By JEFF BOMBEN
Midwest Division Story:
The London Knights look to be the front-runners in the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Midwest division as the season gears up for the playoffs. Four out of five teams in the division look playoff bound. From the worst team in the league, the Erie Otters, to one of the best young teams, in the London Knights, the Midwest division has a little bit of everything this season.
Season Outlook: The biggest disappointment in the OHL this year is the Erie Otters. Forty games into the season, the Otters have only managed five wins and changes are needed in order for this team to have any success. With 20 games remaining, the Joshua Ho-Sang watch is now on in Erie.
Biggest Disappointment: Head coach, Robbie Ftorek, is one of many reasons that Erie is failing this season. For Erie, they have the pieces to be good in the future but, that being said, at the start of the year, they had playoff expectations and failed under head coach Ftorek.
Future Watch: At 16 years old, Nick Betz is developing into a monster of a hockey player. The 2011 sixth round draft pick is starting to find his game after struggling early in the season. Listed at 6’5, Betz will only continue to improve his game and transform into a power forward.
Trade Deadline Activity: General manager Sherry Bassin pulled off multiple deals to improve the future of the franchise. On Jan. 5, Bassin traded captain Greg McKegg along with two other players to the London Knights for young forward, Dane Fox and 6’7 defenceman Troy Donnay. That same day, the Otters parted ways with overaged defenceman Derek Holden as they shipped him to Windsor for a draft pick. But the trading wasn’t done there; just three days later, veteran forward Mike Cazzola was traded to Ottawa for three draft picks. On Jan. 10, Bassin and staff made the team’s final deal by acquiring 18-year-old defenceman Jimmy McDowell from the Oshawa Generals for picks.
Season Outlook: At the start of the year, many predicted that Guelph Storm’s head coach Scott Walker and his staff were in for a challenge to get this team to the playoffs. With 20 games remaining in the season, the Storm sit eighth in the Western Conference and only five points behind the fifth place team. The Storm has bought into Walker’s system and has looked like a good young team moving forward in the long run.
Biggest disappointment: Goalie Brandon Foote serves as one of Guelph’s overaged players but has only seen nine games of action this season. With the emergence of goalie Garret Sparks, Foote has seen more bench than game action this season.
Future Watch: First-round pick, Hunter Garlent, is starting to grow into the player that the Storm drafted. Garlent is very crafty with the puck and uses his 5’8 frame to sneak around players. The Thorold native is very reliable and has seen time with Guelph’s first powerplay unit.
Trade Deadline Activity: The Guelph Storm made no moves, deciding to stick with their young core of players.
Season Outlook: So far, so good for the Rangers as they continue their 2011-2012 season. The Rangers currently sit third in the Western Conference but have a tough stretch of games ahead of them. Steve Spott and his staff of coaches have the fans believing in Kitchener. The Blue-Shirts were expected to be a lower-tiered team but with two strong goalies in John Gibson and Franky Palazzese, the Rangers have been better than originally expected.
Biggest Disappointment: Brandon Francisco was traded to Kitchener in the offseason to add scoring to the team. So far Francisco only has three goals and has bounced around every line. The Bradford native is just too inconsistent and needs to find out what type of player he needs to be to have success in the future.
Future Watch: Kitchener Rangers first-round pick Brent Pedersen is starting to come into his zone after a strong Under 17 championships with Team Ontario. The Arthur native will only continue to get stronger and has power forward potential written all over him.
Trade Deadline Activity: The Kitchener Rangers were pretty quiet when it came down to the trade deadline. They received news that overaged forward Tyler Randell was going to be returned from the Boston Bruins’ farm team, Providence. The team then shipped out steady defenceman Julian Melchiori to the Oshawa Generals for a package of draft picks. Spott was rumoured to be looking at Austin Watson from the Peterborough Petes but couldn’t offer what the Petes’ demanded.
Season Outlook: The London Knights have continued their strong season as they currently sit first in the Western Conference. The Knights have rallied behind goaltender Michael Houser who has played in almost every single game for the Knights this season. Mark Hunter took over as a head coach after Dale Hunter accepted the head coaching position in Washington. The Knights have looked strong from the start of the year and the young team doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down anytime soon.
Biggest Disappointment: Colin Martin put up 41 points during the 2010-2011 campaign. A year later, Martin has 7 points, which is a 34- point drop in one year. The London native has also served as a defenceman this year. His leadership is a key factor for this team going anywhere in the playoffs.
Future Watch: When the Knights traded for former first-round draft pick, Max Domi, a lot was expected out of the 16-year-old forward and so far, he has exceeded those expectations. Domi plays the game at a high level and has an excellent hockey IQ. At 5’10, the Toronto native plays a crafty game and will be leading the Knights for the next few years.
Trade Deadline Activity: The London Knights were one of the busiest teams when it came down to the trade deadline. The first move the team made was trading for all-star forward, Greg McKegg, goalie Tyson Teichman and veteran defenceman Brett Cook from the Erie Otters. This gave the Knights a top six forward, a quality backup goalie and a steady veteran defenceman. But one trade was not enough for London as they made another splash, acquiring Nashville Predators prospect Austin Watson for young forward Chase Hatcher and a package of picks. General manager Hunter knew that he had one overage spot open so he added injured player, Josh Hishon, to the roster. Hishon got hurt the end of last season and hasn’t played a game this year. Last year, the Colorado Avalanche prospect added 37 goals with the Owen Sound Attack.
Season Outlook: The 2010-2011 OHL champions are having a good season as they currently sit fifth in the conference and only two points behind the fourth place team. The Attack are a big, physical team that are built for another long playoff run. The team still uses the two-goalie system with both Jordan Binnington and Scott Stajcer getting starts. With a good core of their team still intact, Owen Sound will be hard to beat in the playoffs.
Biggest Disappointment: Binnington was expected to be the starting goalie coming into the year but hasn’t been consistent enough to keep the starting job. The 18-year-old has the potential to lead his team but needs help with rebound control. The Richmond Hill native will have every chance to grab the starting goalie position for the playoffs, but the question remains if he will take the opportunity and run with it.
Future Watch: Seventeen-year-old Jarrod Maidens continues to improve and has big potential for the future. Maidens plays a smooth two-way game and is hard to get off the puck. The Ridgeway native has been one of the most consistent players the whole year for the Attack.
Trade Deadline Activity: The Owen Sound Attack were quiet at the deadline but made a pretty surprising move by sending veterans Matt Petgrave and Geoffrey Schemitsch to the Oshawa Generals for a package of picks and 18-year-old defenceman, Kyle Hope. This trade may have people thinking that the team is looking toward the future rather than trying to repeat this season.