First pucks will drop to the ice as the 2019-2020 Ontario Hockey League regular season gets underway in less than a week.
Following is a Hockey News North look at the five-team West Division. Teams are listed in predicted order of finish.
A second successive successful season can certainly be seen in Saginaw.
To be sure, the Spirit rose in an impressive way last season in finishing first in the West Division and second in the Western Conference.
In fact, it was the best season in its 17-year franchise history for mid Michigan’s OHL team.
Led by then-rookie head coach Chris Lazary, Saginaw came up one win short of advancing to the OHL finals last spring when it lost to the eventual league champion Guelph Storm in the seventh-and-deciding game of the Western Conference finals.
And the Spirit is primed to finish atop the West Division again in 2019-2020 led by an veteran collection of National Hockey League draft picks that include forwards Damien Giroux (Minnesota Wild), Blade Jenkins (New York Islanders), Nick Porco (Dallas Stars) and defensemen Bode Wide (Islanders) and Mason Millman (Philadelphia Flyers.)
Look for Porco, if properly utilized, to be a 35-40 goal scorer in 2019-2020.
Another forward to watch for this 2019-2020 season is gritty grinder Camaryn Baber, who like Porco, hails from Sault Ste. Marie. The 2018-2019 campaign was Baber’s first full season in the OHL and he was arguably Saginaw’s most improved player by the end of it.
And a potential catalyst up front is second-year forward Cole Perfetti, who scored 37 goals as a rookie in 2018-2019 while benefiting from premium ice time. Perfetti is already being projected by some as a first round pick at the 2020 NHL draft.
Between the pipes, Saginaw is poised to have the best goal-tending in the division, if not the conference, with overage Ivan Prosvetov and second-year youngster Tristan Lennox.
First place in the West Division is there for Saginaw to retain.
The time has come for the Firebirds to shake off their losing ways.
After missing the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, the Firebirds have the formation to not only challenge for the West Division lead in 2019-2020 but to be among the top three or four teams in the entire Western Conference.
It begins in the net — and a major off season acquisition for Flint.
The newcomer in question is a winning goalie obtained via trade with the reigning OHL champion Guelph Storm.
The Firebirds, in what figures to play out as a key transaction by general manager Barclay Branch, went out and acquired overage goalie Anthony Popovich from Guelph in exchange for third and fifth round picks at the 2020 OHL priority selections draft.
“Anthony is a proven winner, with championship experience and his veteran leadership is a significant addition,” Branch said of his recently-acquired, workhorse goalie, who backstopped Guelph through four successive playoff rounds en route to winning the 2019 OHL championship.
Popovich, from his end, is happy to be in Flint, which Hockey News North had already been touting as a serious West Division/Western Conference contender for this season.
“We have a good group of guys to go far this year and surprise a lot of people. I think we’re going to have a special group this year,” noted Popovich.
Popovich played in 52 of Guelph’s 68 regular season games in 2018-2019 before appearing in all 24 of its playoff matches and accounting for all 16 Storm victories en route to winning the OHL championship.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned Branch has been painstakingly putting pieces together over the past two years and the Firebirds are at last ready for a nice flight as the 2019-2020 season sets up.
On the forward lines, NHL draft picks Ty Dellandrea (Dallas Stars) and Ethan Keppen (Vancouver Canucks) as well as overager Jake Durham are primed for big numbers in 2019-2020 while the blue line boasts Dennis Busby (Arizona Coyotes) and Vladislav Kolyachonok (Florida Panthers), not to mention another good veteran in Riley McCourt.
Also worth watching are a trio of former first-rounders in forwards Connor Roberts, Cody Morgan and Evan Vierling. Roberts and Morgan are both products of trades while Vierling was Flint’s first-round draft pick in 2018.
Of note, both Busby and Roberts missed the majority of the 2018-2019 season due to injury as it seemed that whatever could go wrong did go wrong in Flint, at least over the first half of the term.
Flint will also feature a future phenom forward in Brennan Othmann, who was the second overall pick at the 2019 OHL priority selections draft. Othmann — remember the name, folks — can skate, shoot, score and has the overall skill and smarts to complete the package.
The 2019-2020 season will be the first full term for Eric Wellwood, who took over as the head coach in Flint nine games into the 2018-2019 campaign.
And as the GM, Branch may have made the hire of the summer when he signed associate coach Ryan Kuwabara away from Flint’s arch-rivals in Saginaw.
It is worth repeating what we have noted in many previous columns.
That is, through the first 34 games of last season, Flint had a record of 3-29-2. But in a vast show of improvement, the Firebirds put up a record of 13-17-4 over their next 34 games to finish with an overall mark of 16-46-6.
Look for the winning curve to increase this season.
Look for Flint to challenge its inner-state rivals from Saginaw for top spot in the West Division before settling for second best.
Year to year they confound the experts. Year to year, the boys in red from Houndtown manage to make a run for it.
To be sure, the Greyhounds have defined consistency — and been a model for it — since 2012.
All in all, the Greyhounds have had seven straight winning seasons — averaging 45 victories a year during that span — though they do not have a single OHL championship to show for it.
Can that type of winning continue in 2019-2020?
Still, 19-year old forward Barrett Hayton, a top prospect of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, gives the Greyhounds a superstar OHL forward in their lineup.
Meanwhile, the Soo has others who are on the verge of being very-good OHL players, notably defensemen Jacob LeGuerrier and Ryan O’Rourke and forwards Jaromir Pytlik, Cole MacKay, Ryan Roth and Joe Carroll.
Between the pipes, unless workhorse goalie Matthew Villalta returns as an overage — he is ticketed to play within the NHL farm system of the Los Angeles Kings this coming season — the Hounds will go with North Bay Battalion castoff Christian Propp as their starter.
Now an overager, Propp was the goalie of record in 24 of North Bay’s 30 wins last season.
The Hounds should be good for third in the West this season, while looking over their shoulders at Sarnia.
There has been a routine in Sarnia over the past five seasons.
That is, the Sting has made the playoffs in each of the past five occasions. However, the Sting has won just one playoff series during that span.
As Sarnia returns forward Jamieson Rees in 2019-2020 after he became a surprise second-round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes at this year’s NHL draft, eyes of the scouts will be on Sting forward Jacob Perreault, who could be a first-round pick at the 2020 pro draft.
And as Sarnia seeks to retain its playoff status for 2019-2020 and beyond, it has its goalie for now in quality returnee Ethan Langevin and for the future in the promising Ben Gaudreau.
The Sting took Gaudreau in the first round, seventh overall, from the North Bay Major Trappers of the Great North Midget Hockey League at this year’s OHL priority selections draft.
Besides Gaudreau, another notable incoming player to Sarnia for the upcoming campaign is Swedish defenseman Eric Hjorth, who was a fourth-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets at the 2019 NHL draft.
And, looking to keep pace with its West Division opponents this season, the Sting added a seasoned center in a summer deal.
Dealing from a crate of built-up draft picks, Sarnia general manager Nick Sinclair moved future third and fifth round selections to the Ottawa 67’s in exchange for 2000 birth-year pivot Sam Bitten.
A former fifth-round pick of Ottawa’s, Bitten played parts of three terms with the 67’s, totaling 175 games — regular season and playoffs included — in the process.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Bitten is coming off his best OHL showing, having tallied 13 goals, 22 assists, 35 points in 68 regular-season outings for Ottawa in 2018-2019.
To be sure, Sinclair, as the GM, likes what Bitten brings to Sarnia.
“He brings many intangibles both on and off the ice that will be a big benefit as we move forward into this season,” Sinclair noted. “His character, experience and the way Sam approaches the game on a day-to-day basis will be instrumental.
“Sam’s strong two-way game, versatility and ability to play in many key situations gives us an added element to our lineup,” Sinclair added.
Meanwhile, overage captain Ryan McGregor has committed to Sarnia for the 2019-2020 season.
McGregor had an OHL career high 25 goals, 52 assists, 77 points in 61 regular-season games with Sarnia in 2018-2019.
As a team, Sarnia could be in the .500 range and make the playoffs again this season.
Since winning the Memorial Cup in 2017, the Spitfires have taken a nosedive over the past two seasons.
And while they are not seen as serious contenders for division or conference glory in 2019-2020, there are players of note that include a pair of looming NHL draft prospects in forwards Will Cuylle and Jean-Luc Foudy.
A Spitfire strength seems to be on the back end with defensemen in place that include Connor Corcoran, Grayson Ladd and Louka Henault.
But the Spitfires struggled in goal following the deadline dealing of star netminder Michael DiPietro last season and the net worth outlook for 2019-2020 is not overly promising.
Of note, Spitfires all-time scoring leader Billy Bowler is now in a position of authority as the new general manager in Windsor.
The Spitfires seem ticketed for fifth place in the West this season but could challenge the Soo and Sarnia for third or fourth with good net-minding.