Rangers 'the team to beat'

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:42 AM ET

Mark Hunter may still need to thumb through the Farmer's Almanac for weather predictions but he doesn't need books or magazines to tell him who's at the head of the OHL class this season.

Just a simple look at the rosters is all it takes.

"On paper, the Kitchener Rangers are the team," said the GM of the defending OHL and Memorial Cup champion London Knights. "If they can't win with the team they have right now, they're never going to win over there."

Hunter is, of course, being his wily self. By anointing Kitchener the team to beat, he is handing the weight of winning squarely onto the shoulders of Peter DeBoer and the Rangers -- a burden the Knights have endured the past two hockey seasons.

"Last year was a dream season and you couldn't write a better script but, for the players and us, this is a new year," Hunter said. "I would love to tell you how good I think we're going to be but the honest truth is I don't really know. I know we're going to have a lot of character. But there are still some guys at NHL camps like Dylan Hunter, who was the second-leading scorer in the OHL last year. There's Rob Schremp. If we get guys back, we might be able to say we have a great hockey team. Right now, we're going to have a young defence and the thing we're missing from last year is that depth we had."

Until his roster gets sorted out, Hunter is happy to saddle the Rangers with the bull's-eye that every team should list as its prime target.

"Kitchener has that depth on defence. They know they're getting (Matt) Lashoff and (Boris) Valabik back. Peter (DeBoer) is a good coach. They're the team to beat."

The past three years, the OHL championship hasn't strayed too far. Kitchener won in 2003, the Guelph Storm were tops in 2004 and the Knights dominated 2005.

Add Owen Sound and Erie and the Western Conference's Midwest division has been the league's dominant section the past few seasons.

"I think it's going to be more up and down," Hunter said when asked if he expected more of a similar look from the standings.

Though it's tough to predict how certain teams will react to the OHL's new rule changes and standard of enforcement, there are a few old chestnuts you can live by: In the East, Ottawa under Brian Kilrea and Peterborough under Dick Todd almost never field inferior teams and neither do the Barrie Colts, no matter who is coaching them.

Collectively, teams dislike travelling to outposts such as Sault Ste. Marie and Owen Sound, which makes them difficult to beat at home.

One longtime truth of OHL cycles has somewhat evaporated: Franchises that finished as doormats one year used to be able to say with confidence they would rise up the following season and run over the teams that used to bomb them.

But beware, Oshawa, Kingston, Sarnia and Saginaw, basement status doesn't flee so easily. The Spirit haven't made the playoffs since moving from North Bay four years ago and the Frontenacs missed the postseason three of the last four years.

Mississauga has been better lately, but the IceDogs went through a string of poor seasons after expansion.

The Generals will be a team to watch because of forward John Tavares, being tabbed as the next great talent and has backed it up with solid scoring numbers in exhibition.

One thing everyone in the OHL, and hockey in general, hopes is the new rules make the game more exciting and speed and skill will become more important.

"I think you'll still need to be able to take a hit to get the puck. That will never change," Hunter said. "But we should see more speed in the game with the new rules."

Though much has been written about the new rules, it's fair to summarize by saying obstruction is being obliterated and the trap will be out, but a trapezoid will be in behind the net to limit goalies' puck-playing.

There are no red line or ties but there are new regular season records featuring wins (two points), losses (no points), overtime losses (one point) and shootout losses (one point).

If you loved the Shovel Guy at the John Labatt Centre, you'll be happy to know the ice will be scraped with shovels before every shootout.

If you want to pick a scoring champion to replace ex-Knight Corey Perry, start with guys who were on the leader list last year.

Folks like London's David Bolland, Kitchener's Evan McGrath, Peterborough's Liam Reddox and Owen Sound's Bobby Ryan are early favourites, but invitations to world junior teams, injuries and pleasant surprises could alter the odds.


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