While questions still remain as to which players will be returned from pro camps, there’s little doubt the Windsor Spitfires are favourites heading into the Ontario Hockey League season.
With as many as 18 players eligible to return from their Memorial Cup winning roster from last season, the Spitfires have the luxury of experience and chemistry but remain cautiously optimistic entering the new campaign.
“Obviously we have enough talent on paper but there’s been teams before that have been picked No. 1 (and haven’t lived up to expectations),” Windsor head coach Bob Boughner said. “I look at the Spokane team that won the Memorial Cup two years ago. Everyone thought they had a great chance at repeating. Things can happen.”
The Spitfires are still a work in progress as they could open the season without many of the key components from last year’s team, due to National Hockey League training camps.
While all their players may not return, the Spitfires have received the nod from many head coaches around the league.
“I think on paper right off the bat you’d have to say that they’re probably the strongest team with regards to the pedigree that they’ve got,” said Kitchener head coach and general manager Steve Spott. “They’ve got guys that know what it takes to win and that’s always a nice place to come into as a coach.”
“I would say they are early-on favourites for sure,” added Mike Vellucci, head coach and general manager of the Plymouth Whalers.
The team’s strength could be from their back-end after adding Cam Fowler from the U.S. Development Program to a core already including power-play specialist Ryan Ellis. The duo could mesmerize on a power-play point pairing, should Ellis return from the Nashville Predators, while the possible returns of Mark Cundari, Harry Young and Jesse Blacker could make Windsor’s defence the most potent in Canada.
The offence will be anchored by top draft prospect Taylor Hall and newcomer Richard Panik. The Czech forward Panik joined the Spitfires and endeared himself to fans with some highlight reel goals in pre-season play before departing for Tampa Bay’s training camp.
Meanwhile, Fowler’s mobility and poise with the puck could see him challenge Hall for the first overall spot in the NHL’s entry draft next summer. American forward Austin Watson is a breakout candidate and is also being touted as a potential first-round pick in the 2010 draft.
“I guess that expectation will force us not to be complacent because I think if we do that then we’re in a lot of trouble,” Boughner said. “Talent-wise we have a good crew and probably have to add one or two but right now we’re in a great position.”
The race in the Eastern Conference could be interesting after the Barrie Colts and Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors emerged last season. Barrie loaded up on offence with the additions of Russian forward Alexander Burmistrov in the import draft and overager Luke Pither in a trade with Belleville.
“We’ve been building this team for a couple years and we think the next couple years ahead of us will be our strongest,” Barrie head coach Marty Williamson said. “We’ve played our young guys for the last couple years and we’re hoping to reap some of the rewards from that.”
Barrie’s goaltending should be reliable after Peter Di Salvo usurped the starting job from Michael Hutchinson last season. The only potential downfall could be their depth on defence.
“I think their area of concern might be their backend right now and they might have to address that as they go forward,” Spott said. “Saying that, they have a great hockey club and Marty’s done a great job assembling that team.”
Barrie’s biggest challenge could come from Mississauga after their strong second half to last season. Sophomore goaltender JP Anderson stole the spotlight in Mississauga’s surprising surge in the playoffs.
“They’re well coached,” Spott said. “(Head coach) Dave Cameron and (co-coach) James Boyd are great coaches and I really believe that they’re going to have the depth and the grit to potentially cause some problems in the East.”
DARK HORSE CANDIDATES
Spott’s Kitchener Rangers are the popular choice as a dark horse but much will depend on chemistry after adding several big-name players in the off-season. Kitchener’s haul includes Columbus Blue Jackets first rounder John Moore, forward Jeremy Morin, goaltender Brandon Maxwell and Europeans Gabriel Landeskog and Patrik Andersson.
Americans Moore and Morin come with big expectations as Moore should anchor the Rangers’ power-play while Morin possesses such soft hands he could challenge for the league’s scoring title.
Landeskog and Andersson joined the team last week while the Rangers are also missing players, such as Moore and Morin, at NHL camps.
“You lack (chemistry) right now because those kids weren’t able to come up to Rouyn-Noranda with us,” said Spott of his team’s pre-season game against the Québec Major Junior Hockey League’s Huskies. “We’ve done some team building but without the NHL prospects. Those are all good, character kids and I know once they get back in the dressing room they’ll fit in nicely with the group we currently have.”
The Rangers missed the playoffs last season, Spott’s first as head coach and general manager, after winning the league title and finishing second in the Memorial Cup two years ago.
Kitchener’s many new faces and work ethic make them a worthy opponent but they don’t expect to be taken lightly once the season begins.
“Those are elite players (they added) so that’s a big start for them,” Vellucci said. “I wouldn’t (take them by surprise); it’s a tough building to play in.”
“Moore is going to be pretty special on the backend and if (Maxwell) can hang in there for them I think Kitchener will be right in the mix,” Williamson added.
Sophomore forward Jeff Skinner had a big pre-season and could emerge as a scoring threat this season after leading the team in goals with 27 as a rookie.
“You can tell what their blueprint is and I think they’ve done a great job at assembling a real solid team,” Boughner said. “If they add a veteran or two they have a legitimate chance to be a contender in the West.”
A few more hard-working American-based franchises could be in the mix as dark horses in Plymouth and Erie. The Whalers outlasted each of the Spitfires’ other three post-season opponents, taking the champs to a sixth-game in an entertaining second-round match-up.
The Whalers should see the return of goaltender Matt Hackett, who emerged into one of the league’s finest goaltenders last season. Meanwhile, Tyler Seguin is considered one of the top forwards available for the draft while rookie Garrett Meurs has already earned the nickname “Mini-Seguin” from teammates.
“I think we always are a dark horse; we’re always under the radar,” Vellucci said. “We won it in ’07 and nobody picked us to win that year, either.”
Meanwhile, the Erie Otters took a big step forward in their development last season by reaching the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. The Otters are one of the hardest working teams under head coach Robbie Ftorek.
Former first overall priority selection pick Ryan O’Reilly could have a big season, should he return, as could forwards Greg McKegg and Andrew Yogan.
“We’re still growing and we don’t know what we’re getting back (from NHL camps) and obviously we depend a little bit on what we’re getting back,” Ftorek said. “We hope to be competitive and we hope to improve on last year but we have to see who comes in.”
While the opening weekend brings a lot of intrigue regarding which players will be returning to junior, whichever team best develops chemistry could be key in determining this year’s league champion.