OHL Western Conference preview: London Knights load up, while West is well-balanced

Buzzing The Net
OHL Western Conference preview: London Knights load up, while West is well-balanced
OHL Western Conference preview: London Knights load up, while West is well-balanced

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. Today's about a synopsis of the Western Conference after teeing up the Eastern Conference earlier. The OHL season begins Thursday.

LONDON KNIGHTS

Last season — .618 point percentage, third in conference; lost 4-1 to Erie in Round 2. Point of the cycle — Nearing the top.

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How soon will Mitchell Marner return and is it possible the Knights could be super-potent even without him?

To think there are five- and six-year-old children in Timbits hockey who are not old enough to remember the Knights' last OHL title in May 2013. London could get the key to the penthouse suite a year ahead of schedule once playmaker par excellence Marner, as generally anticipated, returns from the Toronto Maple Leafs to join fellow century-clubber Christian Dvorak, an Arizona Coyotes second-rounder. London, of course, is stacked with high-ceiling players in the late 1997/1998 age cohort. The roll call includes forwards Max Jones, Matthew Tkachuk, Drake Rymsha and Cliff Pu along with 'fourth forward' Victor Mete, fellow defenders Ben Gleason and Olli Juolevi and newly anointed No. 1 goalie Tyler Parsons.

Assuming Marner comes back before Canadian Thanskgiving, avoids injury and does a turn wearing that other maple leaf after Christmas, the Thrill from Thornhill should pile up something on the order of 113 points in 51 games. (Pro tip: never make unsubstantiated point projections that end in a zero or five since then readers will know it was plucked from thin air.) London coach Dale Hunter will have the classic Knights mix of ticketed-for-stardom talents and role players who fit the scheme.

London's great unknown is that Aiden Jamieson and Chris Martenet are the only defencemen who are older than 18. If the Knights blossom, they will have the same #FirstWorldProblem they did in 2011-12 about whether to break off a piece of their young core for a graduating player looking to finish his junior tenure with a championship. That Marner-free stretch in December might determine how the Knights approach the trade deadline.

SAULT STE. MARIE GREYHOUNDS

Last season — .809 point pct., first; lost 4-1 to Erie in Western final. Point of the cycle  Still near the top.

How realistic is it to expect the 'Hounds stay in the lead pack after a coaching change and the departure of five world junior championship-calibre players?

The 'Hounds, with Drew Bannister having stepped in as coach and Kyle Raftis entering his second season as GM, have drafted well and nurtured players in recent years. The line of succession was not affected by last season's load-up. Centres Jared McCann, Blake Speers and Gabe Guertler are back. The Soo's likely top-6 wings include Boston Bruins first-rounder Zach Senyshyn, Arizona Coyotes signing Michael Bunting as a potential overage and 6-foot-6 sophomore Tim Gettinger. That's enough of a basis to make the Soo a chalk pick for first in a West Division where each of the S clubs – the Greyhounds, Saginaw and Sarnia – rates strongly.

Of those three, the 'Hounds have the most comfortable goaltending setup with New York Rangers second-rounder Brandon Halverson.  Bannister's expertise is on the blueline, where mainstays include 19-year-old Medric Mercier and 18-year-olds Gustav Bouramann and Colton White, each of whom received a NHL look-see this month. Undersized Mac Hollowell also flashed promise in a late-season call-up. The Soo played .763 hockey last season across the 38 games that weren't against 2014-15 also-rans Plymouth, Windsor, Saginaw, Sarnia and Sudbury. They ought to be good, once everyone returns.

KITCHENER RANGERS

Last season — .544 point pct., sixth; lost 4-2 to London in Round 1. Point of the cycle  Partway up

How famiiar is this formula: trying to win with a U.S.-born and trained goalie and offence by committee?

If that brings to mind the 2012-13 Rangers that boasted current Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson, congratulations on being a fan for the long haul. Kitchener has turned to another U.S. national team development program graduate, 18-year-old St. Lous Blues selection Luke Opilka will back a team that has fashioned a fairly stout defence (214 goals against last season whilst playing in a division that had seven of the OHL's top 10 point getters). New head coach Mike Van Ryn and new assistant coach Jay McKee, both former NHL rearguards, have an older if not flashy back end that includes the likes of 19-year-olds Dylan Di Perna, Frank Hora and Dmitrii Sergeev and burly 18-year-old Doug Blaisdell.

But just as you can't win friends with salad, you can't win these days without a lot of natural offence. That was a stumbling block for the Rangers during Gibson's two seasons. That's not to say it will be again, but Coyotes second-rounder Ryan MacInnis and overage Brandon Robinson are the only returning 50-point scorers. Kitchener's chances might be contingent on former No. 2 overall Adam Mascherin sustaining his promising preseason, which is obviously easier said than done when the older kids get back from pro camps. Nineteen-year-old David Miller, the main return from the Justin Bailey trade with the Greyhounds, will also bear watching.

Kitchener's power play was in the meaty part of the curve last season at 11th in the 20-team OHL. It went 1-for-18 during the exhibitions. Read into that what you will.

SAGINAW SPIRIT

Last season — .449 point pct., eighth; lost 4-0 to Sault Ste. Marie in Round 1. Point of the cycle  Climbing,

Where are the Spirit's areas for improvement?

The trick of junior puck is for a team to have its young guys and its elders be good at the same time. Coach Greg Gilbert's charges were the "youngest team in OHL history to advance to the playoffs" in 2014-15. The gang's all there with the top six scorers all back, including San Jose Sharks pick Dylan Sadowy, who had a very underappreciated 42-goal season since, well, Saginaw is a bit off the beaten path.

Russian import Artem Artemov, like many Europeans who migrate to North American major junior, will presumably have a big uptick in points in his second go-round in the OHL. The Spirit have also invested their last two top picks in slick forwards, Tye Felhaber and Brady Gilmour, who can be effective complementary scorers if given favourable zone starts and quality of competition.

If the Spirit get those breakouts and their power play goes from 15.9% last season to somewhere in the low 20s, some of those close losses will become wins. It's also a good-looking group on defence and in goal. It's not for nothing that  17-year-olds Keaton Middleton (6-6, 235) and Markus Niemelainen (6-6, 195) and overage Will Petschenig (6-3, 210) wear numbers 55, 56 and 65, which are more commonly associated with offensive linemen. Along with the blueline brawn, Saginaw has 18-year-old goalies Evan Cormier and David Ovsjannikov who learned on the job during the rebuilding season. It's not hard to see why there is a belief there will be extended spring hockey in mid-Michigan.

SARNIA STING

Last season — .478 point pct., seventh; lost 4-1 to Erie in Round 1. Point of the cycle  Halfway up,

When will Jakob Chychrun get through a full season?

The consensus best 2016 NHL draft prospect in the league was sidelined for six months by shoulder surgery and just reintegrated into the Sting lineup last weekend. Anecdotally, one need only look at former Sting Connor Murphy or former Peterborough and Windsor standout Slater Koekkoek as examples of defenceman that were extremely scathed in age-group hockey but rehabbed and have played full seasons in men's league.

Chychrun's 16 goals and 33 points from his defence spot in just 42 games on a seventh-place team would have been Rookie of the Year-worthy if not for Alex DeBrincat's 50-goal year for Erie. The 17-year-old making up for lost time is pivotal for Sarnia, which has a strong nucleus that includes the likes of New Jersey Devils first-rounder Pavel Zacha, Toronto Maple Leafs seventh Nikita Korostelev, 18-year-old Troy Lajeunesse and persistent 17-year-olds Jordan Kyrou and Anthony Salinitri (the main return in the Anthony DeAngelo deal with Sault Ste. Marie). Last winter's sale to former NHL defenceman Derian Hatcher, who's installed himself as coach, and the early-round scare Sarnia gave Erie in the spring has imbued the franchise with a heretofore absent optimism.

Goaltending is somewhat of a question mark, though, with Justin Fazio being the most experienced holdover.

ERIE OTTERS

Last season — .765 point pct., second; lost 4-1 to Oshawa in OHL final. Point of the cycle  Past the peak, but the view ain't half bad. 

What will life be like without that David McConnor fellow?

Erie was a 56.6 per cent Fenwick tearm last season when the latest, greatest personification of the Canadian ur-myth graced its attack. The championship series loss to the Oshawa betrayed that the defensive depth thinned out rapidly beyond the two current 19-year-olds, Leafs second-rounder Travis Dermott and Darren Raddysh. It will be interesting to see how long Otters GM Dave Brown and coach Kris Knoblauch stick with the youth movement on the blueline, especially since they are counting on a consistent output from overage goalie Devin Williams.

Dylan Strome, the phenom the media was supposedly ignoring all last season, is hitting all his marks with the Coyotes. Arizona has a good stock of barely 20-something prospects. Strome, like the fictional Salvador (Chava) Iglesias Jr. in the Netflix soccer dramedy Club de Cuervos, would presumably relishing being a captain and playing another season of junior before going beast mode in the big league. That would lead one to think the No. 3 overall pick will get the nine-game NHL stint before returning. Strome or no Strome, Erie still has its share of potent sticks between DeBrincat, overages Nick Betz and Jake Marchment and sophomore Taylor Raddysh. They should be fun to watch.

OWEN SOUND ATTACK

Last season — .581 point pct., fifth; lost 4-1 to Guelph in Round 1. Point of the cycle — Partway down.

How far can a team get on defence, goaltending and, well, elbow grease?

Of the four teams in the 7-10 spots in the pecking order, Owen Sound is the soundest in goal and along the blue line. That will suffice on those nights when the perhaps deeper teams are snakebitten, especially since the Attack have landed a strong coach in Ryan McGill, late of the Western League's Kootenay Ice.

Netminding partners Jack Flinn, an overage, and Michael McNiven, an 18-year-old whom the Montreal Canadiens invited to a camp this summer, each rate a chance to play full-time. A very uneducated guess is the Attack might have to move one to address their paucity of proven goal scoring. Defensively, the Attack will be deep once Damir Sharipzyanov and Thomas Schemitsch return in October and November from broken wrists suffered playing showcase games that probably benefit other stakeholders much more than the young players on the ice. It's a stretch to say opening the season without two 19-year-olds that can each handle power-play duties is a blessing in disguise, but it does mean more shifts for Tyler MacArthur, Jarett Meyer and Connor Walters to pick up.

That said, the fact overage Josh Sterk and 5-foot-6 second-year import Petrus Palmu are the only 20-goal scorers is a red flag. Pittsburgh Penguins selection Jaden Lindo, Liam Dunda and Jonah Gadjovich play the heavy game to no small critical acclaim, but after Sterk and Palmu no either returning forward had more than 10 goals in '14-15, 

WINDSOR SPITFIRES

Last season — .382 point pct., 10th. Point of the cycle  Peddling hard to reach the incline,

How will new coach Rocky Thompson fare at getting the Spits to realize their potential?

To use a college football analogy that honestly isn't meant to sound mean, post-2011 Windsor has been that program that lands four- and five-star recruits but ends up in the equivalent of the Beef O'Brady's Bowl.

Thompson, who knows from long-term rebuilds after working for the Edmonton Oilers, has inherited a dressing room full of high-ceiling players such as 18-year-old former Notre Dame commit Christian Fischer, former U.S. under-17 team standout Luke Kirwan and 6-6 centre Logan Brown. They also opted for a rangy centre with the No. 2 overall pick in April, taking Kingston, Ont., native Gabriel Vilardi. (Same hometown and same draft slot as Taylor Hall? No pressure there, eh?)

Windsor is overdue to stop running in place. Overall, though, as Bob Duff noted at the outset at training camp, it did not have a player taken in the NHL draft for the first time in 22 years. Thompson and the staff will have to coax more out the last two lines of defence. Overage Michael Giugovaz will start the season as a tide-over 'tender. The southpaw has yet to finish with a .900 save percentage across a full season but he's always been on teams that haven't flattered their goalies.   

FLINT FIREBIRDS

Last season (as Plymouth Whalers) — .390 point pct., ninth.. Point of the cycle — Rising ... from the ashes of last season's fire sale. Now that is synergy!.

Well, will the OHL succeed in Flint?

Know this much: it will not be for a lack of investment. Owner Costa Papista believes the 'Birds fit into a "bigger than hockey" revitalization effort in the hard-hit Michigan city. That kind of ambition, on some level, deserves applause, especially since it also works on the 'passive-aggressive swipe at certain chronic underachieving franchises' level, too.

In the here and now, both Flint and the Hamilton Bulldogs (né Belleville Bulls) are at a sizzle-selling stage. Lazily slotting both into ninth in the preseason prognoses serves the underpromise and overdeliver theme. Firebirds GM Terry Christensen and coach John Gruden bring impressive résumés, but Flint also deferred its rebuild by using the No. 3 overall choice for the express purpose of dealing Ryan McLeod to the Mississauga Steelheads for a fistful of priority selection picks. Nineteen-year-old finisher Sonny Milano is on the pro or junior bubble and the Firebirds also have some nice talent with Team USA goaltending hopeful Alex Nedeljkovic, Detroit Red Wings-signed D-man Vili Saarijärvi and sophomore centre Will Bitten. A playoff spot is attainable. 

GUELPH STORM

Last season — .588 point pct., fourth. Point of the cycle Might be all the way down by March.

How quickly have they moved on from May 2014, and how quickly can GM Mike Kelly and head coach Bill Stewart rebuild?

The Crimson tide is out. The Ironic Punishments Division, which has all the cherry-picked statistics in the world forwarded along a gem the other day. Only two Storm regulars who played in the '14 Memorial Cup final, St. Louis Blues first-rounder Robby Fabbri and overage goalie Justin Nichols, remain on the roster. When/if Fabbri returns from the Blues, he will surely be moved to a contender.

Stewart is saying all the rights things about teaching "a flow game" to a young team that will put a lot of trust in youngsters such as power winger Givani Smith and skilled forwards such as Tyler Boston and Matthew Hotchkiss. Some of the ol' sic transit gloria is in the offing at the Sleeman Centre, but moral victories are a kind of victory.  

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

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