2017 OHL Season Preview: Midwest Division

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In the 2016-17 season, the Midwest Division was a gauntlet of powerful teams.

The top Erie Otters, Owen Sound Attack, and London Knights held down the first, third and fourth seeds. The Otters demolished the league with an insane plus-137 goal differential, and Alex DeBrincat (65 goals) led the attack. Owen Sound finished a point shy of first place in the conference, and was the only other team with two 95-plus point scorers. Then there’s the Knights, who came a point shy of 100 themselves.

It was tough sledding for the Kitchener Rangers, who had to make a mid-year decision about their odds of going deep. It was even harder for the Guelph Storm and former first overall pick Ryan Merkley.

The good news is that things will look a little bit different this year. Erie was a veteran-laden team that accomplished their goal. The OHL Champions are graduating a ton of talent and will be looking at a transition year. The Knights and Attack will be strong once again, but Guelph should see a marked improvement. In Kitchener, it may take some time to figure out what direction this roster will take the team in.

With plenty of questions, it’s time for the 2017 OHL previews to tackle the Midwest Division.

Erie Otters

2016-17 season: 50-15-2-1, 103 points, OHL Champions, Memorial Cup finalists

Who’s behind the bench? Chris Hartsburg takes over for the defending OHL champions. Former head coach Kris Knoblauch was picked up by Philadelphia in the off-season.

Leading Scorer: Alex DeBrincat – 65 goals, 62 assists – 127 points

Will he be back? No. Expect him to see some time with Chicago this year.

Who to watch: Ivan Lodnia

Minnesota’s third round pick this past draft has been putting in work at centre during training camp. He put up 57 points in 66 games last year and will lead this team for as long as he’s there. Whether he moves closer to the trade deadline or not is up in the air, and we’ll be watching where he goes as much as his play on the ice.

Owen Sound Attack

2016-17 season: 49-15-2-2, 102 points, 3rd in Western Conference, lost 4-2 in Western Conference Final (Erie)

Who’s behind the bench? Todd Gill is returning to the OHL. Ryan McGill was plucked from the Attack by the Vegas Golden Knights after 81 wins in two seasons.

Leading Scorer: Petrus Palmu – 40 goals, 58 assists, 98 points

Will he be back? No. Before he was drafted by the Vancouver Canucks, he decided to sign overseas.

Who to watch: Markus Phillips

Phillips has big shoes to fill now that former captain Santino Centorame has moved on. While he won’t be able to replicate the 73 point season Centorame had, Phillips will take on a key role on the blue line. A fourth round pick of the Los Angeles Kings, the defenceman will be the go-to this year for the Attack.

London Knights

2016-17 season: 46-15-3-4, 99 points, 4th in Western Conference, lost 4-3 in Conference Semifinals (Erie)

Who’s behind the bench? He eclipsed the 1,000 game mark last year, and now 700 wins is staring Dale Hunter in the face. He’s still well-behind Brian Kilrea (1,193 wins) and Bert Templeton (907), but he’s climbing the ladder. Recruiting power or not, you don’t have a .660 winning percentage for your career by accident.

Leading Scorer: Cliff Pu – 35 goals, 51 assists, 86 points

Will he be back? Pu was a third round pick by the Sabres in 2016, and is developing into an excellent two-way forward. Unless he forces the Sabres hand at camp though, he’ll be back and should be a threat for the scoring title.

Who to watch: Lucas Rowe

Rowe was a member of the Mississauga Reps team that won the OHL Cup and then pretty much dominated the OHL Draft. How much of an impact the rookie can have remains to be seen. It’s fairly difficult for a first year player to have much of an impact in London, but the thought is he’ll get some time at centre. If he shows steady improvement, London will give him his chances. If you’re not into that, you can watch Brady Tkachuk highlights in hopes he one day skates in the OHL. But good luck.

Kitchener Rangers

2016-17 season: 36-27-3-2, 77 points, 6th in Western Conference, lost 4-1 in first round (Owen Sound)

Who’s behind the bench? Jay McKee returns for his second season behind the Rangers bench. After cycling through three head coaches in three years, the hope is they’ve found some stability.

Leading Scorer: Adam Mascherin – 35 goals, 65 assists, 100 points

Will he be back? Eventually, yes. Hopefully by opening night. Off-season shoulder surgery seemingly derailed his hopes of making the Panthers, so it’ll be one more year in the OHL for Mascherin. It may take him some time to get up to speed, but he should find his form fairly quickly.

Who to watch: Greg Meireles

Meireles has always been an intriguing player. A first round pick of the Rangers in 2015, Meireles opted to stay in Ottawa another year, only joining the Rangers as an associate player. Last year he joined the team full time, and acquitted himself very well with 42 points in 66 games. That was his first full year in the OHL, but it was also his NHL draft year. He wasn’t selected, but a strong second season in Kitchener could change that if the Blues don’t offer him a deal after rookie camp.

Guelph Storm

2016-17 season: 21-40-5-2, 49 points, missed the playoffs, picked second overall

Who’s behind the bench? Jarrod Skalde is out after a season and a half. George Burnett is in as head coach and general manager after a year in Flint with the Firebirds.

Leading Scorer: Ryan Merkley – 12 goals, 43 assists 55 points

Will he be back? Yes. It’s Merkley’s draft year and it wouldn’t be shocking to see him lead defensemen in scoring.

Who to watch: Tag Bertuzzi

The third member of the Bertuzzi clan to play for the Storm, Tag should have a big role on a growing team. While some maturing pieces on defence will help the league-worst goals-against total, the Storm struggled to score last year as well. It’s difficult to expect immediate dividends from a rookie, but Bertuzzi has the talent to make an impact. Guelph now has a building block up front and on defence, and need to make the playoffs a reality this season.

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