Western Conference watchtower

Randy Russon
September 8, 2017

To be sure, it is the toughest conference in Canadian major junior hockey. And while there are those who have already anointed the Soo Greyhounds as the team to be reckoned with in the Western Conference of the Ontario Hockey League, others should not be taken lightly.

At any rate, a powerhouse sector in 2016-2017, the Western Conference is expected to be forceful again in 2017-2018.

The aforementioned Greyhounds have quality depth on the forward lines and on the defensive side. And while the Soo may not have the best goal-tending in the Western Conference, only the reigning Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires, with holdover Michael DiPietro tending twine, have what can be termed an OHL standout penciled in as the starter.

But let’s look at the Hound power that under-rated general manager Kyle Raftis has assembled for crackerjack coach Drew Bannister.

It begins up front where returning forwards Boris Katchouk, Tim Gettinger, Jack Kopacka and Morgan Frost — National Hockey League draft picks, each and every one of them — combined for 116 goals last season. All play an up-tempo style with the combined assets of speed, skill and smarts.

On the blueline, Conor Timmins is not only very good in his own end but the Colorado Avalanche draft pick averaged almost a point per game from his defensive post last season.

Second-year goalie Matthew Villalta is fresh from a strong rookie regular season which led to being a third-round NHL draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings. But Villalta wilted under the pressure of the playoffs last spring and had to be replaced by Joseph Raaymakers, who has since requested a trade out of the Soo.

Aside from the Kings and the Greyhounds, there are those within the NHL and OHL who are not yet sold on Villalta as a bona-fide starter.

With the 2017-2018 OHL regular season set to begin on September 21, a consensus is that, as of this writing, the Greyhounds are as good as it may get.

Still, there are other teams that could give the Greyhounds a run in the Western Conference, namely the Owen Sound Attack and London Knights.

London, while it has lost some exceptional talent from last season, will always be London, it would seem — at least as long as Dale Hunter is in charge on the Knight shift.

Meanwhile, two teams of intrigue may not be quite ready to move more than a rung or two up the Western Conference ladder but they have acquired and drafted some of the best young talent in the OHL.

They represent the OHL’s two Michigan teams, namely the Flint Firebirds and Saginaw Spirit.

Flint finished as the no. 7 seed in the Western Conference last season before being upended by no. 2 seed Soo in the first round of the playoffs.

The Firebirds return some top and proven veteran talent for the 2017-2018 season with featured forwards Ryan Moore and Nick Caamano. And Flint really stands out in the youth department with second-year forwards Ty Dellandrea and Hunter Holmes and sophomore defenseman Dennis Busby being projected as looming standouts.

A question facing Flint heading into the 2017-2018 season is whether overage goalie Garrett Forrest is ready to be the no. 1 guy after a hot-and-cold season as a 19-year old rookie in 2016-2017.

Saginaw is also a team to really look at for the future — and to watch the Spirit rise from the vantage point of a watchtower.

The Spirit finished ninth and missed the Western Conference playoffs in 2016-2017, albeit with more points than three teams that made it into the post season in the Eastern Conference.

Without question, the Spirit looms as a formidable force for the future with so much young talent that has been put together by relentless, third-year general manager Dave Drinkill, who is a rising executive standout in the OHL.

The roster of 1999 and 2000 birth year players who have already debuted in Saginaw boasts promise and potential and includes forwards Brady Gilmour (an NHL draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings), Cole Coskey, D.J. Busdeker, Damian Giroux, Maxim Grondin and Danny Katic and defensemen Hayden Davis and Brock Hill.

Of note, Giroux (Sudbury), Grondin (Hearst) and Katic (Timmins) are all northern Ontario products as is 2017 first-round draft pick Nick Porco, a towering forward who hails from Sault Ste. Marie.

Then there are a pair of 2000 birth year dandies who committed to Saginaw during this off season after being draft picks in 2016 — forward Blade Jenkins and defensemen Caleb Everett. Jenkins was Saginaw’s first round pick at the 2016 draft.

Along with Busdeker, Jenkins and Everett are Michigan products — which only adds to the draw of the Saginaw fan base.

But as the Spirit seeks to rise in Saginaw and return to the playoffs in 2017-2018, much will depend on overage goalie Evan Cormier.

As a seasoned veteran with a late 1997 birth date, the return of Cormier as an overage backstop is seen as a major building block for Saginaw, which missed the Western Conference playoffs by a mere six points in what was a rebuild 2016-2017 season.

Actually, with better secondary goal-tending, Saginaw might have squeaked into the playoffs last season.

Cormier certainly did his part with a record of 23-19-7 that was accompanied by a 3.23 goals against average and .899 save percentage. But 1999 birth-year backup Brendan Bonello struggled with a 3-11-2 record, 4.60 goals against average and .856 save percentage.

Saginaw also gave 2000 birth-year rookie Cameron Lamour — another northern Ontario product, from the Greater Sudbury area — an audition and he responded well with a 1-2-0 record, 2.21 goals against average and .901 save percentage.

The game clock is ticking towards the 2017-2018 OHL season.

Beware the Greyhounds of the Soo. Do not lose sight of Owen Sound and London, or Windsor for that matter.

And keep the boys from Flint and Saginaw in mind as curious challengers in the Western Conference.

PHOTO: Soo Greyhounds general manager Kyle Raftis.

What you think about “Western Conference watchtower”

  1. Excellent summary, Randy.
    I think the Hounds will be an exciting team this season, and the new kids seem to have both speed and smarts .
    Along with the solid coaching of Bannister, we also have some very mature veterans who I’m sure will be able to help bring the youngsters along, and I expect to see their confidence grow quickly under their guidance.
    However, our goaltending will be critical to this season.
    Vilalta is a big body, and plays with a calmness not found in many young goalies,
    I think he can do the job.

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