By Aaron Bell
The 2012-13 Ontario Hockey League regular season schedule of games opens next week. Here is an advance look at the Central Division.
Key Returnee: When Mark Scheifele made a late return to the Colts lineup from the Winnipeg Jets last October, he went on an offensive tear that was a huge boost for the rebuilding squad. This year, he should be a dominant force in the Eastern Conference unless he gets another chance with the Jets.
Forwards: Zach Hall made some big strides offensively last year and has the skill set to fill the net on a regular basis. Anthony Camara is another offensive threat and will see lots of time on the top line with Scheifele. The Colts were thrilled to pick up promising youngster Andreas Athanasiou from the London Knights before the season started.
Defence: Despite being just 16-years-old, 2012 Rookie of the Year Aaron Ekblad already has the poise of an OHL veteran and will log huge minutes for the Colts this season. Fellow sophomore Alex Yuill also has great speed and instincts and is expected to play a bigger role this season. Overager and newly named captain Ryan O'Connor brings a bunch of savvy to the back end.
Goaltending: German overager Mathias Niederberger proved last year that he was capable of playing lots of minutes and will again this year.
Behind the Bench: Dale Hawerchuk helped the Colts become one of the biggest surprises in the OHL when they made great strides forward last year in his second season behind the bench. He will be hoping to build off of that again this year.
Key Returnee: Fourth year forward Barclay Goodrow is Brampton's top returning scorer after scoring 26 goals and 52 points last season. He has the ability and will get the playing time to boost those totals this year.
Forwards: The Battalion have several new faces up front this year including Nicholas Foglia, who came over from Ottawa in the off-season. Patrik Machac put up solid numbers (14 goals - 32 points) as a rookie last season and will benefit from increased playing time this year. Brandon Robinson is in a similar situation after scoring 15 goals and 24 points one year ago.
Defence: The Troops have a solid returning group on the back end, including third year studs Dylan Blujus and Marcus McIvor. Overager Cameron Wind and veterans Spencer Abraham and Zach Bell - the team's plus-minus leader with a +22 rating last year - round out the crew.
Goaltending: Matej Machovsky played in 42 games with the Battalion last season, posting a 24-13-0-4 record and will be leaned on to carry the load again this year.
Behind the Bench: Stan Butler remains behind the bench with the Battalion, a post he has held since the franchise entered the OHL 15 years ago. He preaches a solid work ethic game in and game out and his team's success is usually based on it.
Key Returnee: Veteran forward Riley Brace knew that he needed to step up offensively last year to help his team recover from the graduation of several top end players. He responded by more than doubling his previous season totals and finished the year with 33 goals and 82 points. He will be counted on again this year for more numbers.
Forwards: The Steelheads have a good mix of veterans and youth up front but will rely on a big contribution from Kristoff Kontos as well as increases in production from Justin Rasmussen, Scott Teskey and Brett Foy. Winger Damian Bourne was the Steelheads' first round pick in April and will get every opportunity to contribute this season.
Defence: The Steelheads boast a veteran group on the back end that will be anchored by Maple Leafs' blue chipper Stuart Percy. Veteran Dylan DeMelo also brings loads of experience and some offensive spark while Trevor Carrick, Alex Cord and Eric Diodati will all take on bigger roles this season.
Goaltending: The Steelheads have very high hopes that sophomore Spencer Martin will follow the same path as their recent run of terrific goaltenders. Tyson Teichmann is a former first round pick that bounced around a bit last year. He is looking to prove that he has the ability to win at this level.
Behind the Bench: James Boyd earned a reputation during his playing days as a no-nonsense, hard working grinder and always instills that work ethic into his group.
Key Returnee: Dougie Hamilton has established himself as one of the premiere defencemen in junior hockey and will not only be one of the IceDogs' key returnees, but Team Canada's as well for the World Junior Championship. He is a horse that plays in every situation and causes trouble for opponents. If there is an NHL season, he will get a long look with the Boston Bruins.
Forwards: Ryan Strome saw his production drop off a bit last year but still managed a 30-goal, 68-point season in just 46 games. He is a likely threat to the OHL scoring title this season and can single-handily win games for his team. Overager Steven Shipley is a former OHL first rounder that could put up big numbers this season. The IceDogs are also looking for veterans Myles Doan and Brett Ritchie to make big contributions.
Defence: Hamilton is the obvious anchor and scored 17 times from the point last season but he is surrounded by a solid group that includes Shayne Rover and Brock Beukeboom as well as highly regarded third year defenders Jesse Graham and Luke Mercer. First round pick Aaron Haydon has already made an impression on his coaches and should contribute right away.
Goaltending: Christopher Festarini has long been considered an OHL-calibre goaltender and should finally get the opportunity to shoulder the bulk of the load for the team this year. Rookie Brent Moran will back up.
Behind the Bench: Marty Williamson guided the IceDogs to the OHL finals last season and while they have lost a lot of key players to graduation, he has a knack of getting more out of his group than expected.
Key Returnee: After scoring 32 goals and 73 points last season, the Wolves are anxious to see what third year forward Joshua Leivo can do for an encore. He was a consistent threat all season long and that could translate into even better numbers this season.
Forwards: Overager Mike Kantor has been an effective two-way presence throughout his OHL career but after leading the Wolves in scoring and being named the top forward in last month's Junior Club World Cup tournament in Russia, he may be ready for a prime time scoring role this season. The third year duo of Brody Silk and Mathew Campagna should be fun to watch this season and sophomore Nicholas Baptiste is very highly regarded for his size and skill.
Defence: The Wolves have a veteran group on the back end including Justin Sefton, Frank Corrado and overager Charlie Dodero but they are also excited to welcome first round pick Conor Cummins into the fold.
Goaltending: Overager Joel Vienneau has secured the starting role and provides lots of composure from the net out. Rookie Taylor Dupuis will battle for the odd start while learning on the job.
Behind the Bench: Trent Cull helped his team get an early start on the season by winning the International tournament last month and feels like that experience in Russia will help his team bond quickly this season.