OHL Season Preview: West Division

We are back with the fourth and final part of our OHL Season Preview series. Today we examine the Ontario Hockey League’s West Division, which is home to the 2017 Memorial Cup host Windsor Spitfires.

While Windsor is the best team on paper, there are still some very good teams in this division that, with the right move or two, could emerge as contenders this season.

Windsor Spitfires

Photo Courtesy: Dave Jewell
Can DiPietro improve upon last season’s terrific rookie year? (Photo Courtesy/Dave Jewell)

Why they make the playoffs:  The Windsor Spitfires will make the playoffs because they are really good at hockey.  Windsor will finish in one of the top two spots in the Western Conference standings. The team is deep with Logan Brown, Christian Fischer, Gabriel Vilardi, Julius Nattinen and Jeremiah Addison up front. On defense, Montreal Canadiens’ 2016 first round pick Mikhail Sergachev leads the way, with fellow 2016 NHL first round pick Logan Stanley (Winnipeg Jets) in the top six. This means that Windsor could have one of these two dominant defensemen on the ice for most of the game should they play on separate pairings.

In goal, local product Michael DiPietro will get the nod as the starter after winning the job as a 16-year-old last season. Last season, DiPietro was 16-8-2 with a 2.45 goals against average and those numbers should only go up as a result of experience and better play in front of him.

Why they miss the playoffs: The Spitfires are a team that won’t miss the playoffs. It would take a lot of games lost to injury for this to happen; especially with Flint Firebirds and Guelph Storm in the Western Conference.

Team Concern: The big concern in Windsor is the potential for Sergachev to play in the NHL this season, and Christiano DiGiancinto to play professional hockey rather than come back for his overage season. An injury to Gabriel Vilardi that will cost him the beginning of the season has to be a concern as well.

Player to watch: This could be the year that Logan Brown takes his game to another level and eclipses the 100- point plateau. The Ottawa Senators’ 2016 first round pick is a 6’6” monster with soft hands and should easily surpass the 74 points he posted last season as a 17-year-old. While Brown missed an opportunity to win an OHL championship in Niagara last year (Brown refused to report to the Niagara IceDogs), he is guaranteed to play hockey in late May with Windsor hosting the Memorial Cup in 2017.


Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds

Why they make the playoffs: While this team is a shadow of itself from two seasons ago, the Greyhounds still boast a lot of talent at forward. Zachary Senyshyn is a Boston first round pick from 2015 and could score 50 or more goals this season after scoring 45 last year. While he has yet to put together a season where he averages a point per game, this could be the year. Blake Speers, Jack Kopacka, Tim Gettinger and Boris Katchouk are the other big forwards on the team. The Greyhounds should collectively score a lot of goals this season.

Why they miss the playoffs: The Greyhounds do not have a defenseman that really stands out or is considered amongst the best in the league, something that all other contenders have. However, the group is more than strong enough to make the playoffs as is. If General Manager Kyle Raftis is able to augment this group at the trade deadline, Sault Ste. Marie may surprise come the spring.

Halverson Greyhounds
Brandon Halverson will be tough to replace in net this season Can Raaymakers handle the starting job? (OHL Images)

Team Concern: At the risk of sounding repetitive, the Greyhounds are somewhat uncertain in goal this season with the graduation of Brandon Halverson to the New York Rangers’ organization. Joey Raaymakers will be given the opportunity to be the starter after serving as the understudy for Halverson the past two seasons.

While Raaymakers has 53 OHL games on his resume, his ascension does not come without concerns given his .891 save percentage during the last campaign. Although Raaymakers will be good enough to get the Greyhounds to the playoffs, it’s uncertain how he performs under pressure in the playoffs.

Player to watch: Boris Katchouk is the player to watch in Sault Ste. Marie.  Katchouk, a Tampa Bay second-round selection in 2016, scored 51 points in 63 games last season and should see those numbers increase in his second full season in the OHL. The talented winger has a great work ethic and is a player that impressed most scouts last season. With more opportunity, this season and a full year of experience under his belt, the Waterloo, Ontario-native should be poised to break out offensively. Should his production plateau, he will still be a valuable piece for Head Coach Drew Bannister given his consistent work ethic.

Flint Firebirds

Why they make the playoffs: After the dumpster fire that was last season, the team was forced to re-tool in a big way coming into this season. The league brought in OHL veteran manager George Burnett to be the team’s General Manager and that decision should bring stability to the organization. The problem for the team is that many players refused to play for the organization after last season’s circus, and it will take time for the team’s image to be repaired. Of course, having owner Rolf Nilsen away from the team for five years via suspension will also help restore goodwill to the organization.  Unfortunately, though, the damage is done and this team will not likely be close to a playoff spot this season.

Nicholas Caamano, OHL, Flint Firebirds
Caamano had 20 goals as a 17-year-old. Can Flint count on him for 30 goals in 2016-17?  (Photo: Terry Wilson/OHL Images.)

Why they miss the playoffs: If you google Flint Firebirds owner, you’ll get a good idea as to what happened last season in Flint. The damage outlined above speaks for itself and this season the team will try to repair its image without Nilsen being involved in hockey operations. It’s a complete rebuild in Flint and while the kids will develop this season, there just isn’t enough experience and strength there to make the playoffs in a very difficult Western Conference.

Team Concern: Forwards, defense, and goaltending are all concerns. You could argue that every position on this team comes with doubt given the situation. This is a team that only has two NHL draft picks on the roster and its best player, Will Bitten, has requested a trade. It’s all part of the rebuild but there are some good pieces in place, giving Firebirds’ fans hope for the future.

Player to watch: The Dallas Stars thought enough of Nicholas Caamano to take him in the fifth round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. The Ancaster, Ontario- native had 20 goals last season as a 17-year-old, and should add to that number given his experience at the OHL level. Despite the increased attention Caamano may see from the opposition, he should still approach 30 goals given the increased support around him this year.

Ty Dellandrea is also a player to watch. Dellandrea was taken fifth overall in the OHL’s Priority Selection Draft this spring and has five assists in four preseason games to start his OHL career. Dellandrea could emerge as one of the league’s best 16-year-olds, as the talented center will get plenty of playing time with Flint looking to develop their younger players.

Sarnia Sting

Will he or won't he be back? Sting fans want to know Konecny's status (Photo: Amy Irvin)
Will he or won’t he be back? Sting fans want to know Konecny’s status (Photo: Amy Irvin)

Why they make the playoffs: While there is doubt about Travis Konecny and Pavel Zacha returning this season, there is still a very talented team in Sarnia. Although hockey pundits believe Konecny and Zacha will land in the NHL, having just one of them return could change the fortunes of this team’s success in 2016-17.

Toronto Maple Leafs’ prospect Nikita Korostelev is returning, along with 2016 second round pick Jordan Kyrou of the St. Louis Blues. Jakob Chychrun will be back as well, which means bad news for the rest of the league given his ability to play upwards of 25 minutes per night. Chychrun could see improvement in his offensive game this season, potentially scoring close to a point per game on this talented Sarnia team.

Why they miss the playoffs: It would require Chychrun, Konecny, and Zacha making their respective NHL teams and goaltender Justin Fazio to struggle in between the pipes. While it is hard to believe Fazio won’t seize the opportunity, the team could be in trouble if he isn’t able to keep them in close games without the offensive support he had last season. This team should make the playoffs given the state of Guelph and Flint; missing the playoffs is a long shot.

Team Concern: It could be some time before Head Coach Darien Hatcher knows who will be on his final roster. With so many pieces of the puzzle heading off to NHL camps and with the potential to stick, Hatcher may have to rely on some unproven commodities while he waits for NHL rosters to be decided.

Player to watch: Kelton Hatcher is a 6’1″ defenseman from New Jersey that chose to play in the OHL rather than take the NCAA route. Hatcher is the son of coach Darien Hatcher and has joined the organization in which his father is also part owner. Kelton was taken in the fourth round of the 2015 OHL Priority Selection Draft and is said to play a similar game to his father; which could mean some rough nights for the opposition’s forward groups. While the younger Hatcher played in Detroit last season, he arrives for his rookie season looking to make a mark in the league.

Saginaw Spirit

Why they make the playoffs: Saginaw will make the playoffs because Guelph and Flint are re-building. While Saginaw is not a flashy group on paper, they mix an interesting blend of experienced players from other teams with the next wave of Spirit players this season.

Mitchell Stephens headlines the forward group but has yet to average a point per game in the league and could find himself playing for a new team at the trade deadline given where this Saginaw team sits in the development cycle. Team defense is a strength in Saginaw this season, with Edmonton’s 2016 third round selection Markus Niemelainen and Detroit Red Wings’ 2016 second round Filip Hronek headlining the group. They’ll make the playoffs because they are good defensively, but this is a team that could struggle to score at times.

Saginaw Spirit, Markus Niemelainen, OHL, NHL Entry Draft
Saginaw will depend heavily on second-year import Markus Niemelainen this year. (Photo by Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Why they miss the playoffs: Offense could be a problem this season, as the team has only scored 10 goals in four exhibition games, and only has Stephens and Kris Bennett returning as the only 20 goal scorers from last season. Tye Felhaber should join that group this season, but on paper, this is not a team whose offense is feared by the rest of the OHL.

Team Concern: The team will need a big season out of goaltender Evan Cormier to avoid making the playoffs as the eighth seed again. Cormier will need to improve on his .890 save percentage and may have to steal some games with brilliant play, given the Spirit’s likely challenges offensively. It’s a good enough team to be in the playoffs, but they are not likely to be confused with a contender unless Cormier becomes a top five goaltender in the league. Cormier has the talent to become one of the best, however, that elevation in his game may still be another year away.

Player to watch: Filip Hronek joins the team from the Czech Republic and will be under the watchful eye of his nearby NHL organization, the Detroit Red Wings. Detroit selected the slender 6’0”, 165-pound defenseman in the second round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. Hronek should not have trouble adapting to the OHL, as he played with men 34 times in the Czech Extraliga last season. While he only had four assists last year, he is known as a pass first defenseman so it will be interesting to see how he is able to contribute offensively in the OHL. If he is able to follow in the footsteps of fellow import player Niemelainen, the Spirit could have themselves a very formidable one-two punch on the blue line.

That concludes our look at the Ontario Hockey League as a whole.  While we don’t predict the standings, we hope to have provided you with a good idea of what to expect from the different organizations as the 2016-17 begins this weekend.

During the season we’ll have player profile stories and reports on other newsworthy events as they happen.

Enjoy the 2016-17 Ontario Hockey League season!