September 20, 2011
First the Niagara IceDogs shot to the top of the standings ahead of schedule. Now they're adopting the whole in-praise-of-slow reflex, trying to have people believe there's a lot that has to come before the No. 2-ranked team in the Canadian Hockey League can start talking championship.
Such is life for a team which, with Top 10 NHL picks Ryan Strome and Dougie Hamilton set to helm the attack and the defence when/if they return from their NHL training camps, is pegged as the favourite in the OHL's Eastern Conference. The 'Dogs tied for the league's second-best record behind MasterCard Memorial Cup-host Mississauga and return most of their core, including world junior goalie Mark Visentin, 43-goal scorer Freddie Hamilton and the overage leaders, captain Andrew Agozzino and centre Alex Friesen.
"Getting a taste of it and getting close really made us hungry so I think you'll see a real hungry team out of us," says Agozzino, who with Friesen are the lone remaining IceDogs from their first season in St. Catharines, Ont., four years ago. "We're excited to have this opportunity ... The great thing about our team is depth. If we were to not to get Ryan back it would be a huge blow but our depth is strong enough that we can create offence."
Strome, the No. 5 overall pick in the NHL draft by the New York Islanders whose 106 points were good for a close third in last season's scoring race, is not the only major source of scoring the IceDogs are missing. Their top playoff goal scorer, Darren Archibald (10 in 14 playoff games after scoring 40 goals in the regular season), graduated to the Vancouver Canucks organization. Agozzino points out that loss perhaps hasn't been widely acknowledged as it should have been. Niagara does have 18-year-old Mitchell Theoret, who joined Strome in the Islanders' pipeline in June, waiting in the wings. Freddie Hamilton and Buffalo Sabres-drafted forward Steven Shipley will also be counted on more as they enter their age-19 seasons.
"Darren was big for us," it was kind of an under-the-radar 40 goals that he had. You have to look to guys in the system like Mitchell Theoret. I think we're expecting big things from him. I think we have to find some scoring by committee to replace Darren Archibald."
While Strome got a lot of attention, a big story of the IceDogs' season was that they came within three wins of the OHL final with a top defence pair made up of 17-year-old Dougie Hamilton and 16-year-old Jesse Graham, an offensive defenceman. Coach and general manager Marty Williamson has bolstered the back end by trading for St. Louis Blues prospect Brock Beukeboom, who as a 19-year-old is in a show-me season. The IceDogs lost an asset behind the bench when former NHLer Mike Van Ryn, who worked closely with the young defencemen, moved on. Williamson believes that was addressed by bringing in former Guelph Storm coach-GM Jason Brooks as an assistant.
"Mike Van Ryn did a fantastic job," said Williamson, who two seasons ago guided the Barrie Colts to the OHL final before running into the buzzsaw that was the Windsor Spitfires of Taylor Hall, Cam Fowler and Ryan Ellis. "They're all a year older. Milan Doudera looks to be in fantastic shape, he was hurt for most of last year. The addition of Brock Beukeboom plus Jesse Graham and Luke Mercer being a year older, we think we've got a great balance. Shayne Rover is a gutsy guy, the one who blocks shots... Jason Brooks did a great job in Guelph, he coached guys such as [NHL star] Drew Dougty and I think he'll do a great job."
It is going on six seasons since a team from the Eastern Conference captured the J. Ross Robertson Cup as league champions. The Western half of the league is definitely still deeper; the perception has been that playing in the East doesn't push a team enough.
From most accounts, the conference is expected to have more parity this season, with the Oshawa Generals and perennially strong Ottawa 67's expected to pace the East Division. Mississauga still has core talent such as Toronto Maple Leafs first-round choice Stuart Percy, San Jose Sharks goaltending prospect JP Anderson and dangerous forwards Jordan Mayer and Devante Smith-Pelly.
The Barrie Colts, Belleville Bulls and Peterborough Petes are each wild cards. All three were in rebuild mode last season and all have at least one first-round NHL talent at their disposal. The Colts are still waiting to see if star centre Mark Scheifele returns from the NHL's Winnipeg Jets. The Petes boast Ottawa Senators first-rounder Matt Puempel, while the Bulls are backed by Malcolm Subban, who might be the best Canadian goalie prospect for the NHL draft..
Ultimately, though, it does seem to be the year of the 'Dogs. That attitude in Niagara starts with Agozzino, who's been around since Day 1 in the Garden City.
"When you coach him you learn a lot more about him and how much he cares about this team and what a complete guy he is," Williamson says. "Besides the stats he's put up and the achievements he's had on the ice, he does a lot for this organization off the ice. As a coach, that's what you want from your captain."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports . Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: CHL Images).