We’re a week into the Canadian Hockey League playoffs as I post this and not only have we seen some great games, but we’re also saying farewell to several teams that were swept aside in the first round.
I didn’t end up doing a season preview post this year so I can’t make fun of my picks for this year’s run to the Memorial Cup, but I have decided to do a multi-part series where I look ahead at what we can expect from teams as they gear up for the 2017-18 season.
So, without further delay, let’s get started in the Ontario Hockey League.
Barrie Colts – 17-44-6-1 – 5th in Central Division – 10th in Eastern Conference
The Colts are missing the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history, with their previous experiencing of not taking part in the post-season dancing taking place back in 2011.
A league-worst finish back then turned into a massive positive for the Colts as they were able to draft Aaron Ekblad with the first overall pick in the draft. Fast-forward six years and they have a chance to do it again.
If they take the best player on the board in both the OHL Draft and CHL Import Draft, they will more than likely end up taking high-impact forwards Jack Hughes and Andrei Svechnikov, who will both improve the Colts big time. However, seeing that the team has had a few top picks not come to Barrie in recent years, what happens with those picks could be a big story line come draft day.
With all that said, the Colts do have an interesting core coming back. They will be returning a lot of younger guys on the defence, and the forwards aren’t bad with Lucas Chiodo returning as the leading scorer with 53 points. I think they stand a good chance to make a return to the playoffs next season, especially since they are in the Eastern Conference.
Guelph Storm – 21-40-5-2 – 5th in Midwest Division – 10th in Western Conference
After making the playoffs for 23 straight season, the Storm have now missed out on the post-season for the last two years and only had a slight improvement over what they accomplished last season.
A new general manager will be taking over the Storm when Mike Kelly steps down in May, but the pieces are here for the Storm to rebound in short order, especially with a high-end forward coming with the second pick in the OHL Draft and dynamite blueliner Ryan Merkley, who should probably end up being named the league’s rookie of the year in a few weeks.
With guys like Givani Smith, Isaac Ratcliffe, Nathan Schnarr and Liam Hawel, the forward depth for the Storm isn’t too bad. What happens on the back-end will be the key to any run at a playoff spot, especially on defence with a number of their prospects having gone to the NCAA route as of late.
North Bay Battalion – 24-38-4-2 – 4th in Central Division – 9th in Eastern Conference
Injuries played a key role in the Battalion missing out on the playoffs for not only the first time since they moved to North Bay in 2013 but since the franchise was in Brampton in 2002.
At the moment, this looks like a team that’s in the middle of the road when it comes to the league standings. If he doesn’t turn pro with the Vancouver Canucks, Brett McKenzie would be a nice addition as an overager to a forward group that that doesn’t have anyone returning that had over 40 points last season, although Adam McMaster could have a nice sophomore season.
If Cam Dineen is healthy, he’ll be a huge part of a defence that also features Adam Thilander and Brady Lyle, but the biggest hole is in goal as it remains to be seen who the Battalion will have as their starter come September.
Saginaw Spirit – 27-32-7-2 – 5th in West Division – 9th in Western Conference
This is the first time since 2005 that the Spirit have missed the playoffs and this appears to be a franchise in a bit of a crossroads stage, especially after trading guys like Mitchell Stephens and Tye Felhaber this season.
If NHL-drafted blueliners Keaton Middleton and Markus Niemelainen bounce back from disappointing campaigns and the younger talent, which is led by forward Brady Gilmour, continues to improve, there’s a good chance the Spirit will be back in the playoffs in the always strong Western Conference.
However, the team might need to do a better job of getting their higher-end picks to report, especially when they have yet to bring in highly-touted American prospects Blade Jenkins and Bode Wilde away from their commitments to Michigan and Harvard respectively.
Next up is the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, which featured the worst team in the entire Canadian Hockey League this season.
Moncton Wildcats – 14-51-2-1 – 6th in Maritime Division – 18th in League
Simply put, this was a bad team, especially after they traded away anything that could move and went on a near-league record 25-game losing streak after the trade deadline. At some point, the Wildcats were going to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008, the drop-off after making back-to-back semifinal appearances was staggering.
While there are some interesting pieces the team can build around, especially in forward Jeremy McKenna, this is still a super young team that will need to do well in the draft with the number of picks they have picked up to move back into the playoff discussion.
That could all change rapidly however if they win the QMJHL Draft Lottery in the coming weeks and have the first overall pick, which more than likely turn out to be forward Alexis Lafreniere, who destroyed the midget ranks for St-Eustache this past season.
Sherbrooke Phoenix – 26-38-1-3 – 6th in West Division – 17th In League
The Phoenix have yet to win a playoff series since joining the league in 2012 and now they have to deal with missing out on the post-season for the first time in three years.
There are some nice pieces to build around towards achieving that first ever trip to the quarter-final next year, especially with forwards Yaroslav Alexeyev and Anderson MacDonald, along with blueliners Thomas Gregoire and Luke Green.
The biggest question mark for me though is what happens with St. Louis Blues draft pick Evan Fitzpatrick, who might be in contention for a role with Canada’s World Junior team next winter in Buffalo. If the Phoenix get off to a bad start next season, I could see him being dealt to one of the top teams in the league that’s looking for a starting goalie.
Rounding things out is the Western Hockey League, where we begin with a club that may finally know where they will play for the next little while.
Kootenay Ice – 14-46-10-2 – 6th in Central Division – 12th in Eastern Conference
After a referendum on using public funds for a new arena in Nanaimo that could have seen the Ice move there was voted town, the Ice will be staying put in Cranbrook for the foreseeable future after a new ownership group bought the team earlier this week.
With that cloud seemingly moving on, the major focus will be on improving a team that’s finished last in the league for two straight years and only improved by two wins this season.
There is a huge light at the end of the tunnel though in highly-touted forward Peyton Krebs who will enter the league this fall. Perhaps Klim Kostin or Griffin Mendel will join him, but that might be asking for too much if you’re an Ice fan.
While Krebs’ arrival is a massive boon for the Ice, there’s still a long way to go when it comes to getting back into the playoffs. There’s some nice pieces with guys like Cale Fleury and Brett Davis, but there’s still a lot of holes on this roster that need to be filled, especially in goal as I haven’t a clue who the starter will be at this point.
Vancouver Giants – 20-46-3-3 – 5th in BC Division – 10th in Western Conference
The Giants have missed the playoffs for three straight years and in four of the last five seasons, but they are keeping coach Jason McKee around for a second campaign so that’s a good sign.
The sophomore campaign in Langley for the Giants will be an interesting one, especially if leading scorer Ty Ronning ends up turning pro as a member of the New York Rangers. James Malm and Tyler Popowich will be expect to lead the way on offence, while the defence will get a shot in the arm in top prospect Bowen Byram. The goaltending shouldn’t be too shabby as well with Ryan Kubic coming back as the starter and rookie Trent Miner possibly contending for the backup role.
With all of that said, all eyes will again be on Tyler Benson and if he can stay healthy for a full campaign. If the Giants are stuck in the same spot yet again, the Edmonton Oilers prospect could be the biggest piece on the market at next year’s trade deadline.
Prince Albert Raiders – 21-44-5-2 – 6th in East Division – 11th in Eastern Conference
After their surprising second place finish in the East Division a year ago, this was a team that was expect to be in the mix for the playoffs once again.
However, things went sideways for the Raiders early on, especially when overage forward Reid Gardiner joined the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL. The first half sell-off soon began with Brendan Guhle, Rylan Parenteau and eventually Gardiner (after he returned from the AHL) were all dealt elsewhere.
With all that said, the second half performance from the younger players on the team bodes well for the Raiders as they look to end the longest streak in the CHL (11 years) without a playoff series win. Forwards Parker Kelly and Cole Fonstad should have strong campaigns, along with defenceman Max Martin and draft-eligible netminder Ian Scott.
Plus, the Raiders won the rights to the top pick in the WHL Bantam Draft next month, where Brendan Guhle’s younger brother is the considered to be the best player on the board. However, he won’t be joining the league until the 2018-19 season.
Edmonton Oil Kings – 23-43-5-1 – 5th in Central Division – 10th in Eastern Conference
The rebuild if officially on in Edmonton for a hockey team other than the Oilers, as the Oil Kings sold off their veterans at the trade deadline and only won a handful of games on their way to missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
With Davis Koch (who quietly put together a nice 70-point season) and Trey Fix-Wolansky up front, the Oil Kings have a couple of nice weapons on offence, but their defence might be the backbone of the side next year with guys like Conner McDonald, Will Warm, Brayden Gorda and Ethan Cap being a solid base to build around.
The most intriguing part of next year’s team might be in goal. Patrick Dea can come back as an overager, but they also have Liam Hughes returning from an injury and a pair of top prospects in Lance Alm and Boston Bilous waiting in the wings.
Saskatoon Blades – 28-35-7-2 – 5th in East Division – 9th in Eastern Conference
If it hadn’t been for a bevy of injuries, especially with forward Cameron Hebig missing the entire season, the Blades probably would have been in the playoffs for the first time since they hosted the 2013 Memorial Cup.
While it remains to be seen where they stand in what could be a very good East Division next year, the Blades should be in the mix once again for a wild card spot at worse and possibly end the longest playoff drought in the CHL.
The amount of young talent that the Blades have should certainly help with that, especially with Kirby Dach who had 10 points in 19 games as underage forward this year. Joining him in that group are guys like Josh Paterson, Michael Farren and Chase Wouters up front, while Libor Hajek (who granted isn’t a youngster by any means) should move out from being an under the radar player into one of the favourites for the top defenceman in the league.
It will be interesting to see what happens with the Blades overage situation, especially if Hebig is healthy, as fellow forwards Braylon Shmyr and Mason McCarty, blueliner Evan Fiala and goaltenders Logan Flodell and Brock Hamm can all come back.
If Flodell returns, the battle for the backup role is also going to be fun. Joel Grzybowski has had a great year with the SJHL’s Battlefords North Stars, but the team also has the rights to prospect Nolan Maier, who was taken in the second round of last year’s draft.
Spokane Chiefs – 27-33-8-4 – 5th in US Division – 9th in Western Conference
I’m always a sucker for young talent and I was probably a year early on having this team as the best in the US Division as they ended up missing the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
Even if Hudson Elynuik ends up becoming a part of the Carolina Hurricanes organization next fall, the young core of this team is going to be a lot of fun. Kailer Yamamoto and Jared Anderson-Dolan are going to be two of the most dangerous players in the WHL on offence, while defenceman Ty Smith should continue to get better and live up to his billing as the top pick in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft.
The goaltending side of things should be interesting when it comes to what direction the Chiefs ends up going in. At the moment, Dawson Weatherill is the only guy in the system with any WHL experience, so I’m curious as to if an older netminder will be brought in to help him out or if they will let him shoulder the load and become the main guy.