Coaching changes, college commitments going poof and another series of anti-fighting initiatives; the OHL off-season had it all.
Projecting the Ontario Hockey League final standings is always tougher than trying to reverse parallel park while blindfolded. This season is even more daunting for prognosticators since none of the heavies in London, Kitchener or Windsor are at the apex of a building cycle. Defending champion Guelph is also due for a step back after falling one win short of the Memorial Cup.
On an individual level, though, there is some idea of the league's dramatis personae, starting with a certain Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters. With the first for-reals puck drop just more than two weeks away, here's a synopsis of 10 players, coaches and GMs who will be under a bright spotlight in 2014-15.
Connor McDavid, centre, Erie Otters — With McDavid, the on-ice brilliance is beyond reproach; he posted 99 points in just 56 games during his age-16 season with the Erie Otters. It's probably shifted to how comfortable the 17-year-old wunderkind is with being in a non-stop spotlight — showing some evidence of a spark beyond being a point-producing hockey genius. The next Next One will face questions galore in his draft year, ranging from whether he can keep Erie in the upper echelon of a wide-open Western Conference to whether he can lead Team Canada to a world junior championship gold medal. Seventeen-year-olds usually aren't asked to do that, but McDavid's age became just a number some time ago.
Josh Ho-Sang, centre, Windsor Spitfires — Ho-Sang's 'How I Spent Summer Vacation' essay would be a riveting read. In a sentence, the idea of Josh Ho-Sang now matters as much as his hockey playing. Calling out Hockey Canada means the New York Islanders pick will be under a spotlight in all 20 of the OHL's rinks, presuming most of the league's fans have the Internet and all. Ho-Sang will miss at least first six games due to a suspension imposed in the playoffs, which cuts into the time he has to change Hockey Canada's collective mind. This, of course, presumes that it can be changed.
Travis Konecny, centre, Ottawa 67's — Anyone else see some cursory parellels between Konecny and budding Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon three years back? Each was a top pick in his junior league's draft who came to a big-city franchise that had fallen upon hard times. Both are right-handed centres with blazing speed and playmaking ability. The 17-year-old Konecny ranks as the OHL's best bet for the top of the NHL draft after the aforementioned McDavid; he fulfilled all expectations while winning the rookie scoring title. Konecny will have moer talent around him this winter, with the 67's boasting two other draft hopefuls up front in Dante Salituro and Artur Tyanulin.
Sonny Milano, left wing, Plymouth Whalers — Milano was the highest-profile player to change course from college to the CHL over the summer after choosing Plymouth over Boston College. The obvious question is how the 18-year-old's production with the U.S. under-18 team will carry over to a new league, while playing for a team that (a) struggled to score in '13-14 and (b) is trying to re-establish some stability in its current location. All Milano can do about the latter, of course, is play to his potential. No worries there for the Columbus Blue Jackets first-rounder.
Pavel Zacha, centre, Sarnia Sting — Pavel's tools tend to induce a Pavlovian response from puck pundits. The top selection of the import draft embodies the prototype of the classic Czech forward who offers size (6-foot-3, 201 pounds) and ability to read the play and outwit defenders. Zacha will have to address some concerns about consistency; the fact he's playing out of the same centre where Nail Yakupov was based before joining the Edmonton Oilers will make those questions all the more inevitable.
Darnell Nurse, defence, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds — Among shutdown defencemen, the chance of Nurse returning to the 'Hounds seems greater than NHL No. 1 overall pick Aaron Ekblad's odds of being back with the Barrie Colts. That means heavy expectations for the 19-year-old to be a rock — a mobile, hostile and agile one — for both the 'Hounds and Hockey Canada, whose ratio of expectations to accomplishment has been very high of late. Sault Ste. Marie is in a better place than it was before Nurse arrived in 2011 but has only one playoff series win to show for the past six seasons. Team Canada's recent history, well, you already know about it.
Mitch Marner, centre, London Knights — Blessed with a prescience for finding passing lanes while being diffcult to dislodge from the puck, Marner led all OHL yearlings with 46 assists in '13-14. It is a new season and the Knights' potential is in flux with 19-year-olds Nikita Zadorov, Max Domi and Bo Horvat bent on moving to the next level. Marner will have ample opportunity to be a catalytic playmaker for a younger-than-usual London team.
Jeff Brown, coach, Ottawa 67's — The former NHL defenceman who grew up in Ottawa watching, as he puts it, "one of the greatest junior hockey franchises ever," is trying to restore some luster to the beleaguered-of-late Barberpoles. Brown kept the Indiana Ice's imminent hiatus from being a distraction to his players last winter while guiding the now dormant USHL franchise to a Clark Cup league championship. There's no under-dramatizing how badly the 67's need a turnaround in a competitive marketplace in the nation's capital.
Paul McFarland, coach, Kingston Frontenacs — The league's youngest coach has taken over a team that will be dripping with star power should centre Sam Bennett come back from the Calgary Flames. Kingston ultimately underachieved when it was unable to finish off the Nick Ritchie-led Peterborough Petes in the first round, extending its playoff win drought to 16 seasons. McFarland, who had a profound influence on Oshawa's 90-point season, could help Kingston get more out its entire lineup.
Nick Sinclair, GM, Sarnia Sting — The first point of reference with Sinclair, alas, is probably adviser Allan Walsh's "rookie GM" Twitter tirade that was sparked by the Sting selecting Zacha in the import draft, one spot ahead of Memorial Cup host Quebec. Sinclair passed the test with flying colours when Zacha reported to Sarnia. The first-year GM could further earn his spurs if the Sting, who also have a big building block in 16-year-old defenceman Jakob Chychrun, can emerge as a playoff team. Sinclair is also in a position to stock the cupboard if he takes on short-term pain for long-term gain and moves 19-year-old San Jose Sharks first-rounder Nikolay Goldobin, one of the league's most dynamic (if inconsistent) finishers.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.