting may be the most exciting club to watch this season. Expect Nail Yakupov to be at the very top of the OHL’s scoring race as he prepares to hear his name called extremely early in the upcoming NHL entry draft. He’s joined by fellow draft-eligible (and former OHL first-overall selection) Alex Galchenyuk to form a potent offensive duo.

Although neither of the two are exactly known for their defensive prowess, a solid blue line corps anchored by players like Daniel Broussard and Nathan Chiarlitti will benefit from the recently acquired Alex Basso, Patrick Harrison, and Connor Murphy (PHX).

Former Kitchener netminder Brandon Maxwell (COL) has joined the Sting this year and will split time with future number-one Brandon Hope to form a solid tandem that should keep the Sting in each and every game.

Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (Last Season: 24-36-5-3)

The Soo is led by Flyers’ draft pick Nick Cousins and a complement of rugged forwards including David Broll (TOR), Carson Dubchak, and Michael Kantor. Not only will this quartet ensure that the Greyhounds are a handful for any team to play, they’ll also endear themselves to the passionate Soo fans.

Colin Miller, Joe Rogalski (PIT), Mike Schwindt, and Ryan Sproul (DET) will ensure a solid blue line, but what they lack in flash will be supplied by two first-round OHL selections: Gianluca Curcuruto and Darnell Nurse.

The only place where veterans are in short supply is between the pipes. Matt Murray and Michael Nishi make for a promising, albeit green, goaltending tandem.

Windsor Spitfires (Last Season: 39-23-3-3)

The club has enjoyed a stellar four year run atop the OHL’s standings, but may be in line for a bit of a fall. That said, the drop should be cushioned by the presence of dynamic forwards like Alexander Khoklachev (BOS) and Tom Kuhnhackl (PIT), along with recent addition (and GM’s son) Kerby Rychel.

The blue line is sure to suffer from the loss of the dynamic Ryan Ellis (NAS), who graduates after an elite OHL career. The club will look to youngsters like Nick Ebert to pick up the slack, but no one should expect any one player — or even two or three — to replace the total package that Ellis brought.

Between the pipes, the Spitfires should benefit from another year of maturation from the highly touted Jack Campbell (DAL). The American netminder struggled acclimating to the OHL game, but showed increased comfort towards the end of last season. This year, he should hit the ground running and has the potential to be the league’s top netminder.