Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Break--OHL Central Division Review

The Central Division race is the closest in the OHL, with the Brampton Battalion currently leading the pack by only seven points. This is somewhat deceptive, however, as Brampton has played only 33 games. Two of the division's other teams--the Mississauga St. Mike's Majors and the Niagara Ice Dogs--have played 37, and the other two--the Barrie Colts and Sudbury Wolves--have played 35. So although only 13 points separate the entire division, the gulf is really quite a bit larger, with Brampton quite a bit ahead.

The question will be which two Eastern Conference teams are left out of the playoffs this year. No question that the Kingston Fronts will be one of the two. But who will be the other? In my opinion, its going to be the Ice Dogs. Niagara's point total is deceiving, in that the team has gotten eight of its points in losses--OT and SO. Bottom line, the team has only won 12 of 37 games. Even the lowly Peterborough Petes are better than that, and without Alex Pietrangelo returning from the NHL St Louis Blues, the Ice Dogs would be battling with the Fronts for the cellar position in the conference. And there is a good chance that Pietrangelo could be traded to a contender prior to the deadline. So its my contention that Kingston and Niagara will be left out.

Let's look at the Central Division in depth.

Brampton Battalion--The Battalion have become an outstanding team this season with the addition of Matt Duchene, Evgeny Grachev, and Brandon Foote. When added to top prospect Cody Hodgson, who I have always thought should have gone top five in last summer's NHL Entry Draft, the team is formidable. It took a little time for the lines to come together, and it will be a little out of sorts next week with two key players at the WJCs, but Brampton has two outstanding top lines, and the defense to match. When the excellent play of Foote is added, Brampton just might win the battle for the J Ross Robertson Cup this spring. Yes, they are an underdog to do so, in that either Windsor or London is expected to take home the trophy, but if you have seen the Battalion when everything is clicking, you know that there is enormous talent here. Maybe, just maybe, it is Stan Butler and the Battalion's year.

Excellent Performers--Cody Hodgson, Matt Duchene, Evgeny Grachev, and Ken Peroff
Underperformers--Patrick Killeen
Best Rookie--Evgeny Grachev

Barrie Colts--The Colts will give Brampton a run for their money, particularly with the addition of Taylor Carnevale and Josh Brittain. After a somewhat disappointing performance with Oshawa, Carnevale has 11 points in 10 games with Barrie. The trade has sure done wonders for the center, who is in his NHL Entry Draft year. Expect the scouts to really take notice shortly and for Carnevale to be moving up everyone's lists. Brittain is a legit power forward, who is just beginning to have an impact in Barrie. Unfortunately, part of the problem with the Colts has been the uneven goaltending. Although Michael Hutchinson's overall numbers are good, consistency has not been the Boston Bruins' prospect's strength. Peter Di Salvo, a excellent netminding prospect in his NHL Entry Draft year, has been impressive at times, but he and Hutchinson need to have a very good second half of the season for this team to really challenge Brampton.

Excellent Performers--Alex Hutchings, Michael Sgarbossa, Stefan Della Rovere, Ryan O'Connor
Best Rookie--Ryan O'Connor

Mississauga St. Mike's Majors--The St. Mike's Majors have been a struggling team for quite a few years. Often in the cellar of this division, it appears that the team has turned a corner and will shortly be getting a huge shot in the arm with the return of Kaspars Daugavins to the roster. Just reassigned by the Ottawa Senators to Mississauga, Daugavins has struggled getting ice time in Binghamton. This is all to the Majors' benefit, as Daugavins was a prolific scorer for them last season. Without Daugavins, the Majors have been playing excellent hockey this month, winning eight of their last ten games. The team has not scored a lot of goals (which is about to be remedied), so goaltending has crucial, and veteran Chris Carrozzi is having a very good month. This should get interesting down the stretch in this division.

Excellent Performers --Michael Pelech, Blake Parlett, Cameron Gaunce, Chris Carrozzi

Underperformers--Casey Cizikas, Jesse Messier, Tim Billingsley

Best Rookie--Devante Smith-Pelly

Sudbury Wolves--The Wolves, a very young team, have not played particularly well this season, but the worst news for the club came over the last few days, when Patrick Lusnak, an overage offensive powerhouse, decided to return to the Czech Republic. Things look bleaker than they did a week ago for this struggling team. On the good side, Daniel Maggio is on fire since his return. But netminder Andrew Loverock has had some difficulties, and as I have said before, you can't really win at this level without consistent adequate personnel between the pipes. Frankly, at this point, Sudbury's only hope is to have Viktor Tikhonov magically appear on their doorstep. But don't count on it. Sudbury is a team looking to the future, and its fans should be too.

Excellent Performers--Peter Hermenegildo, Eric O'Dell, John McFarland

Underperformers--Frankie Santini, Alain Valiquette

Best Rookie--John McFarland

Niagara Ice Dogs--With two rookies in net, the Ice Dogs knew to start the year that this would not be a very good season. If there is any surprise it is how well John Cullen and Mark Visentin have played. It could be much worse. Another happy expected occurrence was the return of defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, who was expected to spend the season as a member of the St. Louis Blues. But Blues management correctly assessed that the big blueliner would be better off playing another season of junior. Pietrangelo's fine play has affected the nine games in which he appeared--the Ice Dogs have won five of those nine, losing only to Windsor, Belleville, Brampton and a one goal loss to Barrie. This is a team filled with younger players, prospects that may or may not develop. We will have to wait and see how successful the team is over the next few years.

Excellent Performers--Andrew Agazzino, Matt Piva, Mathew Sisca, Alex Pietrangelo
Underperformers--Too many to name
Best Rookie--Marco Insam

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christmas Break--OHL East Division Review

The Christmas break week starts today in the OHL, and not unexpectedly, the Belleville Bulls are on top in the East Division. The Bulls have 50 points in 37 games, and even if Oshawa, who has played the fewest number of contests, won all four of their next four games, they would not come near Belleville's 50 points. The Kingston Fronts are at the bottom of the division, winning only seven games and garnering a total of 20 points.

Belleville Bulls--After participating in the Memorial Cup last year and coming in third, the Bulls are determined to bring the Cup to Belleville this spring. This is a different team though, with the departures of Geoff Killing, Shawn Matthias, Matt Beleskey, Michael Neal (traded to Sarnia earlier this season), Keaton Turkiewicz, Chris Mifflen, Stephen Blunden (traded to Ottawa earlier this season), and now Tyler Randell (who was just traded to Kitchener last week). Recently added are Nick Palmieri and Brandon Mashinter, who should give an offensive punch, scoring wise and literally. When you look up and down the roster, there are seven NHL-drafted players and seven that are draft-eligible this year, three of whom are considered very good prospects. This is an excellent team, and barring key injuries, particularly in goal, it should take the division, however, I am not sure the firepower is there to win the J Ross Robertson Cup.

Excellent Performers--Bryan Cameron, Eric Tangradi, Matt Tipoff, PK Subban
Underperformers--Nick Pageau
Best Rookie--Stephen Silas

Ottawa 67's--The 67's are a much improved team this season, particularly with the addition of Tony Nigro, Stephen Blunden, and Corey Cowick. Cowick has really performed well and is now on the team's top line with Logan Couture and Tyler Toffoli. The team certainly has some firepower on its top two lines, and has been on a roll lately, but Ottawa's run at the big time is likely to fall short. Defense is an issue, particularly with the several-week loss of Tyler Cuma to a knee injury. Just all in all, the 67's don't have enough to beat the best teams in the league.

Excellent Performers--Corey Cowick, Tyler Toffoli
Underperformers--Martin Paryzek
Best Rookie--Tyler Toffoli

Oshawa Generals--Although a lot of the OHL talk lately has been about who the Gens are going to get in return for a trade of JohnTavares, the team itself has not been talked about much. Currently third in the East Division, Oshawa underwent a big front office and coaching change prior to the season. These changes have resulted in the players being in better condition, but frankly the talent and on-ice performance as a whole are just not there to make a serious run in the post-season. And things will not get any better over the next five games, when Tavares is playing for Canada at the WJCs. Plus the antics of Tyler Taylor in a fight with Ottawa's Ryan Hanes last week were totally despicable. The best thing management could do for this team is to aim for the future and make some changes. One of those would be to get the best value for Tavares in a trade as possible.

Excellent Performers--John Tavares, Michael Del Zotto, Calvin de Haan, Kory Nagy
Underperformers--Conor Stokes (before he was sucker punched by Fenwick), Robert Kousal
Best Rookie--Calvin de Haan

Peterborough Petes--Let's be honest here and say that the Petes are more than overdue for a contending season. With only two good seasons in the last decade, things are pretty bad for this franchise. Winning just does not seem to happen and how long can you rebuild? Some changes really need to be made in Peterborough, but suggestions as to what that might mean are too late for this season and beyond the scope of this review. The review not good. If I am in agreement with anything Brian Burke says (which surprisingly I am more often than not), a team should be built from the goaltending out. Although not necessarily true with a junior team, if you don't have good goaltending you can't win. This is only the beginning of the Petes problems, as it is not only the netminding that has been shaky--the D is also iffy at best. With these two problems, there is no way that this could be a contending team.

Excellent Performers--Zack Kassian, Tony Romano
Underperformers--Derek Holden, Yves Bastien
Best Rookie--Sergei Korostin

Kingston Fronts--A team that is truly in a rebuilding mode, the Fronts are absolutely horrible this season. Twenty points in 36 games puts Kingston at the bottom of the entire league. But hope for the future is there; fans just have to get through this season to see the light in the years to come.

Excellent Performers--Erik Gudbranson, Jaroslav Kruzik, Ethan Werek
Underperformers--Nathan Moon, Kelly Geoffrey, Stephen Francella, Mitch Lebar
Best rookie--Ethan Werek