Ryan Pyette breaks it all down, team-by-team
Even the topranked team in junior hockey starts the season with some massive question marks.
The two-time defending OHL champion London Knights don't know if they'll have flashy forward Max Domi and top centre Bo Horvat in the lineup this season. The NHL first-rounders are trying to prove they belong in the big leagues with Phoenix and Vancouver respectively.
But no matter their fate, the powerhouse Knights will return to the Memorial Cup in May at Budweiser Gardens. They won the right to host the tournament for the second time in nine years over the Barrie Colts, who lost an OHL final heartbreaker on Horvat's OHL Game 7-winning buzzer-beater in the spring, and the Windsor Spitfires, who missed the playoffs after one of the biggest punishments in Canadian Hockey League history for illegal recruitment.
The Guelph Storm are poised to push the Knights for the OHL's Western Conference crown. With a second berth at the Cup up for grabs, the Eastern Conference should be a free-for-all with hungry Barrie, veteranladen Sudbury, up-and-coming Kingston and a North Bay team back in the league for the first time in over a decade - the Battalion, formerly belonging to Brampton.
This is the first time three players granted exceptional early entry into the OHL at 15 years old will be in the league at once. Defenceman Aaron Ekblad will try to lead Barrie back to London, Erie sophomore Connor McDavid should do great things on an improved Otters team and Mississauga Steelheads rookie defenceman Sean Day should arouse curiosity after dropping to fourth in the draft last spring.
The OHL and commissioner David Branch will be watched closely again by the hockey world for the tough justice for head shots, his quotas on fighting and the phasing-out of import goalies in an effort to develop more outstanding Canadian stoppers.
The old debates will rage anew over quality of officiating, drug testing and the rewards for players in a league that continues to improve its bottom line through brand power and larger, state-of-the-art arenas.
The Niagara IceDogs will bid one final farewell to old Jack Gatecliff Arena before moving into a new St. Catharines home and historic franchises like Peterborough and Ottawa will attempt to dig themselves out from the rubble of past failures.
And in the end, one other team will join the Knights on the league's big stage in London in May. Whoever answers their own question marks the best, will win.
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BY THE NUMBERS
3 London will become first OHL franchise since Sault Ste. Marie (1991-93) to play in three straight Memorial Cup tournaments in May at Budweiser Gardens. The Greyhounds won on their third crack, on home ice, in '93. The Knights are hoping for history repeating.
4 The draft spot where the Mississauga Steelheads picked defenceman Sean Day, the first player granted exceptional status who didn't go No. 1. Every previous skater handed early entry has turned into a star. Day will be linked with the three drafted ahead of him - Ottawa's Travis Konecny, Erie's Dylan Strome and Peterborough's Matt Spencer.
12 The number of years since North Bay last had an OHL team. The former Brampton Battalion play their first regular-season home game at North Bay's Memorial Gardens on Oct. 11 vs. Peterborough after opening with nine games on the road.
13 The OHL's total number of 100-point scorers over the last five seasons since a whopping eight in 2007-08. Defensive awareness is in everybody's heads these days.
72 Goals former exceptional player John Tavares scored as a 16-year-old with the Oshawa Generals in 2006-07. Unlikely Erie's Connor McDavid can get there, but Tavares' 134 points at that same age might be within reach.
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Last year: 50-13-2-3, 105 points; first overall (2nd straight year)
Head coach: Dale Hunter
Top guns: 2014 Memorial Cup hosts should trot out five NHL first rounders for a power play: Max Domi (PHX), Bo Horvat (VAN), Michael McCarron (MTL), Olli Maatta (PIT), Nikita Zadorov (BUF). An incredible 17 players got a look in NHL camps this year.
The challenge: Cue the paranoia. Domi and Horvat could stick in the big leagues. Injuries could overwhelm. Battle fatigue from two straight Memorial Cup trips could bite. Their back end could stumble.
Bright side: Strong veteran leadership counters loss of captain Scott Harrington and trigger man Seth Griffith. Bulk of crew part of last year’s 24-game win streak. Goalies Anthony Stolarz (PHI) and Jake Patterson have been through this before.
Prediction: They shouldn’t lose more than 10 games.
Last year: 32-29-4-3, 71 points; eighth in conference
Head coach: Greg Gilbert
Top guns: Jimmy Lodge (WPG) and Justin Kea (BUF) both have 35-goal potential.
The challenge: They don’t know if overage gunner Eric Locke (44 goals) will come back from Buffalo Sabres. They’ve already said goodbye to another 44-goal guy, Garret Ross.
Bright side: Goalie Jake Paterson (DET) poised to be back on the Canadian world junior team this season — and the best in this league.
Prediction: They’ve lost to OHL champ London last two years. Maybe third time’s the charm.
Last year: 39-23-2-4, 84 points; fifth in conference
Head coach: Scott Walker
Top guns: Scott Kosmachuk (WPG) scored 35 times last year and Brock McGinn (CAR) added 28. Captain Matt Finn (TOR) anchors D corps that includes giant Ben Harpur (OTT).
The challenge: Garret Sparks (TOR) is pushing for a Marlies job so there’s no experience in net. If Jason DaSilva or rookie Matt Mancina don’t own the crease, the Storm will have to deal for a capable veteran.
Bright side: Second-year F Robby Fabbri ready to take a giant leap and the Storm still expect big things from Hunter Garlent, who suffered the sophomore jinx.
Prediction: Hoping for shades of 2004 and stun London in the third round.
Last year: 26-33-3-6, 61 points; missed playoffs
Head coach: Bob Boughner
Top guns: GM’s son Kerby Rychel (CLB) has 81 goals over past two seasons and top pick Ryan Moore has a ton of skill.
The challenge: From 2009-11, the Spits won 41 playoff games. They’ve won zero since then. The team’s core group, now veterans, haven’t delivered results.
Bright side: Injuries to back end prevented true potential. Patrick Sieloff (CGY) and Slater Koekkoek (TB) are a solid one-two punch to protect starting goalie Jordan DeKort.
Prediction: If not a bounce-back year, let the fire sale begin.
Last year: 19-40-4-5, 47 points; missed playoffs
Head coach: Kris Knoblauch
Top guns: A first line of Connor McDavid, Connor Brown and Swedish import Andre Burakovsky (WSH) could be as good as any in the league.
The challenge: They’ve got a pretty good net tandem with Oscar Dansk (CLB) and Devin Williams. Now, if the Adam Pelech-led defence limits the shot counts on a regular basis, they’ll surrender way less than the 300-goal avalanches of yesteryear.
Bright side: McDavid (25-41-66) and Co. are going to score and don’t sleep on a strong second line led by overager Dane Fox (19 goals in 37 games last year).
Prediction: If they shrug off usual slow start, they’ll challenge for a Top Four spot.
Last year: 42-17-5-4, 93 points; won West division
Head coach: Mike Vellucci (reigning OHL coach of the year)
Top guns: No one’s going to make up for Vincent Trocheck’s production (59 points in 28 games with in Whaler garb), but third-year F Matthew Mistele is on the right track. He had 34 goals last year and will be a solid NHL draft pick next summer.
The challenge: Tom Wilson is the best power forward in the league, a talent Washington might want to keep for itself in the NHL.
Bright side: Alex Nedeljkovic went 19-4 down the stretch in net last year, then won two playoff rounds – and he’s still just 17.
Prediction: Not as good as last year, but they never bottom out.
Last year: 36-26-3-3, 78 points; sixth in conference
Head coach: Sheldon Keefe, first full season after stirring turnaround
Top guns: Jared McCann had 21 goals as a rookie and clear of concussion issues. Darnell Nurse (EDM) should run the show from the back end.
The challenge: Outgoing Nick Cousins (PHI) had 39 more points than any other forward on the team last season (27-76-103). Overager Andrew Fritsch (52 points) and Sergey Tolchinsky (51 points) must make up that gap.
Bright side: Goalie Matt Murray (PIT) has the experience to be a top-end goaltender.
Prediction: No matter how the numbers crunch, they’ll settle in seventh.
OWEN SOUND ATTACK
Last year: 44-18-1-5, 94 points; second-highest point total in conference
Head coach: Greg Ireland
Top guns: Cameron Brace can improve on 35 goals and he’ll get help from Gemel Smith (DAL) and Zach Nastasiuk (DET).
The challenge: OHL goalie of the year Jordan Binnington (STL) is gone and Brandon Hope needs to step up without d-men Cody Ceci (OTT) or Nathan Chiarlitti in front of him.
Bright side: It’s never easy to come into the Bayshore and leave with two points. They’ll be tough at home.
Prediction: Competitive division again. Strength of schedule will be second to none.
Last year: 39-20-1-8, 87 points; fourth in conference
Head coach: Troy Smith. takes over from new Marlies coach Steve Spott
Top guns: Justin Bailey (BUF) can be a dominant force. He just has to put up the numbers to prove it. Czech Radek Faksa (DAL) had a write-off second season with just nine goals.
The challenge: Nuts and bolts of a first-string power play — Ryan Murphy, Frankie Corrado, Matt Puempel, Josh Leivo and Tobias Rieder — just walked out the door. Oh, yeah, and John Gibson, the No. 1 goalie in junior hockey is gone, too.
Bright side: They’ve got a blast from their past — Al MacInnis’ son, Ryan — in the fold.
Prediction: Overage goalie Tyson Teichmann, now with his fifth OHL team, will keep them in games.
Last year: 35-28-1-4, 75 points; seventh in conference
Head coach: Trevor Letowski, replaces Jacques Beaulieu, who was fired after two seasons
Top guns: Nikolay Goldobin was the OHL’s top rookie scorer (30-38-68) last year and Nikita Korostelev, the former Toronto Junior Canadien, could be that guy this year. That would be nice without Charles Sarault (108 points) and Reid Boucher (62 goals) anymore.
The challenge: Find some stability. With Letowski and assistant Andy Delmore on board, the Ciccarellis could finally have their long-term solution behind the bench.
Bright side: Alex Basso, who has asked for a trade, and Anthony DeAngelo would look good on any blue-line. They will be coveted by contenders.
Prediction: Not this time.
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Last year: 44-20-2-2, 92 points; won Central Division
Head coach: Dale Hawerchuk
Top guns: Zach Hall and Mitchell Theoret returning gives the Colts two of the better overage forwards in the league. Speedy Andreas Athanasiou (DET) could break the 40-goal barrier.
The challenge: No more Mark Scheifele, Anthony Camara, captain Ryan O’Connor and goalie Mathias Niederberger.
Bright side: Bitter taste from last-second OHL final loss and Memorial Cup host snub will make them ravenous to return to London in May.
Prediction: With Aaron Ekblad as D anchor, they’re contenders again.
Last year: 27-35-3-3, 60 points; seventh in conference
Head coach: Todd Gill
Top guns: The super-talented 1996s (birthdate) — Roland McKeown, Spencer Watson, Sam Bennett, Dylan DiPerna — are ready to break out. But they still need steady production from Ryan Kujawinski (17 goals last year) and Henri Ikonen (team-best 51 points).
The challenge: They’re banking on overage G Matt Mahalak, who was displaced as Plymouth starter by 17-year-old Alex Nedeljkovic. He needs to be the backbone of a better defence, which includes Watson’s twin brother, Matthew.
Bright side: This crew is going to challenge for a much-awaited league title. If they’re ahead of schedule this year, they might be in the mix for a couple of them.
Prediction: Doug Gilmour’s crew compelling to watch again.
Last year: 29-27-5-7, 70 points; fifth in conference
Head coach: Paul Fixter, over from Kitchener to replace Trent Cull
Top guns: They return their top three 20-goal scorers – Mathew Campagna, Nathan Pancel, Nick Baptiste.
The challenge: History. The franchise hasn’t won 40 games since 1994-95.
Bright side: Overager Franky Palazzese had to leave Kitchener for a shot at No. 1 crease job. Hard-hitting D Kevin Raine finally gets top role after logjam in London.
Prediction: They have some bite this time.
NORTH BAY BATTALION
Last year: 34-25-3-6, 77 points; fourth in conference
Head coach: Stan Butler
Top guns: Overager Barclay Goodrow can improve on 38-goal, 52-point season. Blake Clark had 19 goals as a rookie last year.
The challenge: Hard to replace G Matej Machovsky, who will play in the Czech Republic this season, but the blue-line is stout — Dylan Blujus (TB), Marcus McIvor, Brendan Miller and Zach Bell.
Bright side: Will get crowd boost with move north, but they still went 21-10-1-2 in close-to-empty Bunker last year in Brampton.
Prediction: Fun first year back in North Bay.
Last year: 44-16-5-3, 96 points; first in conference
Head coach: George Burnett
Top guns: Captain Brendan Gaunce would be a top junior player — if he comes back from the Canucks. Defenceman Jordan Subban (VAN) had 47 points last season.
The challenge: Half of last year’s top squad ready to move on. Bit players have to become big contributors this season.
Bright side: Goalie Charlie Graham had a 2.59 GAA and .922 save percentage. Not quite Malcolm Subban, but pretty close to the future Bruin.
Prediction: They won’t fall as far as some might think.
Last year: 26-35-3-4, 59 points; missed playoffs
Head coach: Jody Hull
Top guns: Nick Ritchie (18-17-35) missed a third of last season because of injury. Former top pick Eric Cornel should score more and Windsor pick-up Michael Clarke has some top-line skills.
The challenge: They haven’t played a playoff game in the last three years. For this franchise, that’s shocking.
Bright side: They finished strong last year and there are a number of teams in rebuild mode. Missing the playoffs not an option.
Prediction: They’re taking baby steps to get back to old glory.
Last year: 26-34-0-8, 60 points; eighth in conference
Head coach: James Boyd
Top guns: Overager Dylan Smoskowitz buried 33 goals last year. Top pick Sean Day, a swift-skating defenceman, was granted exceptional early entry into the OHL this spring.
The challenge: The Steelheads lost eight shootout games last year (tied with Kitchener). Third-year goalie Spencer Martin (COL) should be able to fix that number.
Bright side: They’re the kings of the GTA junior-hockey market with the Battalion’s departure.
Prediction: All eyes will be on Day.
Last year: 30-34-2-2, 64 points; sixth in conference
Head coach: Marty Williamson
Top guns: Maple Leafs prospect Carter Verhaeghe (18 goals) and Brendan Perlini (7 goals in 27 games) will draw top-notch minutes. Anthony DiFruscia (14-16-30) led ’Dogs rookies in scoring.
The challenge: Their top three point-getters — Ryan Strome, Brett Ritchie, Steven Shipley — have graduated.
Bright side: Last call at ancient Jack Gatecliff Arena with Meridian Centre set to open in 2014-15.
Prediction: Rebuild sets up team for bright future in new digs.
Last year: 42-22-1-3, 88 points; third in conference
Head coach: DJ Smith
Top guns: Philly prospect Scott Laughton (23-33-66) had seven playoff goals in seven games last spring. Michael Dal Colle (15 goals in rookie season) will get premium minutes with 45-goal man Boone Jenner gone.
The challenge: They’re a pretty youthful group and their top players will be targeted by contenders for trades.
Bright side: They have 36-game winner Daniel Altshuller (CAR) in net.
Prediction: With GM Jeff Twohey and Smith on board, this season is a blip.
Last year: 16-46-0-6, 38 points; missed playoffs
Head coach: Chris Byrne
Top guns: F Travis Konecny was the OHL’s first overall pick and will make his mark early. He has Dante Salituro (14-26-40) and Joseph Blandisi (26 points in 26 games) to help shoulder the scoring load.
The challenge: It’ll be difficult to replace Sean Monahan and his 31 goals if the NHL’s sixth-overall pick cracks the Calgary Flames this year.
Bright side: The kids can learn and grow without the pressure of expectations.
Prediction: It will be a struggle again.