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Niagara IceDogs not ready to be written off totally: OHL Burning Questions

Niagara IceDogs' Anthony DiFruscia, Jesse Graham and Aaron Haydon (OHL Images)

The Ontario Hockey League regular season begins next 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.

Niagara IceDogs

In 2012-13 — 30-34-2-2, .471 point pct., 222 GF/248 GA. Sixth, Eastern Conference. Lost 4-1 to Oshawa in first round.

Final Dynamic Dozen ranking — 19th OHL, 56th CHL.

On the pro-or-junior bubble — Overage G Chris Festarini is in camp with the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs.

Drafted — C Carter Verhaeghe (Toronto Maple Leafs, third round), D Jesse Graham (New York Islanders, fifth).

2014 NHL draft watch — Six 1996-born players debuted with the 'Dogs last season, including 6-foot-3 defender Aaron Haydon, goalie Brent Moran and wings Brook Hiddink and Brendan Perlini. The new Russian imports, W Alexander Protapovich and D Alex Mikulovich, are also draft-eligible. Fellow 17-year-old Matt Gillard has also enjoyed a strong exhibition season.

1. What is the argument there's some hitherto untapped offensive potential?

By unofficial count, the departed — which include Ryan Strome, Brett Ritchie, Steven Shipley and a half-season of Dougie Hamilton — scored 138 of those 222 goals. Niagara also had a Downy-soft strength of schedule, since 20 per cent of their slate were against Erie and Mississauga. However, as counter-intuitive as it might seem, it's possible that Verhaeghe and fellow 18-year-olds Anthony DiFruscia and Jordan Maletta's point totals were depressed since the now-departed vets consumed so much of the top-6 ice time.

It could be a while before the Garden City has a striker as magnetic as Strome, who averaged 1.63 points per game across three seasons with the 'Dogs. Verhaeghe, who had 22 points in his last 26 games of '12-13 as he made his case to be drafted, will have to grow into the first-line centre role. Hiddink, Gillard, Perlini and Ben Hughes, along with No. 6 overall pick Hayden McCool, provide Niagara with some good stock in the younger age brackets. Perlini showed a spark with three points in five playoff games. Coincidentally, Strome had the same totals in the spring of 2010, when he was also a 16-year-old brought in from the Barrie Colts at the deadline

2. How long until their retooled defence congeals?

Graham and Mercer, now in their fourth seasons, have to helm a back end which is largely short on experience after losing four regulars over the past 12 months. The question also speaks to whether the IceDogs' trio of 17-year-olds, Haydon, Mikulovich and Blake Siebanaler, can avoid being overwhelmed early, since they're young players who either stepping into larger roles and/or a new league. Niagara also has an open overage slot, which is could use to pick up a surplus 20-year-old defenceman to stabilize the situation.

The club was banking on having Festarini as its No. 1 goalie. The 20-year-old, at this writing, is about a hour's drive away in Hamilton trying to get a toehold in the AHL. His status could hurt Niagara's potential, which segues into wondering where their streak of six consecutive playoff appearances since moving south in 2007 is a sacred cow for the organization. It's a neat distinction to have, but ultimately Niagara is intent on increasing its chances of contending in 2014-15, when they move into their new rink.

3. Speaking of which, will the new Meridian Centre have any of the atmosphere of Jack Gatecliff Arena?

The IceDogs have one season left at The Jack, which was built in the days when people were shorter and lived near the water. It's cramped and uncomfortable, but with the regular sellout crowds of 3,145 on-top-of-action OHL fans, it's practically the last of the honest-to-goodness hockey barns in the CHL. No doubt there will be some nostalgia for that authenticity.

For what's it worth, co-owner Bill Burke told a radio station recently that the developers of the Meridian Centre want to keep accentuating the crowd noise. "They're really working so that the noise bounces back down. There's a lot of places [other junior arenas] where it gets hidden in the ceiling."

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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