It’s a new dawn in the Ontario Hockey League as the 2017-2018 kicks off Thursday night.
Last year’s regular season champions, the Erie Otters, and the eventual Memorial Cup champions, the Windsor Spitfires, could very well be the bottom two teams in the Western Conference this year.
Owen Sound is a favourite for the first time in years and a few teams that have struggled the past few years – Guelph, Flint and Saginaw – are all finally on the rise.
Here’s how I see the Western Conference this year.
1. Owen Sound Attack
Last season: 49-15-2-2 (3rd)
Why: The Attack no longer get to play the surprise team or the underdog. They are deep and skilled under new head coach Todd Gill with only one real question mark: goaltending.
Up Front: Nick Suzuki, Kevin Hancock and Jonah Gadjovich combined for 255 points last year and they’re all back. That’s pretty scary.
Back End: Steady but unheralded group backed by Markus Phillips. Will likely get an upgrade at some point.
Goaltending: If they get Michael McNiven back from Montreal as an overager it changes the landscape completely. If not its Riley Daniels or journeyman Zack Bowman getting the chance.
Watch: Jonah Gadjovich. Not only skilled, but probably the toughest player in the conference.
2. Soo Greyhounds
Last season: 48-16-3-1 (2nd)
Why: It’s hard to think a team could lose the likes of Blake Speers, Zach Senyshyn and others and still be a contender, but the Greyhounds are thanks to depth and a great defence. They will hope to translate unhappy goaltender Joseph Raaymakers into something tangible.
Up Front: Boris Katchouk, Jack Kopacka and Tim Gettinger carry the load, but overall it’s a very balanced bunch.
Back End: Colorado Avalanche second rounder Conor Timmins is probably the best two-way defenceman in the OHL, with 61 points and a plus-53 rating last year. He’s got some solid help in Anthony DeMeo and former-Guelph Storm Noah Carroll.
Goaltending: With Raaymakers on the trading block the spotlight shines on Matt Villalta, who was great (25-3-1, 2.41 GAA) after taking over as the number one last year.
Watch: Barrett Hayton. A star in the making.
3. Kitchener Rangers
Last season: 36-27-3-2 (6th)
Why: This team could be the second-best team in the conference or they could be the seventh best team, I don’t know which way they will swing. If they swoon early it could mean the trading block for some of the talent that are the reason I have them rated so highly.
Up Front: High-end talents Adam Mascherin and Connor Bunnaman and a solid second tier of Greg Meireles and Joe Garreffa get even more depth with the addition of imports Adam Liska and Rickard Hugg.
Back End: Arguably the deepest defence in the conference, with Logan Stanley, Connor Hall and Doug Blaisdell. Loss of Elijah Roberts will hurt.
Goaltending: The Achilles heel of this team. Luke Opilka is out for at least half the season and Luke Richardson has been up and down. Anthony Dumont-Bouchard, an OA refugee from the QMJHL, has been brought in.
Watch: Adam Macherin. Best pure sniper in the conference.
4. London Knights
Last season: 46-15-3-4 (4th)
Why: This is a low prediction by London standards. Great up front, but iffy on the blueline and very iffy in net.
Up Front: Sam Miletic (37 goals), Robbie Thomas (St. Louis Blues first round pick), Cliff Pu (86 points) and a healthy Max Jones provide a great mix. New Jersey Devils sixth round pick Jesper Bratt joins the group.
Back End: Victor Mete and Evan Bouchard are young stars, but the team might regret dealing Nic Mattinen.
Goaltending: Reliable Tyler Parsons is gone and new starter Jordan Kooy has 515 minutes of OHL experience. Expect a move.
Watch: Jordan Kooy. London’s version of Guelph's Anthony Popovich is under the microscope.
5. Guelph Storm
Last season: 21-40-5-1 (10th)
Why: A maturing group that added more skill than any team in the OHL over the summer. A year away from challenging for first.
Up Front: It was already going to be a pretty good group with the maturing of Isaac Ratcliffe and Nate Schnarr and the steady Givani Smith and James McEwan. The addition of training camp eye opener Alexy Toropchenko and the uber-skilled Cam Hillis, plus the sandpaper delivered by Zach Poirier and this forward group is one of the conference’s deepest.
Back End: Ryan Merkley will be Ryan Merkley and could get 80 points. Mark Shoemaker and Owen Lalonde join a more balanced crew than a year ago and Dmitri Samorukov should blossom. A pair of 16 year olds in Anthony Aguano and Mark Woolley round it out.
Goaltending: Anthony Popovich gets a chance to prove he’s the man. If not, the telephone lines will be busy come November.
Watch: Ryan Merkley. Because he does things no one has ever done in a Guelph Storm uniform.
6. Flint Firebirds
Last season: 32-28-3-5 (7th)
Why: Ryan Oulahen didn’t spend all the time with Stan Butler and not learn a thing or two. A gritty team, a tough team, a smart team. I can see them being the surprise of the conference this year.
New GM Barclay Branch replaces George Burnett.
Up Front: Nick Caamano and Ryan Moore will get the job done and this year’s first round pick Ethan Keppen had a great pre-season, but it’s time for the likes of former high picks Ty Dellandrea and Hunter Homes to step it up.
Back End: You can’t replace Alex Peters and Matt Henderson, but Russian import Nikita Alexandrov and the very solid Nic Mattinen join a pedestrian, but decent, group.
Goaltending: Virginia native Garrett Forrest split duties last year but will handle the bulk this season, with his back-up being 16-year-old Luke Cavallin.
Watch: Ryan Moore. One of the league’s more unheralded players.
7. Sarnia Sting
Last season: 31-30-6-1 (8th)
Why: It’s Sarnia.
Up Front: They have potential OHL scoring champ Jordan Kyrou (94 points), Anthony Salinitri (28 goals) and great two-way centre Drake Rymsha. Overager Jordan Ernst could put up some solid numbers, and last year’s first rounder Jamieson Rees could be a star. But depth is an issue.
Back End: Overager Connor Schlichting better get used to playing a lot of minutes on a young and inexperienced back end that lost two overagers from last season.
Goaltending: Justin Fazio can be one of the league’s best when he’s on his game, but Aidan Hughes is going to want more playing time.
Watch: Jordan Ernst. Converted defenceman had five goals up front in the pre-season.
8. Saginaw Spirit
Last season: 27-32-7-2 (9th)
Why: The Spirit seem to have the ship turned in the right direction. They have a new coach in Troy Smith and made a big splash by signing Blade Jenkins out of the USNTDP. Not there yet, because they’re young, but it’s coming
Up Front: Former first rounder Brady Gilmour could hit 80 points this year but after that it’s a very young and inexperienced group. His 47 points last year were the most of any returning player.
Back End: This is the team’s strength, with Keaton Middleton, Marcus Crawford and Hayden Davis providing the base. But after that it gets pretty young. German import Tom Bappert joins the group.
Goaltending: The always-perplexing Evan Cormier will be pushed for top dog duties by Brendan Bonello. One of them likely won’t finish the year there.
Watch: Blade Jenkins. Who many, including me, thought the Guelph Storm might pick over Ryan Merkley in 2016.
9. Windsor Spitfires
Last season: 41-19-5-3 (5th)
Why: Spitfires co-owner/general manager Warren Rychel knew he could have hung on and battled for home ice this season, but it would have only delayed a much-needed rebuild that for a variety of reasons has seen the draft pick cupboard go pretty barren.
Logan Stanley was the first to go, Logan Brown and Michael DiPietro are on the clock. Both should reap huge rewards.
Up Front: Brown (Ottawa Senators first rounder), Gabe Vilardi (61 points) and Aaron Luchuk (28 goals) are joined by import Kirill Kozhevnikov. After that it’s a pretty significant drop off.
Back End: Overager Austin McEneny and 19-year-old Tyler Nother are the only experience. First rounder Nathan Staios will play a lot.
Goaltending: Michael DiPietro is the best goaltender in the OHL. Maybe junior hockey. So he will be ridden like a fairground pony until he’s traded.
Watch: Gabe Villardi. One of the league’s best snipers.
10. Erie Otters
Last season: 50-15-2-1 (1st)
Why: It’s not easy going from first to worst, but the Otters might have to if they want to kick-start the rebuild. There are five or six very solid players on this team and every one of them is on the trade market.
Chris (son of Craig) Hartsburg gets thrown in the deep end as the new coach.
Up Front: The Alex DeBrincat era is over and Taylor Raddish and his 100 points will be gone by the trade deadline. The next best forwards, Ivan Lodnia and Kyle Maksimovich, will also be garnering plenty of attention. Everyone is for sale in Otterland.
Back End: Overager TJ Fergus is an extremely underrated defenceman and Jordan Sambrook is rock solid. Both are trade bait, but someone has to mind the fort while the team rebuilds.
Goaltending: Overager Troy Timpano could be another team’s plan B at some point. If not, it is highly recommended he get a good night’s sleep prior to every game.
Watch: GM Dave Brown. Might end up being the hardest working man in the OHL this season.