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OHL Eastern Conference: 10 teams, 10 (very, very early) questions

Red Wings prospect Andreas Athanasiou and Barrie should be hungry for another deep playoff run (OHL Images)

As an UFC diehard will attest, the undercard often outdoes the main event. The Eastern Conference's title drought nearly ended last May, when the combo of a pinged crossbar and Bo Horvat's buzzer-beater denied the Barrie Colts of the OHL championship.

The East is considered to be wide open ahead of a season where it might take only three playoff series wins to advance to the Memorial Cup tournament instead of the usual four. Barrie should have the hunger, their frenemies to the north in North Bay and Sudbury each return a strong nuclei. The Kingston Frontenacs (!) are considered a challenger. With the OHL preseason getting underway this Labour Day weekend, here's a peruse of each franchise.

Barrie Colts — Is Andreas Athanasiou going to be this season's Reid Boucher?

Sometimes an offensive player's breakout comes the second season after being drafted. Last winter, Boucher, a New Jersey Devils fourth-rounder, doubled his prior season's output by leading the league with 62 goals for the Sarnia Sting. Athanasiou gave a strong hint he might be in for a big year with a 25-point playoff for the nearly OHL champion Colts. The Detroit Red Wings fourth-rounder's ability and confidence has never been in question, but it's just been a matter of putting it all together. Athanasiou will have ample opportunity to replace the scoring lost with the grads of Anthony Camara and Mark Scheifele.

Barrie's other prime breakout candidate is 19-year-old defenceman Jake Dotchin, who's playing to prove to the Tampa Bay Lightning that he deserves a pro contract. Dotchin went in the fifth round of the 2012 NHL draft, but was almost forgotten during Barrie's playoff run.

Do you need any reminder that 17-year-old star Aaron Ekblad is good at hockey?

Belleville Bulls — How will Brendan Gaunce's status influence the direction of their season?

There is a building consensus that the burly 19-year-old could find a place in the Vancouver Canucks youth movement. Gaunce fits the profile of the big, broad two-way forward who can get to the NHL fast, but there's also a strong case for letting him come back and being a fourth-line energy player for Team Canada.

Losing Gaunce, which is an unlikely event, might push the Bulls more toward being sellers. It will not necessarily set up that way if he returns. Belleville and coach-GM George Burnett have held over shutdown defender Brady Austin and forward Alan Quine, whom the Detroit Red Wings passed on signing. Remaining stable defensively, with 18-year-old Charlie Graham inheriting Boston Bruins prospect Malcolm Subban's old job, will help the Bulls keep their heads above water.

Kingston Frontenacs — Is overage Matt Mahalak the answer in goal?

Giving up 270 goals is typically viewed as a team issue. Kingston certainly piled a lot of work on Mahalak's predecessor Mike Morrison, who played 3,165 minutes and had a few preventable goals go during the stretch run. Mahalak, the third consecutive overage tendy to come east after not being in a Western Conference team's plan, arrives with a stronger track record in the league. The former Carolina Hurricanes draft pick will be integral to the maturing Fronts cut their goals-against average to something in the 3.00 range.

Kingston GM Doug Gilmour has stocked up on goalies in the past two drafts and through free agency, meaning the Fronts will soon break their pattern of picking up a previously used goalies.

Mississauga Steelheads — Will they get a shot at drafting another exceptional player, should there be one?

That's not a shot, it's just a cheeky way of noting the fighting Fish have parted with eight vets via grads or trades following an eighth-place finish.

Goalie Spencer Martin, a Colorado Avalanche third-rounder, will probably be seeing a heavy volume of vulcanized rubber on an inexperienced team. Scouts will have a lot of reason to watch Missy between the 15-year-old Sean Day, 17-year-old forward Damian Bourne and incoming forwards Jesse Barwell, Everett Clark and Austin Gerhart.

Niagara IceDogs — What is the big subplot down in St. Catharines?

Likely the progress of 17-year-old goalie Brent Moran, who was the only 'true freshman' among the conference's goalies last season. A goalie Moran's age, optimally speaking, needs 30 to 40 games to keep progressing, but the Orléans, Ont., native has to vie with overage Chris Festarini for starts. The best development for Niagara, excuse indulging the cult of the general manager, might be for Moran to show he's ready to be a No. 1 netminder before the trade deadline, so Festarini could go to a team which can afford to buy overage-goalie insurance.

(Some day, the CHL will realize goalies should be exempt from the three-overage limit. It's a later-blooming position, people.)

Niagara is a Team X after bidding adieu to a half-dozen Team Canada players over two seasons; trades over the past two seasons means the only returning 19-year-olds are all defencemen. Eighteen-year-old Anthony DiFruscia will be stepping into a first-line role.

North Bay Battalion — Will they have a 'big three' on offence?

The Battalion, known for close-checking hockey, boast three promising forwards in third-year Brandon Robinson and sophomores Blake Clarke and Mike Adamio. Combined, the three counted 104 points as 16-year-olds, although the caveat is that was two seasons ago for Robinson. The Battalion are on pins and needles waiting to see if captain and 30-goal scorer Barclay Goodrow, who's getting a look from the Detroit Red Wings, will be at their disposal.

On the whole, the Battalion have a lot of returnees. It seems rather fitting that new starting goalie Jake Smith made his playoff debut last spring in Sudbury, where a lot of North Bay fans were watching against the Troops' ready-made Northern Ontario rival.

Oshawa Generals — Short and sweet, does Scott Laughton make the Philadelphia Flyers?

That is the only question, eh? The Gennies' line of succession was setting up well, with Laughton a rubber stamp to inherit the captaincy from two-time Team Canada forward Boone Jenner. The 19-year-old centre, though, endeared himself to the Flyers by avoiding the so-called NHL hangover ("he took a leadership role, even bigger than before he left, and he ran with it") when he rejoined the Generals after playing his first big-league games in January. Laughton will have competition from fellow recent NHL first-rounders Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn to be in the Flyers' plans.

On gut instinct, it's easy to picture Laughton starting the season with the Flyers for the standard nine-game call-up. Meantime, Generals GM Jeff Twohey and second-year coach D.J. Smith will be putting their brand on the 'Shwa after inheriting a good team last season.

Ottawa 67's — Is a playoff berth essential to validate Year 2 of coach-GM Chris Byrne's rebuild?

Year 2 of a rebuild — see Kingston in 2012-13, the Barrie Colts of one year prior and the Windsor Spitfires in 2007-08, Taylor Hall's and Ryan Ellis' 16-year-old year — is supposed to end with playoff hockey. Even if Ottawa gets star centre Sean Monahan back from the Calgary Flames and has recourse to move him to a contender following the world junior, the players Byrne gets back will be expected to be part of an eventual contender.

The answer is yes, although it's a completely arbitrary status. Making the playoffs as a 7 or 8 seed still has cachet.

Peterborough Petes — Why should one believe the Petes under Jody Hull — .591 point percentage compared to .286 before the coaching change — was the real deal?

The illusory part of the Petes' second-half push was that they ended up in a lot of three-point games, going 10-7 in extra time. Brett Findlay, who was the leading scorer on a team which scored only 194 goals, was an overage. What should trump that is that the atmosphere around the team ought to have improved significantly with the change to Hull and GM Mike Oke. Peterborough can also look forward to 18-year-olds Greg Betzold, Nick Ritchie and Jonatan Tanus grabbing more rope offensively. Ritchie was a point-a-game scorer (22 in 22 games from Jan. 24 onward) and Tanus, the Finnish import, now has a full North American year under his belt.

Sudbury Wolves — Will GM Blaine Smith be a buyer at the deadline?

Sudbury lost very little from a fourth-place club which reached the second round of the playoffs, but undrafted 19-year-old Mat Campagna (68 points in 66 games, eight during a nine-game playoff run) and 18-year-old Buffalo Sabres third-rounder Nick Baptiste (27 goals, 48 points) are the closest to being a high-end forward. Sudbury was rumoured to have kicked the tires on top scorer Ryan Strome last winter, but uncertainty over whether he would be a New York Islander or a Niagara IceDog after the NHL lockout ended scuttled any move.

The strong possibility that the Eastern Conference champ could qualify for the Memorial Cup is certainly going to increase the temptation to load up. Sudbury has never been to the tournament; it fell two wins shy in 2007.

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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