You’ll be very hard pressed to find a better group of talent in the Canadian Hockey League as you will in the OHL’s Western Conference this season. Forget about the Western Conference, however, and just look at the West Division alone and you’ll find a remarkable collection of talent that could keep a scout busy for an entire season.
The West Division, featuring: the Plymouth Whalers, Saginaw Spirit, Sarnia Sting, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, and Windsor Spitfires, is a division that is already captivating the attention of fans not only from the OHL, but from across Canada and the United States. And for good reason. In a division that features 26 NHL draft picks and counting, including 6 first-round NHL picks, some of the CHL’s top talent will battle it out in the West division over the course of the 2011/12 OHL season. Did I forget to mention that the division also features a few guys named Alexander Galchenyuk, Nail Yakupov, oh and, Nick Ebert.
Leading the way in terms of NHL picks are the Plymouth Whalers, who feature an impressive stable of young players. The forwards are led by a trio of 2011 NHL first rounders with newly committed JT Miller accompanying Ottawa first-round pick Stefan Noesen and Anaheim first-rounder Rickard Rakell. Garrett Meurs was also a 5th rounder in 2011 to Colorado after a bit of a disappointing sophomore season. Carolina 3rd rounder Austin Levi looks to take aim at the US World Junior team this season, while Scott Wedgewood (’10 3rd, NJD) and Matt Mahalak (’11, 6th, CAR) will be arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league. Plymouth’s roster features Tom Wilson and Max Iafrate who are both draft eligible in 2012 and could be mid-round selections with strong seasons.While Plymouth may have more NHL picks now, the team everyone is looking for is the Sarnia Sting. Fresh off the commitment of Connor Murphy, the Sting also appear to be very close to signing 2011 New Jersey 4th-rounder Reid Boucher. After a flurry of off-season activity, it appears that Jacques Beaulieu is piecing together what could be one of the highest scoring teams in the CHL this season. Alexander Galchenyuk and Nail Yakupov are both coming off sensational rookie seasons and are both aiming to be the first player selected in next June’s NHL Entry Draft, and they’ll have a ton of fire-power up front to support them. Brett Ritchie was a 2nd rounder last June and the team has made some moves to acquire other valuable OHL forwards such as Taylor Carnevale and Ryan Kujiwinski, who was the 4th overall pick in the 2011 OHL Priority Selection. Lost in translation could be Swedish forward Ludvig Rensfeldt, who was picked 49th overall by the ting in the import draft. He was taken by the Blackhawks with the 35th pick in last year’s NHL draft and could be yet another high impact forward for the team if he decides to leave Brynas as some are speculating. There’s that Anthony DeAngelo kid they got too. Somehow I don’t think a shortage of talent will be an issue in the Imperial City.
The Saginaw Spirit were another team to bolster their ranks through NCAA additions, getting prized defenseman Jamie Oleksiak to commit to the Spirit for the upcoming season. Oleksiak’s departure from Northeastern came after his previous head coach, Jim Madigan, jumped ship to the Toronto Maple Leafs as an assistant coach. Oleksiak joins a very talented team that features the likes of John McFarland, Brandon Saad, Vincent Trocheck, Brandon Archibald, and Anthony Camara. Josh Shalla, who was selected in the 4th round after his third time being draft-eligible, could also be a potential overage candidate if he doesn’t stick in professional hockey. The Spirit’s prized 2012 prospect will be netminder Jake Paterson, who is arguably the top 94 goalie in the OHL and could be among the top goaltending prospects for the 2012 draft.
In a division that features 26 NHL draft picks and counting, including 6 first-round NHL picks, some of the CHL’s top talent will battle it out in the West division over the course of the 2011/12 OHL season.
Rounding out the division is the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and Windsor Spitfires, who are both very talented clubs in their own right. The Spitfires are a bit of a work in progress after several years of dominance and could rebuild their team if the right offers come along this season. More will be expected from Jack Campbell in his second OHL season and he could be a prized piece to be moved at the deadline. 39-goal scorer Tom Kuhnhackl returns for another season as well and could be a 50-goal threat if all goes well this season. Alexander Khokhlachev is one of the most dynamic players in the league and should also be a very dangerous player to watch this season. The Spits also have a trove of young talent on the team and 17-year-old defenseman Nick Ebert headlines the crop of youth. After a very impressive 41-point rookie season, Ebert is poised for a Top-10 selection in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.The Greyhounds are continuing a rebuild after a disappointing season a year ago, but the pieces are in place to make a splash next season. With a roster full of returnees, GM Kyle Dubas is hoping that many of his players are able to take the next step as they continue to mature. He’ll need his stars to lead the way and there will be high expectations for former OHL 1st overall pick Daniel Catenacci and fellow 18-year-old center Nick Cousins. The pair of third round picks didn’t quite break out as much as we would have hoped last season but this could be the year for them. Ryan Sproul came out of nowhere to hear his name called in the 2nd round and he’ll be joined by Joe Rogalski on a new-look defense. The Greyhounds also feature two of the better young defensemen in the league with Gianluca Curcuruto who could be a Top-60 pick in 2012, and Darnell Nurse, who was the 3rd overall pick in the 2011 OHL Priority Selection and has all the physical tools to succeed. Goaltending could be a bit of a wildcard but Matt Murray did look good as a 16-year-old last season and should compete for not only the starting job in the Soo, but top goaltending prospect status in the OHL for 2012.
From top to bottom this division should be an absolute treat to watch this season. There is absolutely no shortage of high-end talent spread around these five-teams, and with some of the top prospects for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, that sentiment will continue into the future. Add in the fact that this division will receive even more attention with the decisions from JT Miller, Connor Murphy, Jamie Oleksiak, and potentially Reid Boucher to forgo their NCAA commitments, and you have a division that is a safe-bet to not disappoint during the upcoming season.