London Knights, Soo Greyhounds, Saginaw Spirit and Guelph Storm are set up for what should be a furious fight for supremacy in the Western Conference of the Ontario Hockey League.
With the OHL trade deadline having passed and with a good one-third of the 2018-2019 regular season still to play, the fearsome foursome that is London, the Soo, Saginaw and Guelph is poised for what should be a torrid stretch run and a sizzling set of playoff series.
All four teams have the makeup and capability to eventually emerge as the Western Conference playoff champions.
But the reality is that at least two of the four will not even make it to the Western Conference finals. And there is always the danger of one of the four losing in the first round of the playoffs to, for example, the well-coached, middle-of-the-pack, Owen Sound Attack.
At any rate, let us take a look at the fab four of the Western side of the OHL.
London Knights (26-6-5, 57 points.) Two of the Knights biggest moves this season did not involve an actual trade.
That is, London got a pair of bonuses when superstar defenseman Evan Bouchard and standout forward Alex Formenton were both returned to the Knight shift several weeks ago after starting the 2018-2019 season in the National Hockey League as 19-year olds with the Edmonton Oilers and Ottawa Senators, respectively.
Since then, coach Dale Hunter and his general manager brother, Mark Hunter, tweaked the London lineup with a few additions, including 30-plus goal-scoring overage (1998 birth date) standout Kevin Hancock from Owen Sound and seasoned, dependable, 1999 birth year defenseman Joey Keane from the Barrie Colts.
The Knights have the best 1-2 goal-tending tandem of any of the Western contenders with overage Joseph Raaymakers and still young, 2000 birth year puck-stopper Jordan Kooy.
London also has a major asset in the coaching expertise of aforementioned, venerable bench boss Dale Hunter, he of multiple OHL and Memorial Cup championships with the Knights.
Soo Greyhounds (25-10-5, 55 points.) After much speculation by the local media and a fervent fan following of so many, Hounds general manager Kyle Raftis resisted any temptation to move Team Canada forwards Morgan Frost and Barrett Hayton, star goalie Matthew Villalta and the crackerjack overage troika of winger Keeghan Howdeshell and defensemen Mac Hollowell and Jordan Sambrook.
Instead, Raftis made a couple of minor deals that do not figure to impact the Greyhounds in any sort of major way for the rest of the current season.
To be sure, the Greyhounds have been overachievers under rookie head coach John Dean thus far this season. Picked by many in the media to finish as low as seventh in the Western Conference, the Soo instead has shrugged off the graduation of so many top players from the 2017-2018 edition that was upset in the OHL finals by the Hamilton Bulldogs.
Villalta is as good a goalie as there is in the Western Conference and the overage class is top shelf.
What remains to be seen is if the Hounds can keep pace with the bulked-up trio of London, Saginaw and Guelph and transfer regular-season play into the grind of the playoffs.
Saginaw Spirit (25-11-4, 54 points.) Spirit general manager Dave Drinkill tacked on a pair of high-end, 1999 birth-year, NHL prospect forwards in Ryan McLeod and Team Canada’s Owen Tippett just prior to the trade deadline.
The addition of the duo has further enhanced a Saginaw scoring machine that already had top producers such as 1999 birth-year veteran Cole Coskey and younger, high-scoring forwards including Damien Giroux, Blade Jenkins, second-year Sault Ste. Marie product Nick Porco and rookie Cole Perfetti.
On the blue line, the Spirit ace is point-per-game, rookie defenseman Bode Wilde while overage retreads Reagan O’Grady and Justin Murray have close to a decade of combined OHL experience.
Meanwhie, Arizona Coyotes NHL draft pick Ivan Prosvetov is the towering starter between the pipes. As well as Prosvetov has played and the poise he has shown overshadows the fact that the Russian-born game-stealer is an OHL rookie.
Behind the bench, Chris Lazary has Saginaw performing at a high level since taking over as head coach from the fired Troy Smith 22 games into this season.
Guelph Storm (20-12-7, 47 points.) Veteran OHL coach and general manager George Burnett had his trade hat on in the days leading up to the transaction deadline.
Burnett made no less than six major trades in moving out two former first rounders in defenseman Ryan Merkley and forward Tag Bertuzzi and bringing in some serious, 1998 and 1999 birth year talent.
New to the Storm center via the Burnett trade show include Team Canada forwards Nick Suzuki and MacKenzie Entwistle as well as defensemen Markus Phillips, Sean Durzi and Fedor Gordeev.
The cool, calm, collected Burnett certainly showed a bold side in making so many trades that involved high end players both coming and going as well as an exchange of a storage bin full of future draft picks.
OUTLOOK: Taking coaching into consideration, bench experience greatly favours both London and Guelph as Dale Hunter of the Knights and George Burnett of the Storm are two of the more successful and more adaptable coaches in major junior hockey.
On the flip side, the head coaches in the Soo and Saginaw, John Dean and Chris Lazary, are both OHL rookies at their position.
At the ever-important goalie position, London has the advantage of the two-headed tandem of Joseph Raaymakers and Jordan Kooy and the Soo has the lengthy playoff run experience from last spring of Matthew Villalta.
As noted previously, Ivan Prosvetov of Saginaw has been emerging as a top goalie in his first year in the OHL and he is giving the appearances of being the real deal.
Anthony Popovich is the workhorse starter in Guelph and while he has a good amount of OHL experience, he is not what one might call a goalie who steals a lot of games.
FAVOURITES: In projecting who Hockey News North feels has the best chance of emerging as Western Conference playoff champions, we list the favourites from one to four as follows.
- London Knights 2. Guelph Storm 3. Saginaw Spirit 4. Soo Greyhounds.