Five up-and-coming teams that will be worth watching once the 2016-2017 Ontario Hockey League season gets underway:
An exceptional 87-point season from a record of 40-21-7 was only good enough for fifth place in the Western Conference in 2015-2016 for the Spitfires, who then lost to the Kitchener Rangers in the first round of the playoffs.
And while Windsor has an automatic berth into next spring’s Memorial Cup Tournament as host entry, the Spitfires nonetheless have the makings of being a top Western Conference team in ’16-17 without the free ticket.
Forty-goal scorer Christian Fischer leads a list of high-scoring returnees that also includes hulking, skilled forward Logan Brown, who was a first-round pick of the Ottawa Senators at last month’s National Hockey League draft.
There is a lot to like about this Spitfires team that has been carefully-constructed by Windsor general manager Warren Rychel, including the recent acquisition of seasoned scorer Julius Nattinen from the Barrie Colts.
The Soo has a lot to build on from the ’15-16 season.
After finishing seventh in the 10-team Western Conference with 74 points from a record of 33-27-8, the Greyhounds became the only lower seed to win a series in the opening round of the playoffs when they stunned the second-ranked Sarnia Sting in a seven-game thriller.
Led by their best forward, 45-goal scorer Zachary Senyshyn, the Hounds can return more than three full lines of up-front skaters in ’16-17.
2016 NHL draft picks Boris Katchouk, Jack Kopacka and Tim Gettinger are slated to return as are points-leader Blake Speers and overager Bobby MacIntyre, who was a spark plug for the Greyhounds in ’15-16 after being acquired from the Mississauga Steelheads in a heads-up heist by general manager Kyle Raftis.
Flint missed the Western Conference playoffs in ’15-16, finishing ninth with 46 points from a record of 20-42-6.
But the Firebirds have since gutted the hockey department and brought in respected, respectable 26-year OHL veteran George Burnett as general manager and Ryan Oulahen as head coach. Oulahen should be more than ready to be an effective bench boss after apprenticing for several years under coaching master Stan Butler of the North Bay Battalion.
Flint returns its top three forwards from ’15-16 in Will Bitten, Ryan Moore and Nicholas Caamano and that is a good start.
Burnett used his expertise as a trader to acquire two veteran OHLers during this off-season, getting under-rated overage centre Everett Clark from Mississauga and puck-moving defenseman Jalen Smereck from the Oshawa Generals.
After missing the playoffs two years in a row, the 67’s brought in Jeff Brown — who had won two championships in a three-season span in first the North American Hockey League, then the United States Hockey League — as their new coach back in 2014.
Brown has brought stability back to Ottawa and has coached the 67’s to 81 and 75 point seasons in two years on the job.
Now the general manager as well as coach, Brown and director of player personnel Pat Higgins have positioned Ottawa to be a serious Eastern Conference contender in ’16-17 with the shrewd trade acquisitions of forwards Sasha Chmelevski and Chase Campbell and blossoming draft picks such as forwards Travis Barron and Austen Keating and goalie Leo Lazarev.
There is no where to go but up for the Wolves. And up they will go in ’16-17, from a team that has missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.
Make no mistake about it, there is some good, veteran talent for coach David Matsos to work with as he gets set for his second full season on the job.
30-goal scorer Dimitri Sokolov returns, as does Ryan Valentini, who produced 11 goals in 39 games for the Wolves in ’15-16 after general manager Barclay Branch gave up a second-round pick to the talent-rich London Knights in return.
Forward David Levin, the first overall pick at the 2015 OHL draft, should be ready for a big step up and third-year forward Michael Pezzetta has plenty of potential.
Standout Kyle Capobianco anchors the Sudbury defense and Branch has trade chips in a pair of 19-year old goalies, Troy Timpano and Zack Bowman.
The Wolves should not only make the Eastern Conference playoffs in ’16-17 but contend for sixth place.
Either that, or a coaching change may be in order.
PHOTO: Travis Barron should be ready to bust out as a third-year forward for the Ottawa 67’s. (Photo by Aaron Bell.)