One good thing about this year’s Ontario Hockey League season is that there may actually be a race for the top spot in the league.
Last year’s record-breaking London Knights squad pretty much ran away from the field and they were never seriously challenged. This time around, there may be as many as six or seven teams that may have a legitimate chance at capturing the league title.
Headlining the list so far are the Peterborough Petes.
Although there’s not a lot separating the top clubs in the OHL, at this point Peterborough looks like the top choice. They have a balanced offensive attack, a group of defensemen that can play at both ends of the ice and thanks to the acquisition of David Shantz (FLA), reliable, steady goaltending. What’s impressed me the most is that there isn’t that one player who has jumped up and carried the team. They have two very dangerous scoring lines and a defense of Bryan Young, Trevor Hendrikx (CLB), Aaron Dawson, and Kyle Raftis is among the best in the league, though they will miss Peter Aston. The acquisition of forward Steve Downie (PHI) could be huge.
London has certainly lost a lot of talent and isn’t the team it was last year. That being said, this is still a talented squad capable of outscoring most opponents. David Bolland (CHI) has simply been unstoppable, but I must admit he seems to have gotten away a bit from his defensive duties. Rob Schremp (EDM) and Dylan Hunter returned from their pro camps in top form and they’ve made it look easy. And Sergei Kostitsyn (MON) has adjusted well to the North American game, although his numbers may be a little inflated due to a dynamic power play unit. Among the pleasant surprises have been forward Jordan Freeman and blueliner Steve Ferry. Veteran defenseman Frank Rediker has been very strong.
Barrie is in first place in the Central thanks in large part to the terrific play of goalie Dan LaCosta (CLB). He’s finally emerging as a top-flight netminder. Bryan Little is having an excellent year and so far I’ve been very impressed. His lack of size may cause some scouts to overlook him at times, but he’s showing why he’s a legitimate top ten pick in June. Speaking of lack of size, rookie Vladimir Nikiforov is awfully small but he’s fun to watch. As he matures, his skill level will make him an outstanding junior player. Defenseman Nathan Martine is making steady progress and responding well to the increased ice time.
As I’m writing this, Guelph is in a battle for first place. How long they remain in contention for the top spot in the league’s toughest division remains to be seen. The real story for them has been goalie Ryan MacDonald. His play has been somewhere between good and great. Kelsey Wilson has been a scoring machine especially on the power play, while Matt D’Agostini and Ryan Callahan have been big contributors. What’s really caught me off guard has been the play of rookies Rafael Rotter, Drew Doughty and Matthew Lyall. Blueliner Ryan Parent has been the dependable player we’ve come to expect.
I’ll readily admit that Saginaw’s start caught me by surprise. I just didn’t think they’d be playing this well. Undersized Ryan McDonough has been terrific and Michal Birner has been a consistent threat. Patrick McNeill and Matt Corrente have been very effective on the blue line. McNeill has really elevated his game while Corrente is rapidly climbing in the draft rankings. Rookie Zack Torquato has been as good as advertised.
The way Bobby Ryan (ANA) has been playing for Owen Sound, it looks like there’s not much left for him to accomplish at the junior level. Things look too easy for him. He’s simply been dominant. Defenseman Andrej Sekera looks infinitely more comfortable this year. Instead of only occasional flashes of ability, he’s consistently showing his skill level. Fellow blueliner Bob Sanguinetti is still a work in progress, but he has terrific upside. Underagers Joshua Bailey and Matthew Kang need to get more involved physically, but I like their long term potential.
In Plymouth, Dan Collins has shown a dangerous scoring touch around the net and overage John Vigilante is making a strong case to earn an NHL contract. Columbus prospect Jared Boll (CHI) has been a key acquisition and he’ll play an even bigger role as the year wears on. A pair of draft eligible prospects who will draw more attention from the scouts, John Armstrong and Andrew Fournier, have looked very good at times. The Whalers size and experience make them a tough club to match up against.
I’m a little disappointed in Sudbury’s relatively slow start. They’re a better team than they’ve shown so far. Things should start to really get rolling soon. A defense of Marc Staal (NYR), Adam McQuaid, Ryan Hastings and Jonathan D’Aversa is pretty impressive. Up front, Benoit Pouliot (MIN) is just about NHL ready. And winger Nick Foligno may have some flaws in his game, but he’s really starting to show more of that style that his father Mike had. Nick can play with finesse and toughness. He’s going to be a surprise come draft time.
Sarnia’s Chad Painchaud (ATL) continues to improve as a pro prospect. He has skill and smarts and even though defenses are keying on him, he’s been able to produce. Rookie defenseman Mark Katic will be on the sidelines for another couple of weeks. But when healthy, he moved the puck extremely well and showed excellent vision and anticipation. Rookie Tomas Pospisil (ATL) has shown a very good touch and the more physical play of the OHL hasn’t been a problem for him.
This isn’t meant to take anything away from Erie, but the Otters are basically a two-man team. Sure there’s some size and a good work ethic, but outside of Ryan O’Marra (NYI) and Michael Blunden (CHI), there’s not much to get the scouts excited. O’Marra has been as good as expected, very good at both ends of the ice and playing well in all situations. Blunden meanwhile, has really improved his game this year, showing better hands and using his size more effectively. He also appears to have improved his skating as well.
Kingston has been paced by a strong group of draft eligible prospects. After being brought along slowly last year, Cory Emmerton has really developed this year. Bobby Hughes and Chris Stewart have also been impressive up front, while defenseman Ben Shutron has shown his first round ability. And Los Angeles draft pick Daniel Taylor has provided some very solid goaltending.
The Kitchener Rangers are a .500 team, but they’re capable of a lot more. Jakub Kindl has played very well on the blue line. But Matt Lashoff (BOS) has to stay healthy and Boris Valabik (ATL) and Mark Fraser have to play their physical style. Among the forwards, Evan McGrath has been terrific, but at times he’s going it alone. Winger Matt Auffrey will play a major role as the season goes on. Mike Duco and Justin Azevedo have played well at times, but Rangers need more size on their top two lines to become more competitive.
Getting Wojtek Wolski (COL) back in the lineup is just what Brampton needed. He is capable of carrying the offense and he has that ability to make the players around him better. Wolski however must maintain his work ethic in all three zones. He’s good, but not good enough to coast. Luke Lynes has really improved this year. And Jason Cassidy and Taylor Raszka have been more productive than expected.
St. Mike’s has had an awfully tough time keeping the puck out of the net. But Justin Peters (CAR) hasn’t been as bad as his numbers would indicate. He’s seen a lot of quality shots and there’s a lot of traffic in front of him. There are some positives in Toronto though. Justin and Tyler Donati continue to score and show playmaking ability, Cory Vitarelli has emerged as a power play specialist, while Tyler Haskins may have found his game again. Keep an eye on underrated draft prospect Justin DiBenedetto.
Outside of Evan Brophey, there hasn’t been much offense in Belleville. John Hughes hasn’t been putting up the numbers I anticipated, while Matt Beleskey needs to stay healthy. Blueliner Steve Spade is getting every opportunity to put the pieces together and start to realize his potential. But so far the results have been mixed.
Overage forwards Julian Talbot and Chris Hulit have carried the offense in Ottawa, while Derek Joslin and Jakub Vojta have led the defense. But most others on the club need to step up their game. Bryan Bickell (CHI) has struggled at times this season and is certainly capable of playing much better. Logan Couture and Jamie McGinn have looked good but they’re simply too inexperienced to carry the club. A healthy Matt Lahey will help the team. I have no concerns in net, where Danny Battochio has been excellent.
Lacking a pure scoring threat up front, Sault Ste. Marie has started out slowly. Center Tyler Kennedy has looked good, while Jason Pitton and Ryan Kitchen have provided decent support. And Kyle Wharton has been a workhorse on defense, playing at both ends of the ice and showing a bit of a mean streak. The Greyhounds top player has been goalie Kyle Gajewski. He may be small, but he’s competitive and quick and he can make the big save when it’s needed. All he needs is more support.
It’s really shaping up like a year to forget in Windsor. Poor play on the ice has been overshadowed by major distractions off the ice. Maybe the trade of Downie will bring the team one step closer to resolution and heading in the right direction. Cal O’Reilly has been a terrific playmaker so far, but his lack of size and physical play is tough to compensate for. Brad Snetsinger seems to have found a scoring touch, burying some pretty goals. Rookies Akim Aliu, Kevin Hudes, Ben O’Connor, and Mickey Renaud provide some hope for the future.
Mississauga’s on ice performance hasn’t been much better than Windsor’s. Outside of Jordan Owens, there’s no real scoring threat up front. Draft eligible center Dustin Jeffrey, however, has been pretty impressive. With one of the youngest rosters in the league, the IceDogs are building for the future. The core of the lineup could be together for a couple more years, so better days are ahead. But this year will continue to be tough.
Oshawa’s goal this year was pretty basic. Just avoid being the worst team in the league. Unfortunately they haven’t shown much in the first two months. A definite bright spot has been the play of John Tavares. He is as good as advertised. Peter Tsimikalis is having a career year and Adam Berti (CHI) is playing a consistent game and so far staying healthy. Draft eligible defenseman James DeLory is progressing pretty well and benefiting from a lot of ice time. Underage forward Dale Mitchell has also looked good.
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