By Tom Hunter (@PuckDontLie)

While the focus of most hockey fans is on the World Cup this week, it is not the only game in town. On Wednesday night, the OHL regular season kicks off with London and Sarnia squaring off in what could very well end up being a preview of the Western Conference Final.

Many of the league’s top players will still be at their NHL training camps, but when the dust settles, this season promises to be a great one. With the way the OHL has dominated the past few NHL drafts, the talent level id going to be one that is unrivaled in junior hockey, even with the likely loss of last year’s top players.

The Memorial Cup is back in Ontario – where it belongs – this season. Windsor will be looking to build a team with the ability to win on home ice, and the rest of the league will be hoping to keep up.

Along with my preview, I have gathered the opinion of four people who all have a great knowledge of the OHL and a passion for junior hockey. Below is our OHL season preview, but first I want to sincerely thank Jon (@YakovMironov), Kathryn (@msconduct), Adam (@adam_laskaris) and the one and only @ElSeldo for helping out.

East Division

Last season, Kingston ran away with the East.  The Frontenacs won the division by 22 points thanks to Oshawa rebuilding after a Memorial Cup win, Ottawa taking a step back to take two steps forward and Peterborough and Hamilton just not being very good.

The division is still likely Kingston’s to lose – especially if Lawson Crouse is returned from Arizona. With that said, each of the other four teams should be markedly improved. If anyone is going to pull off the upset, it will likely be Ottawa who will be led by second-year forward Austen Keating, and are said to be the favourite to land Montreal Canadien’s prospect Will Bitten – who is currently holding out in Flint.

Predictions:

Tom: Kingston

Jon: Kingston

Kathryn: Ottawa

El Seldo: Oshawa

Adam: Kingston

Central Division

The Mississauga Steelheads should win this division by default. Even with the loss of Alex Nylander, the team should be improved from last year simply because their key players are a year older. With New Jersey Devils prospects Mikey McLeod and Nathan Bastian being complemented by second-year forwards Owen Tippett and Ryan McLeod, Mississauga should be an exciting team to watch.

Goaltending and secondary scoring are both concerns for the Steelheads – but luckily the team has an incredible group on the blueline that will likely make up for both. The defense will be led by Nic Hague, who is a likely top-15 pick in next year’s NHL entry draft and Vili Saalijarvi who has the potential to be the league’s best defenseman. Add in Swedish import Jacob Moverare and they’ve got the pieces to be the top back-end in the OHL this season.

Barrie, North Bay and Niagara are due for a step back this season thanks to the graduation of a number of key players. Add to that the fact that Sudbury is Sudbury and you’ve got a division that could be out of reach by the start of the new year.

Predictions: We all chose Mississauga

Midwest Divison

The Midwest was the home of the two (maybe three) best teams in the OHL last season. On the backs of Dylan Strome, Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak, Erie and London pulled away from Kitchener in January, each finishing with an amazing 105 points. This season, both the Otters and Knights should take a step back – but don’t expect them to fade from the top of the standings. Of course, this could all change if either Strome or Marner are returned to their junior teams following the World Juniors – however unlikely that situation is.

While they are likely set to lose the best two players in the OHL last season, London is still considered the favourite to win the division. Matthew Tkachuk and Max Jones will look to take a leadership role, while Cliff Pu will be relied upon to fill a large part of the offensive void left by Marner and Dvorak

Kitchener will make a strong push to be the best of the group this season, as Adam Mascherin and Jeremy Bracco should both be near the top of the OHL scoring race. The addition of German rookie Cedric Schiemenz should help temper the loss of last season’s scoring leader Ryan MacInnis.

Expect this season to be a lot more competitive among all five teams as last year’s bottom-feeders Guelph look to make a huge jump thanks to a revamped lineup that includes 2016 first overall selection, Ryan Merkley.

Predictions:

Tom: Kitchener

Jon: London

Kathryn: London

El Seldo: London

Adam: London

West Division

As exciting and competitive as the Midwest was last season, this year will be all about the West Division. With Windsor hosting the 2017 Memorial Cup, it should be assumed that they are going to be going all-in this season in an attempt to build a juggernaut with the ability to win on home ice.

It’s possible that when the season is over, Windsor could have the league’s best forward (Logan Brown), best defenseman (Mikhail Sergachev) and top draft eligible player (Gabriel Vilardi) – and that doesn’t even include last year’s leading scorer Christian Fischer.

With that said, if Sarnia gets Travis Konecny and Jakob Chychrun back from their NHL teams, the Sting might actually be the best team in the division. There is even the small chance that Pavel Zacha will be returned from New Jersey this season, and it that’s the case, Sarnia could be an offensive power the way London was last season.

The team that can’t be forgotten in all of this is Sault Ste Marie. With Katchouk, Speers, Senyshyn, Kopaka, Gettinger, Howel, Frost and Makinen, the Greyhounds might have the deepest forward group in the league.

With Saginaw being average and Flint being very, very bad, this division should be a three horse race that will likely mimic what we saw from London, Erie and Kitchener last season.

Predictions:

Tom: Sarnia

Jon: Windsor

Kathryn: Windsor

El Seldo: Windsor

Adam: Sarnia

Most Outstanding Player

This is an award that will rely heavily on who is sent back from the NHL. If any of Mitch Marner, Dylan Strome or Pavel Zacha are back this season, they instantly become the favourite.

The winner of this award usually ends up being one of the best players on a top team in the league – each of Sarnia, London and Windsor have multiple candidates. Post-draft guys like Will Bitten, Zach Senyshyn, Mikey McLeod and Lawson Crouse should not be ruled out when considering contenders for this award.

Predictions:

Tom: Logan Brown (Windsor)

Jon: Jakub Chychrun (Sarnia)

Kathryn: Travis Konecny (Sarnia)

El Seldo: Mitch Marner (London)

Adam: Dylan Strome (Erie)

Top Goaltender

A lot of people will look at Tyler Parson’s numbers from last season and put him at the top of the list for the best goalie in the league – especially with the team that is playing in front of him. While he might be favourite among fans, many around the OHL believe this is the season that Joseph Raaymakers takes a huge step in his development in The Soo.

The 37th overall selection from two seasons ago has the skill to take a huge leap this year and get noticed as an overager for next June’s draft.

Predictions:

Tom: Jeremy Helvig (Kingston)

Jon: Joseph Raaymakers (Sault Ste. Marie)

Kathryn: Michael DiPietro (Windsor)

El Seldo: Tyler Parsons (London)

Adam: Tyler Parsons (London)

Best Defenseman

The top end of the 2016 NHL draft saw a number of high-end defenders come out of the OHL. Each of Mikhail Sergachev, Olli Juolevi and Jakob Chychrun, have the potential to be absolutely dominant this season – in a year that will almost certainly be their last in junior hockey.

Oshawa’s Mitch Vande Somple and former Flint Firebird Vili Saarijarvi are likely to up up a ton of points this season and being some older than most of the league, they are at a point in their development where they can – and should – dominate this season.

In addition to the older players, draft eligible defensemen Nic Hague in Mississauga and Jacob Paquette have the talent to put themselves in the conversation for the league’s top defender award.

Predictions:

Tom: Vili Saarijarvi (Mississauga)

Jon: Jakob Chychrun (Sarnia)

Kathryn: Mikhail Sergachev (Windsor)

El Sledo: Nic Hague (Mississauga)

Adam: Jakob Chychrun (Sarnia)

Rookie of the Year

When talking about the to rookies in the CHL, it’s never a bad thing to look towards players selected in last year’s import draft. Usually, players come over to North America older that most domestic rookie and as a result they have the ability to make a bigger impact on their team right away. The perfect example of this is the way that Linus Nyman dominated the preseason for Kingston. The young Finn had four points in only 10 games and looks to be a big impact for the Frontenacs this season.

That’s not to say we should rule out any of the younger contenders. This year’s first overall pick in the OHL Priority draft, Ryan Merkley will step right into a Guelph Storm lineup that needs a lot of help on the blueline. The 16-year old defenseman has the talent to put up some impressive production numbers this season and shouldn’t definitely be in the discussion for top rookie. Others like Niagara’s Akil Thomas, London’s Alex Forementon, Ty Dallandrea from Flint and Nathan Dunkley in Kingston.

Danil Antropov is a player to watch. He was selected in the first round by the Oshawa Generals and is creating a lot of buzz – not just because of his last name. He is a player that came a long way very quickly last year and could eventually end up being the best player from his OHL draft class. What might hold him back from being the league’s best rookie is the fact that he is very young. Antropov doesn’t turn 15 until the end of December and while he should develop quickly, he’ll be playing against players that are 4+ years older than him.

Predictions:

Tom: Alex Forementon (London)

Jon: Linus Nyman (Kingston)

Kathryn: Danil Antropov (Oshawa)

El Seldo: Akil Thomas (Niagara)

Adam: Danil Antropov (Oshawa)

Scoring Leader

When it comes to the scoring race in junior hockey, you don’t necessarily look to the best player in the league. Due to NHL training camps and the World Junior Championship, the OHL’s best players will miss some significant time – hurting their point totals.

This happened last season, while guys like Marner, Strome, Tkachuk and Dvorak put up huge per game numbers, Barrie’s Kevin Lebanc ended up winning the scoring title thanks to more games played.

Predictions:

Tom: Blake Speers (Sault Ste Marie)

Jon: Alex Debrincat (Erie)

Kathryn: Adam Mascherin (Kitchener)

El Seldo: Matthew Tkachuk (London)

Adam: Alex Debrincat (Erie)

Best Draft Eligible Player

While the OHL has it’s following, there are many who only pay attention to junior hockey in order to keep tabs on NHL prospects. Scouting services and NHL fans will have their eyes on different players than many OHL fans will.

When it comes to recent NHL drafts, the OHL has been head and shoulders above the other junior leagues. This year promises to be the same. While the top two draft prospects are from Western Canada and Sweden, there are a number of OHLers who will be drafted in the first round and a couple that could crack the top-5.

Predictions:

Tom: Nicolas Hague (Mississauga)

Jon: Owen Tippett (Mississauga)

Kathryn: Gabriel Vilardi (Windsor)

El Seldo: Matthew Strome (Hamilton)

Adam: Gabriel Vilardi (Windsor)

Breakout Player

This is the player who we believe will have a season that turns them into a well-known name in the hockey world. Last year we saw guys like Olli Juolevi, Christian Fischer and Michael McLeod take a huge step in their development – a step that pushed them towards being household names among hockey fans.

Sometimes it’s a rookie, sometimes it’s draft eligible players, but more often than not it’s a guy who is a later round NHL draft pick that turns from a good player into a junior hockey star.

Predictions:

Tom: Jordan Kyrou (Sarnia)

Jon: Danil Antropov (Oshawa)

Kathryn: Logan Brown (Windsor)

El Seldo: Danil Antropov (Oshawa)

Adam: Max Jones (London)

 

 

 

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