By Aaron Bell
The 2012-13 Ontario Hockey League regular season schedule of games opens this week. Here is an advance look at the Western Conference.
Key Returnee: The Otters are focused on tightening things up in their own end this season and veteran defenceman Jimmy McDowell will be one of the key pieces to that puzzle. The 19-year-old from Michigan doesn't put up a lot of points but uses his minutes to play a solid two-way game.
Forwards: The Otters just picked up overage centre J.P. Labardo from Oshawa to help out offensively after being the lowest scoring team in the OHL last season. They also have their three top scorers from last season returning in Dane Fox, Connor Brown and Stephen Harper and are anxious to see how quickly Connor McDavid - the first overall pick in the OHL Priority Selection in April - adjusts to life in the OHL.
Defence: Adam Pelech has developed into a solid defender over the past few seasons and will log a lot of ice time along with McDowell on the Otters' youthful blue line that includes third year defender Travis Wood and sophomores Troy Donnay, Liam Maaskant and Nathan Glass.
Goaltending: The Otters used the third overall pick in the CHL Import Draft to land Swedish netminder Oscar Dansk and are looking forward to him being an anchor from the back end. Veteran Keinan Brown and youngster Devin Williams are competing for the back up role.
Behind the Bench: After a tough season marred by injuries and a team that just wasn't able to find their groove, Robbie Ftorek is looking forward to helping the Otters take a big step forward this season.
Key Returnee: After breaking through with a team-leading 37 goals and 75 points last season, fourth year winger Zack Mitchell is poised to return as one of the top offensive producers in the Western Conference this season.
Forwards: Overager Cody McNaughton will also be counted on heavily to energize Guelph's offence this season with support from veterans like Ryan Horvat and Scott Kosmachuk. First round pick Robert Fabbri was impressive in camp and is already earning the confidence of his teammates and coaches.
Defence: Captain Matt Finn and Russian giant Andrey Pedan will anchor the Storm blueline again this season. They are both capable of finding the net as well as keeping the opposition chances at a minimum. Daniel Poliziani and sophomores Zack Leslie and Ben Harpur will also look to take on bigger roles.
Goaltending: Garret Sparks was a workhorse for the Storm last season and will be counted on again this time around to do more of the same. Rookie Jason DaSilva is also around to make some relief starts along the way.
Behind the Bench: Scott Walker likes his group to carry the pace at a high level and uses every body he has on his bench to do it. He's looking to build on last year's .500 season.
Key Returnee: Ottawa Senators' prospect Matt Puempel struggled with injury last season in Peterborough and is looking for a fresh start with the perennial contender Kitchener Rangers. He has as much offensive skill as anyone in the OHL and should challenge for the scoring title.
Forwards: The Rangers have loads of offensive skill up front to help keep the focus off of Puempel. Tobias Rieder had 42 goals and 85 points last season while Czech centre and Dallas Stars first rounder Radek Faska proved that he is capable of producing within the North American style of game. Matia Marcantuoni hasn't found the same kind of scoring touch that he had in minor hockey but has the skill to enjoy a breakout season.
Defence: Captain Ryan Murphy is the kind of defenceman that championship teams build around and the Rangers are hoping to do just that. He produces offence from the back end as well as anyone in the league and anchors a solid group that also includes veterans Max Iafrate, Ben Fanelli and overager Ryan Hanes.
Goaltending: Anaheim Ducks' blue-shipper John Gibson enjoyed a terrific first season in the OHL despite missing time to have his tonsils removed in February. Look for him to be one of the top stoppers in the CHL this season.
Behind the Bench: In four seasons as the Rangers' head coach, Steve Spott has helped the Rangers continue their tradition of regular season and playoff success. After making it to the third round last year for the second time in three years, the Rangers are primed for a run at the championship this season.
Key Returnee: Finnish defenceman and Pittsburgh Penguins first rounder Olli Maatta was a horse for the Knights as an OHL rookie last season and was one of the keys to their championship playoff run. He will log loads of ice time again this season in all situations and will be one of the keys for another successful season in London.
Forwards: The Knights have a handful of veteran forwards including Matt and Ryan Rupert, Adam Restoule and Seth Griffith but they are also excited to see how their championship run last year will help advance sophomores Max Domi, Bo Horvat and Josh Anderson.
Defence: Maatta and defensive stud Scott Harrington are as good a 1-2 combination on the blue line as there is in the OHL and between them make life very difficult for the opposition. Overagers Tommy Hughes and Tyler Ferry are both capable of playing in any situation while Kevin Raine has shown a lot of improvement in his game this fall. Import pick Nikita Zadorov is also expected to make a big contribution.
Goaltending: Former first round pick Kevin Bailie was brought in from Oshawa in the off-season to help the Knights recover from the graduation of OHL player of the year Michael Houser. He is capable of backing the Knights to wins on a regular basis.
Behind the Bench: Dale Hunter returns to the Knights after enjoying some success with the Washington Capitals. He is one of the most successful coaches in the history of the OHL.
OWEN SOUND ATTACK
Key Returnee: Former first overall pick Daniel Catenacci is blessed with ridiculous speed and hockey sense and after putting together a pair of solid offensive seasons, he should be primed to take a run at the scoring title this season.
Forwards: The Attack still have some holdovers from their championship team from two years ago including Gemel Smith, Cameron Brace, Brendan Childerley, Daniel Zweep and Jarrod Maidens, who will always be known in Owen Sound as the guy that scored their overtime championship goal.
Defence: Veteran Nathan Chiarlitti is a stabilizer on the back end after coming over from Sarnia in the off-season. He is comfortable playing in any situation and brings some swagger to his team. Keevin Cutting, Kyle Hope and Jake Dotchin are other veterans that will play bigger roles this season while first round pick Jacob Middleton is also going to get some time as a rookie.
Goaltending: Jordan Binnington enjoyed his coming out party during the team's championship run and will be counted on to carry the load this season as a 19-year-old. Brandon Hope also came over from Sarnia in the off-season and is a capable back-up.
Behind the Bench: Greg Ireland preaches the basics to his crew and hopes to get them all on the same page quickly this season.
Key Returnee: Veteran forward and Ottawa Senators first rounder Stefan Noesen led the Whalers in scoring last season with 38 goals and 82 points and looks like he's capable of putting on a repeat performance this season.
Forwards: Noesen leads a solid group of returning forwards for the Whalers including the speedy Alex Aleardi, Anaheim Ducks prospect Rickard Rakell and Rangers prospect JT Miller, who scored 25 goals as an OHL rookie last season. Fourth year forward Garrett Meurs has enjoyed a steady offensive improvement every season and will get every opportunity to add to those totals again this season.
Defence: The Whalers were one of the stingiest teams in the OHL last season and will lean on veterans like Colin MacDonald, Nick Malaysa and Curtis Crombeen to continue that trend this season. Swedish defender Simon Karlsson is also capable of contributing at both ends of the ice. Former first round pick Gianluca Curcuruto is a terrific skater and should be able to step up his offensive production this season.
Goaltending: Matt Mahalak has played enough minutes as a back up in his first two seasons to show that he has the ability to play a much larger role this time around.
Behind the Bench: Mike Vellucci is one of the most successful coaches in OHL history and has a knack of getting the most out of his group year in and year out. This time around shouldn't be any different.
Key Returnee: Slick pivot Vincent Trocheck is Saginaw's leader on and off the ice. The fourth year forward was named team captain for this season after pacing the team with 29 goals and 85 points last season. He has only missed three games in three seasons with the Spirit.
Forwards: Garret Ross made a huge leap forward offensively with 25 goals after scoring 13 goals in his first two seasons combined. He is ready to take on an even bigger role this year to help the Spirit fill some voids left by graduation. Also watch for Erick Locke and Terry Trafford to take on bigger roles. Justin Kea has been working hard to put it all together and could be an impact player this season.
Defence: The Spirit have a solid group of veterans on the blueline including overager Brandon Archibald, Dalton Young and Steven Strong. Grant Webermin has the chance to play a lot more minutes this time around while Jacob Ringuette has proven to be a solid performer despite missing time to injury.
Goaltending: Jake Paterson has been considered a top-end goaltending prospect for the past few years and started to show that last year with solid numbers. Import pick Nikita Serebryakov was solid in the pre-season and will also get a chance to play.
Behind the Bench: Greg Gilbert came in mid-season last year and was named the OHL's coach of the year for his efforts in turning Saginaw's fortunes around. He has a younger group this year and will start molding them into a future contender.
Key Returnee: After being the third overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft last June, Alex Galchenyuk would have likely received every chance to make the Montreal Canadiens out of training camp but with the NHL work stoppage underway, he may finally get a chance to become a dominant player for the Sting. He was the first overall pick in the 2010 OHL Priority Selection but played just eight games last season because of injury. A full healthy season in Sarnia could result in a scoring title for Galchenyuk.
Forwards: Overager Charles Sarault enjoyed a big boost in productivity after coming to Sarnia last season and will be a top contributor again this year. Reid Boucher and Craig Hottot are other veterans that will contribute while North Carolina native Bryan Moore has fit in quickly on the top line with Galchenyuk and Hottot during the pre-season.
Defence: The Sting have a veteran group on the back end including Craig Duininck, who has MasterCard Memorial Cup experience with the Windsor Spitfires, Alex Basso and Jack Kuzmyk. Czech defender David Nemecek comes into the lineup with a lot of expectations.
Goaltending: Overager JP Anderson is the most experienced goaltender in the OHL this season. Between Anderson and their veteran group of defencemen, the Sting will be tough to score against this season.
Behind the Bench: Jacques Beaulieu looked like he was setting himself up for a successful season last year with some quality off-season moves but injuries de-railed things for the Sting. This time around, he is looking for some better fortune.
SAULT STE. MARIE GREYHOUNDS
Key Returnee: Big defender Ryan Sproul does all of the little things that coaches love. He helps the Greyhounds keep things tidy in their own end while contributing lots of offence up front. He could challenge as the top scoring defenceman in the league this year.
Forwards: Nick Cousins returns as the Greyhounds top scorer and may have just started to scratch the surface on his offensive talents. Big David Broll is like a wrecking ball when he drives to the net and should be able to add to his scoring totals from a year ago. Russian forward Sergey Tolchinsky came to camp late because of visa issues but the Greyhounds are looking forward to having him in the lineup when the season kicks off this week.
Defence: Alex Gudbranson is another stud on the blueline and brings a hardnosed approach to the game after two seasons in Kingston. 2013 NHL Entry Draft top prospect Darnell Nurse struggled at times as a rookie last season but has all of the tools to become a dominant two-way presence as early as this season.
Goaltending: Matt Murray is a big (6'5") stopper that has the tools to be an elite goaltender. He had a good start but struggled down the stretch last season and the Greyhounds are hoping he can find some more consistency as their main guy this year.
Behind the Bench: After missing out on the post-season last year, Mike Stapleton is anxious to get the Greyhounds back into playoff form.
Key Returnee: Kerby Rychel came into the OHL advertised as a potential game-breaking type of forward and really started to deliver on that hype last season when he scored 41 goals and 74 points for the Spitfires. He exudes confidence on and off the ice and will be an elite performer again this season in his draft year.
Forwards: Third year forwards Brady Vail and Chris Marchese have both been highly regarded prospects and after making strides forward last season, both could be on the verge of a big breakout this year. The Spitfires were thrilled that Josh Ho-Sang was still available when they picked fifth overall in the Priority Selection. He has loads of skill and will be an elite scorer for years to come.
Defence: Overager Saverio Posa is the lone holdover from the Spitfires' back-to-back Memorial Cup titles and while he didn't play a big role on those teams, he did learn a lot and his younger teammates are benefiting from that wisdom now. Watch for former top prospects Nick Ebert and Adam Bateman to step things up this year.
Goaltending: Jaroslav Pavelka brings OHL experience to the crease and the coaches are confident that he is capable of being their top guy this year. Rookie Jordan DeKort is also in the mix.
Behind the Bench: Bob Boughner is a two time OHL coach of the year and brings the same gritty edge that he had as a player to the Spitfires' bench.