OHL Playoff Preview: West is best, but no clear favourite in the field

Sam Cosentino and RJ Broadhead discuss which teams are the favourites in the CHL playoffs.

For a long time the OHL has been a west-leaning league. Having the top five finishers clustered in the Western Conference should make for some intense early-round series, with a 90-point team guaranteed to fall in the first round and at least one 100-point team assured of exiting after the second.

Those are absurd circumstances. But a good half of the OHL has historically seemed resistant to adopting the at-large 1-through-16 format, which the QMJHL manages to deploy despite having a smaller revenue base and more travel.

It’s best to look at the playoffs in terms of what is attainable for all 16 teams, and what is the low bar. No. 8 seeds going on a run doesn’t happen in junior. Only 13 lower-seeded teams have made it out of the first round in the OHL over the past 10 years, which works out to 16.25 per cent.

In this preview, we look at the floor and ceiling of each team, give you a player to watch, and a player who will be moving on from the league after this season.

The playoffs commence Thursday.

Western Conference

(1) Erie Otters: 50-15-2-1, 103 points
Ceiling: Four 50-win seasons in a row and no league title means the Otters have to win the OHL. The scoring punch — Alex DeBrincat (CHI), Dylan Strome (ARI) — and stout defence — Darren Raddysh — is definitely there. Like another offensive juggernaut of recent vintage, the 2014 Guelph Storm, Erie has capable goaltending with the Troy Timpano-Joseph Murdaca partnership, although other teams might be better.

Floor: At minimum, a fourth consecutive appearance in the Western final. The past three teams who eliminated Erie made it to the Memorial Cup final.

Player to watch: The night Anthony Cirelli (TB) returned from missing five games on March 3 was also the night Erie scored eight goals in a period.

You’ll be missed: Obviously, that’s DeBrincat, with his unprecedented three consecutive 50-goal, 100-point seasons.

(2) Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds: 48-16-3-1, 100 points
Ceiling: In 2015 the Hounds loaded up, finished first overall and got a thorough McDavid-ing in the third round. Thus the bar is winning the conference with this well-balanced team led up front by Blake Speers (NJD), Zach Senyshyn (BOS), Boris Katchouk (TB).

Floor: At least one of the west’s three 100-point teams will be out after the second round. The Soo could be a wild card – they were 10-1-1-0 over their last 12 games, but might also open the playoffs with 17-year-old rookie goalie Matthew Villalta.

Player to watch:
Overage Bobby MacIntyre put up 80 points and is looking for a foothold at some higher level.

You’ll be missed: Any time Senyshyn is on the ice, people stop fiddling with their phones.

(3) Owen Sound Attack: 49-15-2-2, 102 points
Ceiling: Five 30-goal scorers, league-best power play, solid defence and goaltending that is an immutable as long as Michael McNiven (MTL) is ready, willing and able. Santino Centorame, Petrus Palmu and Nick Suzuki, et al., could win it all.

Floor: The Attack are awesomely good and even a second-round exit won’t change that reality – they are a great example why the playoff format needs to change.

Player to watch: Left wing Kevin Hancock, an 18-year-old, tripled his point total over last season

You’ll be missed: Cordell James crossed over from the rival Barrie Colts to provide Owen Sound with a power winger.

(4) London Knights: 46-15-3-4, 99 points
Ceiling: The Knights will likely lean more on Tyler Parsons (CGY) the longer they go in the post-season. The whole hasn’t been greater than the sum of the parts since the deadline deals for Mitchell Stephens (TB), Dante Salituro (CLB) and Mitchell Vande Sompel (NYI). Still, it’s London with a world junior gold medallist in goal.

Floor: Putting Windsor on a longer host-team hiatus than the 34-day layover the 2014 Knights had would offer enough schadenfreude. London might be a sleeping giant, but it has only three wins (one via shootout) in 10 tries against Erie, Owen Sound and the Soo since Christmas.

Player to watch: Left wing Max Jones (ANA) can be a wrecking ball in close confines, but his history of suspensions makes him a marked man.

You’ll be missed: Vande Sompel, with his ability to moonlight, represents how the sport is evolving.

(5) Windsor Spitfires: 41-19-5-3, 90 points
Ceiling: The metaphorical rubber will not meet the metaphorical road for the Spitfires until May 19, Day 1 of the Memorial Cup, which they host this year. By then Logan Stanley (WPG) and Logan Brown (OTT) could be healthy again. Having that fallback might mean facing less pressure than London, who they meet in Round 1.

Floor: Failing to clear the first round is a bad look for the Memorial Cup host, even though the out-dated playoff format is a contributing factor. Draft-year goalie Michael DiPietro will have to go save-for-save with Parsons.

Player to watch: Mikhail Sergachev (MTL) can take over a game on the back end.

You’ll be missed: Right wing Jeremiah Addison (MTL) was a solid playoff performer in his Ottawa days, although the rides were short.

(6) Kitchener Rangers: 36-27-3-2, 77 points
Ceiling: Punted on this season by moving Bracco, but there’s nothing to lose by throwing out a Connor Bunnaman-Darby Llewellyn-Jake Henderson shutdown line (average size: 6-foot-2, 202 pounds) and seeing what happens.

Floor: Well, the Rangers went 1-7 against first round opponent Owen Sound and were outscored 26-8 across the five meetings since Christmas.

Player to watch: Adam Mascherin (FLA) had a 100-point season and will try to produce in a playoff environment.

You’ll be missed: Captain Frank Hora, who has kept a tidy D-zone over the past few seasons.

(7) Flint Firebirds: 32-28-3-5, 72 points
Ceiling: It’s reasonable to think the Firebirds will extend Sault Ste. Marie in Round 1. They are 3-0 on the Greyhounds’ ice, plus first-year coaches Ryan Oulahen and Eric Wellwood know about scheming for the playoffs.

Floor: Just settling for being in the playoffs would rate as unsatisfactory.

Player to watch: Kole Sherwood (CLB) was a healthy scratch for most of London’s 2016 Memorial Cup run, but had an 85-point season for Flint and will try to spark their attack against the Soo.

You’ll be missed: Overage defenceman Alex Peters thrived as a 200-metre man in his track-and-field days, but has been good over the long haul as a five-year player with Plymouth/Flint.

(8) Sarnia Sting: 31-30-6-1, 69 points
Ceiling: The Sting did account for Erie’s first regulation loss at home on March 4, so there is that. Jordan Kyrou (STL), a 94-point scorer, is hard to suppress for a whole game and the Sting have a tough forecheck. Whatever the duration of this first round series, Erie will get a good test.

Floor: Sarnia and Erie also played in the 8 vs. 1 series two seasons ago and that iteration of the Sting avoided the sweep.

Player to watch: Drake Rymsha was a bit better than a point-per-game scorer after a trade from Ottawa, but has never had a post-season point.

You’ll be missed: Well, defencemen around the league will not miss going into a corner with right wing Jaden Lindo.

Eastern Conference

(1) Peterborough Petes: 42-21-2-3, 89 points
Ceiling: Dylan Wells (EDM) provides the Petes with the conference’s best goaltending. Centre Steven Lorentz (CAR) has grown into an on-ice overage leader, while they are fortified with good role players such as Josh Coyle, Logan DeNoble and Zach Gallant.

Floor: Hard to foresee the Petes not winning at least two series.

Player to watch: For Round 1 against Niagara, centre Christopher Paquette (TB) will be facing his former teammates.

You’ll be missed: Right wing Nikita Korostelev, in his age-19 season, has a chance at a run after playing only 12 playoff games in his first three years.

(2) Mississauga Steelheads: 34-21-6-7, 81 points
Ceiling: This is a go-for-it season and the Steelheads had a .716 points percentage across the final 44 regular-season games. With their combination of frontline players such as centre Mike McLeod (NJ), right wing Nathan Bastian (NJ) and defencemen Vili Saarijärvi and Nic Hague, their time is now. Drawing Ottawa in Round 1, whose game is also predicated on speed, should up Mississauga’s chances of getting to Round 2 relatively unscathed.

Floor: Anything short of winning the conference would be a disappointment.

Player to watch: McLeod had nine points in the Steelheads’ seven-game series against the Barrie Colts last season is now a year older and wiser.

You’ll be missed: Overage Spencer Watson (LA) has persevered through ankle and wrist injuries and endless questions about his small size to make the OHL’s 300 career-points club.

(3) Oshawa Generals: 40-23-3-2, 85 points
Ceiling: There might not be enough seasoning or scoring depth to endure more than one round, if they can even pass the first test. The Generals split their season series with first round opponent Sudbury 2-2 and each team earned a road win.

Floor: With the Gens’ Bob Jones going against David Matsos in a coaching matchup of former Windsor staff members, Sudbury-Oshawa should be an emotional, stretched-out series.

Player to watch: Rookie centre Allen McShane, the main return in the Anthony Cirelli trade, has 21 points in 29 games for Oshawa.

You’ll be missed: Jeremy Brodeur has logged 105 games in goal over the past two seasons.

(4) Kingston Frontenacs: 33-26-5-4, 75 points
Ceiling: With a commitment to close checking and Jeremy Helvig (CAR) in goal, the Frontenacs could take out Hamilton in Round 1. Paul McFarland’s charges won the last two games against the Bulldogs.

Floor: Kingston hasn’t reached the second round in successive seasons since 1987, when they were the Canadians.

Player to watch: Rookie Eemeli Rasanen is a 6-foot-6 right-shot defenceman with offensive savvy, which is a rare combo. The Finn was fourth in team scoring with 39 points.

You’ll be missed: Captain Stephen Desrocher (TOR) had a great influence on the young Fronts; while the Maple Leafs haven’t signed him, he’ll be somewhere in the pro game next September.

(5) Hamilton Bulldogs: 33-27-4-4, 74 points
Ceiling: Between Will Bitten (MTL) and their younger cohort (MacKenzie Entwistle, Matthew Strome, Marian Studenic), Hamilton packs more scoring wallop than Kingston. Winning a round and being a tough out in the second is doable. The Bulldogs have three wins apiece against Mississauga and Peterborough, the Eastern division winners.

Floor: A long first-round series. Kingston’s hole card is in goal where Helvig is more stable than Hamilton’s Dawson Carty and Kaden Fulcher.

Player to watch: Matt Luff (LA) will wreak some havoc along the walls and in front of the net.

You’ll be missed: Overage wingers Michael Cramarossa and Niki Petti are both five-year, one-organization players who will try to beat out the Belleville Bulls’ archrival.

(6) Sudbury Wolves: 27-34-7-0, 61 points
Ceiling: The Wolves should be motivated since it’s this group’s first exposure to the playoffs. An upset is possible.

Floor: Taking first-round opponent Oshawa to a sixth or seventh game. A quick exit after being out of the playoffs for two seasons will prompt some Same Old Sudbury knee-jerking.

Player to watch: Dmitry Sokolov (MIN) scored 48 goals, the most by any Wolves player in 17 seasons.

You’ll be missed: Right wing Chandler Yakimowicz, a classic pest, has been in more grills than your dental hygienist.

(7) Ottawa 67’s: 26-34-7-1, 60 points
Ceiling: Did not defeat No. 2 seed Mississauga in regulation time and have pronounced one-line-team tendencies (Mathieu Foget-Austen Keating-Artur Tyanulin). But hey, goalie Leo Lazarev has been known to stand on his head.

Floor: If only the 67’s had drawn Oshawa in Round 1; they went 3-0-0-1 against the Gens in the second half. They can skate with Mississauga, but are unlikely to generate scoring chances at the same rate.

Player to watch: Towering defenceman Chris Martenet (DAL) will have a heavy workload against the Steelheads.

You’ll be missed:
Centre Patrick White had a fine overage year in his hometown, where he’ll be staying on in U Sports with the Ottawa Gee-Gees.

(8) Niagara Ice Dogs: 23-35-6-4, 56 points
Ceiling: A young bunch – the team started the season with 14 rookies — will try to sustain the emotion and extend No. 1 seed Peterborough. Draft-year goalie Stephen Dhillon made every start against Eastern playoff teams after the Jan. 9 trade deadline.

Floor: All the hoopla over having made the playoffs in all 10 seasons since settling in St. Catharines might make a skeptic think that was the organization’s 2017 Memorial Cup.

Player to watch: The playoffs is a veterans tournament, but Akil Thomas was second among true freshmen in points. The forward had 13 across the last 11 games to help the Dogs nip the last playoff berth.

You’ll be missed: Overage defenceman Ryan Mantha (EDM) played out his OHL string with a rebuilding team and persevered to land a pro deal.

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