All roads to the Memorial Cup run through Saginaw this season, as the Spirit, while still a work in progress, will be trading every pick and non-essential young player they have before the deadline as hosts of the Memorial Cup.
They’ve been tinkering since they were awarded the tournament and will likely make a big splash in the goalie department at some point. There will also be plenty of high-end 19 year olds on the market and the bidding should be high.
It leaves the Guelph Storm with plenty of ‘what ifs?’
What if they get secondary scoring to go with the top line that is as good as any in junior hockey?
What if they added a couple of players that gave them more depth?
What if the young back end of the blue line matures quickly?
What if Damian Slavik and Brayden Gillespie provide consistent goaltending?
What if Matt Poitras has an unlikely – but possible – extended stay with the Boston Bruins?
What if Cam Allen isn’t back to 100 per cent until after the season?
Most importantly, what if the Storm finds itself in fifth or sixth place come the trade deadline? Do they trade Poitras and Michael Buchinger? Or what if they sit in third or fourth, do they add players and go for it?
Here’s a preview and prediction of the Western Conference:
1. SAGINAW (Last year: 36-27-3-2, 4th)
Why? The all-in Spirit started to put this team together the second it was awarded the Memorial Cup, shoring up the forwards with Hunter Haight and Valentin Zhugin, then adding blueline depth with Braden Hache and Will Bishop. They’ll identify needs and use a well-stocked draft cupboard to fill those needs before the deadline.
Key piece: Michael Misa could potentially lead the league in scoring as a 16 year old and this team should score a lot of goals.
Missing piece: Goaltending is a concern, with two-year backup Andrew Oke the frontrunner. Expect a big name between the pipes at the Dow Centre before the deadline.
2. LONDON (Last year: 45-21-2-0, 2nd)
Why? The Knights lose a few key pieces off last year’s team in Logan Mailloux, Sean McGurn and goaltender Brett Brochu, but they have already added key players to fill those voids. New import Kasper Halttunen, the 36th overall pick in the NHL draft, will provide goal scoring, Henry Brzustewicz was a highly-regarded defenceman taken in the first round of the OHL draft by Ottawa who refused to report there on defence and Michael Simpson comes over from the Petes, where he was the playoff MVP, to tend goal.
London proved last year you can win without scoring a ton of goals and this year’s team will likely outscore last year’s.
Key piece: Simpson enters the season as the best goalie in the conference.
Missing piece: No glaring ones. And if there are, they will be filled by Jan. 11. London identifies holes, then plugs them. That’s how they roll.
3. OWEN SOUND (Last year: 33-28-6-1, 7th)
Why? The veteran-laden Attack has been building toward this season for a couple of years and have a talented, deep, gritty and experienced forward group, led by arguably the league’s top goalscorer in Colby Barlow. They also have one of the better overage groups in the league and return most of the defence.
Key piece: Can 17-year-old Carter George be the real deal between the pipes?
Missing piece: The Attack defence may need an upgrade at some point, particularly in the puck moving/power play quarterback department.
4. GUELPH (Last year: 35-28-4-1, 6th)
Why? Guelph could finish anywhere from third to eighth this season, depending on which way they decide to go at the trade deadline and if certain playes emerge.
They have one of the most dynamic lines in the league this with the Bowman/Poitras/Namestnikov trio and the top end of the defence is experienced and solid. But given Cam Allen’s injury (out until sometime in the new year), unproven secondary scoring and a younger four-through-seven on the blueline, it leaves questions.
Key piece: If Jett Luchanko and VIlmer Alriksson can produce on the second line, it makes Guelph a much deeper and dangerous team.
Missing piece: Expect another 19-year-old defenceman to be added at some point.
5. ERIE (Last year: 21-40-2-5, 10th)
Why? The Otters are a team on the rise and could be the surprise of the West, but likely a year away from being a top four club. They have a lot of young talent, as any team drafting as high as they have in recent years should. They have a couple of excellent imports in Ondrej Molnar and Chicago second round pick Martin Misiak, and first overall pick Matthew Schaeffer is a star in the making who will contribute right away.
Key piece: Coach Stan Butler has a team of young go-getters. Harnessing that energy while not holding it back will be interesting to watch.
Missing piece: Nolan Lalonde has never had a good team in front of him. Get some goaltending and the Otters are fighting for home ice in the playoffs.
6. WINDSOR (Last year: 44-18-4-2, 1st)
Why? Still a lot of talent on the Spits, including Oliver Peer, Jacob Maillet and a full season of Ryan Abraham. How quickly their younger players develop is the question and the fact that the team is in rebuild mode could result in a much different look in the second half.
Key piece: Liam Greentree. Second-year forward is a budding star after scoring 25 as a rookie.
Missing piece: Goaltending needs to be better, or at least more consistent, if home ice in the playoffs is a thing.
7. SAULT STE. MARIE (Last year: 20-33-9-6, 9th)
Why? The Hounds are a bit of a mystery. They could be much better than many anticipate, or they could be fighting for a playoff spot. Just three 19-year-olds up front, but the defence is solid and experienced, which it will have to be if the team’s goaltending isn’t better than last season.
Key piece: Paid big to Ottawa for overage winger Jack Beck and Bryce McConnell-Barker had 77 points as an 18 year old.
Missing piece: Depth up front, consistency in net.
8. FLINT (Last year: 35-28-4-1, 5th)
Why? Flint has some really nice pieces returning, most notably Gavin Hayes, Zach Giroux up front and Nathan Day in net. But the defence is very green and the Firebirds will likely be trading their top two or three forwards at the deadline. They will be a very young team in the second half of the campaign.
Key piece: Hayes had 40 goals a season ago.
Missing piece: A defenceman or two or three or four with experience. Five of the nine defencemen on the pre-season roster were born in 2006 or 2007.
9. KITCHENER (Last year: 33-29-6-0, 8th)
Why? Anything the Rangers do this year will be geared toward a possible Memorial Cup-hosting effort in 2027, so the rebuild is underway. Not that they don’t have some top-end talent in Carson Rehkopf, Hunter Brzustewicz and Matthew Sop, there’s just not enough of it. And Brzustewicz is likely gone at the trade deadline.
Key pieces: Rehkopf looks ready to break out if the Rangers can hold the top line together all year.
Missing piece: Proven goaltending, secondary scoring and defensive depth.
10. SARNIA (Last year: 41-18-5-4, 3rd)
Why? Sarnia sold the farm last season and now it’s time to pay the piper. The Sting lose the top six scorers off last year’s team and eight of the top 10. It will be a very long year in Sarnia.
Key piece: Goaltender Ben Gaudreau went unsigned and is back as an overage/trade bait. Forward group is led by former Storm Marko Sikic.
Missing piece: Many.
THE EASTERN CONFERENCE
- Ottawa 67’s
- Sudbury Wolves
- Barrie Colts
- Mississauga Steelheads
- Kingston Frontenacs
- Oshawa Generals
- Brantford Bulldogs
- North Bay Battalion
- Niagara IceDogs
- Peterborough Petes