The Ontario Hockey League regular season begins this week. They play one of these every winter? Man, it never ends. With the days getting shorter and the season getting nearer, BTN is taking an early look at each team in reverse order of last season's standings.
North Bay Battalion
In 2012-13 — 34-25-3-6, .566 point pct., 191 GF/184 GA. Fourth, Eastern Conference. Lost 4-1 to Sudbury in first round.
Final Dynamic Dozen ranking — 14th OHL, 39th CHL.
On the pro or junior bubble — RW Barclay Goodrow, the captain who scored a team-high 38 goals last season, is back after declining an AHL offer from the Detroit Red Wings. It looks like overage D Zach (Big Country) Bell is at the Winnipeg Jets is headed to the Winnipeg Jets' AHL farm club.
Drafted — D Dylan Blujus (Tampa Bay Lightning, second round), LW Nick Paul (Dallas Stars, fourth).
2014 NHL draft watch — The Gateway City's gang green has a trio of draft-year forwards, led by LW Blake Clarke, who had 51 points as a rookie. Burly 18-year-old Brandon Robinson and 17-year-old Mike Amadio will also bear tracking. Sophomore D Kyle Wood, who will miss the first month with injured patella tendon, is hard to miss at 6-foot-5, 229 pounds.
1. Is there a chance Stan Butler might have a good offensive club?
The Battalion have not scored 200 goals in a year or produced a 70-point scorer since the Cody Hodgson/Matt Duchene salad days wrapped up in 2009, when they won the Eastern Conference. They have scraped by since that's what Stan Butler-coached teams have prided themselves on going all the way back to the end of the century.
But tight defensive coverage and cashing in off mistakes only pays off so much, since upper-echelon teams are harder to contain and cough up fewer pucks. It's a given the Battalion will be strong at both those traits. The big question is whether they score more. Getting Goodrow back is a huge coup. Another reason to be bullish about the Battalion is that they will not be hard pressed to replace their designated import or overage point producer, since neither the departed Patrick Machac nor Francis Ménard lit up the scoresheet last season.
The Battalion will need Clarke and the 18-year-old wings, Paul and Robinson, to keep making progress. First-rounder Brett McKenzie, the No. 10 overall pick, may also be ready to contribute early. The imports, Alex Henriksson and Vincent Praplan, are respectively 18 and 19 years old, which means they're expected to get it now, not next year. Then there's Goodrow.
Great experience in Detroit! Heading to North Bay for an amazing season in front of some starving hockey fans!
— Barclay Goodrow (@bgoodrow23) September 16, 2013
(The standings do say the 2011-12 Battalion scored 202 goals. The OHL might include shootout winners in the goals for/goals against column, but you and I are under no obligation to do so.)
2. Might they be a favourite to win the Central Division?
Quickly, without poring over the '12-13 schedule like I just did, who won the season series between the three now northern-ish teams in the East? The Battalion earned regular-season bragging rights vs. both Barrie (5-1-0-0) and Sudbury (4-3-0-1) before collapsing in the post-season vs. the archrivals.
The Colts have produced successive stellar seasons, of course, plus blueline ace Aaron Ekblad is good at hockey, to apply a meme from last season to a consensus NHL lottery pick. North Bay will have to break out of its mould of just being a passable playoff team, but there is potential. Relying on an 18-year-old No. 1 goalie and breakouts from a younger cohort of forwards is a bit dodgy. But the club is returning its top scorer and five seasoned D-men even if Bell lasts with the St. John's IceCaps. Another key will be Blujus' progress; the potential power-play QB plateaued during his 18-year-old year after being drafted by Tampa Bay.
There is reason to believe there could be a compelling three-way race for Central regular-season honours. It will be understandable if North Bay takes time to find chemistry, especially since it's on the road for the first three weeks due to renovations of the venerable Memorial Gardens. The only time the Battalion might feel at home before the Oct. 11 opener is five days earlier when they visit Mississauga. The club has arranged for a bloc of Brampton fans to sit behind its bench. Nice gesture!
3. How will Jake Smith maintain his performance as he goes from playing 20 games to somewhere in the 45-50 range?
Somewhere, there's a Battalion fan with family in the Peel Region who decided to check out his new beloveds last December, when Smith made nine consecutive starts while the now departed Matej Machovsky was with the Czech Republic squad at the world junior. Smith had a 2.73 average and .894 save percentage on 25.7 shots per game over that stretch, more or less in line with his season slash line (2.57/8.91/23.6). The small sample size is encouraging since it's not often a 17-year-old goalie has to play make that many consecutive starts. Smith did his best to give a struggling Battalion club an adrenalin shot during the playoffs; he's since responded with a strong preseason. Smith a small goalie at 5-foot-11, which only makes him a good underdog story.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.