OHL preview: Attack, Greyhounds, Steelheads line up as contenders

Host Windsor Spitfires hold off late-game Erie Otters’ surge to win their third ever Mastercard Memorial Cup 4-3.

The OHL is resistant to re-alignment, but it might be slightly re-balanced after the Season of Superteams.

Erie, London and Windsor, who each won championships (league or Memorial Cup) in the past two years, are at various stages of rebuilding.

The coast is relatively clear for a possible championship run from two of the Western Conference’s model small-market teams, the Owen Sound Attack and Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. There might be more re-trenching in the Eastern Conference, where the Mississauga Steelheads are a favourite.

The one constant this off-season was coaching changes, as 10 teams open the season with a new presence behind the bench. Another five coaches are in their second season.

(All players to watch are eligible for the 2018 draft, unless indicated otherwise.)

EASTERN CONFERENCE

BARRIE COLTS
Player to watch — Andrei Svechnikov, RW: He is a potential NHL lottery pick and possesses an exceptional combination of speed and nimbleness buttressed by size (6-foot-3, 184 pounds) to protect the puck. His points-per-game rate as a 16-year-old in the USHL was just a tick less than Buffalo Sabres first-rounder Casey Mittelstadt.

Team outlook: The Colts reloaded with the Russian Four — Svechnikov, Alexey Lipanov (TB), Kirill Nizhnikov and overage goalie Leo Lazarev — and No. 1 overall pick Ryan Suzuki. That star power might offset depth issues, especially in the shallow Central Division. Barrie, laden with rookie defencemen, had a league-worst minus-101 goal differential last season. How high they climb might hinge on the improvement on the back end, where Tyler McArthur and Justin Murray are the only vets.

HAMILTON BULLDOGS
Player to watch — Arthur Kaliyev, RW (2019 draft): Played on the U.S. team at the Five Nations under-17 tournament last month, comes advertised as a dynamic forward. The 16-year-old checks off the boxes for explosive speed and next-level size at 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds.

Team outlook: The past two ‘Dogs years have been transitional — first season in the Hammer, followed by adapting to John Gruden as head coach. There is potential to split the Oshawa-Peterborough double team in the East Division and continue their climb. They have six NHL-drafted players including Will Bitten (MTL), Matt Strome (PHI) and Marian Studenic (NJ). The entire defence corps returns, with the X-factor being the progress of No. 1 goalie Kaden Fulcher.

KINGSTON FRONTENACS
Player to watch — Nathan Dunkley, C/LW: Showed maturity beyond his years during the playoffs. The 17-year-old has exceptional quickness and tenacity, although he is undersized at 5-foot-11 and 188 pounds. That type of player typically goes off the board early on the second day of the NHL draft.

Team outlook: The majority of the 18 returnees whom new coach Jay Varady has inherited are 17- and 18-year-olds — including 42-goal scorer Jason Robertson (DAL), Eemeli Rasanen (TOR) and Jacob Paquette (NSH). With overage goalie Jeremy Helvig (CAR) back on a team that had a very taut structure for three years under former coach Paul McFarland, Kingston should remain a tough out in the playoffs. Its peak might be a year away.

MISSISSAUGA STEELHEADS
Player to watch — Ryan McLeod: He has never been under the radar, but had his coming-out with 20 points in as many playoff games. His speed, size and playmaking are all of the first rank. One box left to check for McLeod is scoring goals more frequently, especially since his stock is so high. Mississauga has gifted youngsters on defence (Merrick Rippon) and in goal (Jacob Ingham).

Team outlook: The prognosis in Peel Region is provisional, since captain Mike McLeod (NJD), 44-goal scorer Owen Tippett (FLA) and/or winger Nathan Bastian (NJD, eligible for the AHL) are on the pro-or-junior fault line. If coach James Richmond gets his lodestars back, this is a 100-point team that will be all-in on trying to win the championship. The core group boasts three drafted 19-year-old defencemen, including Nicolas Hague (VGK).

NIAGARA ICEDOGS
Player to watch — Akil Thomas, RW: Has a tough act to follow after setting the IceDogs’ rookie scoring standard with 48 points, but the 17-year-old already reads the ice well enough to be the focal point of his team’s offence. It is no stretch to say Thomas is worth the price of admission.

Team outlook: Coach Billy Burke and GM Joey Burke have a free hand to coax Niagara toward the middle of the conference. A team with a baker’s dozen of 18-year-olds on the roster, including Ben Jones (VGK) and Kirill Maksimov (EDM), could run hot and cold. Stephen Dhillon is an underrated goalie, but Niagara has a huge hole to fill in front of him since departed Ryan Mantha played 30 minutes a night.

NORTH BAY BATTALION
Player to watch — Brandon Coe, RW (2020 draft): Get ready to hear every colour commentator mention that Coe won’t be 16 years old until Dec. 1. Coe, 6-foot-3 and 182 pounds, is joining a team that has helped some big-bodied forwards (Barclay Goodrow and Nick Paul) get a taste of the NHL. Speedster Adam McMaster will also garner attention for this year’s draft.

Team outlook: At this time of year, everyone makes too much of proven commodities. There’s a paucity of that in North Bay, where Cam Dineen (ARI) is the lone holdover to have had a 50-point season. The Julian Sime-Mat Woroniuk goalie tandem has 30 games combined of OHL experience. That might point toward a rebuild, contingent on breakouts from sleepers such as Justin Brazeau and Luke Burghardt.

OSHAWA GENERALS
Player to watch — Allan McShane, C (2018 draft): A classic, crafty centre whose 44-point rookie year looks more impressive since it came with two high-placed teams (Erie, then Oshawa) that didn’t have a lot of open ice time for any 16-year-old. The mental element of the game is there with McShane. The physical base, including his first-steps acceleration, needs to be there to support it.

Team outlook: The Gens have given themselves a sweet fall-back after an unsuccessful Memorial Cup bid. Leaders such as captain Jack Studnicka (BOS) and No. 1 goalie Kyle Keyser are still only 18. McShane, Serron Noel and Danil Antropov (2019 draft) are one of the OHL’s best trio of 17-year-olds. The East Division is shaping up as very competitive top-to-bottom, and Oshawa will be in the thick of it.

Ryan Dixon and Rory Boylen go deep on pucks with a mix of facts and fun, leaning on a varied group of hockey voices to give their take on the country’s most beloved game.

OTTAWA 67’S
Player to watch — Kevin Bahl, D: Impressed as a shutdown defenceman last season and with Canada’s under-18 team this summer. Like any blue line behemoth in the age of analytics, Bahl (who is 6-foot-5, 225 pounds) will need to show he has a modicum of offensive impact and isn’t confined to clearing the defensive zone.

Team outlook: The new overseers, GM James Boyd and coach André Tourigny, have a back end — Noel Hoefenmayer (ARI), Bahl, Carter Robertson et al. — steeped in on-the-job learning. How much Ottawa will improve hinges mostly on whether the likes of Sasha Chmelevski (SJ) and Austen Keating replace the scoring and zone entries furnished by departed Artur Tyanulin (a factor in 38.6 per cent of 67’s goals last season).

PETERBOROUGH PETES
Player to watch — Pavel Gogolev, RW: Sniped four goals in six exhibition games. There’s only so much stock one can put in that small sample, but it is a positive indicator that the 17-year-old’s strength might be catching up to his skill. Increased ice time won’t be automatic for Gogolev, since the Petes have a half-dozen 19-year-olds and overagers up front.

Team outlook: The Petes, coming off their best season in a decade, likely won’t be as deep. But there’s a lot to admire here; coach Jody Hull has catalytic talents from the goal out with Dylan Wells (EDM) and Matt Timms. Games are won in the middle of the ice, and the Petes boast the centre-ice trio of Jonathan Ang (FLA), Zach Gallant (DET) and Chris Paquette (TB). The million-dollar question is whether they can level up from good to great.

SUDBURY WOLVES
Player to watch — David Levin, LW: True, his size and skating pose issues for NHL scouts. By traditional numbers, though, one can liken Levin to present-day New York Islanders left wing Shane Prince — both late-birthday, sparsely built playmaking wings. Levin had more points in each of his first two OHL seasons than Prince did at the same age, just sayin’.

Team outlook: Step 1: put in an appearance in the playoffs. Step 2: change the messenger by hiring coach Cory Stillman, who wears the braid of 1,000-game NHL player who also spent five years in player development with Carolina. With better discipline and team defence, Sudbury, whose returning contingent features 48-goal scorer Dmitry Sokolov (MIN), will see the playoffs again.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

ERIE OTTERS
Player to watch — Stéphane Patry, C: A Swiss-French import, he joins a team that has plenty of good shifts available. It’s foolhardy to compare numbers from overseas junior leagues, but Patry’s numbers as a 16-year-old in the Swiss U20 loop are on par with those of one-time Guelph Storm 40-goal man Pius Suter.

Team outlook: Any team that makes the OHL final has a year of little to no playoff hockey in its near future (save one notable exception). It is Erie’s turn for that, as Taylor Raddysh (TB) is the only one back from the top-six playoff scorers. What doesn’t age out, though, is the winning culture and talent development fostered under GM Dave Brown. Ivan Lodnia (MIN) will now become a primary scorer.

FLINT FIREBIRDS
Player to watch — Ty Dellandrea, C: One might as well assume he is on course to play for Team Canada in the 2020 world juniors, two years away. Dellandrea, who was trusted on the penalty-kill as a 16-year-old, grades out well as an all-around centre. This season should be a better gauge of Dellandrea’s offensive upside.

Team outlook: The main reason to follow Flint is that Fedor Gordeev (TOR) and Nicolas Mattinen (TOR) could be the first D pairing. The 6-foot-6 Gordeev is often good for a LeBron-on-skates bit where he joins the rush and goes by smaller players so quickly that it seems unfair. Flint has individual flash with Nicholas Caamano (DAL) in his final OHL go-round and Dellandrea (and Dennis Busby) drawing draft buzz, but they may not have the depth for a playoff run.

GUELPH STORM
Player to watch — Ryan Merkley, D: He could be the first North American defenceman called out at the NHL draft in June. Few of Merkley’s contemporaries can match his flair for slaloming around defenders to create scoring chances. With greater maturity should come a reduction in turnovers and heightened defensive awareness.

Team outlook: A mid-table finish in the Western Conference under coach-GM George Burnett is doable. Guelph should be able to take pucks to the net on a regular basis, as their drafted forwards — Liam Hawel (DAL), Isaac Ratcliffe (PHI), Nate Schnarr (ARI), Givani Smith (DET) and Alexey Toropchenko (STL) — are all 6-foot-2 or taller. The goalie combo, of Anthony Popovich and rookie Nicolas Daws is one of the OHL’s youngest, so we’ll see if that sticks.

KITCHENER RANGERS
Player to watch — Giovanni Vallati, D: Worked his way up from third pairing at the outset to top pairing by the playoffs. The Ottawa native has prototypical size and agility for a NHL defenceman; he was cut from Canada’s under-18 team, but sometimes that becomes the spur for a big draft year.

Team outlook: With Adam Mascherin (FLA) and Logan Stanley (WPG) together, Kitchener has a high-end scorer and defender for this level. The star power is vital since Kitchener is in win-now mode after writing an IOU to its demanding fans when it moved Jeremy Bracco to Windsor last season. How squarely Kitchener plants itself among the contenders might come down to goaltending, since Luke Opilka (hip) will be out for a couple months.

LONDON KNIGHTS
Player to watch — Evan Bouchard, D: The third-year mobile defender had 44 points as a sophomore. NHL teams that are looking for another fleet-footed right-shooting defenceman to add to the pipeline get a 2-for-1 in London viewings, with Bouchard and newcomer Alec Regula.

Team outlook: Like ancient Rome, the next Tyler Parsons in goal won’t be built in a day. But Dale Hunter thrives when his guys are faded by the forecasters, and London just keeps players hungry and moving to the next station. Cliff Pu (BUF) and Victor Mete (MTL) have arrived on schedule as 19-year-old leaders, and the Knights offer promise at each age cohort. It’s hard to see too much of a drop-off.

OWEN SOUND ATTACK
Player to watch: Two of last season’s top four scorers were no taller than 5-foot-7, and into that breach steps Aidan Dudas, whom Hockey Canada listed at 5-foot-7¼ during the Ivan Hlinka Tournament. Dudas plays with an infectious energy that tends to spread to teammates. Centre Matthew Struthers, at 6-foot-2, is a more conventionally proportioned draft prospect.

Team outlook: Nick Suzuki (VGK) and Jonah Gadjovich (VAN) combined for 91 goals, the most of any returning duo in the league. New coach Todd Gill had skating teams in his Kingston tenure, so one presumes the Attack will again be a potent lineup that pushes for a top-two seed. Overage goalie Zack Bowman has the tall task of replacing three-year standout Michael McNiven, but getting a goalie from Sudbury worked out for Erie last year.

SAGINAW SPIRIT
Player to watch — Blade Jenkins, C: For the Spirit franchise, Jenkins choosing the OHL and Saginaw over the Univeristy of Michigan is akin to the Twitter verified checkmark. Jenkins has all the tools to be a two-way centre and has filled out to 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, which might help him revitalize this offence, after some tough sledding against the older competition with the U.S. Under-17 team last season.

Team outlook: Saginaw holds several tickets in the breakout 17-year-old forward lottery — Jenkins, Max Grondin, Aidan Prueter, DJ Busdeker. Overage goalie Evan Cormier (NJD) is back, which will make GM Dave Drinkill a popular fellow near the trade deadline. It’s hard to see more than a seven or eight playoff seed for a team whose lone drafted skaters, Brady Gilmour (DET) and Keaton Middleton (TOR), are projects for their NHL organizations.

SARNIA STING
Player to watch — Hugo Leufvenius, LW: An 18-year-old Swede, he hit the change-of-venue button to come to Sarnia as an import after being passed over in his first year of NHL draft eligibility. With all the older centres in Sarnia, a 6-foot-3 winger with north-south speed and decent hands is in a good place for getting a lot of scoring opportunities.

Team outlook: Having six forwards who were in NHL camps, including potential 100-point scorer Jordan Kyrou (STL) and Drake Rymsha (LA), will help Sarnia win some score-fests. The weakness of the West Division is also a boon. The defence and depth required for a playoff run might not be there, which is a trade-off of playing the long game with some U.S. players in the 2016 priority selection.

SAULT STE. MARIE GREYHOUNDS
Player to watch — Barrett Hayton, C: Shone against same-age competition at the Ivan Hlinka in August, showing off the fast hands and stop-and-start slipperiness we see in bona fide goal scorers. Any contender typically has a 17-year-old who’s relentless on the attack, and Hayton could play that role for the ‘Hounds.

Team outlook: The time is now for the Soo, which has a .697 point percentage over the past four years, to finally win in the playoffs. Five players, including Conor Timmins (COL), scored at least 49 points. Between the almost entirely home-grown roster (24 of 26 players) and a cadre of drafted forwards such as Morgan Frost (PHI) and Boris Katchouk (TB), there’s a passing resemblance to some recent OHL champions. Coach Drew Bannister is in his third year at the helm.

WINDSOR SPITFIRES
Player to watch — Connor Corcoran, D: The 17-year-old is only in his third season as a full-time rear-guard and retains some of the playmaking mojo from his forward days. With Windsor being younger, the restrictor plates will come off and Corcoran should have more opportunity to explore the space in the offensive zone.

Team outlook: The Spitfires are in flux, with franchise goalie Michael DiPietro (VAN) being the only drafted teen back in the fold. Logan Brown (OTT), whom you might remember scoring off giveaways like Martin Marincin’s in the Ottawa-Toronto pre-season NHL game on Tuesday, might get an extended NHL look. Fellow centre Gabriel Vilardi (LAK) has a back ailment. General manager Warren Rychel is beginning a rebuild, but a team with DiPietro could edge enough 2-1 wins to be a playoff qualifier.