By Aaron Bell
The 2011-12 Ontario Hockey League regular season schedule of games opens on Wednesday when the 2010-11 Ontario Hockey League champion Owen Sound Attack host the Plymouth Whalers. Here is a look at the teams in the Western Conference.
Key Returnee: Greg McKegg was the Otters top scorer last season with 49 goals and 92 points and they hope that the Toronto Maple Leafs’ prospect can crack the 50-goal and 100-point plateaus this season.
Forwards: After McKegg, the Otters next top returning scorer is overage centre Mike Cazzola, who scored 19 goals and 67 points last season. They were solid numbers but the Otters will need him to return to the form that he had the previous season when he piled up 36 goals and 86 points. They will also be anxious to see if former first round pick Chris Marchese is ready to break out offensively.
Defence: The Otters young blueline should benefit from the experience that veterans Brett Cook and Derek Holden bring along with the emergence of 17-year-old blue chipper Adam Pelech. They will also roll out four OHL rookies including Travis Wood, their 11th round pick in the OHL Priority Selection in May.
Goaltending: The Otters start the season with a crowded crease, including 20-year-old Ramis Sadikov as well as 18-year-olds Christopher Festarini and Tyson Teichmann, who partnered to help Ontario win silver at the World Under-17’s a couple of years ago.
Behind the Bench: Robbie Ftorek enters his fourth season behind the Otters bench and has developed his team into a competitive unit that will be looking to make additional strides this season.
Key Returnee: After three solid seasons in Guelph, Cody McNaughton is looking for a breakout year and the 18-year-old from Petawawa certainly has the skills to do it.
Forwards: There’s a changing of the guard of sorts for the Storm this season after the graduation of former top scorers Taylor Beck, Michael Latta and Peter Holland. With that in mind, the Storm will be looking for bigger contributions this year from McNaughton, Francis Menard and sophomore Scott Kosmachuk up front.
Defence: Overagers Kyle Pereira and Stephen Gaskin are the elder statesmen on the Storm blueline that also includes sophomores Matt Finn and Andrey Pedan. Third round pick Ben Harpur will also see some time on the back end.
Goaltending: Veteran Brandon Foote could be the calming influence over this relatively young group from the crease but he also may see a move to a contending team during the season. Sophomore Garret Sparks is being groomed to handle the pressure of being the starter.
Behind the Bench: Scott Walker came to the Storm bench with the experience of a 15-year NHL career in his back pocket and will have the opportunity to shape the character of this team from the outset this season.
Key Returnee: The Rangers may find themselves in wait-and-see mode with the Carolina Hurricanes again this fall with Ryan Murphy after watching Jeff Skinner stick in the NHL last season. If he returns, Murphy is likely the best powerplay quarterback in the country this season.
Forwards: Veteran Michael Catenacci put up career scoring numbers last year despite missing 10 games and the Rangers will look for even more from their new captain this season. Tobias Rieder is also a regular contributor and the Rangers are excited to see how minor hockey scoring star Matia Marcantuoni starts things off in his sophomore year.
Defence: Even without Murphy in the lineup, the Rangers have lots of depth on the blueline and received an emotional lift when Ben Fanelli returned to the ice in training camp. Max Iafrate comes from Plymouth with loads of potential and there is lots of size on the back end with overagers Cody Sol and Julian Melchiori in the mix.
Goaltending: The Rangers scored another coup in net with the signing of Anaheim Ducks’ prospect John Gibson, who played for the U.S. Under-18 squad last season and helped the Americans win the Under-18’s in April.
Behind the Bench: Some people questioned if Steve Spott was head coach material when he took over the Rangers’ bench from Peter DeBoer in 2008 but in three years, the 43-year-old from Toronto has proven any sceptics wrong with plenty of success in his own rite.
Key Returnee: The Knights are expecting another productive season from Russian centre Vladislav Namestnikov – that is assuming the Tampa Bay Lightning don’t have him pencilled in to their starting lineup. The slick pivot didn’t take long to adjust to the North American game last season, racking up 30 goals and 69 points and a team-best +12 plus/minus rating.
Forwards: London also welcomes back Jared Knight, who with Namestnikov were the team’s top two scorers last season. They are also anxious to see how sophomores Andreas Athanasiou and twins Ryan and Matt Rupert develop along with highly touted rookies Bo Horvat and Max Domi, who has shown the ability to contribute like a veteran during the pre-season.
Defence: The Knights have a wealth of experience on the blueline and will rely on the likes of veterans Scott Harrington, Jarred Tinordi and Jake Worrad to keep opposing forwards honest.
Goaltending: Michael Houser emerged as the team’s number one stopper last season and will be called upon to provide most of the minutes again this season. 17-year-old Jacob Patterson was just picked up this week from Plymouth.
Behind the Bench: Dale Hunter has racked up some impressive numbers behind the Knights’ bench and looks to have his team back into the upper echelon of the conference again this season.
OWEN SOUND ATTACK
Key Returnee: Jordan Binnington decided to use the OHL finals and MasterCard Memorial Cup as his coming out party in the Attack net and couldn’t have done it at a better time. After emerging from their netminding rotation last year, Binnington will see a lot more work from the outset this year.
Forwards: The Attack won their first Robertson Cup last May and will look to some new faces to fill in after the graduation of stars like Joey Hishon, Robby Mignardi and Garrett Wilson. Speedster Daniel Catenacci – a former first overall OHL pick – came over from the Greyhounds in the summer and will add some offensive spark to go along with tenacious work habits. First round pick Jarrod Maidens had a tremendous rookie season capped with scoring the championship winning overtime goal in Game 7 of the OHL finals.
Defence: The Attack boast a large returning core from the championship team including veterans Geoffrey Schemitsch, Keevin Cutting and Matt Petgrave. Jay Gilbert is rock solid and provides more veteran presence on the back end.
Goaltending: Binnington is likely to carry a big part of the load with the re-tooling Attack but Jacob Riley was brought in from Sudbury and John-Paul Cesario is also in the mix.
Behind the Bench: Greg Ireland has some big shoes to fill after Mark Reeds guided the Attack to a memorable season last year before leaving to be an assistant coach for the Ottawa Senators. Ireland brings lots of AHL experience to the bench.
Key Returnee: The Plymouth Whalers were one of the top OHL teams in the pre-season BMO MasterCard CHL Top-10 rankings because of their veteran depth at every position. Fourth year forward Alex Aleardi fits in nicely with that group and has the speed and offensive knack to challenge for the OHL scoring title.
Forwards: Even with returnees like Aleardi, Stefan Noesen, Garrett Meurs and Rickard Rakell, Coach/GM Mike Vellucci saw the need to add to his forward group and brought in veteran Andy Bathgate from Belleville and highly touted prospect JT Miller, a first round pick of the New York Rangers in June. Some of the younger guys like first rounder Mitchell Dempsey will get a chance to help out early on with many of the vets away at NHL camps.
Defence: The Whalers’ deep group on the blueline includes the likes of overager Beau Schmitz and veterans Austin Levi and Dario Trutmann – their top three scoring defenders last season. Curtis Crombeen and Colin MacDonald are also dependable at both ends.
Goaltending: Scott Wedgewood returns as the starter and provides a stable presence in the Whalers’ net to compliment their depth in front of him. Matt Mahalak also returns as the back-up while Darien Ekblad came in from London for depth.
Behind the Bench: Vellucci has developed a tremendous program in Michigan during the past decade and has a good enough lineup to possibly hit the 400 career win plateau late this season.
Key Returnee: Former first overall pick John McFarland looked for a fresh start with the Spirit last season and enjoyed a productive campaign after the move. This year the Florida Panthers’ second round pick will be expected to be the lynch pin in his team’s offence.
Forwards: The Spirit return an impressive group of forwards this season including Vincent Trocheck and Anthony Camara as well as Brandon Saad, who enjoyed a breakout season last year. Overager Michael Fine was productive in Kingston last season and brings some added grit up front.
Defence: The Spirit have an older group on the blueline that should help them face some of the other high-flying teams in the Western Conference. Overager Peter Hermenegildo plays with passion at both ends of the rink while Ryan O’Connor has proven to be a top end quarterback. Huge blueliner Jamie Oleksiak who was a first round pick of the Dallas Stars is also likely to be in Saginaw after playing college hockey last season.
Goaltending: Tadeas Galansky comes in as the likely heir to the starter’s job but the Spirit are also confident in Jake Paterson, their second round pick in 2010.
Behind the Bench: Todd Watson guided the Spirit to a 40-win season one year ago and brings back a veteran group that are anxious to make the team’s 10th season in mid-Michigan a memorable one.
Key Returnee: Many argue that Nail Yakupov will be the best player in the CHL this season but no one debates his total enthusiasm for the game – and especially for scoring goals. The Russian sensation piled up 49 goals and 101 points last season in Sarnia and is already touted as the top prospect for the NHL draft next summer.
Forwards: Yakupov and Alex Galchenyuk – the first overall pick in the OHL Priority Selection a year ago – are a dynamic force up front for the Sting and a big reason why they were one of the top OHL teams in the pre-season BMO MasterCard CHL Top-10 rankings. Throw in established vets like Brett Ritchie and Craig Hottot and promising newcomers Reid Boucher and Ryan Kujawinski and you start to see why the experts are so high on their chances this year.
Defence: The Sting already had depth on the blueline with veterans Daniel Broussard and Nathan Chiarlitti before adding Patrick Harrison from Kingston and Alex Basso from Belleville. They also pulled off another coup by adding Connor Murphy, the 20th overall pick of the Phoenix Coyotes in the NHL Draft in June.
Goaltending: Brandon Maxwell enjoyed a pair of solid seasons with the Kitchener Rangers, including a memorable playoff run in 2010 and the Sting hope he can recapture that magic next spring. Brandon Hope played in 29 games last season and is the team’s goalie of the future.
Behind the Bench: Jacques Beaulieu brings some impressive credentials to his post behind the Sting bench, including helping the London Knights to their magical Memorial Cup season in 2005. He was also the head coach of the Saint John Sea Dogs before returning to London in 2009.
SAULT STE. MARIE GREYHOUNDS
Key Returnee: Two years ago Nick Cousins went into the OHL Priority Selection with some questions about his commitment to the game but he has answered those concerns with a pair of solid seasons in the Soo. He is now poised to take his game to the next level after being a third round selection of the Philadelphia Flyers in June.
Forwards: With gritty forwards like Cousins, David Broll, Michael Kantor and Carson Dubchak, the Greyhounds front line can be a chore to defend against. The team also throws out skill in forwards like Brett Findlay and import picks David Elsner, a Nashville Predators’ prospect and Los Angeles Kings’ prospect Michael Schumacher. Newcomers Corey Durocher, Andrew Fritsch and Kyle Shaw are also anxious to make their marks.
Defence: The Greyhounds have a veteran crew on the back end but are most excited about a pair of youngsters – Gianluca Curcuruto and Darnell Nurse – their top picks in each of the past two OHL Priority Selections. Joe Rogalski, Mike Schwindt, Colin Miller and Ryan Sproul keeps things tidy and will show their younger teammates the ropes.
Goaltending: The Greyhounds have a young tandem in Matt Murray and Michael Nishi – who came over from Windsor in a pre-season trade. The lanky Murray saw action in 28 games as a rookie last season.
Behind the Bench: Mike Stapleton returns to the Greyhounds after a season with the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL. He was previously an assistant coach with the Greyhounds and Erie Otters and is anxious to take the reins this season.
Key Returnee: Alexander Khokhlachev quickly endeared himself to his teammates and the fans in Windsor as a rookie last season and the Boston Bruins’ prospect returns as the Spitfires’ top gun this year.
Forwards: The Spitfires will turn to the dynamic duo of Khokhlachev and Tom Kuhnhackl a lot this season – especially in the early going – but they also have a strong group of 1994-born players that should blossom into another top end group in the near future. Kerby Rychel and Brady Vail both played a lot of quality minutes despite being rookies last season and that should bode well for their development this season.
Defence: For the first time in five years, the Spitfires’ blueline is missing Ryan Ellis, who graduates as one of the league’s most dynamic and decorated defencemen. Despite that loss, the Spitfires have to be excited about their youth including sophomores Nick Ebert and Grant Webermin, who were both first round picks in 2010, and Adam Bateman, a first round pick in May. Veterans Adrian Robertson, Craig Duininck and Saverio Posa mix in some experience.
Goaltending: Dallas Stars’ pick Jack Campbell is a high-end stopper that was solid as a rookie with the Spitfires last season. Overager John Cullen is also in the crease.
Behind the Bench: Bob Boughner returned to the Spitfires’ bench after a year with the Columbus Blue Jackets and is looking forward to taking the helm again with this young crew that looks like it will develop into another powerhouse.