OHL playoff perspectives

March 17, 2024

Post season play in the Ontario Hockey League is looming. And writers and broadcasters and super fans are busy listing who they think is going to come out on top and join the host Saginaw Spirit as the two OHL teams at this year’s Memorial Cup tournament.

But really, being a favourite to win it all can result in coming up short. Just look back to last year when the Peterborough Petes finished a distant fourth in the Eastern Conference regular season standings. However, not only did the Petes overachieve in winning the Eastern Conference playoff crown but they upset the favoured London Knights in the OHL championship series.

So, who really knows? Perhaps it will be a middle of the pack team from either conference that ends up punching its ticket to Saginaw and, along with the host Spirit, attempts to bring the Memorial Cup back to the OHL by fending off the eventual representatives from the Quebec Maritime Jr. Hockey League and the Western Hockey League.

For the record, Peterborough came up short in representing the OHL at the 2023 Memorial Cup. It was the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL who upended the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL to win the 103rd edition of last year’s Memorial Cup.

Okay, as for this year’s favourites to emerge from the lengthy OHL playoff schedule and be the one to join Saginaw — which as host entry, gets an automatic berth into the national championship series — at this year’s Memorial Cup event that will be staged in the mid Michigan city.

Kyle Raftis

Those who know me well — at least from a hockey standpoint — can attest to the fact that I am not a homer. Never have been and I highly doubt that I ever will be.

Having made that clarification, I do feel as though the Soo Greyhounds have as a good a shot as any OHL team at eventually packing up and heading to Saginaw for the May 24 to June 2 Memorial Cup championship tournament that will be held at the Dow Event Center.

The Greyhounds have been well assembled by general manager Kyle Raftis both through the annual priority selections and import drafts and by way of some shrewd trading. All in all, I like the makeup of this edition of the Greyhounds from the goalies, to the set of defensemen, to forward lines one through four.

To be sure, the forward attack of the Hounds is well spread out while being led by two trade acquisitions in Jack Beck and Gavin Hayes. Beck, an overage skater who was acquired from the Ottawa 67’s prior to the start of this season, leads the Hounds in scoring. And not far behind Beck is Hayes, a signed National Hockey League prospect of the Chicago Blackhawks who was obtained from the Flint Firebirds at the January 10 trade deadline. 

Andrew Gibson
Charlie Schenkel

Then there is the Greyhounds talented troika of defensemen — NHL draft picks Kirill Kudryavstev (Vancouver Canucks), Arttu Karki (Vegas Golden Knights) and Andrew Gibson (Detroit Red Wings.) Combined, the trio is averaging a prolific two points a game for the Hounds from the blue line position and are among the best defensemen in the Western Conference.

And between the pipes, workhorse starter Charlie Schenkel is as good as any starting goalie among the Western Conference contenders, except perhaps for London Knights overage puck stopper Michael Simpson.

Meanwhile, the so called supporting cast of the Hounds ranges from good to pretty good to serviceable. There are forwards Bryce McConnell-Barker, Owen Allard, Marco Mignosa, Justin Cloutier, Jacob Frasca, Jordan D’Intino and retread Justin Dezoete.

Whether one is a fan of head coach John Dean or not, I do feel that he is more than capable of leading this group of Greyhounds on a lengthy spring playoff run. For what it is worth, I am of the notion that while he lacks the experience and expertise of London Knights bench boss Dale Hunter, Dean is better at what he does — or is at least on par — with any other head coach in the Western Conference. And I will say that I think Dean makes better use of his fourth line of Hounds than Hunter does of his fourth unit on the Knight shift.

Michael Simpson
Sawyer Boulton

Along with the Greyhounds, I also like London and Saginaw. A lot. But with Saginaw already in the Mem Cup as the host team, let us write a few words about the Knights.

Once again, the Knights are a serious threat to win the OHL. As, it seems, they are just about every year, like it or not.

Without question, London boasts impact players in goal, on the blue line and up front. There is aforementioned goalie Michael Simpson — who won the OHL championship last season while playing for Peterborough — crackerjack defensemen Oliver Bonk and Sam Dickinson and star forwards Denver Barkey, Easton Cowan, Jacob Julien and Ruslan Gazizov. (check out their resumes and profiles.) And just for the fun of it — sorry, I just can’t help myself — there is the oft suspended Sawyer Boulton, a fibrous, fringe forward who somehow loves getting under the skin of many who have an association with the Greyhounds.

I also want to make note of the Flint Firebirds. Flint is in the lower end of the Western Conference playoff teams. It would be improbable for the Firebirds to fashion a first round upset. In fact, they may not even win a game. But it says here that the Firebirds will be a tough out, led by rookie head coach Paul Flache and a nice assembly of old and young talent.

Tristan Bertucci
Alex Kostov

The Firebirds have three quality overages — forwards Oliver Peer and Nolan Dann and defenseman Roberto Mancini. Then there is a younger collection of good to mid grade forwards such as Coulson Pitre, Simon Slavicek, Nathan Aspinall, ex Greyhounds Connor Clattenburg and Alex Kostov, rookie Jeremy Martin, high scoring defenseman Tristan Bertucci and workhorse goalie Nathan Day. Of note, Bertucci was recently signed to a National Hockey League contract by the Dallas Stars.

Regardless of what happens this spring, the Firebirds have been well set up for future seasons via good work done by general manager Dave McParlan and his Sault Ste. Marie based head scout, Mike Oliverio.

As for the Eastern Conference, I like the Brantford Bulldogs and the North Bay Battalion and the Ottawa 67’s and the Mississauga Steelheads and the Oshawa Generals. And while Sudbury is right up there points wise with Brantford, North Bay, Ottawa, Mississauga and Oshawa — a mere few points is all that separates the top six teams of the Eastern market — something tells me that the Wolves are poised to be a big time playoff underachiever.

Oh well. All in all, I have been wrong before. Many times. But, um, I have also been right, at least a few times.

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