2011-12 OHL Eastern Conference Preview

By Jason Menard
Photo: Ryan Strome (NYI) will likely spend the 2011-12 season with the Niagara IceDogs. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Last season, the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors almost fulfilled what was expected to be their destiny from the beginning of the season, falling just short of winning the Memorial Cup in their home rink by losing to the Saint John Sea Dogs (this after failing to capture the OHL crown losing to the Owen Sound Attack.)

Long seen as the weaker OHL conference, there are a number of teams looking to take advantage of the relative tumult in the Western Conference and allow this half of the bracket to stake its claim as the superior side. And with a marquee squad in Niagara poised to take the next step, don’t be surprised if many teams find the OHL Memorial Cup berth to be as difficult to reach as an uphill struggle against the Falls.

Barrie Colts (Last Season: 15-49-2-2)

The Colts will ride the talents of Mark Scheifele – a player who surprised many by being selected so high in the NHL Entry Draft by the returning Winnipeg Jets. But fans of the Colts knew what the rest of the hockey-watching world has since found out: Scheifele has loads of talent and could be one of the dominant players in the league this season.

He will be assisted up front by the return of their top scorer last season, Colin Behenna, who returns to the Colts as an overager. Any success Barrie enjoys in the forward ranks, though, will likely come from its youthful additions including Ivan Telegin (WPG) and Victor Terreri.

The biggest youthful contribution may come from the addition of first-overall OHL priority selection, Aaron Ekblad, who petitioned for – and received – exceptional player status to play this season. He’ll be joined by steady-but-unspectacular veterans like Derek Hartwick and Reid McNeill (PIT).

The defense will be counted upon heavily this season as question marks with returning Clint Windsor and German import Mathias Niederberger manning the crease for the club.

Belleville Bulls (Last Season: 21-43-0-4)

The Bulls are expected to be a team that has little trouble filling the net this season. The squad is buoyed by the return from injury of its captain, Luke Judson, who is with the team as an overager and should improve upon his 28-goal output.

He will be complemented by some enticing players in the form of Austen Brassard (WPG) and Carter Sandlak, who in their third year will likely assume dominant roles up front.

Speaking of dynamic, the Bulls obtained Jordan Subban with their first-round pick this year and he’s displayed glimpses of similar talent to his brother (and current Montreal Canadien) P.K. Subban. The Belleville blue line has received an overhaul, with the arrival of veterans Brady Austin, Simon Gronvaldt, and Jason Shaw joining stalwart returnee Stephen Silas (COL).

Between the pipes, the club will be led by another Subban, Malcolm, who claimed the starter’s role as his own last season and enters the 2011-12 campaign as the unquestioned starter. The off-season addition of John Chartrand should help to spell Subban and keep him fresh, but Malcolm will likely be one of the east’s top netminders this season.

Brampton Battalion (Last Season: 29-32-1-6)

Although not blessed with an elite star, the Battalion has a solid and deep complement of forwards who, while likely not taking up residence atop the OHL scoring race, should provide the club with a steady and consistent level of scoring.

Depth will be key for Brampton, as players like Sam Carrick (TOR), Michael Santini, and Ian Walters will team with overager and former first-rounder Barclay Goodrow to comprise a couple of balanced and gritty forward lines.

On the blue line, the club has high hopes for Marcus McIvor, who played solidly as a rookie last year and projects to be one of the league’s top defensemen. The question is will that development occur in this, his sophomore campaign, or are we a year away from McIvor reaching that elite status?

The club’s blue line is extremely young and, save for 19-year-old Cameron Wind, is light on experience. That will make the play of Matej Machovsky, acquired from the Guelph Storm at mid-season last year, integral to any success the club can expect to have. Machovsky will be backed up by Keegan Wilson, a raw rookie.

Kingston Frontenacs (Last Season: 29-30-4-5)

There are two ways to look at this edition of the Frontenacs. The first is the ample opportunity for a young core to step up and surprise people. The second is the potential for ugliness.

Last year the club acquired Ryan Spooner (BOS) from Peterborough and added his talents to a veteran-laden club. Many of those vets are gone and Spooner’s looking around at a squad that’s light on goal-scoring (only one player accounted for more than 15 goals). Look for GM (having relinquished his coaching duties) Doug Gilmour to parlay Spooner into future talent as he’ll be one of the most desirable – if not the most desirable – players on the trade market.

On the blue line, it’s even worse. Only Jeff Braithwaite and Alex Gudbranson have played more than 10 games at the OHL level; and the club probably shouldn’t count on the return of Alex’s big brother Eric from Florida.

The Frontenacs had a question mark between the pipes last year and looked to shore the position up this season. But the solution they have now may be more of an enigma than a rock-solid solution – the club obtained Igor Bobkov from the London Knights, and while the Anaheim prospect has talent, it rarely manifested itself in green and gold. If they could find a way to change Kingston’s uniform to resemble the Russian national jersey, they may be on to something as Bobkov was a dominant world-beater every time he pulled the Russian jersey over his shoulders.

Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors (Last Season: 53-13-0-2)

The Majors loaded up for the Memorial Cup last season and now begin the traditional junior cycle of falling from their lofty perch. However, with the return of key components like Devante Smith-Pelly (ANA), blueliner Stuart Percy (TOR), and netminder J.P. Anderson (SJ), their descent should be cushioned a bit this season.

The club will be hard pressed to replace the losses of scoring leaders Casey Cizikas (NYI), Justin Shugg (CAR), and Maxim Kitsyn (LAK), along with the steadying defensive presence of Marc Cantin (B0S), but a veteran core including Joseph Cramarossa (ANA) and Jordan Mayer should serve as a steadying presence.

On the blue line, Alex Cord, David Corrente, and Dylan DeMelo are solid minute-eaters and Anderson’s replacement is already waiting in the wings as the club drafted Spencer Martin with their first-round priority selection.

Niagara IceDogs (Last Season: 45-17-2-4)

The IceDogs entered this season’s campaign as the top-ranked squad in the pre-season CHL Top-10 rankings. With talent in all three facets of the game, the IceDogs look to be a lock for top spot in the east and have a solid chance of representing the OHL in the Memorial Cup.

The club welcomes back Ryan Strome (NYI), the fifth-overall selection in the NHL entry draft, who will look to improve upon his already-impressive totals of 33 goals and 106 points. Although the club lost Darren Archibald (VAN) and his 23 goals (along with 10 in the playoffs), the IceDogs have a solid collection of forwards like Andrew Agozzino (43 goals), Alex Friesen (VAN), Freddie Hamilton (SJ), and Stephen Shipley to shoulder the offensive load.

The Niagara blue line will be an imposing front for the IceDogs, led by elite blueliner Doug Hamilton (BOS), who is joined by Brock Beukeboom (STL), and Shayne Rover. Second-year players Jesse Graham and Luke Mercer are ready to step up and assume bigger roles on the squad, as well.

The club’s biggest strength lies between the pipes with the return of goaltender Mark Visentin (PHX). He will anchor the crease and should make a return trip to the World Juniors as Team Canada’s starter this season.

Oshawa Generals (Last Season: 39-19-4-6)

The Generals have elite goal scoring on their roster with Christian Thomas (NYR) and his 54 goals returning to the roster. In total, the club has five players who eclipsed 25 goals last season, including dynamic players like Lucas Lessio (PHX) and Nicklas Jensen (VAN). Scoring goals will not be a problem for this club.

The club lost uber-talented blue liner Calvin de Haan (NYI), but have a solid collection of veteran blueliners who will be led by overagers Scott Valentine and Daniel Maggio. This veteran presence will be a welcome addition to the club as there are question marks between the pipes. Kevin Bailie, a former first-rounder, enters the season as the favorite, but he’ll be pushed by much-ballyhooed youngster Daniel Altshuller, who was acquired from Belleville during training camp for three second-round selections.

Ottawa 67’s (Last Season: 44-19-3-2)

The 67’s boast a trio of exciting forwards led by Tyler Toffoli (LAK), who accounted for 57 goals en route to 108 points last season. He’s joined by Shane Prince (OTT) and Ryan Martindale (EDM) up front. They’ll also hope to get some production out of their first-round pick, David Perklin, who dominated in minor-midget.

Cody Ceci is the unquestioned quarterback on the blue line and he’s joined by some intriguing prospects: Kingston acquisition Michal Cajkovski, second-year player Ryan Shipley, and overager Marc Zanetti. They also have some veteran depth between the pipes in the form of 19-year-old starter Petr Mrazek (DET) and his backup, soon-to-be-19-year-old Shayne Campbell.

Peterborough Petes (Last Season: 20-45-1-2)

It’s been a down period for this traditional hockey power, but there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. Leading the way will be Matt Puempel (OTT) who is expected to take a huge leap from his previous 33 and 34-goal campaigns. He’ll be joined by Lino Marschihni, Alan Quine (DET), and Austin Watson (NAS) – all of whom should blossom into 25 goal performers.

At the back end, the Petes are young, but talented. How they react to the bigger stage (one vacated by the departure of Kalle Ekelund) will be the key to the Petes’ success. Cole Murduff and Clark Seymour are solid players and there is some promise with Connor Bolland and Slater Koekkoek – the club’s top two selections from 2011.

There’s a crease battle brewing in Peterborough. Andrew D’agostini was the starter last year and returns for another campaign, but the acquisition of Mike Morrison from the Kitchener Rangers should force D’agostini to earn each and every start. For a club that’s languished with poor goaltending as of late, these two solid netminders herald a return to respectability for the Peterborough franchise.

Sudbury Wolves (Last Season: 29-35-2-2)

Michael Sgarbossa (SJ) certainly found a home in Sudbury last year. The Wolves are his third team in his OHL career, but he blossomed in northern Ontario – accounting for 62 points and 29 goals in just 37 games). It will be interesting to see how the highly regarded Nicholas Baptiste plays this season as he is blessed with prodigious talent.

Josh McFadden provided ample offense from the back end, scoring 19 goals from the defense. Look for him to at least equal his 72-point production this year and possibly improve upon it. The duo of Frank Corrado (VAN) and Charlie Dodero round out a solid and physical defensive corps.

Much of Sudbury’s fate rests upon how Swedish netminder Johan Mattsson (CHI) adjusts to life in the OHL. The Chicago prospect is extremely talented and will be given every opportunity to succeed, but with Brendan O’Neill and Joel Vienneau nipping at his heels, the Wolves’ crease will certainly be a competitive zone this season.