There is anticipation ahead of a new season. There is expectation, both realistic and unreasonable. And in what can be a high-anxiety, high-stakes, Ontario Hockey League, there is always optimism to fall back on.
In this particular pamphlet, we peruse the five teams that make up the West Division of the 10-member Western Conference of the OHL.
And if only for the sake of order, teams are examined alphabetically.
FLINT FIREBIRDS: Hold on to your seat-belts, hockey fans in Flint.
After missing the playoffs in each of the past two season, 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.
General manager Barclay 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, National Hockey League draft picks Ty Dellandrea (Dallas Stars) and Ethan Keppen (Vancouver Canucks) are primed for big numbers in 2019-2020 and the blue line boasts Dennis Busby (Arizona Coyotes) and Vladislav Kolyachonok (Florida Panthers.)
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, the aforementioned 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 I 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.
SAGINAW SPIRIT: The Spirit rose in a big way last season. In fact, it was the best season in its 17-year franchise history for mid Michigan’s OHL team in 2018-2019.
Led by 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 impressive collection of NHL 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.
Between the pipes, if the Spirit gets Ivan Prosvetov back for a second season in what will be his overage year, Saginaw should have the best goalie in the division, if not the conference.
SARNIA STING: Sarnia has made the playoffs in each of the past five seasons. 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.
SOO GREYHOUNDS: Ah, these dependable guys.
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?
But if Barret Hayton does not make the NHL with Arizona as a 19-year old, he will give the Greyhounds a superstar OHL forward to build around in 2019-2020 — and the Soo should at least be a middle-of-the-pack team in the Western Conference.
The Hounds do have others who are on the cusp of being very-good OHL players, notably defensemen Ryan O’Rourke and forwards Jaromir Pytlik, Cole MacKay, Ryan Roth and Joe Carroll.
But 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 are a question mark at that position.
WINDSOR SPITFIRES: 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, Nathan Staios, 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.
AS IT STANDS NOW: Mid August projections as to how the five teams of the West Division rank ahead of the 2019-2020 season: 1. Saginaw 2. Flint 3. Soo 4. Sarnia 5. Windsor.