There’s always an air of excitement at the start of the OHL season. Even more so when your team is almost certain to be a contender for a conference title.
The Guelph Storm is getting a lot of love heading into tonight’s Game 1 against the Hamilton Bulldogs: several prognosticators have picked them to win the West. Almost everyone has them in the top three. I have them finishing second.
Back-to-back productive drafts in 2019 and 2020, the emergence of Cam Allen as a top-level defenceman at 17 and an import who looks ready to score 30 goals this season has the Storm rightfully in the “contender” category.
Of course there are always variables and questions: Will they be hit by any significant injuries? Can the goaltending hold up? What moves do other teams make to get better and is Guelph willing to match those moves?
Bottom line, Guelph could finish first in the West. They could also finish fourth.
FORWARDS: On paper, there could be five 30-goal scorers on this team, with Danny Zhilkin, Braeden Bowman, Sasha Pastujov, Matt Poitras and Valentin Zhugin all capable of topping that mark. Throw in the grit of Ben McFarlane and Cooper Walker, who should both pot 15, and the possible emergence of the Charlie Paquette/Ryan McGuire/Chase Coughlin trio as a responsible third/fourth line combo and you have a very deep group up front with some younger talent as potential assets for trades.
First rounder Jett Luchanko will battle for playing time, but it’s a long season and his quickness and offensive savvy that started to show later in the pre-season will likely earn him more as the season progresses.
Who’s gone: Matt Papais, a 19-goal scorer a year ago who got caught in the overage numbers game in Guelph; captain Brayden Guy graduated to the pros.
Who’s new: First rounder Jett Luchanko can fly.
DEFENCE: Is there a better top four in the OHL than Luka Profaca, Cam Allen, Michael Buchinger and Payton Robinson? Perhaps London. Maybe Mississauga. But to have four experienced blueliners of this calibre heading into a season, never mind what the blueline looks like after the trade deadline, is very reassuring.
Import Nikko Minkkinen is intriguing, a rangy beanpole with tremendous reach who will need time to develop.
Zach Sandhu, who plays the game with a very high degree of confidence and doesn’t appear to let a bad shift affect the rest of the game, looks like he could be very solid on the third pairing along with recently acquired Cedricson Okitundu. Both those two bring some grit to the table.
Who’s gone: Daniil Chayka graduates to the pros, overagers Ashton Reesor and Cam Supryka to university hockey. Jakub MacRae has not returned.
Who’s new: Payton Robinson, 19, picked up from Sudbury, Cedricson Okitundu, 18, arrives from Owen Sound, Zach Sandu joins full time and import Nikko Minkkinen.
GOALTENDING: This isn’t rocket science: Jacob Oster is the number one and will be given every opportunity to show he is the man. If he hasn’t proven that by mid-November, the Storm will be shopping for his replacement.
It’s not about skill level. It rarely is at this level and at that position. It’s about consistency and confidence. It’s about stealing the odd game for your team when needed and about not losing games for your team. You don’t have to be great every night, you just have to avoid the bad nights.
Who’s gone: Owen Bennett didn’t return as an overage.
Who’s new: DIxon Grimes, 19, makes the team as the backup after two years in junior B.