The Meridian Centre in Niagara plays host to the CHL on Sportsnet Sunday afternoon. The IceDogs welcome the No. 1 team in the CHL, the Erie Otters. Niagara is a team still trying to hit its stride, while Erie has been on point almost all season long.
Kris Knoblauch should be considered a front-runner for OHL coach of the year. He’s been able to direct his team to the top of the CHL charts despite losing superstar Connor McDavid to the NHL. His top players have produced as expected; his bright-eyed players from a year ago have developed and exceeded expectations and he’s had great contributions from his rookies.
One other element to Erie’s success this season has been the play of over-aged goalie Devin Williams. Not only has he been a difference maker this year, but he’s stolen games for Erie while remaining consistent with his play.
Jeff Marek hosts Sportsnet’s weekly CHL podcast, a one-stop shop for news, analysis, opinion and interviews covering the WHL, OHL and QMJHL.
Defensively, the Otters are smaller, not nearly as nasty, but much more mobile than they were a year ago. Travis Dermott has made huge strides in his game and is starting to look like a steal for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who took him in the second round of last year’s draft. Darren Raddysh is a shot-blocking machine; Erik Cernak is an L.A. Kings prospect that adds size; Jordan Sambrook has future top-pairing written all over him; T.J. Fergus will be a welcomed addition when he returns from a bout with mono, and in the meantime, Mitchell Byrne has benefitted from Fergus being out of the lineup.
Erie has plenty of firepower up front. Third overall pick Dylan Strome continues to pile-up points, but has to be mindful that his development is more about process than production. Alex DeBrincat should reach the 50-goal plateau again, which is remarkable considering where he’s come from in two years. Both Taylor Raddysh and Kyle Maksimovich have taken off with increased responsibility and opportunity. Jake Marchment is a glue-guy who’s always on the job, while Patrick Fellows and Kyle Pettit are honest players. Erie’s rookie combo of Vanya Lodnia and Brett Neumann have bright futures in the OHL.
Erie Otters 45-11-1-0 (24-5-0-0 Road), 2W, 1st Midwest Division, 1st Western Conference, 1st BMO CHL Top 10
|Dylan Strome||45||31||60||91||4th OHL Pts|
|Alex DeBrincat||49||43||39||82||T2nd OHL G|
|Taylor Raddysh||56||20||45||65||19th OHL Pts|
|Dylan Williams (36-6-1-0, 2.22, .920%)|
NHL Drafted/Signed Players
Dylan Strome -- Arizona Coyotes, third in 2015
Travis Dermott -- Toronto Maple Leafs -- 34th in 2015
Erik Cernak -- L.A. Kings, 43rd in 2015
Jake Marchment -- L.A. Kings, 157th in 2014
Kyle Pettit -- Vancouver Canucks, 156th in 2014
NHL Central Scouting Mid-Term Rankings
Alex DeBrincat -- No. 20
Taylor Raddysh -- No. 34
Under The Radar -- Jordan Sambrook has become a fixture in Kris Knoblauch’s top four. He possesses high hockey IQ, defends well, and down the road will become a point producer.
When it comes to Niagara, it sounds like a broken record. Niagara’s production has dipped below the three goals per game mark and is too big an issue to ignore. Every time the IceDogs seem to get rolling, they either run into a hot team, a hot goalie or the schedule throws them a loop. And when those things aren’t happening, Niagara’s mistakes are magnified.
There’s no question it’s been as frustrating a season Niagara head coach/GM Marty Williamson has ever experienced. The biggest challenge Williamson faces is motivating his group to be playoff ready. The rest of the regular season is not as much about where they IceDogs finish as it is about how they’re playing when the post-season begins. On the whole, the group is talented enough to win the conference, but if all of Niagara’s drafted players start thinking pro pay cheque over current team success, the IceDogs will bow out early.
This squarely puts the responsibility on the players. Individually, the IceDogs need to stop looking around and look straight into the mirror to find answers. If Josh Ho-Sang, Brendan Perlini and Graham Knott can put aside the white noise and simply go out and play to their capabilities, the rest of the group should fall into place. There’s little to worry about when it comes to Anthony DiFruscia, Johnny Corneil and Jordan Maletta. Stephen Harper, Christopher Paquette and Pavel Jenys are big and strong enough to wear down the opposition. At times, the forwards will look to make the pretty play as opposed to the simple play and that has been problematic. Other than Ho-Sang and Perlini, the rest of the forwards would be best served by quantity of shots as opposed to quality.
Defensively, it’s hard to argue the numbers for Niagara. They continue to be one of the best defensive teams in the league and, with five NHL-drafted players, that’s the way it should be. While point production has been good for the group, it could still be better. Vince Dunn is all-out offensive and Blake Siebenaler has that element to his game but on a lesser scale. Aaron Haydon, Josh Wesley and Aleksandar Mikulovich should be able to shut down just about anybody. Ryan Mantha has the size and skill to play it any which way.
Alex Nedeljkovic has a .500 record with Niagara, and the exact same save percentage he had with Flint, while the goals against are way down. Nedeljkovic has the ability to steal games all by himself, and re-establishing that mindset may set the tone for the players in front of him.
Look for two key elements when watching the IceDogs. First, they have to keep moving in order to get into a flow game. Secondly, watch the number of offside calls against them. If there’s fluidity in the game and there are few offside calls, Niagara is on. When they play as a static group and there are plenty of offside calls, Niagara struggles. Getting back into a routine and playing on home ice should help.
Niagara IceDogs 28-22-3-3 (16-11-1-2 Road), W, 4th Central Division, 6th Eastern Conference
|Josh Ho-Sang||54||16||49||65||20th OHL Pts|
|Vince Dunn||50||11||30||41||6th OHL D Pts|
|Alex Nedeljkovic (18-16-1-2, 2.91, .907%)|
NHL Drafted/Signed Players
Brendan Perlini -- Arizona, 12th in 2014
Josh Ho-Sang -- N.Y. Islanders, 28th in 2014
Alex Nedeljkovic -- Carolina Hurricanes, 37th in 2014
Graham Knott -- Chicago Blackhawks, 54th in 2015
Vince Dunn -- St. Louis Blues, 56th in 2015
Blake Siebenhaler -- Columbus Blue Jackets, 77th in 2014
Josh Wesley -- Carolina Hurricanes, 96th in 2014
Ryan Mantha -- N.Y. Rangers, 104th in 2014
Aaron Haydon -- Dallas Stars, 154th in 2014
Pavel Jenys -- Minnesota Wild, 199th in 2014
NHL Central Scouting Mid-Term Rankings
Christopher Paquette -- No. 87
Stephen Dhillon -- No. 25 (goalies)
Under The Radar -- Johnny Corneil is one of a few Niagara players seriously in the black. His production has slowed since the start of the season, but he plays greasy and, when he plays a simple game, is highly effective.