Lighting It Up – October edition

By Glenn Gawronski

It’s certainly shaping up to be an interesting Ontario Hockey League campaign.  Some things have gone as planned, and others haven’t.  Sitting atop the standings are none other than Sault Ste. Marie and Windsor, while perennial powerhouse London has struggled out of the gate.  The Kitchener Rangers already seemed primed for a Memorial Cup run.  And phenom John Tavares continues to show he’s a superstar.  Below are some notes gathered over the first month of action in the OHL.

You have to give the Soo an awful lot of credit.  The Greyhounds have come out flying this season.  Center Dustin Jeffrey (PIT) has been virtually unstoppable.  He’s led a well-balanced attack that has seen all three lines contributing.  Forward James Livingston has posted solid numbers and is taking advantage of increased ice time.  It’s a good way to start his draft eligible season.  And the power play has been simply terrific.  Defenseman Josh Godfrey (WAS) possesses the most feared slapshot in the league and he doesn’t hesitate to use it.  Also chipping in has been undersized defenseman Mike Quesnele and Jake Muzzin (PIT).

Overage goaltender Kyle Gajewski has been excellent.  Another scout summed up his play perfectly.  Gajewski looks like a kid who is trying hard for a pro contract.  He hasn’t been tested much, however, and it will only get more intense as the season heats up.  Keep an eye on how he plays once the Soo offense comes back down to earth.  If he stays on his game, he can carry the Greyhounds far.

The signs may have been there toward the latter part of last season.  But the Windsor Spitfires have still been a pleasant surprise so far.  They’re a big, physical team that presents match-up problems for the opponent.  Draft eligible center Joshua Bailey has looked really good.  He’s skating well and showing good hands, vision and creativity.  If he can consistently stay involved in the play and not play on the outside looking in, he will steadily climb in the draft rankings.

Winger Bradley Snetsinger and blueliner Elgin Reid are a pair of overage players who have impressed so far.  Snetsinger has really been effective around the net.  Rookie forward Taylor Hall has made a relatively seamless transition to major junior.  He has skills and smarts.  Goalie Andrew Engelage takes up a lot of room in net and he has shown improvement in his positioning and ability to bounce back after making the first save.  As long as their defense takes care of their own end, don’t be surprised to see Windsor put together a very good season.

Hopefully the rest of the league enjoyed London’s 0-6 start.  Because it’s just a matter of time before the Knights start playing well.  Maybe not at the level we saw over the last few seasons, but there’s still a lot of raw talent here.  Losing as much firepower as they did from last season, a slow start was understandable.  The problems were only compounded when center Sam Gagner earned a spot on Edmonton’s roster and goalie Steve Mason stayed longer than expected in Columbus.  But with Mason back in net, London is a different team.  Getting Gagner back would have a huge impact, but with each passing game, he’s looking more and more like he belongs at the NHL level.

Rookie winger Patrick Maroon (PHI) has stepped right in and led the offense, while veteran Adam Perry has played well and provided some leadership.  Adding overage winger Jadran Beljo from Niagara will certainly help the offensive production.  Defenseman Kevin Montgomery (COL) has had a good start, but the Knights have not gotten much offensive support from the blueline.  More changes will be on the way in London.

As hosts for the 2008 Memorial Cup, Kitchener is guaranteed to be playing hockey in May.  And you can be sure they’re looking to get there as OHL champions.

Rookie netminder Josh Unice (CHI) has looked very steady over the first few weeks of the season.  Over the summer, Unice decided to opt for major junior rather than go the NCAA route.  With the potential to play nearly twice as many games for the Rangers as he would have if he had gone to college, the decision was not unexpected.  The chance to play for a good team and a solid organization made the decision even easier. 

Keying the offense is Justin Azevedo.  His size may keep him out of the NHL, but he’s a dynamic junior level player.  He uses his speed, instincts and puckhandling ability to create plays.  He is a player who is enjoyable to watch.  Winger Matt Halischuk (NJ) is another talented forward who is playing well. If he can add some muscle and get stronger on the puck, he can be a dangerous player.  And import winger Mikkel Boedker is putting points on the board while trying to adjust to the North American game.  The native of Denmark has surpassed expectations.  Montreal prospect Yannick Webber excels in the transition game and can man the point on the power play.  I really like how he plays the game.

At this point of the season, Kitchener is a good team, and they will only get better.  With the OHL trade market being what it is, expect to see several new faces in the lineup in the not too distant future.

At this time last year, I felt that Tavares was almost to the point of being too good for this league.  Well, he’s only gotten better in the last 12 months.  He simply makes things look too easy.  The only issue for the next year or two will be keeping his focus and motivation. 

The Niagara IceDogs have adapted quickly to life in St. Catharines.  The IceDogs are the type of team that you just don’t like to play against.  They have an explosive offense capable of scoring goals in bunches.  And while they may not be the biggest team out there, they make up for it with intensity, toughness and an edgy style.  Stefan Legein (CLB) is an ultra-competitive winger with very good puck skills and the ability to finish.  He is a little over-exuberant at times, but that’s part of what makes him so valuable.

Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo has been as good as advertised.  During the pre-season he was touted as a potential top-five pick in next June’s draft.  Based upon the first 10 games of this season, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s now the top-rated prospect on some draft boards.  Yes, a better prospect than Steven Stamkos and Drew Doughty.  I won’t deny that Pietrangelo makes his share of mistakes.  He’s had a few giveaways that left me shaking my head.  But he’s a 17-year-old blueliner who is an absolute workhorse.  He controls the play at both ends of the ice thanks to a great blend of size, mobility, puckhandling skills, and toughness.  He will be a cornerstone defenseman in the NHL.

While I’m on the subject of the IceDogs, do yourself a favor and catch a Niagara home game.  If you’re a traditional hockey fan who enjoys a unique arena atmosphere, you’ll love the IceDogs home.  The new corporate name is now the Gatordade Garden City Complex, but the locals still refer to it as the Jack Gatecliff Arena.  It’s a throwback to the days before the 5,000-seat, cookie-cutter, big-box arenas that now dot the hockey landscape.  It may not have much long-term viability, but for now it makes for an entertaining venue.

One team that seems to be flying under the radar is the Belleville Bulls.  Do not overlook this squad.  They have scoring depth, they can effectively roll three forward lines and their defensemen get involved.

Center Shawn Matthias (FLA) is an underrated player with size and good hands.  Anaheim prospect Matt Beleskey is a top-line winger who has a nice scoring touch and an above average work ethic.  Fellow Ducks draft pick Eric Tangradi has really improved his game this year.  He’s playing with a lot more confidence this year and getting better results.

The Bulls have a solid tandem in net. Edward Pasquale has good size and very good long-term potential.  He looked great in Junior A last season, and he seems ready to make the jump to the OHL.  But he may be splitting time with goalie Mike Murphy, a strong, albeit smaller netminder with good quickness.

And speaking of goaltending situations, I’m wondering how things will play out in Guelph.  Heading into this season, Tom McCollum was ranked as one of the top draft-eligible goalies in the CHL.  He’s a legitimate NHL prospect who rapidly emerged last year.  But is appears that Cody St. Jacques, a 1990, will be getting the bulk of the playing time, at least early on.  I know that competition brings out the best in players, but sometimes it’s a difficult situation when you have two young goalies who both need to be on the ice in order to develop.

It’s good to see Guelph forward Luke Pither playing up to his potential.  He’s looking like a different player.  Maybe it was just a matter of a change of scenery and finding his comfort level, but it seems that he’s putting the pieces together.

Bobby Sanguinetti (NYR) has already reinforced his reputation as a high-risk, high-reward defenseman.  The Brampton blueliner has been all over the ice.  He carries the puck, joins the rush, runs the power play and at times looks more like a fourth forward.  He’s still a work in progress in his own zone, but he’s going to get a ton of ice time and will be given every opportunity to work on the defensive side of things.

Erie first-round pick Ryan O’Reilly has responded to the challenge of the OHL and not looked out of place.  He’s taking a regular shift and generating some offense.  Things should get even better once Nick Palmieri returns to the lineup.

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