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2019-2020 OHL preview: tough year ahead for rebuilding Guelph Storm

London, Saginaw and Kitchener look like the teams to beat this year as the Guelph Storm rebuilds
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They will be hoisting the OHL championship banner at the Sleeman Centre Friday night, but it might be a while before the Guelph Storm sees its next one.

Gone is the core of the team that made it to the Memorial Cup and the franchise is in complete rebuild mode this season, starting the year with 12 rookies on the squad. More veterans could be moved as the season goes on, but as for right now the Storm will be in a dog fight for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference with Windsor and Erie.

Here's how we see this year's Western Conference shaping up, with quick peak at the East.

1. SAGINAW SPIRIT

Last Year: 45-17-3-3 (2nd)

Top Returning Scorer: Cole Perfetti (74 pts)

The Skinny: The Spirit is holding its breath to see if defenceman Body Wilde is returned by the New York Islanders. He's the best blueliner in the West if he returns ... plenty of depth up front led by Perfetti … overager Brady Gilmour, who was outstanding in the playoffs, chose to go to school … Spirit didn’t go all-in last season, leaving plenty in the bank for this season to make necessary deals.

Player to Watch: Perfetti. 37 goals as a rookie and another eight in the playoffs.

Unsung Hero: Damien Giroux

2. LONDON KNIGHTS

Last Year: 46-15-6-1 (1st)

Top Returning Scorer: Connor McMichael (72 pts)

The Skinny: The Knights are loaded up front with both returning and emerging talent, but return just one of their top six defencemen from the end of last year. Putting together a championship-calibre blueline will be the challenges up to the trade deadline but they have the assets to do it.

Player to Watch: Antonio Stranges. Potential NHL first rounder is one of the best skaters in the OHL and a human highlight reel on shootouts.

Unsung Hero: Josh Nelson

3. KITCHENER RANGERS

Last Year: 34-30-3-1 (5th)

Top Returning Scorer: Greg Meireles (97 pts)

The Skinny: The Rangers added overage Liam Hawel from the Guelph Storm to an already explosive offence that should score 300 goals this season, with three of last year’s top four scorers returning, including 50-goal man Jonathan Yantsis … Jacob Ingham arrives from Mississauga to take over the goaltending duties ... an pretty unheralded but workmanlike defence corps that may have found its power play quarterback in import Ville Ottavainen.

Player to Watch: Ottavainen. 17-year-old Finnish blueliner led team in pre-season scoring.

Unsung Hero: Justin MacPherson.

4. FLINT FIREBIRDS

Last Year: 16-46-6-0 (10th)

Top Returning Scorer: Ty Dellandrea (63 pts)

The Skinny: All those high first round picks should finally start to pay off with the best Flint team in a while … deep up front and now solidified in net with the arrival of overager Anthony Popovich from Guelph … team returns most of its roster from a year ago … will be looking to add to the blueline before the deadline.

Player to Watch: Evan Vierling. Second overall pick from 2018 should flourish in second-line role after tallying 27 points last season.

Unsung Hero: Riley McCourt.

5. SAULT STE. MARIE GREYHOUNDS

Last Year: 44-16-7-1 (3rd)

Top Returning Scorer: Barrett Hayton (66 pts)

The Skinny: Relying on the return of Hayton, who played in only 39 games last year, from the Arizona camp … will need big jumps from overager Jaden Peca and third-year centre Joe Carroll … four-year starter Matthew Villalta provides stability between the pipes but gets pushed by Christian Propp. 

Player to Watch: Carroll. After two nine-goal seasons, could be one of those players to make a huge jump.

Unsung Hero: Cole MacKay.

6. OWEN SOUND ATTACK

Last Year: 31-31-4-2 (6th)

Top Returning Scorer: Aidan Dudas (62 pts)

The Skinny: A good team perhaps a year away from being very good if the development progresses … goaltending questions in Owen Sound? Shocker! Mack Guzda returns as the number one goaltender despite an .878 save percentage the past two years …  ex-Storm Mark Woolley and Barret Kirwin provide the stability and leadership.

Player to Watch: Aidan Dudas. Time for the fourth-year speedster to go from good to great.

Unsung Hero: Mark Woolley.

7. SARNIA STING

Last Year: 28-33-5-2 (7th)

Top Returning Scorer: Ryan McGregor (77 pts)

The Skinny: The return of McGregor for an overage boost provides stability and some solid front-end scoring, along with Jamieson Reese and Jacob Perreault … Sting issue is depth, both on offence and defence.

Player to Watch: Ben Gaudreau. Rookie goaltender, who is injured to start the season, was taken seventh overall in this year’s draft.

Unsung Hero: Sean Josling.

8. GUELPH STORM

Last Year: 40-18-6-4 (4th)

Top Returning Scorer: Cedric Ralph (50 pts)

The Skinny: A team gutted by graduation has decided to go even younger by trading two talented overagers who likely would have assured a playoff spot … will open the season with 12 rookies on the roster … need a health Cam Hillis and steady goaltending from finally-a-starter Nico Daws if they want to make the playoffs ... it will be a dog fight for the final playoff spot.

Player to Watch: Andrei Bakanov. Import played in USHL last season and will be looking to use his big body and big shot to enhance his stature for this year’s NHL draft.

Unsung Hero: Cedric Ralph

9. WINDSOR SPITFIRES

Last Year: 23-33-5-5 (8th)

Top Returning Scorer: Cole Purboo (55 pts)

The Skinny: A young  team with some decent overagers (Luke Boka, Purboo) and some good up-and-coming forwards in Will Cuylie and Jean-Luc Foudy, but barren on the blueline, particularly with the departure of Nathan Staios to Hamilton … will be a busy year for goalie Kari Piiroinen.

Player to Watch: Egor Afanasyev. Acquired in the Michael DiPietro deal, could be top rookie scorer this season.

Unsung Hero: Luke Boka.

10. ERIE OTTERS

Last Year: 26-38-3-1 (9th)

Top Returning Scorer: Chad Yetman (57 pts)

The Skinny: Defenceman Jamie Drysdale is one of the league’s most dynamic young talents, but there isn’t a whole lot of experience to compliment his dynamic skills … Otters land a big get in 18-year-old forward Austen Swankler, a former Michigan commit who had 45 points in the USHL last season … third-year man Daniel Murphy carries the weight in net.

Player to Watch: Emmett Sproule. High expectations for third year forward, a former first rounder with 37 points last season.

Unsung Hero: Chad Yetman.

… and a quick look at the Eastern Conference

  1. Ottawa 67’s: Lots of players returning and perhaps the league’s top young goaltender in Cedric Andree.

  2. Oshawa Generals: A deep team that will challenge for the conference crown.

  3. Peterborough Petes: A great core returns but hurt by the fact Ryan Merkley is on the move.

  4. Sudbury Wolves: Still a year away, but Quentin Byfield will lead this team upwards.
  5. Mississauga Steelheads: Thomas Harley is defenceman of the year material.

  6. Barrie Colts: Warren Rychel takes over behind the bench as Dale Hawerchuk takes a year off for health reasons.
  7. Kingston Frontenacs: All eyes will be on underage forward Shane Wright. 

  8. North Bay Battalion: A gritty team that needs an infusion of skill.

  9. Hamilton Bulldogs: Year two of a rebuild and not a lot of established talent, but some decent up-and-comers.

  10. Niagara IceDogs: Niagara made a run for it last year and will pay the piper.



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