Okay, so the Sudbury Wolves are currently in first place in the Eastern Conference of the Ontario Hockey League with 47 points. But if the Wolves were in the Western Conference of the OHL, those 47 points would have them in sixth place. Yes, sixth place. Such is the balance of power difference between the Western world and the Eastern block.
The most recent example of disparity between the two conferences involved a game between the Windsor Spitfires and the aforementioned Wolves of Sudbury. In that one, the Spitfires, who are in last place among the 10 teams of the Western Conference, put up no less than 11 goals in scoring an 11-7 decision over the Eastern Conference leaders from Sudbury.
To be sure, it is just one game. But there is that game — along with the bigger fact that Sudbury’s current point total that has the Wolves atop the Eastern Conference would only be good enough for sixth place in the Western Conference.
At any rate and with all of that aside, the Western Conference is set up for a fast pace race to the end of the regular season slate.
TOP FIVE: Kitchener Rangers, London Knights, Soo Greyhounds and Saginaw Spirit are the Fab Four of the Western rodeo with the Guelph Storm rounding out the Top Five. Guelph is a team that is at the bottom of the conference when it comes to scoring goals but plays an air tight all-around game and has one of the best goals against averages in the entire league.
Among the teams that made major moves at the January 10 OHL trade deadline, the Greyhounds and Saginaw both added world junior forwards with the Soo obtaining Team USA’s Gavin Hayes from the Flint Firebirds and the Sprit rising to get Team Canada’s Owen Beck from the Peterborough Petes. Hayes gives the Greyhounds three players who participated at this year’s World Junior Championships — with Team Canada forward Owen Allard and Team Finland defenseman Arttu Karki being the others.
Saginaw, notably, has the advantage over all other teams in the OHL in that the Spirit already has automatic entry into this spring’s Memorial Cup championship tournament as the host entry. But a couple of questions persist.
Between now and then does Saginaw get through the rest of the regular season and playoffs with goal-tending that can match Michael Simpson of London, Brayden Gillespie of Guelph, Kitchener’s Jackson Parsons or the Soo’s Charlie Schenkel? Or does Saginaw general manager Dave Drinkill regret not upgrading on the duo of Andrew Oke and Nolan Lalonde when he had multiple opportunities to do so?
Meantime, the jockeying for seedings ahead of what should be a hotly-contested playoff spring continues as the intensity increases and the head coaches in all five towns work at getting their players ready for the stretch run of the season. Quick question: is there a Western Conference coach that can match London’s Dale Hunter when push comes to shove? Well, one who has been able to in his time in the OHL is none other than John Dean of the Greyhounds.
MIDDLE ROW: Right now it is the Erie Otters and the Owen Sound Attack that hold down the number six and seven spots in the conference, respectively. And while neither team has resembled anything close to a contender status, both have goalies who are as good as any in the entire OHL.
Overager and former Team Canada world junior puck stopper Ben Gaudreau is the main man between the pipes for Erie while 2006 birth year back stop Carter George of Owen Sound is a top rated goalie ahead of this year’s National Hockey League draft.
Notably, both Gaudreau and George are northern Ontario products. Gaudreau is from just outside North Bay while George is a Thunder Bay product with roots that extend to Sault Ste. Marie by way of his mom.
GATE EIGHT: There is a frantic race for the eighth and final playoff spot with a Western sandwich combo of the Flint Firebirds, Sarnia Sting and Windsor Spitfires.
Flint and Windsor were especially busy at the January 10 trade deadline. In fact, Firebirds general manager Dave McParlan and Spitfires GM Billy Bowler were not shy about trading with one another. The Firebirds — who had been trading away some top veteran talent for future draft choices — reversed course and dealt away no less than seven draft picks to the Spitfires in separate deals for overage forward Oliver Peer and overage defenseman Roberto Mancini. Peer, without question, is an impact player as a pure goal scorer.
Flint has managed to hold on to the eight ball for most of the season to date but Sarnia and Windsor are within close range. And it is indeed a toss up as to which one of the Firebirds, Sting or Spitfires will make it into the post season while all three are building for next season and beyond.
As for Bowler, the Windsor GM perfectly timed a number of trade deadline transactions in which he acquired future assets while at the same time moving out the Spitfires three overage players to acquire three new ones, one at each position — goalie Max Donoso from the Ottawa 67’s, defenseman Djibril Toure from the Sudbury Wolves and forward Pasquale Zito from the North Bay Battalion.
Prior to the trade, Zito had not played any hockey this season. But in his first game after being acquired by the Spitfires, Zito had a five-point outing as Windsor scored a wild 11-7 win over Sudbury.
Donoso, who was acquired by Windsor off waivers from Ottawa — the 67’s were one over the overage limit — quite possibly gives the Spitfires an advantage over both Flint and Sarnia when it comes to veteran goal-tending and the pursuit of a playoff spot. A local Windsor product, Donoso won 34 games — regular season and playoffs included — for the 67’s in 2022-2023.
As a team, the Spitfires sputtered to begin this season and with a 4-16-1 record through 21 games, first-year head coach Jerrod Smith was fired and Casey Torres was promoted from assistant coach to interim bench boss. The Spitfires have since gone 9-6-1 with Torres at the helm.