The Season Ahead: OHL

CHL junior hockey is ready to kick off its 2009-10 season as 60 teams from the OHL, WHL, and QMJHL get set to embark upon the road to the Memorial Cup. To give you a taste of what to expect along the way, I will be examining who to watch and what to look for within each of the OHL’s three leagues. Today, let’s check in with the OHL.

The Windsor Spitfires juggernaut enters the season having not missed a beat since winning the franchise’s first ever Memorial Cup last May. LW Taylor Hall, fresh off an MVP performance at the tournament, looks primed to succeed John Tavares as hockey’s Next Big Thing and is already being tabbed by some as a projected first over-all pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. He is backed by an impressive supporting cast that includes D Ryan Ellis, a 2009 first rounder (No. 11, Nashville Predators) and Max Kaminsky Trophy winner (OHL MVP). All in all, the Spitfires have 11 returnees, not a good sign for the rest of the league.

But that target on their back will not fade, especially with a number of talented teams chasing them.

The London Knights always seem to loom large among the OHL contenders, and this season is no different for the Spitfires’ Western Conference rivals. With Tavares off in Long Island, the big question with the 2008-09 conference finalists is the availability of Leafs No. 1 pick Nazem Kadri (7th over-all), who is turning heads among some of the big club executives. While it would be difficult to absorb the blow of losing Tavares and Kadri, the presence of forwards Phil Varone and Philip McRae, along with defencemen Michael Del Zotto and over-ager Steven Tarasuk would certainly be a nice cushion.

Switching over to the Eastern Conference, the Barrie Colts represent one of the few teams in the “O” who can match the firepower of Windsor. New acquisitions Luke Pither (from Belleville) and Alexander Burmistrov (Russian import) will lead a deep forward corps that returns 10 Colts from last season. Their season will come down to performance on the back end, with a shaky defence and a first-time starting goaltender in Peter Di Salvo.

The league’s three local squads – the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors, the Brampton Battalion, and the Oshawa Generals – are heading in a variety of different directions. The Majors are a team on the rise following their conference semifinal appearance last season. With a standout goaltending tandem of Chris Carrozzi and J.P. Anderson and defensive stalwart Cameron Gaunce, goals will be at a premium for opponents.

However, the Battalion and Generals seem to be going in the other direction. Fresh off a run to the OHL championship final, Brampton has been quickly thrust into a rebuilding phase after losing its top three scorers from last year – Matt Duchene (Colorado), Cody Hodgson (Vancouver), and Evgeny Grachev (New York Rangers). The Generals, meanwhile, are well into their rebuilding effort after getting younger in a hurry following their swap of Tavares and Del Zotto which netted them RW Christian Thomas, D Scott Valentine, G Michael Zador, and a slew of draft picks.

Aside from the championship contenders, there are a number of intriguing storylines to watch heading into the season.

–  The Kingston Frontenacs, led by head coach Doug Gilmour, looked primed to advance past the first round of the play-offs for the first time since the 1997-98 season.
–  A talented Ottawa 67’s team is set to reign in the post-Brian Kilrea era, led by a strong defensive unit that returns Tyler Cuma and Julien Demers.
–  Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds F Jordan Nolan, the team’s top scorer last year and the son of Ted Nolan, will open the season serving a 20-game suspension following an attack on R.J. Mahalak of the Plymouth Whalers late last year. In his absence, the Greyhounds will look for a boost from No. 1 over-all draft pick Daniel Catenacci.

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