It’s that time of the year again. Over the course of the next two months I’ll be looking back to see where I went wrong in my pre-season predictions and what teams I had on the money in the OHL, QMJHL and WHL. Along with that, I’ll also be making my playoff predictions as well for each round.
Without further delay, let’s get things started with the OHL and showcasing the four teams that won’t make the playoffs, including one that will be heading to a new location come next city.
Sudbury Wolves (12-54-1-1 – 5th in Central Division/10th in Eastern Conference – Eliminated on February 18th)
What I Predicted: There’s a couple of decent players here, but there is not a lot to be desired, and I expect the Wolves to be at the bottom of the league standings
What Actually Happened: Not only was Sudbury the worst team in the OHL, but they ended up having the worst record in the entire Canadian Hockey League. At least we got that Paul Fixter rant.
What Lies Ahead: The Wolves have the number one overall pick in the draft and it seems like a fairly wide open class with Owen Tippett and David Levin among the top choices. Despite a couple of good pieces to build around in Matt Schmalz and Kyle Capobianco, it may be another long season ahead in Sudbury.
Windsor Spitfires (24-40-2-2 – 5th in West Division/10th in Western Conference – Eliminated on March 15th)
What I Predicted: I’m not quite convinced on the defence, but I really like the forwards Windsor has, and they are my sleeper pick in the Western Conference.
What Actually Happened: Well they traded Josh Ho-Sang away for starters, so that kind of messed with my predictions for a great forward core. An 11-game losing streak to end the season proved to be far more damaging.
What Lies Ahead: I still like the forwards here, especially Logan Brown, and 63-point defenceman Trevor Murphy could be a huge asset at the trade deadline next January. The rest of the back-end and the goaltending do have question marks still, and they will need to improve that if they hope to win a playoff game for the first time since 2011.
Plymouth Whalers (23-38-5-2 – 4th in West Division/9th in Western Conference – Eliminated on March 15th)
What I Predicted: Following a slight blip last season, the Whalers should return to form this year.
What Actually Happened: Not only did Plymouth fail to come close from being the Soo Greyhounds’ biggest threat, they missed the playoffs for the first time in 23 years. The only other time they missed was their first season as a franchise in 1990-91 as the Detroit Compuware Ambassadors.
What Lies Ahead: The Whalers are moving to Flint to become the Firebirds and will have a brand new look in the management and coaching staff. With Sonny Milano, Alex Peters, Josh Wesley and Alex Nedeljkovic all coming back, not to mention a high-end draft pick, they should return to the playoffs.
Mississauga Steelheads (25-40-2-1 – 4th in Central Division/9th in Eastern Conference – Eliminated on March 19th)
What I Predicted: Every year I bet against Mississauga making the playoffs, and they end up getting there, so I’ve decided to stop picking against them this season.
What Actually Happened: They actually missed the playoffs this time around. They went all-in by getting Jimmy Lodge in a trade from Saginaw but the season ending knee-injury of goalie Spencer Martin ended up costing them in the end.
What Lies Ahead: For starters, I would be surprised if James Boyd is brought back, so I expect that there will be a new coach behind the bench. Michael McLeod and Sean Day will be the building blocks to build around and the Steelheads might be back in the post-season, but I doubt they will be a high seed.
The biggest storyline heading in the OHL playoffs if of course the impending end of the Belleville Bulls franchise. It was announced out of nowhere on March 12 that the Bulls had been sold and would be moving to Hamilton to become the Bulldogs.
I’ll save my thoughts over how this deal was done and the fact that junior hockey in Hamilton hasn’t really worked another day. Instead I’ll bid a fond farewell to a franchise that I’ve always considered to be one of the most well-run in the Eastern Conference. Those teams in 2008 and 2009 were sublime and they were a game away from playing London for the title in 2013. Those teams, and players like Mike Murphy, PK Subban and Luke Judson (who I got to know while working in Fort Frances), will be my lasting memories of the club.
And of course, there’s Jack Miller, my second favourite announcer in all of junior hockey behind the London Knights’ Mike Stubbs. While Stubbs’ style is like throwing a hair dryer in a hot tub, Miller has the stylings of a master jazz musician who hits the right notes at the right moments. He will still be involved in the TSN Radio’s World Junior broadcasts, but the fact that he won’t be doing any more OHL games is an absolute crime.
OHL Eastern Conference Predictions
1) Oshawa Generals vs. 8) Peterborough Petes: Oshawa in four (This one won’t be close. While it’s good for the Petes to make it back to the playoffs again, the Generals are way to strong for them to pull off another massive upset.)
2) Barrie Colts vs. 7) Belleville Bulls: Barrie in five (Obviously I’m rooting for Belleville here in this one, but they don’t have the firepower to matchup with the Colts on offence. Here’s hoping that the fans at the Yardmen Arena will get one more victory before the Bulls leave town for good.)
3) North Bay Battalion vs. 6) Kingston Frontenacs: Kingston in 6 (Ever since Sam Bennett returned to Kingston after being injured at Calgary Flames training camp, the Frontenacs have been on fire. Now North Bay is the defending conference champions and they are a very good team, but Kingston’s offence has been sublime over the last month. I’ll probably regret this, but I have Kingston advancing to the second round for the first time since 1998.)
4) Ottawa 67’s vs. 5) Niagara IceDogs: Niagara in five (Back in September, I had Niagara as the runaway favourite in the Eastern Conference while Ottawa would be fighting it out to just make the playoffs. As you can see, I was way off the mark. When it comes to this series, I think Niagara has too many offensive weapons for Ottawa to try and slow down.)
OHL Western Conference Predictions
1) Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds vs. 8) Saginaw Spirit: Sault Ste. Marie in four (If Jake Paterson was still in Saginaw I would be slightly worried that he could steal a few games from the Greyhounds. Since he’s now in Kitchener, the Greyhounds should have little trouble with the Spirit in the opening round. As a huge Greyhounds fan, I have now doomed them to a six game upset loss I’m sure.)
2) Erie Otters vs. 7) Sarnia Sting: Erie in 5 (McJesus and Co. should have no problems at all in their opening round series. The only reason why I don’t have this as a sweep? Erie tends to have one odd game in a span where they lose to a team they shouldn’t, and Pavel Zacha might bust out a hat-trick when you least expect it.)
3) London Knights vs. 6) Kitchener Rangers: London in five (I’m still surprised Sportsnet is showing the Oshawa and Peterborough series over this one, but I digress. Jake Paterson might steal a game or two, but I expect Kitchener’s defence will have a tough time trying to stop Max Domi, Christian Dvorak and Mitchell Marner.)
4) Guelph Storm vs. 5) Owen Sound Attack: Guelph in 6 (This one can go either way, but I think Guelph’s run to the Memorial Cup final last year will be a key factor in helping them advance to the next round. Plus, the question marks around Attack defenceman Chris Bigras’ health can’t be a good sign.)
Our next stop is the QMJHL, where only two teams missed out on the playoffs.
Acadie-Bathurst Titan (17-43-6-2 – 6th in Maritimes Division/18th in QMJHL – Eliminated on March 2nd)
What I Predicted: For a team that doesn’t have a whole lot to begin with, there is still isn’t a whole lot here.
What Actually Happened: The lack of overall depth had me peg this team to be at the bottom of the QMJHL standings and that’s where they ended up. They weren’t Sudbury bad, but they did struggle on their way to being in the basement.
What Lies Ahead: The QMJHL draft lottery is in April so we won’t know if Acadie-Bathurst will have the number one pick, which is expected to be Shane Bowers (unless Joseph Veleno gets exceptional status, but that’s another story for another day). At the moment, the Titan do have some nice young pieces to build around with forward Jordan Maher and defenceman Guillaume Brisebois leading the way, so a return to the playoffs might not be far off.
Drummondville Voltigeurs (26-38-1-3 – 6th in West Division/17th in QMJHL – Eliminated on March 13th)
What I Predicted: The squad is fairly young on both forward and defence, but they have two 1995-born goalies who had strong seasons a year ago. If the duo of Joe Fleschler and Louis-Philip Guindon match their performances from last season, they might have a strong season.
What Actually Happened: Fleschler’s numbers much worse, Guindon got dealt to Rimouski and Anthony Brodeur was brought in after Christmas. That and a number of other trades resulted in a late-season slide in the standings and caused Drummondville to miss the playoffs.
What Lies Ahead: Drummondville’s draft pick ended up in Saint John so they won’t be involved in the draft lottery, (Saint John got the pick from Cape Breton at the trade deadline for captain Olivier LeBlanc. The Screaming Eagles got that pick from the Voltigeurs for William Carrier last year.) so that’s not good for the rebuilding process. They have two exciting forwards in Joey Ratelle and Alex Barre- Boulet, but it might be another tough season in Drummondville next winter.
The most intriguing player in the entire QMJHL playoffs might be Quebec Remparts netminder Zach Fucale, who will sadly not be rocking this awesome looking tuque.
After winning the Memorial Cup with Halifax in 2013 and becoming a second round pick by Montreal in the NHL Entry Draft, Fucale’s had a rough time over the last 12 months. Sure, he did win the gold medal for Canada at the World Juniors, but he lost his starting job in last year’s QMJHL semi-finals and his numbers so far with Quebec (an 8-8 record and a 3.22 GAA) leave a lot to be desired.
As the Memorial Cup hosts, a lot is expected of Quebec in the playoffs. But if Fucale continues to be just average, things might get ugly unless Callum Booth takes things over in a big way.
QMJHL Playoffs Predictions
1) Rimouski Oceanic vs. 16) Victoriaville Tigres: Rimouski in four (For me, the Oceanic are the class of the QMJHL and they should have no problem at all in their opening round series.)
2) Moncton Wildcats vs. 15) Chicoutimi Sagueneens: Moncton in five (The Wildcats have the top scorer in the league in Conor Garland and Russian hero Ivan Barbashev on their roster. That should be more than enough for them to get the win.)
3) Blainville-Boisbriand Armada vs. 14) Gatineau Olympiques: Blainville-Boisbriand in five (I still have no idea how the Armada are pulling this off. Either way, they should move to the second round with ease, even though Gatineau has won 13 of their last 16 games heading into the playoffs.)
4) Quebec Remparts vs. 13) Cape Breton Screaming Eagles: Quebec in five (As much I’m hemming and hawing over Fucale’s play, and despite the fact that Cape Breton has two draft eligible Russian forwards in Maxim Lazarev and Evgeni Svechnikov, the Remparts are too good to not advance to the second round.)
5) Shawinigan Cataractes vs. 12) Halifax Mooseheads: Halifax in 6 (Now I know this isn’t the Mooseheads of the last couple of years, and Shawinigan does have a pretty good lineup that’s headlined by 94-point draft eligible centre Anthony Beauvillier. However, I saw Nikolaj Ehlers carry Denmark into the World Junior playoffs so who says lightning can’t strike twice. Okay, Olivier Bjorkstrand helped him out as well but still.)
6) Val-d’Or Foreurs vs. 11) Rouyn-Noranda Huskies: Val-d’Or in five (It’s a shame this isn’t being broadcast on Sportsnet because this might be a really fun series. In the end, the experience of winning the QMJHL title a year ago should help the Foreurs in this one, though I’m starting to think this might go the distance.)
7) Baie-Comeau Drakkar vs. 10) Saint John Sea Dogs: Saint John in six (The Sea Dogs had a bit of slide in the later part of the year but I think they should be able to come out on top with a mild upset in this one.)
8) Sherbrooke Phoenix vs. 9) Charlottetown Islanders: Sherbrooke in six (A Daniel Audette vs. Daniel Sprong matchup in the playoffs? Just take my money already. Mason McDonald may steal a game or two, but the Phoenix have too many offensive weapons for the Islanders to try and stop.)
Our last stop on our CHL playoff preview train is the WHL, where six teams will not be heading to the post-season.
Saskatoon Blades (19-49-2-2 – 6th in East Division/12th in Eastern Conference – Eliminated on February 27th)
What I Predicted: With the team already putting Nikita Scherbak on the market and bringing in Alex Forsberg and Ty Mappin as reclamation projects, that should show you where the Blades will end up this year.
What Actually Happened: Scherbak was dealt to Everett only four days into the season, while Mappin ended up back in the AJHL with the Olds Grizzlys. The Forsberg move worked out as he had a good season (a career best 58 points) and was dealt to Victoria for a first round pick in 2017 at the deadline, but it was a long season yet again for the Blades.
What Lies Ahead: For the second year in a row, a first round pick that the Blades traded ended up in with another team, and the Spokane Chiefs will have a chance to take the top prospect in the draft (more than likely Ty Smith) with the first overall pick. Brycen Martin’s the lone high-end guy on the team at the moment, so it might get worse yet before things recover from the hot mess that was the 2013 Memorial Cup hosting experience.
Lethbridge Hurricanes (20-44-5-3 – 6th in Central Division/11th in Eastern Conference – Eliminated on March 4th)
What I Predicted: I don’t think things will be as bad as last season, but with Macoy Erkamps wanting out, and Reid Duke visiting a USHL camp before reporting to Lethbridge, it’s going to be another long winter for the Hurricanes.
What Actually Happened: Duke and Erkamps were both traded to Brandon in yet another fleecing by the Wheat Kings on the Hurricanes, and both Drake Berehowsky and Brad Robson were let go of their head coach and general manager duties in early December. With that said, the Hurricanes were better in the second half and weren’t getting blown out of the water like they were a year ago, so there was some progress.
What Lies Ahead: The ownership situation remains the hot button topic and probably won’t be resolved until late in the summer. On the ice, goaltender Stuart Skinner was a star in his rookie year with the club and his future looks bright. Leading scorer Tyler Wong will probably be dealt at next year’s deadline but some good young players might put this team in the mix to contend for a wild card in 2016. Now if only they can sign last year’s second overall pick Jordy Bellerive.
Vancouver Giants (27-41-2-2 – 5th in BC Division/10th in Western Conference – Eliminated on March 20th)
What I Predicted: I don’t think they have the depth of Victoria or Kelowna, but the Giants have a pretty exciting lineup besides Benson, and they will be looking to impress all year long as they try to upend Red Deer’s bid of hosting the Memorial Cup in 2016
What Actually Happened: Troy Ward got canned in favour of Claude Noel in November, the Giants didn’t win the bid for the 2016 Memorial Cup and they lost 11 of their last 12 regular season games to miss the playoffs.
What Lies Ahead: The Giants announced on Wednesday that Noel would not be coming back so the club is now looking for its fourth head coach in the last three seasons. The team is going to be built around sophomore forward Tyler Benson, so their might be a shake-up of the current roster to give him more high-end pieces to play with.
Kamloops Blazers (28-37-4-3 – 4th in BC Division/9th in Western Conference – Eliminated on March 21st)
What I Predicted: Legendary coach Don Hay is back with the Blazers, but I’m not expecting them to be back in the playoff mix quite yet.
What Actually Happened: The Blazers were in it right until the end, but a loss to the Prince George Cougars on March 20th proved to be their undoing. That and only winning eight games on the road all season.
What Lies Ahead: Prior to the season, I expected NHL prospects Cole Ully and Ryan Rehill to be traded to help with the rebuild in Kamloops. That didn’t happen and that may prove to be a missed opportunity if both turn pro and no assets were gained. With that said, there are some nice young forwards on the roster like Deven Sideroff and Jake Kryski, and the Blazers have a solid starter in goal in Connor Ingram that might help them return to the playoffs next year.
Prince Albert Raiders (31-37-2-2 – 5th in East Division/10th in Eastern Conference – Eliminated on March 14th)
What I Predicted: Even with Leon Draisaitl more than likely not coming back to Prince Albert, the Raiders will still be a playoff team in my opinion.
What Actually Happened: Well that didn’t happen at all did it. Cory Clouston got fired in October, Draisaitl (who played in Edmonton for the first half of the season) and Josh Morrissey were both dealt to Kelowna and they weren’t able to overcome a slow start to get into the playoffs.
What Lies Ahead: The overall depth isn’t the greatest, but if Reid Gardiner has another strong season and Nick McBride improves in goal, the Raiders might sneak into the wild card discussion next year. They won’t challenge Brandon by any means for the division crowd, but things won’t be too bad.
Moose Jaw Warriors (32-35-4-1 – 4th in East Division/9th in Eastern Conference – Eliminated on March 21st)
What I Predicted: I went back and forth between the Warriors and the Pats over who will finish in fourth place in the final standings, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s Moose Jaw that ends up making the post-season as a wild card team when March rolls around.
What Actually Happened: Well I wasn’t right on Regina, but Moose Jaw ended up getting fourth and just missed out on making the playoffs after Swift Current went on a late season slide. A number of close losses over the last couple of months will leave the Warriors wondering what might have been.
What Lies Ahead: With a talented young goaltending duo in Zach Sawchenko and Brody Wilms, and Brayden Point leading the way up front, the Warriors should again be in the mix to make the playoffs. However, if it looks like they will miss the post-season for a fourth straight year, Point will become the biggest piece on the trade market in the WHL during the 2016 trade deadline.
It’s not often that the loss of a rookie forward is considered a game-changer for the WHL playoffs, but Sam Steel is not your ordinary first year player.
Steel, the second overall pick in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft behind Vancouver’s Tyler Benson, is expected to miss the entire playoffs with an ankle injury that he suffered on March 10th against Prince Albert and will be a much missed weapon for the Pats as they look to win a playoff series for the first time since 2007.
After the Pats made a number of trades at this year’s deadline, the squad is now built around the 16-year-old centre, who had 54 points in 61 games this season.
With so much of the team going through Steel already, it’s disappointing that he won’t be involved in the post-season, but I figure this will give him extra motivation to be even better come next year. For the rest of the WHL, that’s not something they will want to hear.
WHL East Division Predictions
1) Brandon Wheat Kings vs. Wild Card 2) Edmonton Oil Kings: Brandon in five (Tristan Jarry might steal a game, but the Wheat Kings have way too much for the defending Memorial Cup champions to handle.)
2) Regina Pats vs. 3) Swift Current Broncos: Regina in six (The Pats are a much different looking squad than they were two months ago and the Broncos stumbled big-time down the stretch. Given Swift Current’s struggles in form, I expect Regina to come out on top in a competitive series.)
WHL Central Division Predictions
1) Calgary Hitmen vs. Wild Card 1) Kootenay Ice: Calgary in five (The Ice stunned the Hitmen last year in the first round but I don’t see another upset happening this year. Calgary’s been on fire over the last few weeks and I don’t think Kootenay can matchup with them, even with Sam Reinhart on their roster.)
2) Medicine Hat Tigers vs. 3) Red Deer Rebels: Red Deer in seven (This might be my favourite matchup in the entire first round of the CHL as both teams were dead even with Calgary for the division title. I’ve hemmed and hawed over this one, but I decided to go with Red Deer as they look to build some momentum for the 2016 Memorial Cup that they will host.)
WHL BC Division Predictions
1) Kelowna Rockets vs. Wild Card 2) Tri-City Americans: Kelowna in 5 (This one is similar to the Brandon and Edmonton series. Eric Comrie might steal a game for Tri-City, but Kelowna will probably run over the squad with their depth.)
2) Victoria Royals vs. 3) Prince George Cougars: Victoria in six (The Cougars have played great over the last few weeks and the CN Centre will be rocking. However, I think the Cougars have just enough to pull out the series win.)
WHL US Division Predictions
1) Everett Silvertips vs. Wild Card 1) Spokane Chiefs: Everett in four (I still have no idea what to make of either of these teams, but I think Everett is far stronger than Spokane in this matchup.)
2) Portland Winterhawks vs. 3) Seattle Thunderbirds: Portland in six (With both teams having high-end forwards this might be a really good series. Olivier Bjorkstrand has been a man possessed after the World Juniors though, and I think that might be the difference.)
Well that wraps things up. Here’s hoping the opening round of the playoffs in all three leagues have some wild upsets and triple overtime thrillers.