With the OHL season beginning this week, BTN is taking an early look at each team in reverse order of last season's standings.
In 2011-12 — 33-27-1-7, 74 points, fifth in Western Conference. Lost 4-2 to eventual champion London in second round.
Final Dynamic Dozen ranking — sixth OHL, 20th CHL.
Drafted — C Vincent Trocheck (Florida Panthers, third round), C Justin Kea (Buffalo Sabres, third), G Jake Paterson (Detroit Red Wings, third), LW Garret Ross (Chicago Blackhawks, fifth).
Draft watch — C Jimmy Lodge has been selected to the inaugural All-America Prospects Game; RW Nick Moutrey (6-foot-2, 204) and LW David Perklin (6-3, 180) both offer skill and size.
1. How will reigning coach of the year Greg Gilbert keep morale up with a tough early schedule?
The schedulemaker doubled down on Saginaw by having a team which said aloha (it means both hello and goodbye) to its entire first line and shutdown defenceman play 17 of its first 27 games on the road. Gilbert, who did a fabulous job of salvaging the season a year ago, will have to keep a young roster focused on improvements more so than results. It might be tough for young athletes to see it this way, but Saginaw might have to accept the wins will be very hard-earned for the first 2 1/2 months; it's the best way to avoid falling too far out of the playoff races. The Brandon Saad-Michael Fine-Josh Shalla troika cannot be easily replaced and the graduation of hometowner Brad Walch leaves a void, but the Spirit have good reinforcements up front and at the back.
2. Who steps up to fill in for the offence lost with Saad, et al., graduating?
Trocheck, perhaps the league's most underrated centre after posting 85 points last season, should slide directly into the No. 1 centre slot. Saginaw is light on proven scorers beyond him but undrafted Eric Locke, a two-time 20-goal scorer, is in a pivotal year as a 19-year-old undrafted free agent. Kea also improved markedly over the second half of last season when he got the Sabres' attention and emerged as a two-day forward, playing a shutdown role when Saginaw ousted NHL lottery picks Nail Yakupov and Alex Galchenyuk and the Sarnia Sting in the first round and extended London to six games in the second. Ross, as an overage, will also be counted on to score.
3. Will defence and goaltending tide them over during the early-season transition?
The Spirit, between Paterson and rookie Russian Nikita Serebryakov, should be spoken for in goal for the next three seasons. Paterson won the starting job and the Red Wings' attention in back half of last season, then went save-for-save in the playoffs against JP Anderson and Michael Houser, who can now both be called Memorial Cup goaltenders. He might have to turn a game or three early on. Defensively, Saginaw isn't star-studded but has a range of experience as it waits for overager Brandon Archibald to return from injury. Its brighter lights on the blue line include 19-year-old Steven Strong, power-play quarterback Dalton Young and native Michigander Grant Webermin, who probably hasn't had the ideal opportunity to shine through two junior seasons. Backup goalie Serebryakov was born on All Saints Day, meaning he will have two North American seasons to showcase himself for the 2014 draft.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.
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