OHL Western Division preview

By Jason Ahrens

The Windsor Spitfires should be the class of the OHL Western Division and there are a number of teams in the rebuilding phase that could make huge strides if their young players prosper this season. The conference will be much tighter than it has been in the past few seasons as the Midwestern Division has a number of teams taking a step backwards this season. The division features two NHL first round picks from the 2005 draft.

Windsor Spitfires

Key Departures: John Scott Dickson (76 points), Paul Giallonardo (solid defenseman) and Brad Topping (veteran goalie)

NHL draftees: 5, defensemen Mitch Maunu (CHI) and Scott Todd (NAS), forwards Steve Downie (PHI), Cal O’Reilly (NAS) and Ryan Garlock (CHI)

Top Prospects: Defenseman Mike Weber (2006), forwards Cory McGillis (2006) and Akim Aliu (2007)

Goaltending: Kyle Knechtel will see a lot of minutes in the pipes for the Spitfires this season after splitting time with Topping last season. Knechtel helped dig the Spits out of a three games to none deficit in the playoffs last season and was one of the key reasons they stormed back to win four in a row against the Greyhounds. Sixteen-year-old rookie Jake Fischer will back him up this season.

Defense: Maunu is the horse on the blue line for the Spits. He sees a lot of minutes, he is good in his own end, he is physical, he can fight and he can move the puck. Overage defender Iain McPhee will see a lot of ice in the top four for the Spitfires. Weber is a physical defenseman who will get his nose dirty and should be another top four guy on the team. Todd is the biggest man on the point for the Spits, standing in at 6’5 and 223 pounds, the stay at home defenseman logged only three assists last season, but he can make it a rough ride in front of his own net for opposing forwards. Jonathon Sciacca played 52 games last season and the 2004 second round pick should see his playing time increase this year.

Forwards: The Spits had the seventh best offense last year in the OHL and they could be challenging for the top spot this year in that category. Downie is the heart and soul of the team and the feisty playmaker gets better and better every time he steps on the ice. A fan favorite of the blue-collar gang in Windsor, he thrives on home ice and can drive opponents crazy with his antics on the ice and then bury them with a nice goal or set up. Garlock should flirt with 90 points in his last season in the league as he tries to earn a contract with the Predators. He is a slick forward that skates well and just has to improve his consistency in order to be a dominant player at this level. O’Reilly had a great breakthrough year last season finishing second on the team in scoring with 74 points in 68 games and those are numbers that he could easily surpass this season.

David Lomas is one of four Spitfire forwards returning who averaged more than a point a game last season and the overage right wing should light the lamp a lot this year as well. Brett Liscomb at 5’9 and 186 pounds is the smallest skater on a very big team and he scored 36 points in 40 games last season, so he could be one of five forwards who exceed 70 points this season and he should be a fixture on the top two lines. He also has the ability to agitate opponents and get them off of their game.

Paul McFarland rounds out the overage spots for the Spitfires and he will see a lot of action against the opposing team’s top lines and be a regular on the penalty kill. He is a good grinding winger who does well along the boards. McGillis was broken in slowly as a 16-year-old last season and he will get the chance to see some more ice this season, perhaps even on the top two lines. He was a big scorer at 15 in Tier 2, and will be a key player down the road for the Spits. At 6’1 and 214 pounds, size is not a concern and he has a good overall skill set, now he just needs to get his confidence and timing at this level.

Brian Soso is a huge winger, 6’5 and 217 pounds, who should be able to create some room for himself on the ice a bit more now that he has his rookie season out of the way. When he gets physical, he can be a very effective forechecker as the opposing defense is very aware when he is on the ice. Aliu was the Spitfires first round pick in the 2005 OHL draft and he will have to work hard for ice on a team that has a lot of returning veterans. His physical play should endear him to the local fans.

World Junior Hopefuls: Downie and Garlock (Canada)

Outlook: This is a very big team who can score at will. If the defense corps does better with another year under their belt and if Knechtel can handle a heavy workload in goal, this is a team that could be one of the best in the OHL. The playoff comeback from last season showed some of the heart on this team and Downie gives this team a lot of intangibles. There are very few question marks on this team and they will be tough as always on home ice, and if they pick up the pace on the road, they should cruise to a division title.

Saginaw Spirit

Key Departures: Thomas Harrison (gritty defenseman and team captain), Jeff Weber (No. 1 goalie)

NHL draftees: 4, Defenseman Patrick McNeill (WAS), forwards Marek Kvapil (TB), Michal Birner (STL) and Tom Pyatt (NYR).

Top Prospects: Defenseman Matt Corrente (2006) and Scott Fletcher (2006), forwards Tom Mannino (2006), Ryan McDounough (2006), and Zack Torquato (2007)

Goaltending: Overage veteran Francis Thuot came over to the Spirit from the Barrie Colts in the offseason and he should earn the No. 1 position. Ryan Daniels will be pushing him for ice time.

Defense: McNeill is the go-to guy on the point and the former first pick overall in the OHL draft should be ready to raise his game to a new level now that he has put the pressure of his draft year behind him and the quality of the supporting cast has improved greatly. A great skater, he could greatly improve his 33 points of last year.

Corrente was the Spirit’s first round pick from 2004 and he is cut from the same cloth as McNeill, a good skater and puck handler, but at 6’0 and 196 pounds he will have to face the familiar questions for defenders of that build, are they big enough to handle the forwards at the next level. Fletcher was the Spirit’s second round pick from 2004 and the big American (6’3 and 215 pounds) got into 50 games as a rookie, contributing two assists and 72 penalty minutes.

Erik Lundmark might fill out one of the overage spots for the Spirit and at 6’5 and 208 pounds, the team will be looking for him to be very physical in his own end and be one of their key penalty killers. Jamie Klie, Garrett Sinfield and Steven Whitely round out the defense corps. All seven players suited up for the Spirit last season, so experience should not be a problem on the back end.

Forwards: Kvapil will be the difference between this team fighting for second spot in the division, or fighting for the final playoff spot. If he returns for an overage year, the talented Slovak has the ability to flirt with 90+ points. He can carry the puck on the string and has a good shot and this year he should see some more help in carrying the offensive load. Pyatt had a great second half for the Spirit and performed well for Team Canada at the Under 18 championships in April. He put up 48 points in 57 games last year and should have no problem averaging over a point a game this season.

Birner is the other European import on the team and he finished fourth in team scoring last season with 42 points in 59 games. The playmaker needs to be more consistent, but he has a few guys to dish the puck to this year who can score.

Mannino was overlooked this summer in the NHL draft and it will be interesting to see how he rebounds from that wake up call. Mannino has a ton of skill, but hasn’t shown much work ethic, attention to defense, or heart. The fact that he asked for two trades in two years grabbed the attention of NHL brass. Mannino had 50 points in 68 games last season and is capable of shattering those numbers if he puts in an honest effort and gets refocused on securing a professional career.

McDonough would be wise to learn from the mistakes made by Mannino as the two players have a lot in common on the ice and off the ice. McDonough is a gifted offensive player who should benefit from the increased number of power plays at the start of the season, but who will have to show interest in the aspects of his game that don’t involve scoring if he wants to get drafted. McDonough tallied 37 points in 58 games last season with Sudbury and he should flirt with a point a game average this season.

Jesse Gimblett will be challenging for one of the overage positions and brings a big frame to the left side and he scored 18 goals last season. Torquato was the first round pick of the Spirit in the 2005 OHL draft and the third overall pick is a gifted scorer with a set of good wheels. Like any 16-year-old, he will have to adjust to the pace of the OHL, but he has all the makings of being a very solid OHL player and he could potentially be a high NHL pick.

World Junior Hopefuls: McNeill and Pyatt (Canada)

Outlook: This is a team that could score a lot of goals if they get Kvapil back and McDonough and Mannino get their acts together. There is a lot of potential on this team for inconsistency and attitudes and new coach Bob Mancini will have to run a tight ship if this franchise is to turn around their fortunes after a number of dismal years here in Saginaw and in North Bay before the relocation. The loss of Harrison is a big one in terms of grit as he stood up for his teammates and had a lot of fights last year and someone or a group of players will have to fill that void of sheer grit. A loyal fan base has been created in Saginaw and they should finally be rewarded with a playoff appearance.

Plymouth Whalers

Key Departures: John Mitchell (TOR) led team in scoring with 75 points, defenseman Mike Knight had 48 points, Jonas Fiedler (CAR), and Tim Sestito (team captain)

NHL draftees: 5, defenseman Ryan McGinnis (LA), forwards Dan Collins (FLA), James Neal (DAL), Vaclav Meidl (NAS), and Gino Pisellini (PHI).

Top Prospects: Forwards Andrew Fournier (2006) and Cory Tanaka (2006)

Goaltending: Ryan Nie saw the bulk of the action last year for the Whalers playing in 57 games and posting a goals against average of 2.56 and save percentage of 914. If he doesn’t return for his overage year, then Justin Garay will move from the backup role to the starting role after getting into 22 games last season.

Defense: The Whalers have two solid overage defenders in Mike Looby and Mike Letizia but if Nie returns then one of them will be traded or released. McGinnis should see a lot of time in the top four. Zack Shepley has put on about 20 pounds since last season and at 6’4 and 215 pounds he will be a force in his own end. Steve Ward rounds out the top five.

Forwards: John Vigilante will be a key overage player for this team and coming off seasons of 68 and 62 points, he could be among the league leaders in this his final season. Collins had a mediocre draft year but the Whalers will hope that he has a breakthrough season this year and takes his game to the next level. The skills are there but the consistency and effort haven’t been so far. Neal had a decent year with 44 points, but the Whalers will be looking for the scoring touch he showed at Junior A when he was 16.

Meidl is a big body that keeps you wanting more. He should be capable of putting up numbers far greater than the 28 points he scored last year. Even his 125 minutes in penalties are low for the way that he sometimes plays. He needs to show some consistent hockey this season if he wants a contract and he has to decide what kind of a hockey player he is. Pisellini been more of a role player so far but the veteran has to start producing more offensively and use his size to his advantage more often. He took a big step backwards last season going from 30 points as a rookie to just 10. Fournier and Tanaka will get a shot at playing on the top two lines this season.

Outlook: This is a young team that should be decent but is bit of a tough read. This squad was rolled over by the Attack in four straight games last year in the first round and didn’t put up much of a fight in the series. It is a team that could use some more grit up front. If guys like Collins and Neal step up their games, the team could finish second in their division, but if goals are hard to come by, they will be in the middle of the pack.

Sarnia Sting

Key Departures: No. 1 goalie Ryan Munce (LA), Brad Efthimiou (led team in scoring with 61 points), and Marco Caprara (202 PIM)

Goaltending: Overage veteran Jeff MacDougald came over from the Petes in the summer. He split duties last season there and should see the bulk of the duties in Sarnia. Smallish Mike Iafrate got into 22 games last season and should get into a few more this year.

NHL draftees: 4, Defensemen Matt Pelech (CAL), Nicholas Tuzzolino (NYI), forwards Chad Painchaud (ATL), Richard Clune (DAL)

Top Prospects: Defenseman Mark Katic (2007), forwards Steve Savor (2006), Harrison Reed (2006) and Kody Musselman (2006)

Defense: Pelech was a surprise first round pick this summer after missing over half of the season to injuries. He is big (6’4 and 222 pounds) and strong on his skates but is still very much a project as his tools are still raw. The Sting are hoping for a healthy, productive and mean season from him. Tuzzolino saw a lot of ice on the rebuilding Sting last season and was sometimes in over his 6’6 head, but the trial by fire experience should benefit him this season and he should be more composed on the ice. He could develop a wicked shot with his wingspan.

Jamie Fraser will be one of the overage spots and is a good skating defenseman who will be in the top four for the Sting. Katic was the second pick overall in the OHL draft this summer and although a touch small at 5’11 and 185 pounds he is a great skater who should be a very solid player for the organization. Trevor Solomon was the team’s first round pick in 2003 and he should be one of the key guys on the back end this year. Veteran Chris Chimienti rounds out the defense corps.

Forwards: Painchaud had 40 points last season and the Sting will be looking for the veteran to flirt with a point a game and be a leader on this very young team. Clune is a third-year player who plays much bigger than he is and is a great skater who should start seeing some better offensive numbers. He will be a regular on the top two lines and on both special teams and he may lead the team in scoring. Mathis Olimb is a great passer but the team would like the Norwegian to improve on his eight goals of last year. He could really benefit from increased time on the power play this year and his ability to thread the needle and rag the puck will be a tremendous asset to the team.

Michael Haley should improve on his 14 goals and 16 assists of last season. Musselman is a constant thorn in the side of opponents and will see more ice this season and likely be a regular on the checking line and kill penalties when he isn’t in the box himself. Reed comes over from the Knights as the future considerations in the Danny Fritsche (CLB) deal and the gritty center will be a good pickup for the Sting. Savor was broken in very slowly as a 16-year-old last season, but will see more ice this upcoming season. Mark Versteeg-Lytwyn never really got on track last season in Guelph or in Sarnia, but he could be a fixture on the top two lines this season and be a 20+ goal man.

Outlook: The Sting are building towards making a strong bid for the Memorial Cup in 2008 and have stacked the team up with a number of young players and draft picks through their trades of last season. They will be one of the youngest teams in the league this season and goals might be hard to come by, but the dressing room culture should be vastly improved from a few years ago. The team will have a solid work ethic and compete hard every night, but will need to squeak out a lot of one-goal victories in order to make the playoffs. The defense corps should be big and nasty and if some of the forwards blossom with increased ice time, the Sting will be alright. This is a team that will be heard from in 2006-07 with all the 1987 and 1988 birthdays on the team.

Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds

Key Departures: Jeff Carter (PHI) led team in scoring with 74 points in 55 games, all-star defenseman Jordan Smith (ANA), veteran forward Blair Jarrett, goalie Jakub Cech, and defenseman Martin Tuma (FLA)

NHL draftees: 4, defenseman Kyle Wharton (CLB), forwards Tyler Kennedy (PIT), Chris Lawrence (TB), and Jason Pitton (NYI)

Top Prospects: Goaltender Matt Hache (2006), defenseman Joshua Day (2006) and forward Ryan McInerney (2006).

Goaltending: Kyle Gajewski will step into the No. 1 spot after sharing duties last season with Cech. The small and quick goalie had excellent stats last season, posting a 2.55 goals against average with a save percentage of 915. His backup will be Hache.

Defense: The loss of Smith and Tuma will be hard on the blue line, but they do have a stable corps returning. Wharton could be poised for a breakout year and if he stays healthy he should be one of the top defenders on the team. Veterans Tyson Aitcheson, Tyler Cuthbert, and Brad Good will be counted on to fill the void left by Smith via committee and they will all see increased responsibilities this year. Day had a decent rookie season as a 16-year-old and he will be used more this season. The defense is fairly young and if they falter, the team will likely look to plug a hole with an overage spot as the team started the year with only one overage spot filled and that is at forward. Jacob Muzzin was the Hounds first round pick in 2005 and will likely be broken in slowly, especially if the team picks up an overage defender.

Forwards: The loss of Carter is huge, he made his teammates better and received so much attention from the opposing team’s top defensive pair and checking line. Now that kind of attention will be placed on guys like Kennedy who had a solid 57 points last season, but the speedster will find it a bit harder this season being the go-to guy on the Hounds. Lawrence picked up a lot of assists playing with Carter and has teased scouts with his occasional flashes of good play, but now he has to show he can create offense on his own and consistently use his good reach to his advantage. He bulked up considerably over the summer and that should make it a lot tougher to knock him off the puck as long as his skating isn’t affected by the weight gain. Pitton doubled his points last season going from 20 to 42 and the big winger should be a key contributor to the Hounds this year and will get a lot of ice time and may see a similar rise in his points again this season.

Andrew Desjardins put up a quiet 34 points last season, which was a nice increase from his 9 points the season before, and the grinding checker will be one of the guys you may not notice but his contributions are always important. Ryan Kitchen joined the team in the offseason and the former Guelph Storm veteran will be a key penalty killer and key to the checking line and is currently the only overage player on the team.

Cody Thorton is another offseason pickup. The former Belleville Bull is coming off a 46-point season and could be one of the key forwards on the Hounds this year. He will certainly get his share of ice on the top two lines and see some power play time. McInerney was the Hounds’ first round pick from 2004 and was one of the smallest players on a very big team last season, picking up 18 points in 68 games. The 5’10, 190-pound forward is a good skater who could easily double his point production this season depending on what kind of role he steps into.

Outlook: The Hounds gambled that they could make some noise in the playoffs last season and held onto their key assets and they ended becoming only the second team in OHL history to cough up a three games to zero lead and they lost four games in a row to the Windsor Spitfires to be beat out in the first round. Gajewski will give the team a solid presence in net, but right now there is no heir apparent for Smith on the point or Carter up front. The team will likely add a pair of over age players over the next month or so, but whether those players are impact players or merely depth players remains to be seen. This is a team that might have trouble scoring goals and could be in a fight to make the playoffs after winning the division last season.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.