OHL Eastern Conference preview: Colts, IceDogs, Petes, 67's at front of pack

Neate Sager
Barrie Colts' Brendan Lemieux and Ottawa 67's Travis Konecny (Terry Wilson, OHL Images)
Barrie Colts' Brendan Lemieux and Ottawa 67's Travis Konecny (Terry Wilson, OHL Images)

Yahoo’s Buzzing the Net is previewing the 2015-16 Ontario Hockey League season, going by conference by conference, posing the big question of each team and assessing where it stands vis-à-vis the cycle of junior hockey. The Eastern Conference is first, since it includes the reigning champion Oshawa Generals. The OHL season begins Thursday.


Last season — .625 point percentage, second; lost 4-1 to North Bay in Round 2. Point of the cycle  Climbing.

How capable are the Colts of being greater than the sum of their parts and making a run?

Barrie has recorded at least 37 wins and won at least one playoff series for four consecutive seasons, which is noteworthy in a league with so much roster churn. This iteration of the navy and gold lacks a singular talent that builds hype and makes a team a sexy preseason pick, but it's a well-formed team with eight 19-year-olds.

Starting with the last line of defence, 6-foot-4 New Jersey Devils second-rounder Mackenzie Blackwood is an elite goaltender that has played in 96 of Barrie's 136 games across the past two seasons. The trio of Calgary Flames second-rounder Rasmus Andersson, sage overage Michael Webster and 19-year-old Brandon Prophet, who brightened up after a trade from Saginaw, are fine back-end building blocks. Barrie returns two 100-point scorers, Kevin Labanc and Andrew Mangiapane. One should expect that 40-goal man Brendan Lemieux will come back from the Winnipeg Jets camp and Anaheim Ducks late second-rounder Julius Nattinen will likely step into a top-6 role.  

General manager Jason Ford and the Colts scouting staff have a nice track record of finding later-maturing point producers. Barrie will need some complementary scoring to come along over the course of the season. Ben Hawerchuk and Lucas Chiodo, both 17, were given a lot of rope in preseason.  


Last season — .596 point pct., fourth; lost 4-2 to Niagara in Round 1. Point of the cycle  Near the top, 

How quickly can an overhauled blueline get up to speed?

Jeff Brown, now wearing both the coach and GM hats, rated coach-of-the-year honours for delivering an attitude adjustment and a climb from ninth to fourth during a season when the 67's moved out older forwards. Ottawa, however, turned over two-thirds of its defence, retaining Los Angeles Kings draft choice Jacob Middleton while drawing out the Evan de Haan/Nevin Guy choice for the overage defenceman slot. At least the 67's have two qualified candidates for that job, which is two more qualified candidates than the Republican Party has for the 2016 U.S. presidential nomination.

The 67's are banking that 6-foot-7, 224-pound import Stepan Falkovsky, 18-year-old Ryan Orban, 17-year-old Will Brown and true freshmen Noel Hoefenmayer and Hudson Wilson will form a perfectly cromulent D corps with appropriate age distribution. Up front, the 67's boast legitimate three-line strength with Philadelphia Flyers first-rounder Travis Konecny as the gamebreaker and older centres Nathan Todd, Dante Salituro and Sam Studnicka each leading a line. Travis Barron is also a high first-round pick that plays the heavy game at 17 years old. The 67's also have plenty of priority-selection picks as trade chips to use before the Jan. 10 trade deadline.


Last season — .574 point pct., fifth in conference; lost 4-1 to Oshawa in Round 2. Point of the cycle — Top, 

Will the buy-in on cutting down on goals against truly put the capital D in IceDogs?

It is only a little indulgent to make a dated cross-sport, across-the-Peace-Bridge parallel between these IceDogs and the early 1990s Buffalo Bills teams that went to four consecutive Super Bowls. The Bills were an electrifying scoring machine but ultimately couldn't shut down the best teams in order to win the big prize. Likewise, Niagara is stacked with scoring. The Garden City Goal Machine (trademark pending) boasts two 19-year-old NHL first-rounders in Brendan Perlini (Arizona Coyotes) and Josh Ho-Sang (New York Islanders). Mikkel Aagaard, Anthony DiFruscia, Graham Knott, Jordan Maletta and Christopher Paquette would be top-6 forwards on many OHL teams, while NHL second-rounders Vince Dunn and Blake Siebenaler a pair of pace-pushing offensively astute defencemen.

That explains the hype around Niagara. By the same token, it allowed 235 goals in 2014-15 while playing in what was a thin Central Division with two weak offensive teams. Coach-GM Marty Williamson estimates Niagara averaged one goal against per game that was "100 per cent preventable." Being more seasoned and having 19-year-old goalie Brent Moran warm to the No. 1 role will probably lead to a number closer to 200 under the GA heading, but older 'Dogs are being asked to learn new tricks. That said, sometimes the best defence is a great offence.


Last season — .426 point pct., eighth; lost 4-1 to Oshawa in Round 1. Point of the cycle  More than halfway up,

What is the basis for the belief the Petes, at long last, will contend?

It is the 60th anniversary season for the OHL's oldest continuously operating franchise (what, too soon to remind Oshawa about its arena burning down in '53). The Petes won the J. Ross Robertson Cup in their previous anniversary seasons in 1995-96 and 2005-06, so there's your media-friendly superficial narrative.

Seriously, though, the Petes are more than deepish defensively with a projected top four of Tampa Bay Lightning drafts Dominik Masin and Matt Spencer, the heady Carolina Hurricanes selection Kyle Jenkins and rugged Cam Lizotte. Like the news team in Anchorman, they all bring a certain something. The Petes are the rare  team with two proven goalies with 19-year-old Matt Mancina and 17-year-old Dylan Wells, as well.

Please bear in mind Peterborough was a 46.33 per cent Est. Fenwick Close team last season. It will need to take the fight to opposing defences more regularly, which will likely require a productive (and full) season from overage crafty centre Hunter Garlent, an age-19 season breakout from Buffalo Sabres draftee Eric Cornel and a sophomore-year stepup from creative Jonathan Ang. Steven Lorentz is also a quality fourth-year winger. The inches are all around the Petes, particularly if they cut back on their 263 goals against and the power play goes from 15th to somewhere around top seven or eight in the 20-team OHL.


Last season — .390 point pct., ninth. Point of the cycle  Ascending with an accent on youth.

How far upstream will the Trout get on their young talent?

The Peel Region puck collective will provide plentiful prospect pulchritude across the next couple seasons with their 1998 cohort led by Michael McLeod, intriguing import Alex Nylander and rushing defenceman Sean Day and the incoming 1999 birth-years Ryan McLeod and Owen Tippett. One would have to go back three seasons to Sam Bennett's and Roland McKeown's arrivals in Kingston to recall the last time an Eastern franchise had such an injection of high-end players. Coach-GM James Boyd is using the other import slot on a 19-year-old Swede, Daniel Muzito-Bagenda, in hope of having a polished finisher that's been lacking the last few seasons.

Relying heavily on underages, especially after the calendar turns, is typically a dangerous game. Nevertheless, Missy's Swedish experiment Michael Nylander, father of Alex and Maple Leafs bright young hope William Nylander, has come aboard as assistant coach makes them a fun sleeper pick as far shaking up the Eastern pecking order is concerned. Veterans such as overage speedster Josh Burnside strength the depth. Mississauga's 'but' is its goaltending. Three-year starter Spencer Martin ought to be in line to turn pro, although there's a number games in net in the Colorado Avalanche system.  


Last season — .794 point pct., first, beat Erie 4-1 in OHL final, won Memorial Cup. Point of the cycle  Starting over after reaching the summit on May 31,

Will new coach Bob Jones repeat his history of guiding helping a team avoid a post-Memorial Cup malaise?

Jones' only season as an OHL head coach was with the 2010-11 Windsor Spitfires, who fed off Ryan Ellis' leadership to push all the way to third round after back-to-back Memorial Cup triumphs. The Generals did some serious future-mortaging to bring home the hardware (along with, one presumes, untold bags of potato chips from the Memorial Cup media room) last spring. That will likely dictate a teardown at some point as they need to restock their portfolio of second-round priority selection picks. That might increase the imperative to cash in their chips by moving 19-year-old New York Islanders first-rounder Michael Dal Colle should he come back for his fourth season.

The Gennies shouldn't be that spartan up front, with 18-year-olds Anthony Cirelli, Sam Harding and Kenny Huether holding the opportunity to step forward after contributing during the championship season. Oshawa parted with a lot of its along-the-boards brawn with the likes of Josh Brown, Michael McCarron and (presumably) Hunter Smith moving up to higher levels. Defensively, playoff-run revelation Stephen Desrocher and 18-year-old power-play quarterback Mitchell Vande Sompel are around to mind the store. Ken Appleby is also one of the OHL's best overage goalies, which probably means Don Cherry will decry him being snubbed for Team Canada's selection camp come early December.  Point being, Oshawa should stay in the playoff picture. 


Last season — .625 point pct., third; lost 4-2 to Oshawa in Eastern final. Point of the cycle  Refreshing,

Where do they find complementary scoring after being hit hard by players aging out?

Generally, a team that wins five playoff series in two seasons — bowing out against the team that went on to play on the last Sunday of May each time — is due for a step back. The Battalion under Stan Butler are like Doctor Who. They never die, they just regenerate and make another playoff appearance. Overage goalie Jake Smith is coming back from the New York Rangers' training camp in time for the opening weekend, so presumably that means no calling in an old favour from a lower-tier league for a goalie everyone else missed.

The Smith speculation overshadows the fact the Battalion are a bit bereft of seasoned scoring. Los Angeles Kings third-rounder Mike Amadio (71 points), for now, is helming a first-line with sophomore Zach Poirier and third-year Brett McKenzie, who had a below-par 17-year-old season. One shouldn't forget about fourth-year Zach Bratina, who had 21 points in 30 games after dealing with brain trauma.

Colorado Avalanche draftee Kyle Wood is a fine first-pairing pillar, and the Troops have another big-bodied bluelinerr, 6-foot-6 Riley Bruce, who is a seventh-round project pick of the Flames. Butler, et al., might also be rewarded for taking a home run swing in the priority selection on Brady Lyle., although the hometown defender is out with a broken collarbone. Adding 17-year-old Cam Dineen, who played for Team USA at the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka under-18 tournament, was also a recruiting coup.


Last season — .529 point pct., sixth; lost 4-0 to North Bay in Round 1. Point of the cycle — Descending toward Reboot Valley.

Plain and simply, who steps up to score the goals?

If the law firm of Lawson Crouse moves the home office to Sunrise, Fla., then Kingston will have lost seven of the top 11 point-getters from a team whose 191 goals were fourth-fewest in the OHL. To be fair, Los Angeles-drafted right wing Spencer Watson had 48 points in 41 games during an injury-truncated season. Watson, Crouse's fellow Florida Panthers draftee Juho Lammikko and overage Connor McGlynn are the fulcrum of the scoring. Up front, Kingston needs a big-time breakout from someone, anyone, such as 19-year-old Jared Steege or former second-rounder Zack Dorval. 

Kingston is in a unique position of being an older team that isn't being projected to contend. Second-year coach Paul McFarland starts the season with nine 19-year-olds, including Carolina Hurricanes-signed captain Roland McKeown and three other defenders. The OA contingent includes OHL goalie of the year Lucas Peressini and a defenceman, Chad Duchesne. Perhaps there's a surprise in store in the Limestone City.


Last season (as Belleville Bulls) — .456 point pct., seventh; lost 4-0 to Barrie in Round 1. Point of the cycle Might have to head back to see if there a slow leak in the tires.

How will the young 'Dogs defence corps hold up in Year 1 in Hamilton?

You might remember goalie Charlie Graham from such heists as the 51-save job he pulled in a 2-1 win against the eventual Memorial Cup champs on Feb. 28. The Team Formerly Known Colloquially As Los Toros (okay, so maybe no one called them that) were a 47.59% Est. Fenwick side last season when they had the now departed Jordan Subban exhibiting his puck-moving ways. Justin Lemcke is the lone two-year defender on hand and one's attennae should be alert to see how Swiss newbie Christian Mieritz adapts to the North American game.

The leading returning goal scorers, Niki Petti and Stephen Harper, scored only 18 and 16 last season, but each is an older one-time first-rounder that should have the maturity/modicum of skill to produce. One should also be eager to see how another first-rounder, 17-year-old Brandon Saigeon, comes out in his sophomore season now that he's essentially playing in his hometown. A step up in the first season in Hamilton would be a nice story. 


Last season — .191 point pct., 10th. Point of the cycle — Nowhere to go but up.

How far can they climb in Season 1 of the David Levin epoch?

The Wolves, after selecting Levin, the Israeli-born playmaker, first overall, are at least set on building around speed, skill and "a compete-culture." Whatever that means, let's free-associate it with an understanding that Sudbury, with the new Barclay Branch/David Matsos GM/coach tandem, won't be hanging on to midlevel older players or just playing underages in the guise of rebuilding. Branch and Matsos apprenticed two of their early priority selection choices to Junior B clubs rather than rush them, keeping burly Macauley Carson and fifth-round centre Ben Garagan (four goals in preseason) in their true freshman class.

That is refreshing, and the Wolves have a modicum of higher-end talent such as Levin and top import pick Dmitry Solokov, who are among the eight 17-year-olds on the roster. Pavel Jenys is an underrated import scorer. Draft-year goalie Troy Timpano is capable of stealing wins. The Wolves also shored up a callow back end by landing overage Patrick Murphy, veteran of two Erie Otters playoff runs. Whether Sudbury makes the playoffs, it will not be '12 wins bad.' So there is that. 

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @naitSAYger.

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