August has just arrived. Ergo, it might be referred to, in these dog days of summer, as pre-pre season in the Ontario Hockey League.
Too early to talk about the looming, 2018-2019 OHL season?
When hockey is what one earns a living writing about, one season leads to another in the space of a craft lager beer or two or three or more.
In fact, premature as it may be, we are ready to offer a Hockey News North perusal and prognosis — with the inside help of a few folks who are well connected within the league — ahead of the 2018-2019 OHL season.
Given the early stage of the pre-pre season though, it should be duly noted that much can — and will — change before first pucks hit the ice on the 2018-2019 campaign.
Having said that, here is a patio bar, Hockey News North summer forecast as to how the Western and Eastern Conferences of the OHL shape up ahead of the 2018-2019 season, with all 20 teams currently tied for first place overall with identical records of 0-0-0.
1. London Knights. Sorry, folks. The OHL’s most-despised team outside of London is ready for another run at an OHL championship. The Knights are well-operated, well-managed and well-coached — with a war chest containing a good chunk of cold, hard cash. In fact, ageless bench boss Dale Hunter may be the best coach — and the shrewdest operator — in the league. It would appear that more good Knights are ahead in London.
2. Guelph Storm. As part of a house cleaning and revamping by coach-general manager George Burnett, Guelph made it back to the playoffs in 2017-2018 and finished just above the .500 mark. As good a coach as he is, Burnett is also a good GM who knows how to work a trade to improve his team. A good Storm is brewing in Guelph.
3. Saginaw Spirit. This is the team whose rise we have been writing about for more than a year. General manager Dave Drinkill has put together a contending team with a number of older and younger players for coach Troy Smith to work with. Look for Saginaw to add another defenseman or two via the trade route and look for breakout seasons from several forwards including Cole Coskey, Damien Giroux, Blade Jenkins, Jake Goldowski and first-time, National Hockey League draft-eligible Nick Porco. The Spirit will go as far as Russian-born goalie Ivan Prosvetov takes it. And all indications are that Prosvetov — an NHL draft pick of the Arizona Coyotes — will provide a net gain for Saginaw.
4. Windsor Spitfires. Windsor is where the best goalie in the OHL, Michael DiPietro resides. If Spitfires general manager Warren Rychel ever decides to trade DiPietro, he will get a king’s ransom for the Vancouver Canucks prospect, who figures to make the Team Canada juniors this year. Meantime, the Spitfires are on the rebound just two years after winning the 2017 Memorial Cup championship.
5. Owen Sound Attack. Youngster Mack Guzda will get a shot at being the no. 1 goalie in Owen Sound as a 17-year old. 100-point scorer Nick Suzuki has another season of junior eligibility left and Aidan Dudas is another real-deal forward. Coach Todd Gill coaxed a lot out of the Attack in 2017-2018 and with better goal-tending, Owen Sound might have upset the Soo Greyhounds in the second round of the playoffs instead of losing in Game 7.
6. Kitchener Rangers. General manager Mike McKenzie has the Rangers positioned for another good season though there is a question mark between the pipes. Goalie Mario Culina has graduated after taking Kitchener on a spectacular run that ended in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals with a loss to the Soo.
7. Soo Greyhounds. First place in the regular season by a country mile in 2017-2018 did not result in an expected OHL championship for the Soo, which lost to the Hamilton Bulldogs in the finals. General manager Kyle Raftis may opt to deal off a few remaining veteran stars in order to re-stock the draft cupboard. It will be baptism by fire for the all-new Greyhound coaching troika of John Dean, Jordan Smith and Jamie Tardif.
8. Flint Firebirds. Flint has a good head coach in Ryan Oulahen and a good general manager in Barclay Branch. And to top it off, Oulahen and Branch are two really good guys who are as honest and up front as they come. Young talent such as forwards Ty Dellandrea, Connor Roberts and Ethan Keppen and defenseman Dennis Busby should lead Flint back into the playoffs in 2018-2019 after the Firebirds missed out in 2017-2018.
9. Erie Otters. It is the second year of the rebuild in Erie after all of those 50-win seasons. The Otters missed the playoffs in 2017-2018 and seem likely to again in 2018-2019. Erie is in good coaching hands with Chris Hartsburg at the helm.
10. Sarnia Sting. A rebuild project is underway. The Sting figures to get stung in 2018-2019. Hopefully the fans don’t turn their backs on the Sting as Sarnia is in the good ownership hands of former NHL mainstays Derian Hatcher and David Legwand, who also coach the team.
1. Ottawa 67s. Former coach and general manager Jeff Brown — who departed the 67s prior to the 2017-2018 season — should get a lot of credit for building this OHL contender in Ottawa. If the 67’s can acquire an established goalie, watch out for Ottawa in 2018-2019. The 67s are loaded up front and on the back line and a lot of what they have comes from what the aforementioned Brown provided before he left.
2. Niagara IceDogs. It could be said that Joey Burke is the general manager in Niagara and Billy Burke is the head coach because their mom and dad own the IceDogs. But with Joey as GM as Billy as the coach, Niagara put up an 80-point season in 2017-2018 and finished in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. The IceDogs are poised for another good season in 2018-2019 and the Burke boys seem more than qualified to be running the show in Niagara.
3. Oshawa Generals. Veteran general manager Roger Hunt has put together another contender in Oshawa. But it will be worth watching how Generals rookie head coach Greg Walters handles ice time for rookie centre Tyler Tullio, who was Oshawa’s first-round pick at the 2018 OHL draft. Young Tullio is the son of Oshawa owner Rocco Tullio.
4. Barrie Colts. A main story line will surround forward Ryan Suzuki, who put up 14 goals and 44 points after Barrie selected him first overall at the 2017 OHL draft. Stardom is on the horizon for the slick centre.
5. Peterborough Petes. National Hockey League legend Bob Gainey has joined the OHL team that he played for more than 45 years ago as its senior advisor. The Petes missed the playoffs in 2017-2018 but have enough talent to be middle of the aisle in the Eastern market in 2018-2019.
6. Hamilton Bulldogs. General manager Steve Staios traded away a good chunk of the future for a number of veteran skaters to make a run at an OHL championship in 2017-2018 and all of his moves paid off in victory. The Bulldogs are now in rebuild mode but along with a championship, they have added on to their fan base in a big way. The Bulldogs have become a big ticket in Hamilton thanks in a large part to Staios, who is also team president in addition to being the GM.
7. Sudbury Wolves. An iconic franchise that has been a part of the OHL since 1972, the Wolves have missed the playoffs three of the past four years and have not won a post season series since 2013. The 2018-2019 campaign will mark the third season under the ownership of Dario Zulich and hockey operations management of Rob Papineau. Papineau has shown a relentless work ethic since taking over as the Wolves hockey boss and some of the moves he has made should put Sudbury back in the playoffs next spring. Wolves fans and team backers can only hope so.
8. North Bay Battalion. The Troops have a good crew of young defensemen and forwards for legendary head coach Stan Butler to build around. Contention is probably a year away for the Battalion. On a side note, let us hope the North Bay fan base increases this season.
9. Mississauga Steelheads. They wear nice blue uniforms that are similar to those worn by the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs. They also play in a nice arena in a nice area of Mississauga. But fan support has always been lukewarm since the OHL first set up shop in Mississauga 20 years ago. Thus, if the Steelheads miss the playoffs, how many people will really notice?
10. Kingston Frontenacs. Who is Kingston general manager Darren Keily going to dis if the Frontenacs miss the playoffs? There may be no one to blame but the GM himself if Kingston takes a step back under the watch of the man who was put in charge by Frontenacs president of hockey operations Doug Gilmour more than a year ago. Methinks that if Kingston misses the playoffs in 2018-2019, it won’t be Gilmour’s ass that is grass.