CHL Power Rankings: 8 storylines to follow this season

The London Knights defeated the Kitchener Rangers 6-2 Saturday in the OHL.

The CHL season is just over a month old and already storylines are starting to unfold that will define the 2018-19 season. A good start by several former CHL players in the NHL, including a handful that are still eligible to return, make for interesting fodder in the development debate. Teams not relevant in recent times have risen to the top of their respective leagues’ standings. We’ve had our first coaching casualty, and we’re on the verge of looking at what Canada’s and Russia’s world junior teams will look like with the beginning of the CIBC Canada-Russia series starting Nov. 5. Close to that date, NHL Central Scouting will update it’s Players to Watch list as we march towards the 2019 NHL Draft.

In the meantime, here’s a look at some of the hot-button topics in the CHL right now.

8. Gabe Vilardi: The injured Los Angeles Kings draft pick is within a month of returning to action, barring any more setbacks. He’ll likely start back under the watchful eye of the Kings before they decide what to do with him. With the Kings struggling out of the gate, a return to Kingston is likely, and with Kingston in a full re-build, they’ll look to move Vilardi to re-stock the cupboards. If that is the case, there will be a long lineup of OHL contenders anxious to land Vilardi. Whoever ends up with him will hace a Memorial Cup champion, first-class citizen and one of the best in the CHL at working his game below the dots.

7. Adam Foote: The first CHL coaching replacement of the 2018-19 season, Foote took over from Jason Smith on Wednesday and immediately notched his first win, a 3-2 decision over the Swift Current Broncos. The work begins now, not just for this season, but leading up to hosting the 2020 Memorial Cup presented by Kia. Foote’s NHL resume needs no explanation, and having sons in the junior age group, he should be well versed on how to handle millennials. Owner/GM Bruce Hamilton took responsibility for the team he has assembled, but also didn’t feel his team was playing up to its potential. While it may not be a contender in the Western Conference this season, this team will have to maximize its talent while Hamilton goes out to attract and acquire Memorial Cup-level players for 2019-20. This group has a year and a half to get things back on track. One of the challenges for Foote will be the dynamic created by having to coach his son Nolan, who is expected to be a first-round NHL pick in June.

6. Patrick Roy: Of all the Quebec teams “St. Patrick” had in his first go-around, this team will check in as the most challenged to score. As usual, the Remparts have a solid European duo in Aleksei Sergeev and Philipp Kurashev. After that, Louis-Filip Cote should produce at roughly a point per game, but after that, there’s a big drop-off. Roy has already shown a willingness to play his young players with the thought of having his team ready for the playoffs. Aside from that, Quebec will lean heavily on Dereck Baribeau whose GAA is more than respectable and whose save percentage is a bit misleading due to Quebec’s shot suppression. A part of Patrick’s success as a coach is his belief in his players, whom he will defend at all costs, even if that means a blowup or two throughout the year. One of those may very well happen in the season series against Rimouski, always a bitter rivalry.

5. Kootenay in Winnipeg: This is a story that will not go away. In the days of the Chynoweth family ownership, relocation to Winnipeg was brought up on several occasions. They kicked some tires, but ultimately ended up selling to the Winnipeg duo of Greg Fettes and Matt Cockell. The Winnipeg Free press, specifically Mike Sawatzky, WHL veteran columnist Gregg Drinnan and Summit 107FM in Cranbrook have continued to track this story. It’s become so hot-button, that the town will meet Thursday night to discuss the franchise’s future in Cranbrook. Despite being in B.C., the Ice currently reside in the Eastern Conference of the WHL. Some things to consider would be; a two-thirds WHL BOG vote, re-balancing the Eastern Conference divisional structure and a permanent home for the Winnipeg-based franchise.

4. Flint Firebirds: For years, the Plymouth Whalers were a model franchise in the OHL, consistently in the playoffs, and consistently churning out high-end NHL talent (Tyler Seguin, Rickard Rakell, J.T. Miller to name a few). When the franchise sold and relocated to Flint, there was hope that a market familiar with the game would support a major junior franchise. But then came the John Gruden fiasco. That was put to bed and stability was brought back temporarily by George Burnett. Just when it looked like confidence was restored, the Firebirds got off to an 0-7 start, prompting head coach Ryan Oulahen to step down. Former assistant Eric Wellwood is back at the helm but the Firebirds are 0-11 at time of writing and confidence has once again slipped in one one of the three U.S. markets in the OHL.

3. Who sticks?: As we approach the 10-game mark for NHL rookies, it will be worth following who remains in the NHL and who gets returned to their junior clubs. The most interesting names are Alex Formenton of Ottawa and Evan Bouchard of Edmonton. Forget Andrei Svechnikov. Max Comtois has already played his 10 games in Anaheim, and it doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere, but it will be worth watching as we move toward the 40-game mark. Henri Jokiharju got off to a hot start in Chicago, but has cooled slightly. Michael Rasmussen is averaging 12:25 of ice time a game. There’s Juuso Valimaki, Dillon Dube and Kailer Yamamoto to consider as well, but they do have AHL eligibility.

2. Prince Albert Raiders: An older, more experienced team that benefitted greatly from taking Moose Jaw to the brink during the 2018 playoffs, the Raiders are the current cream of the crop in the CHL. Maple Leafs goalie prospect Ian Scott and 19-year-old Brett Leason have taken this team on their shoulders to lead the CHL. There are many other solid pieces in place such as Montreal prospect Cole Fonstad, San Jose prospect Noah Gregor and Senators prospect Parker Kelly. This small-market wonder has amassed 100-point seasons on four occasions and last made the conference finals in the 2004-05. It’s early to talk Memorial Cup, but the Raiders’ only appearance in the big dance came back in 1985 with a win over Shawinigan in the championship game.

1. Alexis Lafreniere: Look beyond Jack Hughes, the expected No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, and you’ll find Rimouski’s Alexis Lafreniere. The first-overall pick in the 2017 QMJHL draft scored 42 goals as a 16-year-old last season. Since then, he’s gone on to captain Canada to a gold medal at the 2018 Hlinka-Gretzky Cup and he’s off to a fantastic start to the 2018-19 season. His goal pace is down from a year ago, but the point production still remains top notch. At 6-foot-1, 192 pounds, Lafreniere is strong enough to win board battles and establish net-front positioning. He skates well, has amazing vision and he truly makes those around him better. The young phenom will have to help his team match pre-season expectations, which hasn’t happened to this point.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.