Six OHL teams to like

Randy Russon
December 24, 2017

There are a number of Ontario Hockey League teams who have issued strong statements thus far in the 2017-2018 season. Following is a “pick six” of the many OHL teams worth noting.

SOO GREYHOUNDS (29-3-2, first in Western Conference, first overall in OHL.)

In a word: Wow.

Under the firm, no-nonsense hand of vastly under-rated head coach Drew Bannister, the Greyhounds took a remarkable streak of 20 straight wins in to the Christmas holiday break.

Even though they most likely will, the Greyhounds do not even have to add another impact player prior to the January 10 trade deadline (January 9 for overage players) to retain their current stats as odds-on-favourite to represent the OHL at the 2018 Memorial Cup tournament.

Oh ya, baby, this team is built to win as is and that is a credit to general manager Kyle Raftis for assembling such a worthy roster for Bannister and assistant coaches Joe Cirella and Ryan Ward to work with and excel with.

Between the pipes, second-year goalie Matthew Villalta is showing that he is no one-year wonder. Villalta’s numbers are rather sound — a 21-2-1 record with a 2.49 goals against average and a .909 save percentage.

On the forward lines, there is firepower aplenty. Team Canada member Boris Katchouk leads the Hound Pound 27 goals. Morgan Frost has 19, Jack Kopacka has 18, Tim Gettinger has netted 17 and Barrett Hayton has chipped in with 13.

And how about those defensemen who can put up offensive numbers?

Mac Hollowell has 36 points, Team Canada’s Conor Timmins has 34 and rookie Rasmus Sandin has 17 points in only 21 outings.

Right now, there is no better overall team in the OHL than the red and white of Sault Ste. Marie. And if they add on another impact player or two there just may be no catching these runaway Hounds.

SARNIA STING (25-8-2, second in Western Conference.)

The Sting lost a bit of its buzz over the 10 games prior to the Christmas holiday break, posting a so-so record of 5-4-1.

But make no mistake about it, third-year head coach Derian Hatcher has Sarnia poised for a serious second half run at the Soo.

Between the pipes, Justin Fazio has finally arrived as the bona fide starter that Sarnia has seen in him for three years now. Fazio has sparkled with a 21-5-2 record, 2.76 goals against average and a .923 save percentage that is among the best in the entire OHL.

Besides Fazio, a Sarnia strength is its offensive balance of players who have scored goals in double digits to date.

Adam Ruzicka tops the Sting scoring ring with 20 goals followed by Jordan Kyrou with 19, Jordan Ernst with 18 and Drake Rymsha with 17. Then it is former Greyhound first rounder Anthony Salinitri with 15 goals, Hugo Leufvenius also with 15, Brady Hinz with 13 and Sean Josling with 11.

After years of playoff frustration, the Sting has been regaining its fan base in the Sarnia area. And thus far, it seems as though this Sting is the real thing.

LONDON KNIGHTS (18-14-2, fifth in Western Conference.)

Yes, the London Knights. Sorry folks.

A team that started the 2017-2018 season with a record of 1-8-1 — much to the delight of anti-Knights fans — London has picked it up in a big way since acquiring holdout goalie Joseph Raaymakers from the Greyhounds.

In true iron man fashion, Raaymakers has started 24 straight games on the Knight shift and has led London to a turnaround season with a 17-6-1 record, 2.51 goals against average and .915 save percentage.

As their goalie has been a Raay of sunshine, the Knights have in turn picked it up.

And even though London does not boast the depth it has had in previous multiple seasons of title contention, the Knights have a big four up front led by Robert Thomas and his 20 goals and 18 from Max Jones, 14 from Cliff Pu and an added plus from Alex Formenton, who has tallied nine times in just 20 games.

From the blue line, Evan Bouchard has 12 goals and the Knights stand to gain a big time bonus if Team Canada defenseman Victor Mete returns to London at some point this season via the Montreal Canadiens of the National Hockey League.

And oh yes, let us not forget that the Knights are led by legendary OHL coaching master and multiple Memorial Cup champion Dale Hunter.

SAGINAW SPIRIT (17-12-3, sixth in Western Conference.)

This is a team that we have been touting as one on the rise for several months now.

Maturing as a unit faster than many expected, Saginaw has gone from a Western Conference playoff dark horse for the 2017-2018 campaign to an overachieving squad that is five games above the .500 mark when the OHL returns to play following the Christmas holiday break.

The Spirit posted a record of 9-2-1 during November, making it the most successful month in the history of the Saginaw franchise that dates back to 2002 when it relocated to mid Michigan from North Bay after the erstwhile Centennials closed up shop.

At any rate, under the careful, almost doting leadership of its youthful general manager, the Spirit has been a work in progress since Dave Drinkill took command in Saginaw just prior to the onset of the 2015-2016 season.

Not content to be a mediocre team that simply qualified for the post season — Saginaw has never made it past the second round of the OHL playoffs since its 2002 inception — the 35-year old Drinkill has been tearing down and rebuilding since he took the Spirit GM job in 2015.

The presence of good, young talent on the Saginaw roster is strikingly noticeable to the extent that the majority of the better players have 1999 or 2000 birth year dates.

Leading the way for Saginaw has been 1999 birth year forward Cole Coskey and a collection of 2000 birth skaters from Drinkill’s inaugural 2016 draft as Spirit GM that includes forwards Blade Jenkins, Damien Giroux and Max Grondin and defenseman Caleb Everett.

Coskey has a team leading 16 goals to date, Giroux has netted 13 and the rookie Jenkins, after a rather slow start, has put 12 pucks in the net.

All have varying ranks as prospects for the 2018 National Hockey League draft led by Jenkins, whose stock continues to rise.

While it helps to have so much blossoming young talent, a few older players have been the difference between winning and losing, namely a trio of overagers at each position — goalie Evan Cormier, defenseman Marcus Crawford and forward Mason Kohn, not to mention 1998 birth year defender Keaton Middleton.

Cormier has a record of 14-10-3 with a 2.90 goals against average and .912 save percentage while Crawford is averaging close to a point per game from his blue line post and Kohn has 21 points in 18 games since being picked up in a trade with the Oshawa Generals.

Bringing it all together in his first season as bench boss in Saginaw has been Troy Smith. Smith, who has previous OHL coaching experience with the Kitchener Rangers and Hamilton Bulldogs, is another example of Drinkill doing his homework and bringing in the right fit for the Spirit, be it a player or in this case, a head coach.

HAMILTON BULLDOGS (21-7-6, first in Eastern Conference.)

Hard-nosed general manager Steve Staois has constructed a contender in the gritty southern Ontario steel town and the Bulldogs are on a Eastern Conference hot streak.

Since Staois obtained high scoring forwards Nick Caamano and Ryan Moore in a trade with the Flint Firebirds, the Bulldogs have won nine of 10 games to stake claim to the lead in the Eastern Conference.

Overall, Caamano has 16 goals and Moore has 11 thus far. And the Bulldogs have been getting plenty of scoring from others.

Brandon Saigeon and Matthew Strome have lit the lamp 17 times apiece, Art Kaliyev has 14 goals, Marian Studenic has 13 and Will Bitten has 10.

In the net, Kaden Fulcher has provided stability with a 16-7-5 record, 2.77 goals against average and .903 save percentage.

On the bench, former Sudbury Wolves head coach David Matsos has provided valuable experience and knowledge to John Gruden, who is in his second season at the helm in Hamilton after an earlier stint in Flint.

In short, Staois as president and GM has managed to gain a high profile for the Bulldogs in Hamilton with fans and media alike. And where it also counts — in the win column — Staois has again delivered.

This is an exciting team to watch, dressed in the black and gold colours that so aptly represents Hamilton as a sporting town.

KINGSTON FRONTENACS (17-10-6, third in Eastern Conference.)

Overage goalie Jeremy Helvig may not be the best goalie in the OHL. But it’s doubtful that any other OHL team has a better puck stopper than the big Kingston net minder.

Helvig has managed to make a pretty good Kingston team that much better with a record of 14-7-6 to go with a 2.51 goals against average and .924 save percentage.

The Frontenacs, though, are not just about Helvig.

Jason Robertson leads the forward unit with 20 goals, Tyler Burnie has 15, Linus Nyman has potted 12, while Ryan Cranford and Nate Dunkley have netted 11 apiece.

And back of the blue line, Kingston features a Finnish flash in Eemeli Rasanen, a 6-foot-7 defender who has 22 points in 28 games for first year head coach Jay Varady.

Varady first learned the coaching ropes at a high level when he was in the Western Hockey League apprenticing within the coaching clinic of professor Craig Hartsburg.

PHOTO: Saginaw Spirit goalie Evan Cormier.

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