OHL East Division preview

By Jason Menard

The puck has to bounce the right way for the Peterborough Petes if they want to repeat as Ontario Hockey League champions, as they’re facing stiff competition from rapidly improving squads that feature some marquee names.

Three clubs can legitimately claim they have a chance at the Eastern crown, while a pair of clubs are building for the future – building upon the solid foundation of such highly-touted forwards as Logan Couture and John Tavares.

Belleville Bulls

The Bulls made a big acquisition when they acquired London Knight blueliner and Calgary Flame first-round pick Matt Pelech to shore up a younger defensive corps. With a squad filled with returning forwards and NHL draftees, the Bulls expect to build upon last year’s playoff appearance and make a run deep into the playoffs.

Headlining the club’s forward lines, 18-year-old John Hughes, a first-overall OHL draft pick, looks to build upon his superlative season last year, when he racked up 82 points. Joined by cohorts Shawn Matthias (DET), Cory Tanaka, Matt Beleskey, and Bryan Cameron, the Bulls look to exploit their team’s depth and field a very powerful power-play unit.

Pelech anchors the blue line and will rely on Geoff Killing to eat up the minutes. While Nick Pageau and P.K. Subban return to man the blue line, all eyes will be on the club’s first-round pick, Shawn Lalonde, to see how he adapts his game to Belleville’s Olympic-sized playing surface. In net, big things are expected of goaltender Kevin Lalande (CAL) as he should have more support from a veteran-laden line-up in front of him.

This is a team that’s grown together and, under the watchful eye of George Burnett, they appear to be ready to take that next step in the team’s development from solid-but-youthful to contender.

Kingston Frontenacs

Look for the Frontenacs to give opposing teams’ goaltenders sunburn from lighting the lamp behind them. The only question is whether they’ll be able to keep the puck out of their own cage.

Led up front by a dynamic foursome of Bobby Bolt (ANA), Cory Emmerton (DET), Bobby Hughes (CAR), and Chris Stewart, the Frontenacs shouldn’t have any trouble finding the back of the net. Stewart has emerged, surprisingly to some, as a bona fide power forward prospect, while Emmerton and Hughes have proved to be a prolific scoring duo over the past couple of seasons.

However, question marks remain in net. As it stands, the team is holding open an overage spot – and holding its breath – that Danny Taylor (LA) returns to the club after trying to stick in the Kings organization. In the meantime, Darryl Borden will try to make the most of the opportunity presented to him.

On the blue line, the Frontenacs feature three rock-solid players and a bunch of question marks. Ben Shutron (CHI) is the undisputed leader of the defensemen, and he can count on Adam Nemeth and Justin Wallingford for size and support. Unfortunately, the rest of the players are more prospect than proven, including the addition of Austin Verge.

Oshawa Generals

In a division rife with veteran teams looking to cash in this season, the Generals are clearly playing for the future – but it’s a future that looks exceptionally bright.

Indicative of the team’s philosophy of building for the future, the club traded Jesse Biduke to its divisional rival in Ottawa for a draft pick next season. This year is all about gaining experience for a rich crop of talented youth.

Of course, the cream of the crop is last year’s OHL rookie scoring leader – and OHL and CHL rookie of the year – John Tavares. As an underage rookie last season, Tavares held off London’s 18-year-old Sergei Kostitsyn (MON) to lead the league in rookie scoring with 77 points. He’s joined up front by second-year forward Dale Mitchell who potted 20 goals last year and will be counted on for even more scoring this season.

The youth movement continued with the addition of defenseman Michael Del Zotto, the OHL’s second-overall pick. Highly-touted, Del Zotto looks to be a high NHL draft pick in the future and, paired with Tavares, gives the Generals an incredible one-two punch of youthful potential.

Guiding these young guns along the way are forwards Cal Clutterbuck (MIN), and overagers Vaclav Meidl – a recently acquired forward by way of Saginaw – and netminder Carlo DiRienzo. The club also features San Jose draftee James DeLory on the blue line.

As with every team, the playoffs are a goal, but the reality is that this is a team being built for next year.

Ottawa 67’s

The eyes of the hockey world will be on Canada’s capital this season as NHL scouts and hockey fans alike will watch with great interest the continued development of Logan Couture. Expected to go in the top 10 next year, Couture will be counted on to lead the 67’s offensively this season.

Couture’s scoring will be even more important in light of the loss of last year’s scoring leaders Chris Hulit and Julian Talbot. Couture, along with veterans Pat Daley, Matt Lahey, Brett Liscomb, and recently acquired Biduke will have to step up their offensive production to keep the team competitive.

The defense will be led by Elgin Reid and Derek Joslin (SJ), solid but not spectacular rearguards in their own right. In an attempt to shore up a less-than-inspiring blue line, the club picked Tyler Cuma with the sixth overall pick in the OHL draft.

The team suffered a huge loss in net with the graduation of Danny Battachio, who will be replaced by last season’s backup, Brady Morrisson. He’s joined in the crease by the intriguing Swiss rookie Lukas Flueler.

Generally, winning in the OHL is cyclical and after claiming the 2005 Eastern Conference title, the 67’s were poised for a drop. This season the team continues to rebuild and look towards a brighter future. However, with the Killer (coach Brian Kilrea) behind the bench, one can never count out the 67’s.

Peterborough Petes

The Petes rode an all-star line-up featuring Jordan Staal (PIT), Daniel Ryder (CAL), and mid-season acquisition Steve Downie (PHI) to the Ontario title on its way to a Memorial Cup appearance. But if the Petes hope to repeat this season, they’re going to have to hope that youth will truly be served.

Ryder’s already on the squad and is expected to compete for the league’s scoring title. Both Staal and Downie are expected back from NHL camps in the near future, and look to bring their solid two-way, physical games to the team’s top end. The presence of these three should help the squad weather the loss of Greg Stewart (MON), who signed a pro contract with the Montreal Canadiens organization. But despite being blessed with such offensive talent and leadership, the Petes have to hope that a pair of young netminders will be able to hold down the fort.

David Shantz (FLA) has vacated the Peterborough crease, handing the reins to last year’s backup, Trevor Cann. Although Cann is highly regarded and earned an invite to the Under-18 squad, he begins the season as the starter at the tender young age of 17. Unlike many other clubs, the Petes don’t have the luxury of experience on the bench. Their backup goaltender, Jason Missiaen is only 16 – but what he’s lacking in age, he’s overcompensating for in height as he’s already shot up to a whopping 6’7. Of course, if history is any indicator, a youthful tandem can lead to success. The 1984-85 Petes featured a young duo of Kay Whitmore and backup Ron Tugnutt, who backstopped the team to a first-place finish.

The Petes are also young on the blue line, and returnees Craig Cescon and Kyle Raftis are expected to eat up a lot of minutes while the younger defensemen, including first-round draft pick Zach Bogosian grow into their roles. The club also features a new hand guiding the squad, as Vince Malette takes over from the venerable Dick Todd who retired earlier this summer.

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