Junior hockey is unpredictable at the best of times, and preseason predictions rarely come true. But after the global pandemic that shut down the world for well over a year, this season will have a new level of unpredictability. Despite all of that, I have tried my best to make sense of the ever-changing rosters and predict what the OHL’s Eastern Conference will look like after the final game of the season on Sunday, April 3, 2022.
10 – Sudbury Wolves
A post-Quinton Byfield season will likely be tough for the Sudbury Wolves. In a sense, they got a lucky head-start on their rebuild when they won the first-ever OHL Draft Lottery earlier this year and picked American winger Quentin Musty. The biggest issue with the Wolves this season is how young they are, with several 2004 or 2005 birthdays, and both will be rookies after the cancelled 2020-21 season.
The Wolves don’t have any veteran names that will jump off the page and make you think they will win a ton of hockey games. The team will be led by players like Nathan Ribau, Liam Ross, Jack Thompson, Kosta Manikis, and Chase Stillman, the New Jersey Devils’ first-round pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. On paper, it’s hard to see where the production will come from both offensively and defensively.
In goal, the Wolves will likely rely on a tandem with limited OHL experience with Jonathan Lemaire and Mitchell Weeks. Of the two, Weeks has more OHL experience, but not by much, with 34 games, a save percentage (SV%) of 0.872 and a goals-against average (GAA) of 4.02. This position might bog down the Wolves even if they can find the back of the net, but overall, this team isn’t terribly threatening on paper, and a season at the back of the pack is likely ahead.
9 – Mississauga Steelheads
The Mississauga Steelheads are one of those teams that inspire little confidence even if they are a little further ahead in their rebuild than other teams that I have higher up on this list. The team will be led offensively by James Hardie, possibly one of the most underrated players in the OHL. He was overlooked in the NHL Entry Draft twice, and it’s difficult to understand why.
He’s not a small player at six feet and 183 pounds, and in his plus-1 season, he scored 34 goals and 29 assists in 59 games with the Steelheads. You’d think one team would have used a late-round pick on an, admittedly, high-risk player, but whose ceiling is pretty high. Regardless, he will likely be one of the Steelheads’ more productive players this season, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him near the top of the OHL scoring race.
Outside of Hardie, the Steelheads lack much of anything in the way of OHL experience and seriously lack a player that other teams will need to game-plan around. No one else on the roster jumps off the page, and it’s hard to imagine they will produce offensively. It’s reasonable to think some players will exceed expectations and have a good season for the Steelheads, but as for who that will be, it’s hard to tell.
Defensively, the team is in slightly better shape. The Chicago Blackhawks’ fourth-round selection in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, Ethan Del Mastro, will return after a relatively successful rookie season in 2019-20. He was the Steelheads’ 12th-overall selection in the 2019 OHL Priority Selection and will lead the team defensively this season. They should also have Ole Bjorgvik-Holm, the team’s 31st-overall selection in the 2019 Canadian Hockey League (CHL) Import Draft, who was selected by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2020 Entry Draft. Players like Charlie Callaghan, Evan Brand, and whatever rookies the team decides to carry will fill out the defence, so overall, they aren’t all that bad on the defensive side.
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With goaltending, the Steelheads could go either way. Joe Ranger will likely open the season as the team’s starting goalie. In two seasons with the club, he has a 4.20 GAA with a .863 SV%. However, this is partly because the team played poorly in 2019-20, but his numbers will need to come up if Steelheads want to be competitive. There was a large hole left by the departure of Kai Edmunds that will partially be filled by Ranger, but the backup role is just as important. It looks like it will be Justin DiLauro in that spot. He was lit up in his first game of the preseason against the Guelph Storm, allowing seven goals on 35 shots. Goaltending could be the difference between the team squeaking into the playoffs or being the worst in the league.
8 – Peterborough Petes
Of all the OHL teams that lost players, the Peterborough Petes were hit the hardest. Mason McTavish, who would be their superstar this season, is not expected to return after he was drafted third overall in the 2021 Draft by the Anaheim Ducks. In addition to McTavish, they lost virtually all of their big names as one of the older teams in the 2019-20 season. After they unloaded to bring in some talent (including Akil Thomas), they have little in the way of players ready to make an impact right away.
For the Petes to be at all competitive, they will need J.R. Avon to play out of his mind. Coming into this season, Avon has just 56 games and 11 points to his name in the OHL, and while placing so much responsibility on his shoulders might not yield the results the Petes are hoping for, he is one of their only returning offensive players with any experience. They have a couple of players coming back that have played nearly a full season, but none of them have numbers that show they will have an impact when the puck drops.
The fortunate news is that the Petes have some hyped young players, especially Nick Lardis. In the 2021 OHL Draft Lottery, the team got lucky and won the sixth-overall pick, a selection they used on Lardis. He comes to the Petes after playing minor hockey with the Oakville Rangers, and fans are hoping he can step up right off the bat.
Defensively, they are in the same boat. They lost plenty of talent, including Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, and don’t really have anyone to replace him. They will be counting on one of their only veteran defensemen, Shawn Spearing, to bring some stability to the blue line. Their 35th-overall selection in the 2020 Import Draft, Biran Zanetti, should bring some talent, and the Petes will have to fast-track players like Samuel Mayer, Donovan McCoy, and James Guo to field a competitive defence corps. It won’t be easy, and they will struggle at times, but they are playing the long game.
In goal, the Petes will turn to Tye Austin, the third-year veteran who struggled at times in 2019-20. While wins and losses are a team stat, the Petes, who were very good in 2019-20, lost more than half the games that Austin started. There was a noticeable difference between him and Hunter Jones (who has graduated). The Petes need Austin to take another step, and if he can, he might be an asset they choose to deal at the deadline. The backup will likely be Michael Simpson, who has never seen action in a regular-season OHL game. Inexperience is the keyword for the Petes, more than most teams in the league.
7 – North Bay Battalion
The last time we saw the North Bay Battalion in action, there wasn’t much to be excited about other than a stunning win over the league-leading Ottawa 67’s. Now, however, the team is showing promise and Troops fans should be excited. There’s hope in the bay, and it starts in the crease. Flipping the order upside down, Joe Vrbetic might be one of the most critical pieces on the team this season. He returns to the Battalion for his third season (although his first season consisted of only one game) and looking to improve on his numbers. He posted a 4.23 GAA and a .881 SV%, but, to be fair, that’s not too bad given the quality of the team in front of him. I expect big things from him this season, and he could be a big reason that the Battalion do well.
Defensively, the story revolves around the first-overall pick in the 2020 OHL Priority Selection, Ty Nelson. Though he has yet to play his first OHL game, Nelson ranks 11th on Craig Button’s 2022 NHL Entry Draft rankings. Other sources have him in the 20-25 range, but no matter where you look, he is listed as a first-round pick. That tells you just about everything you need to know about Nelson. He will make a huge difference for North Bay this season, even as a rookie. Nelson will also have Paul Christopoulos, a veteran of 53 games to lean on. The team’s defensive corps isn’t the most impressive outside of Nelson, but it should be good enough to get the job done.
Offensively is where they stand out. The club’s first-round draft choice in 2019, Liam Arnsby, returns for a second season after showing flashes of promise in his rookie season. If he returns, Brandon Coe will bring a veteran presence that the Battalion will be thankful they held onto during a down season. Matvey Petrov, the first-overall pick in the 2020 Import Draft, should be a big part of whatever the team accomplishes this season. They are young, but the Battalion have built what they hope is the start of something big. I’m not sure it’s all going to pay off, but they are well on their way.
6 – Oshawa Generals
The Oshawa Generals were also impacted by the missed 2020-21 season after building their team for their chance to host the Memorial Cup in 2021, a tournament that never happened. Offensively, the Generals won’t be returning too many players that made them one of the best teams in the East in 2019-20, including Ty Tullio, who scored 66 points in 62 games, Brett Harrison, who had a very productive rookie season, and Ryan Stepien, who is now on his third OHL team in his overage season.
However, they do have some intriguing young players coming up, including Kevin Niedenz, the Generals’ German import who was selected 52nd overall in the 2021 CHL Import Draft, their second-overall selection in the 2021 Priority Selection, Callum Ritchie, and their second-round pick in 2021 in Matthew Buckley.
Defensively, the Generals are a bit stronger, but they still don’t have players who can score in bunches or who stood out among the best in the league when they were last on the ice. They will be led by Lleyton Moore, the big fish they landed in a trade made in 2018, which sent Jack Studnika to the Ice Dogs. Moore has been touted as one of the better young defensemen in the league, but now it’s time for him to show why. He needs a breakout season.
Additionally, Liam Whittaker is primed for his first full season in the OHL and looked good at times in 26 games with the Generals in 2019-20. Mitchell Brewer and David Jesus bring a little more experience to the blue line. Jesus is heading into his second season while Brewer is about to play his fourth season with the club and will be looking to take that next step so often taken by overage players.
Goaltending is where they might get into a little more trouble. They have to decide between a bunch of options, but the choice isn’t obvious. Zach Paputsakis will likely be on the team after returning from the Ottawa Senators’ rookie camp, but we still don’t know who his partner will be. It could be Patrick Leaver who has looked good in the preseason, it could be Matthew Sbrocca, who has also looked good, but it could also be Ryan Polidori or Carter Bickle, the youngest of the bunch. Considering Paputsakis only has 32 games to his name, the team might need some outside help for this one. It’s hard to tell with this team; they might be alright, but they could also easily be mediocre.
5 – Ottawa 67’s
The Ottawa 67’s wont be the same team they were in 2018-19 or 2019-20, but they also won’t be as bad as some think. Unlike other teams that go on deep runs, the 67’s didn’t empty the cupboards to bring in boatloads of talent. Instead, they added to their team when the cost was reasonable and didn’t jeopardize their future, something that is likely going to pay dividends right away for the barber poles.
Most of their losses are on offense, including Marco Rossi, Austen Keating, and Graeme Clarke, who have been replaced with young players like Luca Pinelli, Brady Stonehouse, Vinzenz Rohrer, and Dylan Robinson. Of the 296 goals the 67’s scored in 2019-20, only 46 of them were scored by players still on the roster. But the good news is that there is plenty of young talent that should be able to step up and fill the shoes of those departed, at least to some extent.
The 67’s are young offensively, but they have players who will score. The key will be their experienced defence, although with only one season of games for many of them. Ottawa will likely get Jack Matier back from the Nashville Predators before the start of the season. They will also have Alec Belanger, Teddy Sawyer, Anthony Costantini, and Ranvir Gill-Shane. All five of them played very well in the 2019-20 season and showed their potential to become impact players in the OHL. As for the young players coming in, the 67’s have to decide between Derek Smyth, Matthew Mayich, and Thomas Sirman for the final spot or two. Right now, Mayich and Sirman look like the favourites and could have some kind of rotation that allows them both to play, much like the 67’s did with their rookie defencemen in 2019-20.
In goal, St. Louis Blues’ 2020 sixth-round draft pick, Will Cranley, will backstop the team for his first full season as a starter in the OHL. Behind Cedrick Andree, he showed signs of improvement and now looks ready to take the next step toward becoming a top goaltender in the league. To back him up, Max Donoso will be there, and they have Colin MacKenzie in case anything happens to either goaltender. This team won’t be as good as they were in the last couple of seasons, but they will surprise some people.
4 – Niagara Ice Dogs
For the Niagara Ice Dogs, a lot is riding on what happens with Daniil Gushchin, their fourth-overall selection in the CHL Import Draft in 2020. Gushchin was drafted in the third round in 2020 by the San Jose Sharks and spent 2020-21 with the Muskegon Lumberjacks in the United States Hockey League. With the Lumberjacks, Gushchin scored 32 goals and 32 assists in 46 games and would be a massive boost to the Ice Dogs’ offence. However, there is no guarantee he will be joining the team when the season starts. He could play in the AHL, but there is an almost equal chance he will play in the OHL. Either way, the Ice Dogs will really be hoping to see the Yekaterinburg native in red, black, and white this season.
As for the rest of the offence, some names have piqued my interest, particularly Cameron Butler, who the Ice Dogs got in return for trading Akil Thomas to the Petes in 2019-20. With the Petes, Butler played a solid role and looked like a player who could make a name for himself in the OHL, but he struggled to adapt to his new surroundings with the Ice Dogs. The team was bad, and it was hard to really make an impact in 2019-20, but I’m expecting him to play a big role for the team this season. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the season, especially offensively. The Ice Dogs boast some promising young talent, including Pano Fimis, Aidan Castle, Brice Cooke, Ryan Struthers, and others. With some time to adapt, this team could be better than people expect.
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Switching up the order a little bit, the Ice Dogs have one of the best stories in the OHL in goal. Tucker Tynan will return after a gruesome injury that left people wondering if he would survive, let alone play hockey again. His recovery has been inspirational, and if he can return to play at or above the level he left off with, he will be one of the better goalies in the league this season. His .910 SV% in 2019-20 was impressive considering the Ice Dogs were one of the worst teams in the league.
Tynan’s supporting cast includes a pair of goaltenders with four combined games of OHL experience. All four games were played by Josh Rosenzweig, who backstopped the Ice Dogs Tynan’s absence in 2019-20, winning two. Joseph Costanzo is the other half of the battle for the backup job. He was the Ice Dogs’ second-round pick in 2021 and played minor hockey with the Toronto Marlboros.
Defensively, the Ice Dogs look a little thin on paper. They don’t have a great deal of experience, but they will return Isaac Enright, Landon Cato, A.J. Cook, and Dakota Betts. This might want to add to the position as the season goes on, but if it stands, defense could be the biggest issue they face all season. If they get the offence and goaltending they expect, they could be all right, but I wouldn’t want to bank on a flimsy defence if I don’t have to.
3 – Hamilton Bulldogs
One player stands out on the Hamilton Bulldogs, and it’s not who you think it is. I’m talking about overage forward, Navrin Mutter. That’s right. Mutter is a complete pain to play against, and while his numbers haven’t been there offensively in his career, I’m expecting that to change, at least a little bit, in his final season in the OHL. One of Mutter’s issues has been the time he spends in the penalty box, and he needs to clean things up, but if he can bring the physicality and the offence to some extent, he will be like a man amongst boys. He’s key.
Now, to the players you expect to hear about, like Jan Mysak, who may or may not be back this season, Logan Morrison, Ryan Winterton, Liam Van Loon, and Tag Bertuzzi. All of them have made an impact in the past, and I expect them to do it again. Mysak should lead the Bulldogs in scoring if he’s back, but Bertuzzi could come close. The change of scenery for Bertuzzi has worked wonders after he struggled early in his OHL career with the Guelph Storm. Since being traded to the Bulldogs in 2018, he has turned things around and now looks ready for a productive season in the hammer.
Unlike other teams, the Bulldogs won’t need to rush their rookies into big roles and expect them to produce right off the hop. Instead, their young talent, including Alex Pharand, Jonathan Melee, and Cole Brown, will be able to learn from the veterans who are still in the locker room. Offensively, the Bulldogs should be one of the best teams in the league this season.
Defensively, they are also pretty solid. Returning are Gavin White, Nathan Staios, who could stay in Utica with the Comets this season, and Chandler Romeo, while some interesting young players will try to fill out the rest of the blue line. Artyom Grushnikov was the Bulldogs’ 2020 16th-overall selection in the Import Draft and could make an immediate impact. Additionally, Lucas Moore and son of former NHLer Shaen Donovan, Jorian Donovan, add some talented youth to the back end.
In an ideal world, the Bulldogs would again go with Zachary Roy and Marco Costantini in goal, but something is holding them back. They are well over their three overage player allowance with Mutter, Van Loon, Bertuzzi, Colton Kammerer, Staios, and Roy, meaning they need to decide who stays and who goes. This choice could make or break their season, and it doesn’t make things any easier considering Steve Staios, Nathan Staios’ father is the president of the club. The Bulldogs have lofty goals this season, but who’s in and who’s out is at the top of my mind.
2 – Barrie Colts
I think the Bulldogs might end up with a better record than the Colts, but thanks to the OHL’s playoff structure – with division winners being given the first and second spots in the standings – the Colts would finish second in the conference in my scenario. One of the biggest headlines is what’s happing with their stand-out forward, Tyson Foerster. Thanks to a new rule that allows CHL players who played 20 or more games in the AHL in the lost season to return to the AHL, Foerster will likely stay with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms this season.
It’s unfortunate, but the Colts do have players who will be able to step up this season and fill those boots. Evan Vierling, who the Colts acquired from the Flint Firebirds in January 2020, emerged as a promising goal-scorer in his sophomore season and should be a good bet to take a massive step forward in 2021-22. Other veterans like Jacob Frasca, Ryan Del Monte, and Nicholas Porco should also help the team.
Defensively, the Colts will likely be getting Brandt Clarke back. The last time we saw Clarke, he was just a high-ceiling rookie, but now he is a year removed from his NHL Draft year and should return as one of the best players in the league. He was drafted eighth overall by the Los Angeles Kings in 2021, and the Colts will be thrilled to have him back.
Around Clarke, the Colts will have plenty to play with. Connor Punnett, Mathew Hill, Ian Lemieux, Matthew Sredl, and Nathan Allensen should all be back this season. But if the team wants to promote some of their rookies onto the roster this season, one of their import picks, Artur Cholach, is probably a good bet. They also have some high draft picks that could be in the lineup when the puck drops, like Grayson Tiller, David Burri, and Beau Akey. The Colts should be rock solid defensively this season.
Goaltending will be an issue for them, and there have been some rumblings that they could be targeting Saginaw Spirit goaltender Tristan Lennox. Nothing has happened, and it remains just a rumour, but if the Colts can swing something like that, they would become a huge threat to the Kingston Frontenacs down the line this season.
1 – Kingston Frontenacs
The Frontenacs are set to be not only one of the best teams in the OHL this season but also one of the best teams in the CHL. In their history, one that includes three different names – Kingston Canadians, Kingston Raiders, and the Kingston Frontenacs – since they joined the OHA (before it became the OHL) in the 1973-74 season, the Frontenacs’ franchise has not won a Memorial Cup championship.
The Frontenacs will be under the leadership of the 2020 OHL Rookie of the Year, Shane Wright. Wright is considered the early favourite to be the first- overall pick in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft despite missing an entire season of development. In 58 games in 2019-20, he scored 39 goals and 28 assists and broke Connor McDavid’s record for the most points per game in a player’s exceptional status season. There is a good chance that Wright will be the best player in the OHL this season, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he puts up 130+ points (if he stays healthy). No one has reached that mark since Dave Bolland in 2005-06 did it with the London Knights, though Dylan Strome came close in 2014-15 when he scored 129 with the Erie Otters.
All of the focus will be on Wright, and rightfully so, but the Frontenacs have so much talent surrounding him. Players like Zayde Wisdom, who may or may not be back after playing 28 games in the AHL in 2020-21, Martin Chromiak, and Francesco Arcuri give them more than enough firepower to win 50 or more games this season. Also, during the preseason, young players like Paul Ludwinski and Christopher Thibodeau have looked great and seem to be capable of stepping up right away and producing.
Defensively, the team might need a boost later in the season, but for now, they should be all right. Braden Haché will return for a second season in the OHL alongside Lucas Peric and Jake Murray. The Frontenacs have some youth with Quinton Burns and Thomas Budnick, who were both high picks in the past two years. They aren’t the best defensive core in the league, but with their offence, and of course goaltending, that might not matter.
It might be hard to find a bigger offseason addition than Leevi Meriläinen. Meriläinen, who was drafted by the Senators in the third round in 2019, joins the Fronts as a big athletic goaltender. He has been very good for Kärpät U20, and he is expected to be a massive addition to the team. In 2019, the club used the first-overall pick on Aidan Spooner, a goaltender from Maple, Ontario. It’s either going to be him or Mason Vaccari in the backup role. You can just smell a big-time season ahead for the Frontenacs, and it could end in their first Memorial Cup victory.
So Many Variables
As noted at the top, so many things can and will change how these predictions shape up, and it’s nearly impossible to get these right. This is my educated guess for the OHL season, even if these predictions are quickly blown up. If you’d like to take a crack at this, I would love to see it in the comments. I’m excited for the puck to drop and to come back to this at the end of the season and see how right (or more likely wrong) I was.
Currently a journalism student at Algonquin College in Ottawa, I have always had a passion for the OHL and the Ottawa 67’s in particular. I have been attending games since I was young, and being involved with sports has always been a dream of mine. Sports writing fits perfectly into that. You can also find me talking and writing other sports (primarily Canadian football) on my website 13thmansports.ca!