The Ontario Hockey League’s Western Conference has been a tough place to play over the past decade, and Kitchener Rangers head coach Steve Spott doesn’t expect it to get any easier this season.
A team from the West has won the OHL title 10 times in 11 years, including the last six seasons. This year, Western teams such as the Rangers, London Knights and Plymouth Whalers are among the favourites to hoist the J. Ross Robertson Cup.
“Playing in the Western Conference we know that every night is going to be a challenge,” Spott said. “There are the obvious teams that people will watch out for which include London and Plymouth. With that in mind, teams like Owen Sound and others could surprise people.”
Last season the Rangers made the conference finals before bowing out to the Knights, their Midwest Division rivals who eventually went on to represent the OHL at the Memorial Cup. This season the Knights will have Dale Hunter back behind the bench after he declined to stay with the NHL’s Washington Capitals.
London will be led offensively by Seth Griffith, who returns to the club after scoring a team-high 45 goals last season. He’ll be joined by sophomore Max Domi and defenceman Olli Maata, who was taken 20th overall in this year’s draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
With teams like Knights, Whalers and Attack all expected to be competitive in the west, the Rangers will be relying heavily on the goaltender combination of Frank Palazzese and American-born John Gibson.
“We see John and Frank as one of the best tandems in the league,” Spott said. “We expect them both to push each other and in doing so give our hockey club a chance to win every night.”
Kitchener will get their offence from Dallas first-round draft pick Radek Faksa, Tobias Rieder and recently acquired Matt Puempel. Newly-named captain Ryan Murphy will lead the defence.
“Ryan is a world class player who has played a significant role in two conference finals for our team,” Spott said.
Other teams in the West worth noting are the Erie Otters and Sarnia Sting.
Erie, which finished in the basement last season with only 10 wins, will have 15-year-old Connor McDavid in its lineup on opening night. McDavid is just the third player in OHL history to be granted exceptional-player status, following NHLer John Tavares and current Barrlie Colts defenceman Aaron Ekblad.
Sarnia will lose six of their eight leading scorers from last year, including NHL first-overall pick Nail Yakupov. But the team will get a spark from Alex Galchenyuk, who returns to the team after missing all but two games last season due to a knee injury. Galchenyuk was taken third overall in this year’s draft by the Montreal Canadiens.
The Eastern Conference hasn’t produced an OHL champion since the Peterborough Petes won the 2005-06 season. Still, there are some clubs in the East to keep an eye on.
The Niagara IceDogs, last year’s East champions, will have 16 players returning, including 2012 defenceman of the year Dougie Hamilton.
Niagara led the entire OHL in scoring last season. If the IceDogs plan to do the same this season they will need to fill the void left by Andrew Agozzino, Freddie Hamilton and Alex Friesen, who are all moving on from junior because of age. Those three combined for 101 of the club’s 291 goals. Ryan Strome, Steven Shipley and Brett Ritchie will be counted on to step up their offence.
All five clubs in the Central Division made the post season last year, however it will be a challenge for that to happen again. The Brampton Battalion lost leading scorer Sam Carrick to the AHL while the Sudbury Wolves will be without last year’s leading scorer Michael Sgarbossa.
The Barrie Colts will be led by first-round picks Tanner Pearson and Mark Sheifele, who are both on the roster because of the NHL lockout.
Other first-round selections who will return to their junior clubs this season are Codi Ceci of the Ottawa 67’s, Slater Koekkoek of the Petes, Oshawa’s Scott Laughton, Tom Wilson of the Whalers and Brendan Gaunce and Malcolm Subban of the Belleville Bulls.
The Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors were purchased from Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk in May by local sports marketer Elliot Kerr. They have been renamed the Mississauga Steelheads.
Head coach James Boyd, who has been with the franchise since 2004 has welcomed the change.
“The Steelheads identity change is very exciting for our team,” Boyd said. “We have a new look, renovations to our room and a positive attitude around the rink.”
Mississauga captain Stuart Percy missed significant time last season with varying injuries and Boyd says having the 19-year-old healthy should help his club improve from last season’s finish as the sixth seed in the west.
“Stuart has turned the page on last season and will have a better year,” Boyd said. “Many of the things he does do not show up on a score sheet, so his value cannot be measured by points alone.”
OHL action kicks off on Thursday night with four games on schedule, including a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference second-round matchup between the 67’s and Colts.