OHL Midwestern Division preview

By Jason Ahrens

The Midwestern Division has been the dominant division in the OHL for the past few years but some of its teams are rebuilding this year. The last four OHL champions have come from this division and it could produce another champion this year, but the competition is narrowing the gap. The Kitchener Rangers should breeze to the division title and could be one of the top teams in the OHL. Three other teams will be competitive and could finish close together in the standings depending on who returns as overagers and who steps up. The Owen Sound Attack are strong candidates to go from the penthouse to the outhouse this year as they were hit hard by graduation. There are seven NHL first round picks in this division.

Kitchener Rangers

Key Departures: Captain Mike Richards (PHI) and overage players Andre Benoit, David Clarkson, and Adam Keefe have graduated. These players represented their second, third, fourth, and eighth leading point producers, 115 goals, one captain, two assistant captains and 578 minutes in the box, so obviously these are big holes to fill.

NHL Draftees: 9, Goaltender Dan Turple (Atl), defensemen Boris Valabik (ATL), Jakub Kindl (DET), Matt Lashoff (BOS), Mark Fraser (NJ), forwards Evan McGrath (DET), Patrick Davis (NJ), Jean-Michel Rizk (MIN), and Ryan Donally (CAL).

Top Prospects: Forward Justin Azevedo (2006), Mike Duco (2006), Michael Pelech (2008), Myles Applebaum (2006) and Kevin Henderson (2006)

Goaltending: Turple and Eric Pfligler, who did a great job stepping in and replacing Turple in the playoffs when Turple went down with an injury, are both overage goalies and one will likely be moved. Turple is a huge goalie who relies on his size to cover the net, Pfligler is a small goalie who relies on his quickness, and he has to stay on his feet to cover the top of the net. Mark Packwood will be the backup to one of the overage goalies in net; he had a tough preseason, getting lit up on two of his starts.

Defense: First team all-star Benoit is the only graduate on the point, and while the five-year veteran is a big loss, this is a defense corps that has three NHL first round picks on it and they will have no problem stepping up to fill the void. Valabik stands in at 6’6 and 230 pounds, a man playing against boys. The huge Slovak will make the loss of grit a bit easier to swallow, because when he is feeling nasty and motivated, there is a price to pay when you approach the Rangers net. He shrugged off a mediocre regular season and helped turn around a 2-0 deficit in the first round against Erie with his physical play. He pummeled the Attack forwards in a four-game sweep and had a strong series against the Knights. His skating and puck skills were fairly stagnant last year so it will be interesting to see if he improves there. With the stricter penalty enforcement standards this season, Valabik will have to walk a fine line.

Kindl had a difficult transition to the OHL after arriving with a lot of hype. Those who saw him in Europe liked him a lot, those who saw him for the first time here in North America saw flashes of brilliance combined with a lot of inconsistent play. His second season should give us a better read on who the real Kindl is and he will get more opportunities to play on the power play.

Lashoff rounds out the trio of first round picks on the point and the smooth-skating American is looking to rebound from a tough year that started with mono and ended with a concussion. He should be a sure bet to be on the first power play and will get lots of chances to jump into the rush and show off his skills this year with Benoit gone.

Fraser is a classic stay at home defenseman who plays with an edge to his game. He is a great penalty killer and is tough to play against along the wall or in front of the net. He and Valabik give the Rangers a nice one-two physical punch on the point and that gives them an edge when trying to match lines, especially on the road. Matt Pepe rounds out the five returnees and the 5’11, 207-pound defender is a solid OHL player who plays a well-rounded game.

Forwards: McGrath rebounded nicely last season to lead the team in scoring with 87 points and followed that up with 13 points in 15 playoff games. McGrath is a good skater who handles the puck nicely and with his good vision he can give defensemen fits. He needs to get stronger physically and he will find teams focusing on him more this season with Richards gone. He is the only Ranger left from the Memorial Cup championship team in 2003.

Davis usually lines up on the wing beside McGrath and the speedy winger is coming off a 50-point season in 59 games. The 6’2, 211-pound American has worked hard in the offseason improving his strength, hoping to bounce back from some collarbone and shoulder injuries that limited his physical participation. He is an excellent penalty killer and will get more time on the power play this season and should be on the verge of putting up some big numbers if he can stay healthy.

Rizk will be looking to put behind a disappointing season that saw him tally only 20 points in 67 games. Donally is a big forward back for an overage year and the defensive specialist will see a lot of the opposing teams top lines and will be a mainstay on the penalty kill.

Craig Voakes is a creative playmaker who dropped back to the point on the power play last season. He will see a lot of time on the top two lines and should be a big point producer. Azevedo is coming off a great rookie season and the pint-sized center will step into the second line and be a pleasure to watch as he buzzes around the ice at full speed showing no concern about being 5’8 and 170 pounds.

Duco is a winger who plays like the Tasmanian devil and had a solid rookie season before sputtering in the playoffs. He should be able to improve on his 50 points and stay on the top two lines. Henderson is a big winger at 6’3 and 210 pounds who skates well but doesn’t show a lot with the puck. Away from the puck he is a great penalty killer and finishes his checks. With one season under his belt he may show more poise in the offensive zone.

Sean Courtney comes over from the Windsor Spitfires for his overage year and will give the Rangers some more depth up front. Pelech was the team’s first round pick this summer and the big winger will push some veterans for ice time. Injuries kept Applebaum out of the Team Canada Under 18 camp and he starts the season on the shelf. When he returns, he will give the Rangers another talent to use at either center or the wing.

Outlook: The Rangers should be one of the best teams in the league. They have the makings for another season of great special teams, they are big, fast, have perhaps the best defense corps in the league and have an offense capable of spreading out the goals. Look for them to shore up their goaltending via trade if they aren’t happy with the results they get from whoever gets named as starter. They don’t have an impact overager in a skating position and they may go shopping for some scoring help on the wing once the pro camps finish up and some veteran players return to the league. The Rangers were the most penalized team in the league last season and they have several players who may be hit hard by the tighter rule enforcement this season.

World Junior Hopefuls: Valabik (Slovakia), Kindl (Czech), McGrath (Can), Lashoff and Davis (USA).

London Knights

Key Departures: Corey Perry (ANA) was the OHL player of the year, Dan Fritsche (CLB) was a clutch power forward, Gerald Coleman (TB) split duties in goal, Danny Syvret (EDM) was the CHL defenseman of the year, Marc Methot (CLB) towering defensive defenseman, and Brandon Prust (CAL) heart and soul of team.

NHL Draftees: 7, Goaltender Adam Dennis (BUF), forwards Dylan Hunter (BUF), Rob Schremp (EDM), Trevor Kell (CHI), Dave Bolland (CHI), Sergei Kostitsyn (MTL) and Josh Beaulieu (PHI)

Top Prospects: Defenseman Steve Ferry (2006)

Goaltending: Overage veteran Dennis will see a lot of action if he doesn’t land a pro contract. Dennis has won back-to-back OHL titles with Guelph and London, but he played behind a veteran defense corps. This year he has a lot of green defenders in front of him and will face far more quality shots that what he been accustomed to. Steve Mason is a 6’3 rookie who is making the jump from Junior C to the OHL and he might get the nod as the backup.

Defense: Frank Rediker will anchor the blue line for the Knights. The former draft pick of the Bruins will be back for his fifth season in the league, but injuries have marred his career and have prevented him from playing a single playoff game for the Knights in the two years he has played for them. He can wheel the puck, play physical and shoot the puck. But can he play 68 games?

Ferry was broken in slowly as a 16-year-old rookie last season and he will see his ice time increase dramatically this season. He is a good skater who showed some good flashes of puck handling skills last season in spot duty. How he handles the regular banging at the OHL will be one of many questions that need to be answered.

Ryan Martinelli is the biggest Knight at 6’5 and 220 pounds, but didn’t see much ice last season. He is fresh off of a rookie tournament invitation with Atlanta and that should help his confidence. Matt McCready has really bulked up over the summer and the smooth skating defenseman should be a key defender on the team after spending most of last season playing Junior B or as the sixth man on the Knights and many nights not getting a single shift.

Karel Kubat might have a short-lived OHL career as he struggled with the physical play in the preseason. Corey Syvret was the team’s first round pick and the younger brother of all-star Danny Syvret is bigger than his older brother. Danny might just get returned to the Knights if the Oilers can’t find a place for him to play in the AHL as they shut down their farm team this season. Veteran forward Rob Drummond has been dropped back to the blue line to start the season, but the speedster may get moved back to forward once the overage positions get sorted out. Ryan Lee was picked up from Plymouth to shore up the blue line late in the preseason.

Forwards: The Knights will likely have their second, third and fourth leading scorers back depending on what happens at pro camps. Hunter will likely be back for his fifth and final season with the Knights and will be a key component on the power play again. Schremp answered a lot of questions about his game last season; this season will allow him to answer a few more. He has always played in the shadow of an older impact player, Patrick O’Sullivan (MIN) in Mississauga, Perry in London. This is his year to take the reins and be the leader and go-to guy. With his shot and skill he could flirt with goal-a-game numbers.

Bolland is capable of putting up first team all-star like numbers, after scoring 85 points in 66 games last year, it will be interesting to see how he produces now that he will be on the first power play and how he is used. He can be used in front of the net, in the high slot for one-timers or he may get a chance to run the half-board offense from the left side of the rink instead of the usual right side that the Knights generally use with Hunter and Schremp.

Kell has been a speedy role player for the Knights over the last two seasons. Now he will get a shot at playing a more offensive role, but if that doesn’t pan out, he can still fall back into a checking role.

Beaulieu will answer the bell for his teammates and should be one of the top fighters in the league this year and he will get more chances to contribute offensively. Role players like Jordan Foreman and Adam Perry (led the team in pre-season scoring) will get opportunities to show their stuff and how they adapt will answer the questions on how good this team will be.

Free agent pickup Jamie Vander Veeken will give the small Knights team some much needed size on the wing and he has had an impressive training camp. Kostitsyn is the second European import on the team and has shown a big league shot and some offensive flash. He will have to work hard on the defensive aspect of his game or he will draw the ire of Coach Hunter. He could be a big time asset on the power play. Drew Larman could be one of the Knights overagers depending on what happens with Dennis and Hunter, but he could be traded if they both return. Always good in his own end, great at faceoffs and with the ability to score his share of goals in his final OHL season, he will be an asset for some team this year.

Outlook: After two years of dominating the OHL, the Knights will step back this year, but how much is still very much up in the air. They have a very young defense corps, but the forwards on this team are so good defensively that they will take some of the heat off of the new recruits. It is a situation not unlike what the Knights went through three seasons ago when they broke in a number of rookies at the same time on the point and they held their own. They will have a wicked power play and can throw several different wrinkles at a team and have been experimenting with setting up behind the opposing team’s net and with some of the heavy shots that they have they will score some nice one time goals that way. They should have a decent penalty kill and how the role players develop will be a key to the team’s success or lack thereof. If Dennis doesn’t return or if he falters in net, the team may have some long nights. Another interesting twist will be to see where the team stacks up come January, will they flip some veterans for prospects and draft picks if the team isn’t doing well in order to prevent a huge step back in 2006-07 when the cupboard looks a little bare after all the trades that helped bring them the Memorial Cup.

World Junior Hopefuls: Schremp (USA), Kostitsyn (Belarus) and Bolland (Canada).

Guelph Storm

Key Departures: Goaltender Danny Taylor (LA), Ryan Kitchen, defensemen Ryan Card and Mick Okrzesik.

NHL draftees: 4, Defensemen Ryan Parent (NAS) and Ryan Pottruff (CAR), forwards Ryan Callahan (NYR) and Matt D’Agostini (MTL).

Top Prospects: Goaltender Jason Guy (2006), defensemen Michael Caruso (2006) and Drew Doughty (2008).

Goaltending: Ryan MacDonald will get his first chance in this his overage year, to be the No. 1 guy on a team after splitting duties in his first two seasons spent with London and Guelph. The smallish goalie is quick, but has the reputation of standing on his head but then letting a soft goal in. Guy, who came over from London in the offseason as part of the deadline deals made between the two teams, will back him up. The 17-year-old rookie played for Team Ontario at the Under 17 tournament last December and has a bright future ahead of him.

Defense: The defense corps will be young but promising and is anchored by Parent. He is not flashy but very effective in both ends of the ice and he should see an increase in offensive numbers this year. Lubomir Stach is the smallest Storm defender at 5’10 and 180 pounds but is a good skater and puck handler and may get to run the power play this year. Pottruff will be starting the season in the stands as he serves out a 12-game suspension for a slash he put on former teammate Corey Perry (ANA) in the playoffs last year, but when he returns he will bring some size and skating ability to the team and will help keep the front of the net clear. Pottruff and Stach are the oldest defensemen on the team, having both turned 19 in the offseason.

Caruso is eligible for the 2006 NHL draft and had a decent rookie season last year and showed signs of being a very dependable defensive defenseman. Doughty was the first round selection of the Storm and he has the potential to be a very good all round defenseman in the league and since he was born in December he is not eligible until the 2008 NHL draft and he might be a very high draft pick.

Forwards: If Callahan doesn’t play professional hockey this year and returns for his overage year, he will again lead the Storm in goals and points, and should be able to improve on his 28 goals and 26 assists of last year as the surrounding cast is a year older. D’Agostini was a nice pickup by the Storm last season and popped 24 goals as a rookie and added 22 assists to finish second in team scoring.

Tyler Doig was another free agent pickup by the Storm who impressed during the year, scoring 19 goals and adding 22 assists. Kelsey Wilson is a feisty forward who stands up for his teammates and will get his nose dirty and the Storm hope he can improve on his 14 points of last year and he should have no trouble breaking the 200-minute barrier in the sin bin.

Mark O’Leary could be back for an overage year and continue his role as a checking forward. Mike McLean is another returning veteran who plays a checking role. Rookie Leigh Salters will get a look and the third round pick will be looking for some time on the fourth line. Rafael Rotter is a tiny import from Austria who might flourish if the enforcement of the rules stays consistent, but if over time the standards drop, he may find it tough sledding against bigger defenders.

Outlook: The good news for the Storm is that they only lost about 40 goals to graduation. The bad news is that 17 teams scored more goals than them last year and if Callahan doesn’t return, that statistic might stay the same this year. If he doesn’t return, the team will have to go shopping for an overage forward who can score. The Storm will be stingy in their own end again, despite having a young team as they play a system that stresses defense first. MacDonald gives them solid goaltending, but they will have to eke out a lot of close low scoring games to win. This is a team that could lose only four or five players to graduation and will be a team that will be heard from more in the 2006-07 season. Coach Dave Barr will start the season serving a 15-game suspension for his role in the Pottruff-Perry incident in the playoffs.

World Junior Hopefuls: Parent (Canada)

Erie Otters

Key Departures: Geoff Platt (45 goals and 79 points), Brian Lee (team captain and five-year veteran on the blue line), and Tomas Galasek.

NHL draftees: 3, Goaltender Josh Disher (NJ), forwards Ryan O’Marra (NYI) and Mike Blunden (CHI).

Top Prospects: Defensemen Josh Kidd (2006) and Eric Regan (2007)

Goaltending: Disher may be back as an overager and if he is, will be the No. 1 goalie and will be trying to improve his consistency as he can steal games one night, and be very ordinary the next. Jhase Sniderman will be lurking in the weeds to back him up or take the starting role if Disher goes pro.

Defense: This is a huge defense corps, no one is under 6’2 and the lightest member weighs in at 183 pounds. Derek Merlini at 6’7 and 248 pounds is one of the biggest players in the entire OHL and will make his presence felt in the defensive zone in his overage year. Fellow overager Jacob Heller will join him on the point. Andrew Hotham will get a shot at being the power play quarterback and should be one of the key guys on the point for the Otters. Two kids who were broken in slowly last year will be given a chance to play more as 17-year-olds this year, Kidd and Regan will strut their stuff this season. Kidd at 6’5 and 205 pounds has the size that scouts like to see. Chad Loikets rounds out the defense corps that can boast that all six members played at least 57 games in the OHL last season.

Forwards: The loss of Platt will be huge. O’Marra will be the go-to guy and the third year forward should be able to improve on his 63 points of last year but will not be surrounded by a lot of help. O’Marra is a good all round center who takes care of business in both ends, is a smooth skater and has a nice shot to complement his puck handling skills. Blunden is a power forward who has left people wanting a bit more so far in his three years in the OHL. He shows flashes of really taking his game to the next level but then looks quite ordinary. The Otters will need him to dramatically improve on his 41 points of last year. He might be moved to a contender if the team is floundering at the trade deadline.

Andrew Shennan could be back as an overage player and if so, he would be only the third player on the team to hit double digits in goals last season as he tallied 10, but had only 4 assists. Brett MacLean was the Otters first round pick from 2004 and he should see a lot more ice this year and improve on his 23 points as he could become a regular on the top two lines. 2005 first round pick Anthony Peluso is a big winger at 6’4 and 210 pounds and is no stranger to dropping the gloves, but the converted defenseman will have to learn how to play wing in the OHL while making his presence felt physically. Rookie center Jordan Nolan should get an opportunity for regular ice time on a team that is not heavy with talent.

Outlook: Another year of being offense-starved awaits this team with around 80 goals gone from the 186 they scored last season. They need someone to step it up and help out O’Marra and Blunden. If those two guys make Team Canada, it could be a long December for the Otters. If Disher returns, he could become trade bait for a veteran forward who can score. The Otters will be another low-scoring, grind it out team.

World Junior Hopefuls: O’Marra and Blunden (Canada).

Owen Sound Attack

Key Departures: Brad Richardson (COL), Patrick Jarrett, Stefan Ruzicka (PHI), Jonathon Lehun, Robin Big Snake, Paul Bissonnette (PIT) and Mike Brown (BOS)

Goaltending: Neil Conway saw action in 15 games last season and will be given a shot at being the No. 1 goalie as a 17-year-old this season. Russ Brownell will split time with him in net if the Attack do not make a move to pick up some help between the pipes.

NHL draft picks: 3, Defensemen Andrej Sekera (BUF) and Trevor Koverko (NYR), forward Bobby Ryan (ANA)

Top Prospects: Defensemen Bob Sanguinetti (2006) and Theo Peckham (2006) and forward Payton Liske (2007)

Defense: The Attack had a young defense corps last season and some saw it as their Achilles heel, but this year the defense might be their strong point. Sekera will be back to anchor the corps and the Slovak is a skilled puckhandler and skater. Koverko is one of the biggest defenders on the team at 6’3 and 217 pounds but an injury will keep him out for the first half of the season. Sanguinetti is a first round pick candidate for the 2006 NHL entry draft and the young American is a pleasure to watch. He has poise beyond his years, can play in all situations and will not hurt you in any zone. Peckham is a defensive defenseman who is tough as nails and can lay out opponents along the wall or in front of the net. Darryl Flowers came over from Peterborough and will fill one of the overage spots for the team. Kyle Lamb rounds out the defense corps that has good size, skating and puck handling throughout it.

Offense: Ryan is back and will challenge for the OHL player of the year if he gets any help from his supporting cast. The Attack relied heavily on their top two lines for goals and they have all graduated except for Ryan. He has spent a lot of the offseason in the gym or on the bike and a trimmed down Ryan should be a bit quicker and will still have his silky hands that can feather a pass through traffic. He is great along the wall, but will see a lot more attention this year now that the Attack have lost most of their guns. Mike Angelidis will fill out one of the overage spots and the physical left winger will get a lot of ice time an should flourish because of it. His nine goals and 10 assists are the next best statistics of returning forwards after Ryan.

Marek Bartanus was a bit of a surprise pick from the Import draft, but the Slovakian knows Sekera and was willing to report so the Attack took him. He will get plenty of opportunities to strut his stuff in different situations. Liske was the first round pick of the Attack in the 2004 OHL draft and at 6’5 and 206 pounds, the left winger covers a lot of space and will see his ice time dramatically increased this year after seeing spot duty on the fourth line last season picking up 7 points in 64 games. He is eligible for the 2007 NHL entry draft.

Josh Bailey was the Attack’s first round selection in the 2005 OHL draft and the smallish center will have to be broken in slowly as he will be playing against players a lot bigger and older than him. He comes into the league with the reputation as being a very skilled and intelligent player. Igor Gongalsky tallied seven goals and seven assists last year and will be one of perhaps only two 19-year-olds on the Attack.

Outlook: After finishing second in the OHL last season in the regular season, the team was hit hard by graduation and lost some players they thought might be back as overagers to the professional ranks. If things don’t work out for any of those guys and they return in a month or so, the Attack will have a brighter future. A very young offense will have trouble scoring when the ultra impressive Ryan isn’t on the ice, but his soft hands will turn some single digit scorer into a 25+ goal scorer. Goaltending is a big question mark but the defense corps should be solid and they might be forced to move a defender to get some help elsewhere. This is a team that is a year away from making noise, and will be hard pressed to make the playoffs.

World Junior Hopefuls: Ryan and Sanguinetti (USA), Bartanus and Sekera (Slovakia)

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