Wednesday, October 03, 2007

WHL Early Team Reviews--Brandon Wheat Kings

The Wheaties were the runaway winners of last season's Eastern Division. However, it was a different story, when the team was beaten by Calgary in the second round of the playoffs. Seven of Brandon's ten top scorers during the 2006-07 season are gone, and the team will have to rely on quite a few young players during the 2007-08 campaign to repeat as division champs. So far, so good. The Wheaties are 3 of 4 out of the gate.

Eighteen year old centre Nathan Green has gotten off to a great start. The second year player did not get into many games last year, but this season, he will be relied upon to make the plays and put points on the board. Also expected to be a go-to guy among second year players is the Czech import, Daniel Bartek. Bartek had a disappointing 2006-07, but looks much better early this season.

There are three rookies that have caught my eye. First, of course, is Brayden Schenn, Brandon's top draft selection in 2006. After having a great season with the Saskatoon Contacts in the SMHL last season, Schenn was very anxious to start his WHL career. And he really looks like he will be a force in the league, both with his playmaking ability and his gritty play. Off to an even faster start, at least in the offensive production side, is 2006 second round selection, Scott Glennie. I can't say enough about this kid's hands. Both are fun to watch, and should be real assets as this franchise moves into the next few years. Also catching my eye is diminutive winger Matt Calvert, who had a fantastic season with the Midget Wheaties last season (and had been undrafted). Whether Calvert can continue to put up numbers at this level is questionable, but he is exciting to watch.

The big, experienced guns on this team are doing exactly what was expected of them thus far. Forward Andrew Clark has continued where he left off, and recent acquisition, Matt Lowry (who came over from Medicine Hat less than a month ago) has started to chip in. Overage captain Daryl Boyle has really been good, both with his younger teammates and producing offensively. With Theran Yeo recovering from knee surgery earlier this week, the team potentially has four overagers and will have to come to a decision about which one to drop shortly (the WHL only allows 3 on the roster). Captain Boyle will be staying, of course, as will Tyler Ditmer. So the team will have to cut or trade either Yeo or Mark Louis, whose functions as big, tough defencemen are somewhat redundant. My guess is that Louis will stay and Yeo will be gone shortly after he returns, but Louis really needs to show his stuff over the next few games. That is assuming that no trade happens over the next week or so. And that is a big assumption.

Brandon is once again a top team in the East. With the addition of the very talented rookies, the loss of the big offensive producers will be lessened, but not completely. Look for a trade to happen soon to upgrade the offensive capabilities of the team. Something has to give with the overagers and it would be a great time to bring in a top forward. Rumours are already swirling around Brandon about who it is that is going to go.

In the end, much of the weight will fall upon netminder Joe Caligiuri, who has thus far been excellent. The question is, can he be consistent for 50 more games. And can rookie goaltender Andrew Hayes play a reasonably solid 10-15 games backing up? Because without a decent performance from Hayes, the Wheaties will not be the 41 game winner the team was last season.

Monday, October 01, 2007

OHL Early Season Review--Barrie Colts

Last year, you could not talk about the Barrie Colts for 5 seconds without mentioning the 2 words "Bryan" and "Little". According to many, the hopes of the entire team rested upon him. I will have you know that I got into some fierce arguments with other media folk about Barrie's player personnel last season, as I felt that team had some depth that made the Colts playoff chances interesting. Turns out that Barrie had a decent spectrum of players after all; it just had trouble winning games in regulation. And with Sudbury (the Colts' second round opponent), that was fatal. Four straight games (three losses in OT) and it was summer in the city.

Enter 2007-08. The team's top 5 scorers in last year's playoffs are gone, including Little, who will play professionally this season. Looking at the team roster, there are an awful lot of rookies and unproven players, with very few returning impact players. Thus far, the Colts have lost three of their first 4 games, and only managed to pull out Saturday's game against Brampton in the shootout.

Expected to really help the team offensively are overager Vlad Nikiforov and NY Islanders' prospect, Tomas Marcinko. Marcinko just returned last week from the Islanders' training camp and, once he settles in, it is hoped that the 19-year old will double last year's offensive production.

One of the most interesting of the "younger" set is Dan Michalsky. Off to a fast start, Michalsky, a rookie winger, is 19 years old, and a former MVP of the Ontario Junior A Championship. Another player to watch is centre Shawn Frank, an 18-year old who did not get much of chance to make his mark in his rookie season. And then there is Alex Hutchings, the second year centre that the team is looking to for great things this season. Hutchings is a highly talented playmaker, who has a great scoring touch. Not eligible for the NHL entry draft until 2009, Hutchings is already ranked as a top 20 prospect for that year.

And then there is goaltending. Here, hope springs eternal. To me, Andrew Perugini has the makings of an excellent professional goaltender. The problem has been consistency, consistency in stopping the all-important shot. Although Perugini's save percentage was outstanding last season, it's always the stop of the big goal that counts the most, and he was not as great in that. Perugini made one mistake against Oshawa last week and it cost Barrie the game. But Saturday, he was excellent, stopping Brampton's big guns (and they really have some; stay tuned for that review). If he wants to play the professional game at a high level, those inconsistencies will have to be evened out. Second year "backup" netminder is big Michael Hutchinson. He was very good last season and should get a more prolonged look this, his NHL entry draft, year. We all would like to see more of the 6'3", 185 netminder, and hopefully, Coach Williamson will oblige.

The Colts' fate this season will depend on top-notch goaltending. Whether or not the current tandem can give it to this mostly inexperienced team, is an open question.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

QMJHL Early Season Review--Acadie-Bathurst Titan

The 2007-08 regular season games have begun in the Q, and, in fact, September is pretty much in the books. So, which teams have stormed out of the gate? Which are lagging behind? Who are the surprises? What can we expect over time?

Here is the first early season review. The stats here are through September 29.

Acadie-Bathurst Titan--Although the Titan made the playoffs last season, it was not a particularly strong team that limped into the post-season. It was an overtime win that got BAT beyond the first round, and then the team was resoundingly defeated by Cape Breton in the quarterfinals. So, there is no question that improvements were necessary. Gabriel Carle, Maxime Pomerleau and centre Samuel Morneau (who was supposed to be a big part of the future of the franchise), were traded away in the off-season. In those and other trades, the Titan got back defenceman Carl Chamberland, and forwards Tomas Svoboda, Guillaume Mailloux, Charles-Antoine Messier, and the backup netminder Tommy Legault.

Management was looking for a much better team this season, and thus far, this strategy has worked. Svoboda and Messier have done particularly well, and Acadie-Bathurst has won 4 of its first five games, including victories over Moncton and Lewiston. (The team's only loss came against Cape Breton in OT last Sunday.)

Named a Top 10 team in the CHL rankings this past week, in my opinion, the Titan's fast start is at least somewhat deceptive however. The team has played 4 of the five games thus far at home and will continue to have a very favourable lopsided schedule for the next 6 weeks (fifteen of the team's first 20 games are in Bathurst).

There are 6 rookies on the team, including at least 3 (Daniel Tanel and/or Remi Blanchard, Vincent Couture, and Cam Critchlow) who are expected to figure prominently in how well the team does over the course of the season. Those rookies will have to continue to produce and mature over the course of the season for the team to go far in the playoffs.

At least two and maybe three solid scoring lines up front will help continued production over the months and the defence is adequate. What this team will hinge on is the continuing glowing netminding from the combo of Antoine Tardif and Tommy Legault. Tardif is an excellent prospect in this year's NHL entry draft, and seems to have stepped his game up quite a bit since last season. Legeault, who came over from Rimouski for a 5th round selection this past summer, had a disappointing year in 2006-07, but seems to have righted himself thus far. The two goalies have been alternating between the pipes and both have been spectacular thus far. At some point, one will take the lead (expected to be Tardif), but any real let down by the tandem will cause a problem for the team.

Additionally, the Titan will have to stay healthy. Currently, the team has three important players who are injured (Maxime Renaud, Brad Tesink, Spencer Jezegou). Jezegou (who is out with a shoulder injury) is especially important to the long run of the team up to and through the playoffs.

Thus, my assessment is that this is a very good that has been overachieving thus far. The goaltending will have to remain some of the best in the Q for this team to continue its run. And the team will have to stay healthy and continue to win, even on the road. Stay tuned, and when you get a chance , watch a game. The Titan are pretty exciting right now.