Connor McDavid showed in his impressive rookie season that he can be a team cornerstone. His next mission is to lead the Erie Otters back to respectability in the Ontario Hockey League’s Western Conference.
McDavid handled the hype surrounding his much-anticipated arrival by winning the OHL rookie of the year award after finishing with 66 points in 63 games. However, his production didn’t translate into victories.
The Otters won only 19 games and finished last in the conference for the second straight season.
“It was not fun last year not winning a lot of games,” said McDavid. “The team had a couple of tough years in a row. We’re so sick of losing. We’re going to do whatever it takes to win.”
Erie has plenty of talent up front this season with McDavid set to play with new linemates Connor Brown and Andre Burakovsky. Oscar Dansk will be in net for a second season and a revamped defence features recent addition Cory Genovese.
“The defence is better than people think,” said Genovese. “We’ll turn some heads.”
Erie has dropped 107 of 134 games over the last two seasons. McDavid vows the team will be better this season because the players are putting in the necessary work.
“You always strive to get better,” he said. “That’s what it’s going to take.”
Regular-season play begins Thursday with a four-game schedule that features the defending Eastern Conference champion Barrie Colts at home to Saginaw.
The London Knights will likely be the team to beat in the West again this season. The defending OHL champions — who will host the Memorial Cup next spring — are loaded at both ends of the ice.
Provided they don’t earn roster spots with their respective NHL clubs, Max Domi (Phoenix Coyotes) and Bo Horvat (Vancouver Canucks) lead the front-line attack for the Knights. London also has a pair of first-round picks on defence in Olli Maatta (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Nikita Zadorov (Buffalo Sabres) along with goaltender Anthony Stolarz, a second-round pick by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012.
The Knights should be challenged by the Guelph Storm, who have a strong nucleus led by Winnipeg Jets prospect Scott Kosmachuk. The Owen Sound Attack also have a solid foundation with centres Gemel Smith and Cameron Brace along with defenceman Chris Bigras.
The Kitchener Rangers have a new head coach in Troy Smith, a new general manager in Murray Hiebert and a group of veterans in Justin Bailey, Evan McEneny and Radek Faksa. Those players will be counted on after the departures of goaltender Josh Gibson (Anaheim), defencemen Ryan Murphy (Carolina) and Frank Corrado (Vancouver) and forwards Joshua Leivo (Toronto), Tobias Rieder (Phoenix) and Matt Puempel (Ottawa).
The West Division appears wide open. The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, with NHL first-round pick Darnell Nurse (Edmonton Oilers), and the Windsor Spitfires, behind Kerby Rychel and Slater Koekkoek, could make some noise this season.
The road to the division title should still go through Plymouth, as goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic anchors a promising Whalers team.
There is no clear favourite in the Eastern Conference as last season’s top teams — the Belleville Bulls in the East Division and Barrie Colts in the Central — have to fill large voids in net (Belleville’s Malcolm Subban) and up front (Barrie’s Mark Scheifele).
The Oshawa Generals have a team to watch, especially if centre Scott Laughton returns from Philadelphia Flyers training camp. The Kingston Frontenacs have an up-and-coming squad with standouts like Henri Ikonen, Sam Bennett and Roland McKeown leading the way.
The Battalion played solid defence every year in Brampton. That shouldn’t change during the franchise’s first season in North Bay.
The Niagara IceDogs, meanwhile, will be counting on strong defensive play by Jesse Graham and Luke Mercer to help offset the departure of offensive stars like Ryan Strome and Brett Ritchie.
The Mississauga Steelheads’ solid defence and the Sudbury Wolves’ steady offence should keep those teams in the mix, while the Peterborough Petes and Ottawa 67s, who will unveil 2013 No. 1 pick Travis Konecny, will continue to rebuild this season.
As for the Otters, they believe they can do much more than escape the conference basement. Winger Joel Wigle recently said they are focused on winning the Midwest Division and finishing among the top three teams in the conference.
McDavid is also confident that Erie can be more of a force this season.
“It takes everybody to become a successful team. That’s what we’re going to do to build this thing back up,” McDavid said. “This team is going to be a lot better this year. With a lot of hard work, we can be just as good if not better than any team in the league.”