TORONTO - It's pretty easy to come up with a laundry list of reasons why the Niagara IceDogs, one of the preseason faves to win the OHL title, have stumbled out of the gate.
Where to start?
Well, there's been injuries to key players, the most notable being Canadian junior starter Mark Visentin, who has played just one game (and part of a second) during the Dogs' season-opening 2-4-0-1 skid. Veteran defenceman Brock Beukeboom, acquired in an off-season trade with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, hasn't played at all due to a back injury.
Because of Visentin's injury, a groin issue the IceDogs won't take chances with, youngsters Mike Gallardi and Jaroslav Pavelka, an 18-year-old rookie from the Czech Republic, have been forced into roles they simply aren't ready for and, quite frankly, they haven't been very good.
"Both of them have struggled," IceDogs coach and general manager Marty Williamson said. "I'm usually fairly patient with goalies but I've had to pull then five minutes into a game. Unfortunately, they have really struggled. We'd expect (Visentin) to (play) at least two out of three (each week) but we just haven't had that luxury. (And) if he has a relapse, we're going to have to shut him down for a while."
Then there's the NHL factor, which comes into play from two different angles.
The first involves stud forward Ryan Strome, a first-round pick of the New York Islanders and Niagara's leading scorer in 2010-11 (33 G, 73A in 65 games). Strome broke camp with the injury-plagued Islanders but hasn't dressed for their first two regular season games.
Williamson expects to get Strome back at some point this season -- the smart money is on the Isles returning him once they get healthy -- but, well, right now he's still on Long Island, not in St. Catharines.
"I have a feeling if these (injured) guys are ready, they'll send him back," Williamson said. "I had a talk with Garth Snow and he said it's day to day. In the big picture, the plan is for him to come back. But if things go sideways, then who knows."
The other NHL angle is the hangover that players who experience when they return to junior after a taste of life in the bigs. It's happened countless times and the IceDogs aren't the only OHL team to feel the effect but the reality is, with some many players at NHL camps (11 by Williamson's count), they've probably been bitten harder than most.
"Absolutely, 100%," Williamson said when asked if it's been a factor. "We talked to them about it and you can talk until you're blue in the face ... when they come back they either think they're hot stuff or they think the game is going to be easier at our level. It's been a bit of a problem."
The IceDogs got a boost when overage forward Alex Friesen, a Vancouver Canucks pick and two-time 20-goal scorer, returned from an AHL tryout.
Bottom line is, the cure to what ails the IceDogs is simple. Ryan Strome, a healthy Mark Visentin and Brock Beukeboom and an end to NHL-itis.
"We've been a little snake-bitten in a lot of areas," Williamson said. "We've got to gut it out until we get some bodies back."
Don't tell James Boyd his Mississauga St. Michael's Majors have over-achieved in the early going.
Of course the Majors' new coach and GM didn't expect his team to go 7-0-0-0 off the hop -- Brampton hung their first loss on them Monday, a 5-1 result in the Bunker -- but he sure as heck didn't believe the 2011 Memorial Cup hosts would stink.
"Yeah, we have lost a lot," Boyd said. "I've told anyone who will listen that we'll be competitive. I never thought we'd be 7-0. Everything has been going our way. There's definitely been some surprises and a little bit of luck."
How the Majors respond to their first loss will tell us a lot. But there's still enough talent on the roster to think St. Mike's could very well challenge for the Central Division title again.
Overage goalie Scott Stajcer was sent back by the New York Rangers Monday, giving the Owen Sound Attack a crowded crease. Again. Sure, keeping three goalies worked out for the defending OHL champs last season but can't see it becoming anything but a distraction this time around. Jordan Binnington is the no-brainer No. 1 and John-Paul Cesario a capable backup so expect Stajcer to be moved at some point ... Don't look now but the rebuilding (and very young) Guelph Storm has started 4-1-1-1 and is second in the tough Midwest Division. Looks like Hockey Canada made a wise decision choosing almost-rookie Storm coach Scott Walker as an assistant with the national junior team ... Geez, think Niagara has it bad? Not compared to the 1-7-0-0 Saginaw Spirit. Picked by many to be one of the top teams in the conference, the Spirit has scored just 18 goals while giving up a league-high 41, Betting things get turned around in Saginaw.