Buzzing The Net

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

Connor McDavid and Erie are hopeful of contention (Terry Wilson, OHL Images)

Yes, yes, the Western Conference could be boiled down to finding out whether the Death Star has a single fatal flaw. The London Knights of Dale and Mark Hunter are shaping up to look like No. 1 — and No. 2 and 3 — but as the cliché goes, they still have to play the games.

With the dog's breakfast that is preseason hockey getting underway in the OHL on Labour Day weekend, it's a good time to ponder one big question for all 20 teams. It's kind of like the game 20 questions, but with longer-winded responses than the standard yes/no of the old mind game people played before smartphones replaced conversation. Here's a look at the Western Conference:

Erie Otters — Why will this be a playoff team?

Two words: Connor McDavid. They're telling me this requires a more thought-out answer, so here goes. The math is pretty simple: score 30 or 40 goals than the paltry 203 of last season and pare 30 to 40 from the whopping 306 allowed. Erie believes the upgrades it's made at all three positions — a healthy Oscar Dansk, intriguing 17-year-old blueline newbie Travis Dermott, McDavid's new left wing Andre Burakovsky — will help it collect enough inches to make it happen. Erie's also filled out its roster by adding size, with 6-foot-3 wing Quentin Maksimovich joining a group that includes 6-4, 225-pound Montreal Canadiens pick Connor Crisp.

The X factor is that Erie is past the ice-breaking phase with coach Kris Knoblauch, who guided Kootenay to the 2011 WHL title in his first full season as a head coach. Being better than the sum of their parts in this first time in years would go a long way toward playing past St. Patrick's Day. Having a surplus of centres also gives Erie a trade chip if it needs to shore up its defence.

Guelph Storm — Who is, not to pile it all on one guy, crucial to the Storm improving that 18th-ranked power play?

It was a baffling stat for a team with a plethora of pro prospects, although there's more to power-play proficiency than 'add talent and stir.' Really, though, mentioning this is really just a segue into talking about third-year centre Hunter Garlent, whose season went sideways due to a broken ankle. Garlent's 31 points were 11 fewer than what he put up as a rookie in 2011-12.

The popgun PP, which also suffered from a season-ending knee injury to No. 1 defenceman Matt Finn, might have cost the Storm home-ice advantage in the first round vs. Highway 7 rival Kitchener. Guelph also went 2-of-28 with the extra skater(s) in the five-game loss, although Rangers goalie John Gibson had a lot to do with that result.

Kitchener Rangers — Who's going to score for this team on a semi-halfway consistent basis?

The Rangers' top five scorers from 2012-13 — aloha means goodbye for 20-year-olds Frank Corrado, Josh Leivo, Matt Puempel, Ryan Murphy and Tobias Rieder — have all departed. And scoring was enough of a challenge last season. Kitchener, which had so much turnover that the trainer needed to have his sewing machine serviced twice (nice nugget, Josh Brown), has done a decent job of restocking.

Murray Hiebert, the head scout now in the GM's office suite, had a good off-season by adding U.S. forwards Ryan MacInnis and Nick Magyar. Dallas Stars first-rounder Radek Faksa should make up for the time he lost due to injuries, plus NHL-drafted forwards Justin Bailey, Brent Pedersen, Matia Marcantuoni and Ben Thomson (if he returns as an OA) are getting a crack at scoring roles. There's also an outlier possibility such as 18-year-old pickup Scott Teskey.

London Knights — Great team, or greatest team? What about their defence?

You noticed, eh? London allowed 44 goals over 12 games in its final two playoff series. The Knights also could not contain either the Halifax Mooseheads or Portland Winterhawks during the Memorial Cup tournament. London's deep pool of forwards speaks for itself and it added size (Michael McCarron) and skill (Mitchell Marner).

The D might need an upgrade to complement NHL first-rounders Olli Määttä and Nikita Zadorov, along with overage Justin Sefton, who was an afterthought after coming south in a January deadline deal. With two 19-year-old goalies and surfeit of forwards, the Hunters should be able to get their D-man in January. Please bear in mind the Knights haven't ruled out trying to load up in 2015, although they might have other pressing business.

Owen Sound Attack — What if Cameron Brace and Kurtis Gabriel turn pro?

That is the sword of Damocles hanging over the plucky small-market team's head, eh? Thirty-five-goal scorer Brace is attending a rookie camp with the prospect-thin Pittsburgh Penguins. The inspirational Gabriel is on the leader in junior vis-à-vis learner in the AHL bubble with the Minnesota Wild.

Attack coach Greg Ireland's "goal is not to be one of the bottom four." Brandon Hope is a first-time starting goalie and the club's three busiest defencemen are all gone. Owen Sound is very good at handling turnover, but losing Gabriel would leave a void.

Plymouth Whalers — How much does Alex Nedeljkovic progress as a 17-year-old starting goalie?

Nedeljkovic had a fine run after coach-GM Mike Vellucci made the rare move of installing a first-year 'tender as his No. 1, counting a 2.28 average and .923 save percentage for a team with a lot of offensive-zone time. No fissures appeared in Nedelkovic's game until the last-shot-wins scorefest against the London Knights in the Western final where a timely save could have turned the tide.

The Parma, Ohio, puck-stopper served notice at the Ivan Hlinka tourney, helping Team USA win a silver medal at the event where it is typically an underdog. Continued improvement from Nedeljkovic should help the Whalers continue to live as they're accustomed, pushing for a No. 2 playoff seed.

Saginaw Spirit — Do they step up to challenge Plymouth for that second seed?

Saginaw has a lot of the pieces, starting in goal with rock-solid Jake Paterson. The Spirit also seem to have built for the playoffs by adding size in the summer with deals for two 19-year-olds, left wing Cody Payne and defenceman Sean Callaghan, and overage centre Kristoff Kontos. Logically, as a 20-year-old drafted in a late round, 97-point man Eric Locke should be returned by the Buffalo Sabres to continue to work on his skating and fill a lead offensive role. What probably makes or breaks the Spirit is how much 18-year-old forwards Andrey Alexeev, David Perklin, Jimmy Lodge and Nick Moutrey develop this season. The former two went undrafted this summer.

Sarnia Sting — What will it take for Sarnia's kids to stay in the playoff picture?

The Sting's 250 goals against was 12th-most among the 16 playoff teams, so new coach Trevor Letowski is overhauling their defensive structure ("it's going to take a bit of time to get used to"). The rationale for emphasizing D is because the Sting are in flux beyond the top six — most notably overage Bryan Moore, draft prospect Nikolay Goldobin and exciting rookie Nikita Korostelev — along with overage D-man Alex Basso and new starting goalie Brodie Barrick.

The Sting will need to pick that up quickly to avoid falling behind in the race early. Having eight of their first 11 games at home could help ease the transition.

Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds — Will Pittsburgh Penguins-drafted 19-year-old goalie Matt Murray steal enough games to keep the 'Hounds in the playoff hunt?

The "very young" 'Hounds need the Murray who posted 2.67 average and .910 save percentage during the middle two months of last season. (Coincidentally, those were also his numbers in the hard-fought six-game set vs. Owen Sound.) Sometimes lankier goalies really blossom in their 19-year-old season, as St. Louis Blues prospect Jordan Binnington did last season while copping OHL goalie-of-the-year honours in Owen Sound.

Sault Ste. Marie has no worries about top defenceman Darnell Nurse sticking with the Edmonton Oilers as an 18-year-old. It has a lot to replace from a sixth-place team, including 103-point scorer Nick Cousins.

Windsor Spitfires — How big a gain will come from having a full season of Slater Koekkoek and Pat Sieloff?

Finishing ninth while bidding for the Memorial Cup only fed the narrative that the Spitfires have lost the Midas touch GM Warren Rychel and Bob Boughner had during their golden years. That overlooks the fact that both of their blueline pillars went down. Koekkoek, a January add from Peterborough, represented Canada internationally this summer and might be poised to play a full year after having two seasons curtailed by a wonky left shoulder. Sieloff, a world junior gold medallist last winter with Team USA, lost the final quarter of last season due to some core-strength issues. Without those two, Windsor was defenceless down the stretch, finishing with 272 goals against, more than any of the playoff teams.

A stouter defence means more offensive chances for Kerby Rychel, Josh Ho-Sang and company.

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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