September 23, 2010
The journey is better than the end in the Ontario Hockey League, at least for 19 of the 20 teams.
As the regular season opens on Thursday night — although it might not feel quite like the start of the season when it's still warm enough to wear shorts outside (even in Ottawa after dark) and that new league website isn't fully functional (ahem), but it's on for real.
So, let's play a game of 20 questions (and no, this is not by order of predicted finish even if some readers might see it as such).
Reminder: All of this can be picked apart in our live chat at 3 p.m. ET/12 noon PT.
1. Mississauga St. Michael's Majors: Is a Dave Cameron-coached team capable of breaking character and opening it up offensively?
The MasterCard Memorial Cup-host Majors, are ranked No. 1 in the Canadian Hockey League. Typically, though, a Cup contender out of the OHL boasts a sufficiently more high-octane offence than the Majors did last season, when they tallied just 218 goals and had just one 30-goal scorer, undrafted winger Jordan Mayer.
However, Cameron has added 39-goal man Justin Shugg, a Carolina Hurricanes draft pick, in a trade with Windsor, along with Finnish import Mika Partenen. They should add some spice to a forward group that includes the NHL-drafted quarter of Devante Smith-Pelly (pictured, Anaheim Ducks), Casey Cizikas (New York Islanders), Rob Flick (Chicago Blackhawks) and Gregg Sutch (Buffalo Sabres), who are each a year older and wiser. Cameron also plugged into his P.E.I. connection to add former New York Rangers selection Chris Doyle, a three-time 25-goal man in the Quebec league, as an overager.
2. Ottawa 67's: Is there enough D in O-town?
There might have been an omen of what's to come when the 67's skated to a 6-6 tie in their preseason opener. Los Angeles Kings second-rounder Tyler Toffoli is on the shortlist of favourites for the scoring title. Ottawa's back end, lacks a drafted defenceman, although 19-year-old Marc Zanetti got a long look at Detroit Red Wings camp.
Goalie Chris Perugini, displaced by Red Wings fifth-rounder Petr Mrazek as the No. 1 'tender, might be a trade chip.
3. Niagara IceDogs: Are they moving again?
There hasn't been a dog this itinerant since The Littlest Hobo was a staple of 1980s Canadian TV.
Niagara owner Bill Burke says his franchise, entering the penultimate season of the lease it signed upon moving from Mississauga in 2007, "won't survive" in St. Catharines without a new arena. Other cities got on the building bandwagon before the recession hit in late 2008.
Now the IceDogs are trying to get out of ancient Jack Gatecliff Arena amid a rising current of skepticism about spending public money on arenas that house major junior hockey, witness Belleville and Kingston.
4. Kingston Frontenacs: Will they find secondary scoring?
The Doug Gilmour-coached Frontenacs are the wild card in the East due to their depth. Five Fronts made it to a NHL team's main camp — centre Ethan Werek (Rangers), left wing Corey Durocher (Florida Panthers), massive defenders Taylor Doherty (San Jose Sharks) and Erik Gudbranson (also Florida) and goalie Philipp Grubauer (Washington Capitals).
Most know about the Gudbranson watch. Kingston's other big is none of its returning forwards beyond Werek and overage right wing Nathan Moon have ever scored more than 42 points in an OHL season, less than Doherty's career high from last season. Eighteen-year-old winger Derek Froats has also been shelved by an injured shoulder, although sophomore centre Alan Quine has the motivation of being in his draft season.
5. Oshawa Generals: Is Chris DePiero a front-runner to be the first head coach fired in the OHL?
Missing the playoffs in successive seasons in a league in which 16 of 20 teams get into the post-season dance means the Gennies' coach-GM is facing an 0-2 count.
Oshawa is also perceived as a contender, thanks to the presence of household names such as 41-goal scorer Christian Thomas and three top prospects, Danish import pick Nicklas Jensen and Canadian U18 players Boone Jenner and Lucas Lessio. At the same time, Oshawa had just 10 regulation-time wins last season and had the most porous defence in the OHL. In other words, they're staking a lot on the tandem of 19-year-old defencemen, Calvin de Haan and Scott Valentine, plus top-pairing overager Tony DeHart. De Haan is still in the New York Islanders' training camp, whereas Valentine is back after auditioning for the Anaheim Ducks.
6. Belleville Bulls: How many games can 17-year-old Tyson Teichmann steal?
Teichmann, 17, who could be one of the first goalies taken in the 2011 NHL draft, has been handed the No. 1 job for a team long on potential but short on proven scoring.
Bulls coach-GM George Burnett's track record suggests Belleville should start climbing back up the pecking order after strategically bottoming out last season to rebuild. Dealing centre Alex Aleardi closer to his home in Michigan might cause some short-term pain. Colorado Avalanche third-rounder Stephen Silas and 17-year-olds Alex Basso and Steven Strong give Belleville a budding big three on the back end.
7. Peterborough Petes: What bumps in the road will be inevitable for rookie GM Dave Reid and first-time major junior head coach Mike Pelino?
The Petes have the incumbent Canadian Hockey League rookie of the year, forward Matt Puempel, along with two top-40 picks, right wing Austin Watson (Nashville Predators) and centre Ryan Spooner (Boston Bruins). They've made a ton of changes, though, so it might take a while for the whole to be as good as the sum of their parts.
8. Brampton Battalion: Will Maple Leafs pick Sam Carrick pick up the slack offensively, and will any Leafs fans notice?
Stan Butler-coached teams tend to win by being defensively responsible (it's not sexy, but whatever works). Carrick, who had 42 points last season prior to being selected by Toronto in the fifth round, was actually the Battalion's second-leading scorer behind overager Sean Jones (who had all of 49). Despite the paucity of production, the Battalion won a playoff round last season. Now Cody Hodgson has turned pro in the Vancouver Canucks system and departed goalie Patrick Killeen has passed the torch to 17-year-old Jacob Riley, so there's a need for more offence.
9. Barrie Colts: Is this the season they miss the playoffs for the first time in the club's 16-season history?
If anything, it's probably to the Colts' advantage to tank and get a high pick. Former coach Marty Williamson, now with Niagara, went all in last season, going with a lineup which had 13 players who were either 19 or 20 years old. It created a monster, as they finished first overall with 116 points (26 more than the East's second-best team, Mississauga) and won the Eastern Conference. However, it left the cupboard bare for rookie head coach Dale Hawerchuk.
Two high-drafted forwards, Kyle Clifford (Los Angeles Kings), and Alexander Burmistrov (Atlanta Thrashers), remain at NHL camps. They won't have so much competition for power-play time.
10. Sudbury Wolves: Will they hang on to Florida Panthers second-round draft choice John McFarland?
Once a high-profile player has been drafted by a NHL club, people start to wonder how long he is for a major junior team which is going nowhere fast. The Wolves, one of two East teams with both a new GM (team president Blaine Smith) and head coach (former AHL assistant coach Trent Cull) in the off-season, are at the beginning of a long rebuild.
McFarland, a Florida Panthers pick whom Sudbury took No. 1 overall in the 2008 OHL priority selection, had a trying second season, with a garden-variety 20 goals and 50 points. One of his contemporaries in that '08 draft class, Buffalo Sabres prospect Steven Shipley, has moved on from his original OHL team. So you have to wonder (and people already are).
1. Kitchener Rangers: How big is the chip on Ryan Murphy's shoulder?
The playmaking defenceman was a surprising omission from Canada's summer under-18 team, given that he's being touted as a high first-round pick.
It's a given the Rangers, whether they return Jeff Skinner, Jeremy Morin and/or Jerry D'Amigo (just 11:21 in ice time with no shots for Toronto on Wednesday), will pack a wallop up front. Swedish left wing Gabriel Landeskög and overage scorer Jason Akeson are still around..
Coach-GM Steve Spott has some stable defencemen entering their age-19 seasons in Cody Sol and Julian Melchiori. That might free up Murphy to play like a fourth forward, which showed flashes of as a 16-year-old.
Whether Murphy could take a shot at Ryan Ellis' draft-year statline (22 goals, 89 points for Windsor in '07-08) might be far-fetched.
2. Guelph Storm: Can they be a shutdown team?
The West's top four teams averaged 209 goals against in '09-10, 45 fewer than coach-GM Jason Brooks' Storm permitted on its way to finishing seventh. Part of that was a penalty kill that allowed foes to convert almost 24 per cent of the time. That's not championship-calibre.
Still, with their big line of Anaheim prospect Peter Holland and Nashville Predators hopefuls Taylor Beck and Mike Latta, the Storm will be awfully fun to watch. Brooks is also in a contract year, so there's a little put-up-or-shut-up going on in Guelph.
3. London Knights: Would Igor Bobkov be the answer?
The Knights have the all-clear to use the Russian world junior goalie if the Anaheim Ducks assign him to the Canadian Hockey League. At 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, he fits in on a team which already includes four defencemen who stand at least 6-3, including the Montreal Canadiens' first-round pick, Jarred Tinordi.
London will probably stake a lot on being able to push teams around. It has to replace two of its top three scorers, including Leafs prospect Nazem Kadri.
London plays 27 of its first 47 games at home, since John Labatt Centre will be used for the Canadian men's curling championship. Banking some wins would seem to be essential.
4. Windsor Spitfires: Are we to infer this is a season off?
Losing head coach Bob Boughner to the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets probably justified dialing it back this season after those successive MasterCard Memorial Cup triumphs.
The Spitfires will have a few holdovers trickling back, such as Buffalo Sabres first-rounder Zack Kassian and Leafs second-rounder Kenny Ryan. The jury is out on first-round blueliners Cam Fowler (who averaged close to 20 minutes in Anaheim's first two preseason games) and Ellis (Nashville).
Russian centre Alexander "KoKo" Khokhlachev, 17, lit it up in preseason, and Dallas Stars first-rounder Jack Campbell will be a workhorse goalie. The way GM Warren Rychel went about adding grinder-types such as Kyle Tarini and Andrew Clouthier, ostensibly as protection, suggests Windsor is going with the kids. They did that in 2006-07 and you know how that panned out.
5. Saginaw Spirit: Did we forget they were good for a while last season?
As the newest team in the West, Saginaw doesn't always have a high profile. They were in third spot in the conference last season before coach-GM Todd Watson folded his hand, figuring Windsor had a full house.
A lot would have to break right for Saginaw to be a top-four team, even in a compressed West. The combo of adding centre Brandon Saad, a possible 2011 first-round pick, having Atlanta Thrashers second-rounder Ivan Telegin (44 points in 51 games) back for a second season in North America, and a full season of 18-year-old Ryan O'Connor on defence could help Saginaw. They also added an overage stopper, Mavric Parks, who has put up good numbers wherever he's been.
6. Plymouth Whalers: What will life be like, post-Tyler Seguin?
Whalers coach-GM Mike Vellucci won't abide a quiet going into the night, so it's all about scoring-by-committee and goalies stealing games to stay respectable.
The Whalers have been built somewhat from the goal out with New Jersey Devils third-round pick Scott Wedgewood and 17-year-old Matt Mahalak, who played regularly in the USHL last season. Aleardi, Canadian U18 team winger Garrett Meurs and Swede import Rickard Rakell, among others, draw into a team which has gotten younger.
Seguin's needle seems to be pointed toward Boston, for the time being.
7. Erie Otters: Are they staying put?
It seems that question gets asked on annual basis, since managing partner Sherry Bassin, at age 71, will step aside someday. The counter-argument is that a renovation is planned to Tullio Arena, where it's always rock-concert-loud, and that there isn't a great market for relocation in Ontario.
Otters centre Greg McKegg had 85 points as a 17-year-old prior to being taken in the third round by Toronto. You can imagine the dementia in Leaf Nation if he threatens to hit the century mark.
8. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds: will Daniel Catenacci break out?
The former No. 1 overall pick will be expected to make the Great Leap Forward in his draft season. Catenacci had 10 goals and 30 points as a rookie on an older team.
Losing three of its top five scorers, including OHL defenceman of the year Jacob Muzzin, and seeing Swedish goalie Robin Lehner turn pro in the Ottawa Senators system has probably put the Soo in a one-step-forward, two-steps-back scenario.
9. Owen Sound Attack: The OHL's closest equivalent to the Toronto Blue Jays?
Owen Sound notched more wins (27) than three playoff teams in the other conference last season, but can't do anything about the alignment, like the Jays. There's some nice pieces with Colorado first-round pick Joey Hishon, captain Garrett Wilson and overager Bobby Mignardi up front and Toronto Maple Leafs second-round defenceman Jesse Blacker. It just hasn't fit together of late.
The Attack, who allowed 272 goals last season, looked west for a defensive guru, hiring assistant coach Terry Virtue from one of the WHL's traditionally tightest-checking teams, Tri-City. There still might not be enough there there for fans to shout, "Playoffs!" and actually mean it.
10. Sarnia Sting: Will they produce the league's rookie of the year?
Russian centre Nail Yakupov and Russian-American centre Alex Galchenyuk are collaborating and competing for the next two seasons, since each is headed into his draft year next season. They'll fill some highlight reels, even on a non-playoff team.
(Again, please come for the livechat, 3 p.m. ET/12 noon PT, and tell me I'm horribly off-base.)
(Photos by Aaron Bell and Terry Wilson, OHL Images.)
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Sports Canada. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.