Beasts from the OHL's East

The Niagara IceDogs are one of three teams in the East Division that could finish on top in the OHL...

The Niagara IceDogs are one of three teams in the East Division that could finish on top in the OHL this season. (Julie Jocsak/QMI Agency)

RYAN PYETTE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:08 PM ET

Over the last decade, the OHL's Western Conference has dominated regular-season and playoff titles.

But the East is starting to look beastly. Three teams --Niagara, Oshawa and Ottawa --could finish on top of anyone, including the Western favourite Plymouth Whalers.

"I don't know if the East is getting better than the West," Oshawa Generals GM/head coach Chris DePiero said. "It took me a couple of years in the league but I've learned there are different dynamics to the East and the West."

The West side features powerhouse clubs London, Windsor and Kitchener, who have huge followings and generate massive revenues. All three U.S.-based teams are in the West, which has generally dominated in drawing top U.S. talent and better import players to the league.

"You look at it like the AL East in baseball,"DePiero said. "If you're a club like the Texas Rangers or the (Los Angeles) Angels in another division, you can still put together a strong team and make it to the World Series.

"I do know in the East this year, there are some really good teams. Sudbury, they've improved. Barrie and Peterborough will be better. There should be some great games and rivalries in our conference."

That improvement could change the feel of the 20 inter-conference games each team plays. Last year, Belleville made the playoffs with only 46 points. In the West, their eighth-place equivalent London had 73.

"You always want to win those (inter-conference) games,"DePiero said, "but it's different. You only see those teams twice a year. If you're looking at a rivalry like Oshawa and Peterborough, that's something that extends beyond hockey."

But with better clubs, there will be more at stake. And maybe this season, several Western Conference clubs won't be so gleeful when they see a bus from out East roll up to their home rink.

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EASTERN CONFERENCE

NIAGARA ICEDOGS

GM/coach: Marty Williamson.

Last year: 45 wins and a trip to the third round before meeting Mississauga.

Big guns: G Mark Visentin (Phoenix) should guard Canada's world junior net again. The high-flying Hamiltons (F Freddie and Boston first-rounder Dougie on the D) are big puzzle pieces. Andrew Agozzino scored 43 goals last year.

Adios: F Darren Archibald (23 goals plus 10 in the playoffs), F Jason Wilson (18 goals plus 5 in the playoffs).

Outlook: If Islanders first-rounder Ryan Strome (106 points) returns, Dogs will lead this pack.

OSHAWA GENERALS

GM/coach: Chris DePiero

Last year: Finished fourth and lost in second round to Niagara.

Big guns: Gens have five back who scored 25 goals last year. Christian Thomas (54 goals) will lead the red-light charge. Flipped three 2nd-round picks and more to Belleville to get G Daniel Altshuller in net.

Adios: Canadian world junior D Calvin de Haan, F Alain Berger (29 goals) and starting goalie Peter DiSalvo (22 wins and .911 save percentage).

Outlook: Looking for another crack at Niagara late in the playoffs.

OTTAWA 67'S

GM/coach: Chris Byrne

Last year: 44-win season marred by four-game playoff loss to Sudbury.

Big guns: L.A. pick Tyler Toffoli (57 goals) has scored 111 times in three OHL seasons. Shane Prince (88 points) and Ryan Martindale (34 goals) help take the heat off him.

Adios: Thomas Nesbitt (32 goals) and Cody Lindsay (27 goals).

Outlook: Third-year G Petr Mrazek has steal-the-show capability.

PETERBOROUGH PETES

GM: Dave Reid. Coach: Mike Pelino.

Last year: 20 wins not enough for a playoff berth.

Big guns: Ottawa first-round F Matt Puempel scored 34 times after 33-goal rookie season. Austin Watson, Lino Martschini and Alan Quine could put up 30 this year, too.

Adios: Swedish D Kalle Ekelund, a 43-point campaign in final OHL season, and veteran leader Jack Walchessen.

Outlook: If Mike Morrison's arrival from Kitchener ends the goaltending worries, Petes back in business.

SUDBURY WOLVES

GM: Blaine Smith. Coach: Trent Cull.

Last year: Seventh seed shocked Ottawa in first round.

Big guns: Michael Sgarbossa went nuts with (29-33-62) in 37 games on third OHL team. D Josh McFadden led the club with 72 points.

Adios: Power F Marcus Foligno (59 points in 47 games), Eric O'Dell (20 goals in just 39 games) and 58-game G Alain Valiquette.

Outlook: Swedish G Johan Mattsson, a Chicago prospect, has to adjust to new league in a hurry.

BRAMPTON BATTALION

GM/coach: Stan Butler

Last year: Low-scoring Troops barged into sixth spot thanks to stout D.

Big guns: Barclay Goodrow (24 goals) and Sam Carrick (16 goals in third season) need to boost the offence. Quality blue line, led by veteran Cameron Wind, is intact and back in business.

Adios: Leading scorer Scott Tanski (18-29-47) and starting G Cody St. Jacques.

Outlook: Won't be a lot of 7-6 scorefests at the Bunker again this year.

MISSISSAUGA ST. MICHAEL'S MAJORS

GM/coach: James Boyd

Last year: League best 53 wins, but Majors couldn't finish the job in OHL and Memorial Cup finals.

Big guns: Leafs brass won't go far to watch first-round D Stuart Percy play. F Devante Smith-Pelly, a Ducks pick, scored 51 times (including playoffs). G JP Anderson still between the pipes.

Adios: Captain Casey Cizikas, 41-goal scorer Justin Shugg, D Marc Cantin and Russian import Max Kitsyn.

Outlook: No longer Cup contenders, but not half bad, either.

BELLEVILLE BULLS

GM/coach: George Burnett

Last year: Made the playoffs with only 46 points. Swept by Mississauga in a hurry.

Big guns: F Brendan Gaunce (11-25-36) third on team in scoring as a 16-year-old. Overager Luke Judson buried team-high 28 goals last year. Austen Brassard (19 goals) ready for a breakout year.

Adios: Leading scorer Andy Bathgate dealt to Plymouth for overage season. D Bjorn Krupp went to Germany to play for the Cologne Sharks.

Outlook: Maybe all the Subbans (starting G Malcolm and D-man Jordan) will help Bulls remember glory days when Habs' PK was on board.

BARRIE COLTS

GM: Jason Ford. Coach: Dale Hawerchuk

Last year: 15 wins earned them the right to pick exceptional D Aaron Ekblad first overall.

Big guns: Winnipeg first-rounder Mark Scheifele (22-53-75) stood out on a bad Barrie club. So did Colin Behenna and his 88 points. F Ivan Telegin a 20-goal man in two seasons with Saginaw.

Adios: Overage D Matt Ashman, G John Chartrand (traded to Belleville) and D Mackenzie Braid (dealt to the Soo for Derek Hartwick).

Outlook: They're on the way back up. Ekblad's impact and the goaltending could determine if that rise includes a playoff spot.

KINGSTON FRONTENACS

GM: Doug Gilmour. Coach: Todd Gill.

Last year: Finished fifth but ran its streak of first-round playoff failure to 13 years.

Big guns: Veteran F Ryan Spooner would fetch plenty on the trade market. Alex Gudbranson has to anchor D corps without big brother Erik (Florida). G Igor Bobkov goes from London backup to Fronts' starter.

Adios: Top scorer Nathan Moon (32 goals), G Philipp Grubauer, big D Taylor Doherty, F Ethan Werek (24 goals).

Outlook: Race to see who gets back in playoffs first: Gill and Gilmour's Fronts or their former NHL team in Toronto.

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WESTERN CONFERENCE

PLYMOUTH WHALERS

GM/coach: Mike Vellucci

Last year: Surprising sixth-place finish and first-round knockout of Kitchener.

Big guns: Ottawa first-rounder Stefan Noesen (34 goals), New York Rangers first-rounder JT Miller, under-rated defensive corps and starting G Scott Wedgewood, a New Jersey prospect.

Adios: Three of top four scorers (Robbie Czarnik, Tyler Brown, James Livingston). Former first-rounder Max Iafrate dealt to Kitchener.

Outlook: Whale best of the West.

LONDON KNIGHTS

GM: Mark Hunter. Coach: Dale Hunter.

Last year: Battled Owen Sound to six games after rare eighth-place finish.

Big guns: Three top rookies in Bo Horvat, Kingston first-rounder Max Domi and Finnish import Olli Maatta. Scary-good D with Jarred Tinordi (Montreal) and Scott Harrington (Pittsburgh) in front of G Michael Houser. Goals needed from Tampa first-rounder Vladislav Namestnikov and Boston pick Jared Knight.

Adios: Captain Stephen Sanza. Departure creates leadership debate.

Outlook: Improving league's second-worst power play key to No. 2 seed.

SARNIA STING

GM/coach: Jacques Beaulieu

Last year: Missed playoffs for second straight year.

Big guns: CHL top rookie Nail Yakupov scored 49 times last year and could be NHL's first overall. Sophomore first pick Alex Galchenyuk has 100-point potential. Long playoff runs for overage F Taylor Carnevale last two years.

Adios: Loser's tag. Beaulieu, former Knights assistant and Saint John boss, changing woe-is-me culture.

Outlook: The Bee buzz near the top of the standings.

OWEN SOUND ATTACK

GM: Dale DeGray. Coach: Greg Ireland.

Last year: Unforgettable Bayshore season thanks to league title and Memorial Cup trip.

Big guns: Former first overall pick Daniel Catenacci arrived in Soo trade. G Jordan Binnington (St. Louis) Memorial Cup top stopper in May.

Adios: Coach Mark Reeds (Ottawa Senators bench), F Joey Hishon (Colorado, but still in Memorial Cup concussion recovery), captain Garrett Wilson, D Jesse Blacker (Leafs) and supporting cast including playoff MVP Robby Mignardi.

Outlook: Bayshore boys unlikely to fall off map. Gemel Smith, Jarrod Maidens, Matt Petgrave have winning pedigree.

KITCHENER RANGERS

GM/coach: Steve Spott

Last year: Overcame Jeff Skinner graduation for No. 3 seed, but flopped in the first round against Plymouth.

Top guns: D Ryan Murphy (Carolina) could do something Windsor's Ryan Ellis never did -- score 30 goals from the back end. Big G John Gibson, an Anaheim pick, will carry the crease load. D Ben Fanelli's comeback from Michael Liambas hit two years ago inspiring story.

Adios: Gabriel Landeskog (NHL second overall to Colorado) and Jason Akeson (108 points) will be missed up front. Six of top 10 scorers gone.

Outlook: Tobias Rieder, captain Michael Catenacci and Matia Marcantuoni need to provide the bullets in Rangers' attack.

SAGINAW SPIRIT

GM/coach: Todd Watson

Last year: 40 wins and a division title didn't get them past Windsor and the second round.

Top guns: Flush with offensive talent: Overager Josh Shalla (47 goals), Jordan Szwarz (66 points), Brandon Saad (27 goals), Vincent Trocheck (26 goals) and John McFarland, the former OHL first overall pick. Incoming D Jamie Oleksiak is a 6-foot-7 Dallas first rounder.

Adios: With no more Mavric Parks, Czech Tadeas Galansky and 17-year-old Jake Paterson asked to stop the pucks.

Outlook: With improved Plymouth and Sarnia, tough to defend West division crown

WINDSOR SPITFIRES

GM: Warren Rychel. Coach: Bob Boughner.

Last year: Kept Ryan Ellis at deadline and made it three rounds deep for third straight season.

Top guns: An Alex Khokhlachev-Tom Kuhnhackl-Kenny Ryan top line will give everyone fits. G Jack Campbell's save percentage must be better than last year's .884. D Nick Ebert had 41 points at age 16. Rychel gave up six draft picks for Niagara first-round D Adam Bateman.

Adios: Ellis, CHL player of the year and 100-point defenceman. Zack Kassian (26-51-77) is Buffalo-bound. F Jake Carrick had 9 goals and 16 points in playoffs.

Outlook: Could returning boss Boughner's two-Memorial Cup magic be worth a few wins? Probably.

SAULT STE. MARIE GREYHOUNDS

GM: Kyle Dubas. Coach: Mike Stapleton.

Last year: Dogged by basement finish, Soo brass opted for 25-year-old GM Dubas and a do-over.

Top guns: The Hounds bank on Nick Cousins to be at least an 85-point guy. Andrew Fritsch brings winning attitude from Owen Sound. Brett Findlay needs to improve on 20-goal season.

Adios: Top scorer Daniel Catenacci dealt to the Attack after vowing he wasn't coming back. Former leader Brock Beukeboom moved to Niagara for a fresh start.

Outlook: Failure to beat the weaker teams cost them the playoffs last year. Rise in the standings starts there.

ERIE OTTERS

GM: Sherry Bassin. Coach: Robbie Ftorek.

Last year: Epic seven-game battle with Windsor but couldn't get it done.

Top guns: Potential scoring champ Greg McKegg (Leafs), Brett Thompson (two 40-goal seasons) and Mike Cazzola can light it up. G Tyson Teichmann brought in from Belleville to be the starter. Leafs pick Sondre Olden on board.

Adios: Three of top four scorers, including Phil Varone, Shawn Szydlowski and Anthony Luciani.

Outlook: If things don't go well early, veteran talent likely to be unloaded.

GUELPH STORM

GM: Mike Kelly. Coach: Scott Walker.

Last year: Finished seventh before first-round exit to Saginaw.

Top guns: Overage G Brandon Foote, a capable backstop, needs to be MVP-calibre. Cody McNaughton (15 goals) has to double his offensive production.

Adios: The Big Three: Taylor Beck, Michael Latta, Peter Holland, plus shot-blocking phenom Tyler Carroll.

Outlook: Bleak on offence this season. But they'll be a tough out.


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