A repeat performance of sorts? Maybe yes, maybe no. But at the very least, the two teams that met in this spring’s Ontario Hockey League championship series are positioned to be contenders again next season.
Both the champion Hamilton Bulldogs and the runner-up Soo Greyhounds can return more than a dozen players each for 2018-2109. And the list of those eligible to suit up again for both Hamilton and the Soo does not include potential overage (1998 birth date) players, of which all 20 OHL teams can carry three.
While planned success is never a guarantee — just ask the Greyhounds, who finished atop the regular standings in 2017-2018 with 116 points, 23 more than the Bulldogs, only to lose to Hamilton in the OHL championship series — both teams appear to have the potential for contention again in 2018-2019.
Hamilton can return no less than 10 forwards from its 2018 championship team including 37-goal scorer Matthew Strome, 31-goal scorer Arthur Kaliyev and world-class centre Robert Thomas, who tallied 24 goals in just 49 regular-season games before tallying 12 times in 20 playoff outings. (However, it should be noted that Thomas, a first-round pick of the St. Louis Blues in 2017, could well begin the 2018-2019 season in the National Hockey League as a 19-year old.)
Another top-line forward slated to be back in a Bulldogs jersey in 2018-2019 is MacKenzie Entwistle, who scored 13 goals in 49 regular-season games in 2017-2018 before finding the back of the net 10 more times in 21 playoff matches.
Back to the aforementioned Kaliyev, who has a 2001 birth date, he is setting up to become a legitimate OHL superstar.
To be sure, Kaliyev was a sensation as a Hamilton rookie this past season. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound winger had 31 goals, 17 assists, 48 points in 68 regular-season games and added 3 goals, 8 assists, 11 points in 21 playoff contests as part of the Bulldogs run to OHL championship glory.
Kaliyev, who is of Russian descent, was drafted by Hamilton from the Detroit Compuware major midgets in the second round, 26th overall, at the 2017 OHL priority selections draft and has become a steal of a selection by Bulldogs general manager Steve Staois. Not eligible for the NHL draft until 2019, Kaliyev is already being projected as a high, first-round draft pick next summer.
As for its use of three overage players for next season, standout goalie Kaden Fulcher is one who could be back in a Hamilton uniform. Fulcher, who has signed with the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, backstopped the Bulldogs to this year’s OHL championship and was named the top goalie at the 2018 Memorial Cup tournament.
Should Fulcher turn pro next season, holdover backup Nick Donofrio would seemingly be given the opportunity to become the Bulldogs starting goalie. A Detroit area product, the 6-foot-4 Donofrio, who has a late 1999 birth date, had a record of 11-1-1 as Hamilton’s second-string goalie behind Fulcher in 2017-2018.
An area that the Bulldogs will have to address for the 2018-2019 season is on the blue line. Excluding any overager, Hamilton can return only two defensemen from the 2018 championship team.
Looking ahead to next season, it is improbable that Hamilton can repeat its 43-18-7 regular schedule record that preceded the 16-5 playoff mark en route to winning the OHL championship — before going 2-2 at the Memorial Cup tournament and losing to the host Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League in the semi finals.
But the Bulldogs won over hockey fans in Hamilton this past season like no other OHL team was ever able to do before in the southern Ontario steel town. And Hamilton fans can reasonably expect another Eastern Conference contender from the Bulldogs again in 2018-2019.
What can the Hounds possibly do for an encore in 2018-2019 after a 2017-2018 regular season that produced a record of 55-7-6 and a league-best 116 points?
Well, the Greyhounds fell short of expectations when the no. 1 ranked team in the nation lost to Hamilton in six games in the OHL championship series. So, there is that missed opportunity from this spring that could be made up for next season.
Realistically though, the Greyhounds in 2018-2019 will not be the powerhouse team of 2017-2018.
Having said that, despite having graduated the core of high-end players that helped the Soo to its first-place, regular-season finish of 2017-2018, the Greyhounds can return a number of top performers in 2018-2019.
Starting between the pipes, 1999 birth-year goalie Matthew Villalta will be back for another season. The NHL prospect of the Los Angeles Kings won 40 games for the Greyhounds during the 2017-2018 regular season and while he faltered somewhat in the playoffs, Villalta was not the reason why the Soo lost to Hamilton in the OHL finals.
Not counting overage players, the Greyhounds can return 13 players next season, including Villalta in net, plus five defensemen and seven forwards.
1999 birth-year forward Morgan Frost heads the list of returnees. The first-round, NHL draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2017 erupted for 112 regular-season points in 2017-2018, including 42 goals.
Other top players ticketed for Houndtown next fall are a pair of 2000 birth-year skaters who could become first-round picks at this year’s NHL draft — forward Barrett Hayton and defenseman Rasmus Sandin.
Two young forwards with 2001 birth dates should flourish with regular duty in 2018-2019 after promising rookie seasons in spot duty in 2017-2018.
Joe Carroll counted nine goals in 53 regular season games while Sault Ste. Marie product Cole MacKay found the back of the net five times in 42 outings.
Then there is 2000 birth-year forward Ryan Roth, who notched 15 goals in 68 games in his OHL rookie season. The small but speedy Roth could be on the verge of a breakthrough season in 2018-2019.
Sault Ste. Marie boasts more than its share of loyal, passionate fans who were more than disappointed when the Greyhounds lost to Hamilton in six games in the 2018 OHL championship series.
And while the Greyhounds let a golden opportunity for an OHL crown slip away to the rival Bulldogs, Soo general manager Kyle Raftis has the red and white poised for what should be another contending season in 2018-2019.
Yes, the playoff run ended in disappointment with a record of 14-10 that followed that 55-7-6 regular season mark. And yes, after starting the playoffs with a four-game sweep of the Saginaw Spirit, the Greyhounds were a mere .500 team the rest of the way with a 10-10 record.
But when the sting of a spring defeat finally subsides and first pucks drop on the 2018-2019 season, expect the Greyhounds to begin what should be another campaign of contention.
PHOTO: Goalie Nick Donofrio could challenge for the starter’s job with the Hamilton Bulldogs next season.