I have never been reticent about trying to boost — when and where it is opportune and worthy — hockey in northern Ontario. And I had the occasion of doing that on television earlier this week during a guest segment on CTV News Northern Ontario.
Via an invitation from CTV News Northern Ontario anchor Tony Ryma, I was asked for some news and views on the Ontario Hockey League’s three northern teams — Soo Greyhounds, Sudbury Wolves and North Bay Battalion.
And without coming across as a cheerleader — for those who know me well I do strive to tell it like it is — I relayed to the CTV North viewers that I believe the Greyhounds, Wolves and Battalion are all poised to at least make the OHL playoffs this 2018-2019 season.
Which would be somewhat of a big deal and a feat of sorts because the last time all three northern Ontario teams made the OHL playoffs in the same season — and posted winning records — was the 2013-2014 campaign.
I think that the simultaneous playoff drought will end in 2018-2019.
The Greyhounds are rebuilding from a 2017-2018 season in which they sprinted to first place overall with 116 points from a record of 55-7-6. But they have enough left in the form of holdover players to make the Western Conference playoffs in 2018-2019 with a record of .500 or close to it.
Even with the departure of so many standout skaters, the Greyhounds do have a number of top notch returnees in the fold led by 42-goal, 112-point forward Morgan Frost and 40-win goalie Matthew Villalta.
And there are five rookie forwards from 2017-2018 who could well spell the difference between an above or below .500 team for the Soo this season — Ryan Roth, Joe Carroll, Cole MacKay, Brett Jacklin and Zack Trott.
Over to Sudbury, this is a pack of Wolves that general manager Rob Papineau has been piecing together for a couple of years now.
As I have noted in a number of columns — and reiterated on the CTV segment — the Wolves need to make the playoffs this season.
The Wolves have missed the playoffs in three of the past four seasons, including the 2017-2018 term in which Sudbury finished in last place in the Eastern Conference with a mere 43 points from a record of 17-42-9.
I would be shocked if the Wolves missed the playoffs in 2018-2019 because not only has Papineau brought in some good players, there is talent that is still around from the pre-Dario Zulich ownership, general manager days of Blaine Smith and Barclay Branch.
The Wolves are at least adequate in goal and on defense and their top six forwards of Darian Pilon, Drake Pilon, Blake Murray, Macauley Carson, David Levin and (rookie) Quinton Byfield could all be major producers this season to the tune of 20-plus goals each.
There are question marks between the pipes and on the blue line but there is little doubt that the Wolves should put up a lot of shots and score a lot of goals this season.
I like North Bay, too.
OHL coaching dean Stan Butler enters his 21st season at the helm of the Battalion, which moved to North Bay from Brampton in 2013.
After missing the playoffs in 2016-2017, Butler guided North Bay back into the post season in 2017-2018 with 70 points from a record of 30-28-10, which was good for sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
North Bay should again be led by overage winger Justin Brazeau in 2018-2019.
A hulking, 6-foot-6, 220-pounder who hails from the northeastern Ontario town of New Liskeard, Brazeau put up 39 goals and 36 assists for a team-best 75 points for the Battalion over the course of the 2017-2018 season. Which is exceptional for a kid who North Bay picked in the 13th round of the 2014 OHL priority selections draft.
The Battalion has a nice collection of younger, returning forwards led by 2017 first rounder Brandon Coe, who potted 10 goals as a rookie last season and a good starting goalie in Christian Popp, who fashioned a record of 18-9-5 in 2017-2018 after being picked up in a trade with the Barrie Colts.
The Battalion will be young on the blue-line this season, though it can build around a pair of youngsters from the reputable North Bay Trappers of the Great North Midget Hockey League.
Payton Vescio was a fourth round pick of the Battalion at the 2017 OHL draft while big Pacey Schlueting was taken by the Troops in the first round of the 2018 priority selections process.
These are two kids to watch over the next several seasons in North Bay, the Vescio-Schlueting duo.