OHL Season Preview: Ryan Merkley, Storm, ready to contend in West

Watch as the San Jose Sharks select Ryan Merkley with the 21st pick in the NHL Draft.

The Guelph Storm won the OHL Championship in 2014 and have won only a single playoff series since, but the pieces are in place for them to make another run at a title this season.

They’ll be challenged for that crown by many teams, of course, including the always-dangerous London Knights, last year’s powerhouse Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and the young-but-stacked Windsor Spitfires. But the Storm have the depth and skill needed to compete for the J. Ross Robertson Cup this spring.

In the east the Oshawa Generals, who won the Mastercard Memorial Cup in 2015, appear ready for another long playoff run. To get there they’ll have to get through the emerging talent on the Ottawa 67’s and Niagara IceDogs as well as the retooling Barrie Colts and Kingston Frontenacs.

And while the WHL might be the league dominating the top of early 2019 draft boards, the OHL also has some young stars who could hear their names called in the first-round next June.

Here are some teams, players and prospects to watch in the upcoming OHL season.

Three Teams That Can Contend

Guelph Storm

The Storm returned to the playoffs last year after missing the previous two seasons, and now are poised to be a major contender in the Western Conference.

Up front the team boasts a ton of offensive talent, with 19-year-olds Isaac Ratcliffe and Alexey Toropchenko, and 18-year-old Cam Hillis all threats to score when they’re on the ice. Tag Bertuzzi, a top-prospect for the upcoming NHL Draft, will also be counted on to provide depth scoring this season.

Ratcliffe, who Philadelphia took with the 35th pick in the 2017 draft, will serve as captain this season after posting a career-high 41 goals and 68 points last year.

On defence, Guelph has plenty of veteran depth that can get the puck out of the zone quickly in transition. That group is led by 2018 first-rounder Ryan Merkley (more on him later) but also includes Owen Lalonde and Dmitri Samorukov. Over the summer the Storm acquired overager Jack Hanley from last year’s champion, the Hamilton Bulldogs, to provide leadership away from the puck.

Oshawa Generals

The Generals come into this season peaking at the right time, with not many players graduating and a group of veterans ready to take the next step.

Led by team captain and leading scorer Jack Studnicka (if he’s sent back from the Bruins), the Generals have as many as eight homegrown forwards returning to the team this year. Serron Noel, Allan McShane and overager Domenico Commisso provide a solid supporting cast to Studnicka that will give new coach Greg Walters lots of options on offence.

Newcomer Giovanni Vallati was the biggest addition this winter, giving the Generals a top-line defenceman for a group that doesn’t have much star power. Vallati, 18, was acquired from the Kitchener Rangers over the summer, and will be at Winnipeg Jets camp this month. Mitchell Brewer and Nico Gross return to the blue line, and combined with veteran goalie Kyle Keyser, this group will be difficult to score against. Just don’t expect the back end to contribute much on the offensive side of the puck.

London Knights

The London Knights took a rare step backwards last season but appear poised to return to their usual perch near the top of the Western Conference. After selling at the trade deadline, moving stars Robert Thomas, Cliff Pu and Max Jones for future assets, London now enters this season with a younger core to surround new stars.

The success of the Knights this season will largely be determined by which players return from NHL camps. If defenceman Evan Bouchard (Oilers), and forwards Alex Formenton (Senators) and Liam Foudy (Blue Jackets) are in the lineup, London will be unstoppable offensively. If they aren’t, newcomer Adam Boqvist and 17-year-old Connor McMichael will be given much more offensive responsibility.

Another area of strength for the Knights is in net, where 20-year-old Joseph Raaymakers returns for one final season. With a 29-13-2 record, a .910 save percentage and three shutouts, Raaymakers was one of the top goalies in the league last season and has the potential to steal games for London.

Players To Watch

Adam Boqvist, D, London Knights

One of the more intriguing picks from this June’s NHL Draft joins the London Knights after playing his whole life in Sweden. And he’s expected to have an instant impact, with his smooth skating and offensive instincts anticipated to be contributing factors to getting the Knights back to contender status.

The Chicago Blackhawks took Boqvist with the eighth-overall pick this past summer, two spots before the Edmonton Oilers grabbed Knights defenceman Evan Bouchard. If the Oilers return Bouchard to London, he and Boqvist could form arguably the top defence pairing in the entire OHL. But if Bouchard cracks the lineup in Edmonton, the Knights won’t have to make any moves to replace him.

The Knights have a recent history of bringing in European defence prospects and helping them adjust to the North American game. But the key word is adjust, which Knights assistant GM Rob Simpson expects Boqvist will need to do first.

“When you are coming from international ice to North American ice, even players like Olli Juolevi, Nikita Zadorov and Olli Maata came over,” Simpson told Global News. “They are elite players and it did take them time before they feel comfortable and you get to see everything that they are capable of doing.”

At only five-foot-11, Boqvist is a bit undersized for a defenceman, and his play in his own zone will certainly be a focus this season under coach Dale Hunter. But when Boqvist has the puck and hits full stride, there won’t be many in the league that will be able to stop him.

Michael DiPietro, G, Windsor Spitfires

DiPietro comes into this season as one of the top goaltenders in the CHL and is the early favourite to be between the pipes for Canada at this year’s world juniors.

DiPietro, 19, was a third-round pick by the Canucks in 2017, and is the reigning OHL Goaltender of the Year. On a rebuilding Spitfires team last year, he posted a 29-21-4 record with a 2.79 goals-against average and .910 save percentage, one season after backstopping them to a Memorial Cup title. He also led the league with seven shutouts.

After the Spitfires’ season ended, DiPietro joined Team Canada at the World Championships in Denmark, where he got to challenge himself against stars like Connor McDavid and Jordan Eberle in practice. DiPietro says that experience helped put him in the right mindset as he prepares for the upcoming WJC, which takes place in front of his future NHL fans in Vancouver.

“I learned a lot about the mental side of the game when I was over there. You can learn from coaches and that’s great, but when you can learn from goalies who are in (the NHL) every day,” he told The Province. “When you make the jump, it’s almost like you have the mindset you have to do more, but really you have to do less. The less you do, the smoother you look in there. But I definitely still have a Jonathan Quick-like style. I just keep battling. Battle for the last puck.”

Ryan Merkley, D, Guelph Storm

No player entered last year’s NHL Draft with more question marks than Merkley, and they won’t go away even after he was drafted by the San Jose Sharks 21st overall.

Discipline and his play away from the puck put up enough red flags that some NHL teams reportedly had him on a no-draft list, despite his high offensive upside. The Sharks took a flyer on Merkley and when he returns to Guelph after his first NHL camp, it will be interesting to see if the top pick in the 2016 OHL Draft shows a new level of maturity.

If he doesn’t, it’s hard to imagine him finishing the season in Guelph, and the Sharks will be questioned for risking a high pick on a player who lacks discipline. But if he does improve, Merkley will become one of the top defencemen in the OHL and should continue to build on his career-high 67 points from last season.

And the San Jose Sharks would potentially have themselves another elite defenceman.

NHL Draft Eligible Prospects To Watch

Ryan Suzuki, C, Barrie Colts

This season, all the offence on the Barrie Colts will run through centre Ryan Suzuki, who likely will be a first-round pick in June’s NHL Draft.

The first-overall pick in the 2017 OHL Draft, Suzuki posted a respectable 14 goals and 44 points in his rookie season. Playing behind stars Andrei Svechnikov, Dmitry Sokolov and Aaron Luchuk, he was able to ease into the OHL while still contributing to a team that led the Eastern Conference with 297 goals.

“I think having Svechnikov and some of our other guys made it a little easier for me to get comfortable early in the season and took some of that pressure off,” Suzuki said at the end of last season. “It really gave me a chance to learn what we’re doing as a team and not focus so much on just points.”

But now those veterans are gone and Suzuki becomes the top centre on the Colts. He’ll be counted on to up his offensive game and if he does, he’ll hear his name called early in the first round.

Canadiens fans should pay special attention to this player, as he’s the younger brother of newly acquired prospect Nick Suzuki, and could be available when Montreal picks.

Blake Murray, C, Sudbury Wolves

The Sudbury Wolves finished last season with the worst record in the OHL, but one of the few bright spots on that team was Murray, who could be a first-round pick in the upcoming NHL Draft.

Murray posted 21 goals and 44 points in 57 games last season, becoming the first 16-year-old rookie to lead the team in scoring in franchise history. This season he, along with 2018 first-overall pick Quinton Byfield, will be expected to carry the offence for a Wolves team trying to get back in the playoffs.

“We’re counting on him to score this year,” Wolves head coach Corey Stillman said of Murray earlier this month. “He needs to be a difference-maker.”

Listed as six-foot-two, 179 pounds, Murray boasts a strong skating stride and hard shot. Almost every team in the NHL is looking for centres in this mould, so another big offensive season will only help his draft stock.

Arthur Kaliyev, LW/RW, Hamilton Bulldogs

A second-round pick in the 2017 OHL Draft, Kaliyev burst on to the scene in a big way last season, leading all 16-year-olds with 31 goals and 48 points. Surprise performances from players like Kaliyev are why the Bulldogs took home the J. Ross Robertson Cup, and he should only get better this season.

Kaliyev models his game after Rick Nash, using his big six-foot-two frame to create space to fire off a strong wristshot. In fact, he led all rookies in shots on goal with 208, and was the first 16-year-old OHL player since Alex Galchenyuk to score 30 goals in a season.

“This kid, he’s a player and he’s a winner too,” former Bulldogs head coach John Gruden said during last year’s Memorial Cup. “A lot of the high-end kids at his age are one-trick ponies but he’s actually done an admirable job as a 16-year-old on both sides of the puck.”

Last year Kaliyev was surrounded by lots of veteran talent, but with all of those veterans now gone, Kaliyev’s role with the Bulldogs will only grow — and the expectations will, too.

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