Thursday, March 24, 2016

2016 OHL Playoffs Thoughts and Predictions

Since my bracket is all but busted in NCAA March Exploitation Madness, and the OHL Playoffs begin tonight, I figured it would be good to get some thoughts down about the upcoming OHL Playoffs. So let's get right to it, I'll break it down by Conference, starting with the Western Conference. I will be mainly focusing on the impact of Devils prospects, but will try to keep my homer bias to a minimum.

Western Conference:

1) Eric Otters vs. 8) Saginaw Spirit

Thoughts: On paper, this should be a blowout, no questions asked. The Otters have a deep and talented lineup featuring some big names like Dylan Strome (2015 ARZ 1st rounder), Alex Debrincat (2016 eligible), Taylor Raddysh (2016 eligible), Travis Dermott (2015 TOR 2nd rounder), and Devin Williams, who's having a remarkable season. However, for whatever reason, the Spirit have been a thorn in the side of the Otters this season. The top players for the Otters have not performed very well against the Spirit. The season series is tied 2-2. Ultimately, I think this will come down to being a tough series. The top players for Saginaw will really need to step their games up, guys like Marcus Niemeläinen (2016 eligible), Mitchell Stephens (2015 TBL 2nd rounder), and Evan Cormier (2016 eligible). As mentioned earlier, it's going to be a tough series, but I don't think Saginaw will prove to be a significant matchup against Erie.

Prediction: Erie Otters in 5 games. The Otters are just too talented, and the first OHL team to get 50 wins in 3 consecutive seasons.

2) Sarnia Sting vs. 7) Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds

Thoughts: This is a great matchup for Devils fans. There are 4 total Devils prospects in this series: 2 on each team. The season series is 5-1 in favor of Sarnia, however I must say that each game later on in the season proved to be more difficult for the Sting to win, and ultimately the last meeting of the season saw a win for the Greyhounds. Now the Sting are still dealing with some injuries at the moment, mainly surrounding goaltender Justin Fazio, and forwards Sam Studnicka and Patrick White. While it looks like Studnicka will be back in time for Game 1 (which is a big return), White may still be out for the first two games, and it's not quite known when Fazio will return, so the Sting will have to rely on the goalie they brought in at the trade deadline, Charlie Graham. The Greyhounds are a fast team, and a potentially underrated opponent in my opinion. In his last 16 games of the season, captain Blake Speers (2015 NJD 3rd rounder) has scored 24 points (11G 13A), including 4 points (2G 2A) in his last regular season game. There's some potential for an offensive threat from the Greyhounds with Speers, overager Gabe Guertler, Zachary Senyshyn (2015 BOS 1st rounder), and Boris Katchouk (2016 eligible). The Hounds boast a very fast team with some remarkable skaters. On the defensive side of things, Colton White (2015 NJD 4th rounder) will have to continue being a defensive anchor, after being voted the 3rd best defensive defenseman in the Western Conference. The Hounds will also have to rely on the goaltending from Brandon Halverson. He's been putting up very respectable numbers, but also has experience with playoff runs, specifically last year's deep playoff run for the Greyhounds. On Sarnia's side of things, last year in the playoffs was where Pavel Zacha (2015 NJD 1st rounder) really made his mark. Not necessarily on the offensive side of things, only scoring 3 points (2G 1A) in 5 games, but his defensive play. Zacha was matched up against Connor McDavid in the Sting's opening series against the Erie Otters. While the Otters won the series, McDavid was held to his lowest point per game total out of the entire OHL Playoffs in that opening series against Sarnia. Zacha has more offensive responsibility and plays a playoff-type of rough, physical play. He is going to need to really step it up. He's been playing remarkably well recently though, with 11 points (3G 8A) in his last 5 games, including his last two regular season games being back-to-back 3 point games (all assists). Some other major contributors for the Sting will be Matt Mistele (2014 LAK 6th rounder), Travis Konecny (2015 PHI 1st rounder), Josh Jacobs (2014 NJD 2nd rounder), and Jakob Chychrun (2016 eligible). To break it down player by player: Matt Mistele played a huge role last season in the Ottawa Generals' Memorial Cup championship run. He's a heart and soul type player and a great power forward who excels in the playoff environment. As an overager, and having the best season of his OHL career (usually those two go hand-in-hand), I think he's going to have a big impact this season in the playoffs for the Sting. Travis Konecny was acquired in arguably the second biggest trade of the OHL trade deadline. The Sting paid a high price, but it immediately paid dividends, as Konecny scored 56 points (23G 33A) in his 31 games with the Sting. While not as strong defensively, Konecny's offense is going to play a key role. In his last game of the regular season, Konecny put up 5 points. I think a key component of this series is going to be the special teams. If Sarnia can keep up its solid Powerplay and also ride its 3rd best Penalty Kill in the entire CHL (1st in the OHL at 84.3%), then Sarnia should be able to perform very strongly. On the defensive side of things, Jakob Chychrun will improve his draft stock during these playoffs. Over the course of the season, his draft stock has fallen a little. Whether or not you agree with this, he will play a huge role along the blueline. He logs almost 30 minutes a night and this will be a huge role in the playoffs. Additionally, Josh Jacobs has had a remarkable season. While I believe he has a bit of untapped offensive potential, especially with his vision and strong booming shot, h'es been a defensive rock and has served well in the transition game. Ultimately what I believe it comes down to is that Sarnia's forward depth will help bring them to the next round. The Sting never seem to get past the first round of the OHL playoffs, but I think that trend ends this year.

Prediction: Sarnia Sting in 6 games.

3) London Knights vs. 6) Owen Sound Attack

Thoughts: Man oh man, the Knights are just too good this year. I think Owen Sound has great potential for next season, but the Knights have 3 100-point scorers this season: Christian Dvorak (2014 ARZ 2nd rounder), Mitch Marner (2015 TOR 1st rounder), and Matthew Tkachuk (2016 eligible). Some other players to keep an eye on during the offensive onslaught are Max Jones (2016 eligible) and Olli Juolevi (2016 eligible). Simply put, the Attack don't have enough to match up with or stop the offensive juggernaut Knights. Not only do they have lots of high-end talent, but there's also a strong cycle game along the boards. Owen Sound has been playing well at home, so I can potentially see them steal a game there, but ultimately London will steamroll into the next round. The issue is that the Knights roster really doesn't have any holes in it. The only chance for Owen Sound to win this series is to ride their deep defensive core. Not only would they have to shut down London's top line of Tkachuk-Dvorak-Marner (this is assuming they aren't split up like last season's playoffs for offensive depth), but also the rest of the London roster. The top 5 scorers for London all have at least 30 goals. This also assumes that the Owen Sound Attack will need to get the very best performance they can get from goaltender Michael McNiven. While a Cinderella story would be great, London is also 9-1-0 in their last 10 games, so the cards are set, and Owen Sound has a very steep hill to climb if they are to attempt to advance.

Prediction: London Knights in 5 games.

4) Kitchener Rangers vs. 5) Windsor Spitfires

Thoughts: Out of the contests in the Western Conference, I think this will be the most tightly contested. Not just because of the standings (#4 vs. #5), but where the teams currently are. On paper, the team records, goals scored/allowed, home/away records are not all that different. I think despite all the top-end offensive talent both teams possess: like Adam Mascherin (2016 eligible), Jeremy Bracco (2015 TOR 2nd rounder), and Ryan MacInnis (2014 ARZ 2nd rounder) for Kitchener lined up against Logan Brown (2016 eligible), Brendan Lemieux (2014 BUF 2nd rounder - rights now owned by WPG), and Christian Fischer (2015 ARZ 2nd rounder) for Windsor, we are going to see a relatively low-scoring series. Of course I could be wrong here, heck I could be wrong on all of these, but both teams have very solid defensive cores. Kitchener will get a real boost if veteran defenseman, Frank Hora, can return in time for the playoffs. He's missed the past 11 games with a hand injury. As the trade deadline approached, the Windsor Spitfires acquired Connor Chatham (2014 NJD 3rd rounder). Chatham is in his overage year and plays a very physical, bruising, game. He only has 12 points (6G 6A) in his 30 games with the Spitfires, and this includes a 4 point night (1G 3A) in the last regular season game against Sarnia. I don't know if that's a statistical anomaly or if he is heating up at the right time. Regardless though, it's going to be the depth players that win this, for either team. I think it's going to go a long time, and a playing style like Chatham has will be very useful in grinding down opponents.

Prediction: Windsor Spitfires in 7 games. I think this is going to be a huge series for Michael Sergachyov (2016 eligible). If he's able to take control of the games, then I see Windsor winning the series. Another key contributor on the blueline for the Spitfires will have to be Logan Stanley (2016 eligible). The lanky two-way defenseman will have to have a great performance in order for the team to advance. On another note, the Rangers are dealing with some injuries in their backend. If players like Hora can return healthy, then it will be more of a battle, but the injuries have been devastating to a Rangers team that was in a dogfight with Erie and London for the top seed in the Mid-West Division (and therefore the entire Western Conference). This is a ridiculously close matchup and could go either way, but I'm more comfortable with the stability that the Spitfires have at this point.

Eastern Conference: 

1) Kingston Frontenacs vs. 8) Oshawa Generals

Thoughts: The Frontenacs ran away with the top-seed in the Eastern Conference, especially after acquiring Michael Dal Colle (2014 NYI 1st rounder) in the biggest deal of the trade deadline from the Oshawa Generals, so that's going to be an ongoing storyline throughout this series. Kingston has amassed a great team, mainly involving Lawson Crouse (2015 FLA 1st rounder), Spencer Watson (2014 LAK 7th rounder), and Roland McKeown (2014 LAK 2nd rounder - rights now owned by CAR). In net for the Fronts, we see reigning OHL goaltender of the year, Lucas Peressini, and Jeremy Helvig. What this series comes down to is offensive depth and playoff experience. If you look at Michael Dal Colle's playoff stats, he has 56 points (18G 38A) in 42 career playoff games. Compare that to the entire Oshawa roster having 33 points (12G 21A) in 118 career playoff games.The Generals did the righth thing after a Memorial Cup championship, which was to build for the future. They may be able to steal a game, but ultimately it's about time for Kingston to advance past the first round of the OHL playoffs. Oddly enough, I think Helvig might get the nod instead of Peressini, mainly because of Peressini being 0-5-0 lifetime in the OHL Playoffs, and how Helvig has performed much better against the Generals in the regular season series.

Prediction: Kingston Frontenacs in 4 games.

2) Barrie Colts vs. 7) Mississauga Steelheads

Thoughts: The Barrie Colts are an extremely dangerous team. Up front they have some top scorers in Kevin Labanc (2014 SJS 6th rounder), Andrew Mangiapane (2015 CGY 6th rounder), and Julius Nättinen (2015 ANA 2nd rounder). In net, the Colts have MacKenzie Blackwood (2015 NJD 2nd rounder), arguably the best goalie in the entire OHL this season. Although Blackwood's been struggling as of late, the backup goalie, David Ovsjannikov, has been performing very adamantly. The advantage the Colts have is that if their goalies falter, their offense has been one of the most dynamic in the entire league. The biggest concern for Barrie is their offensive depth. If their top 3 scorers are shut down, then it will take an outstanding performance from Blackwood in order for the Colts to advance. However, the top scorers for the Colts have yet to be shut down this season, and Blackwood has the potential to carry the Colts to a Memorial Cup, in my eyes. Another major component for this series will be on the blueline for the Colts, Rasmus Andersson (2015 CGY 2nd rounder). Andersson is having a remarkable season, and is one of the top defensive producers at even-strength in the OHL. The Steelheads have a lot of young talent in their lineup, with Michael McLeod (2016 eligible), Alexander Nylander (2016 eligible), Nathan Bastian (2016) are all on the top line for the Trout, with Sean Day (2016 eligible) on the blueline. The Steelheads are going to be a very competitive team next season, but the Colts have had their number this season.

Prediction: Barrie Colts in 5 games. If MacKenzie Blackwood can get back on track to the dominant performance he's displayed for most of the season, then Barrie will be a real threat to come out of the Eastern Conference. That's how highly I think of Blackwood.

3) North Bay Battalion vs. 6) Peterborough Petes

Thoughts: This is a really interesting series to me. Essentially, North Bay was supposed to be a sort of rebuilding year after a deep OHL Playoff run last season, but have been performing extremely well. Led by players like Mike Amadio (2014 LAK 3rd rounder), Brett McKenzie (undrafted), and Mathew Santos (undrafted) up front, and from players on the blue line Cam Dineen (2016 eligible), Kyle Wood (2014 COL 3rd rounder - rights now owned by ARZ), and Riley Bruce (2015 CGY 7th rounder), the Troops are performing extremely well. And the interesting thing about all of this is that even though the Battalion run a very defense-first type system, they still are the 3rd highest scoring team in the Eastern Conference. If the Battalion are to win this, they will need to continue their phenomenal play on home ice this season: going 23-9-1-1 at home. Now add this to the Peterborough Petes having a better record on the road than at home this season, and we start to get a look at how intriguing this matchup is going to be. The Battalion are going to rely on goaltender, Jake Smith, who has the experience to backstop the team to the Eastern Conference championship series in the past two seasons. If the Petes are to advance, they will have to try and limit Mike Amadio. I don't think it's possible to shut down the 50 goal scorer, but they can at least try to limit him. Now what Peterborough brings to the series is an experience defensive core, along with two 40 goal scorers in Hunter Garlent and Greg Betzold. Additionally, Eric Cornel (2014 BUF 2nd rounder) is having a career season. Overall I like the experience that Peterborough brings to the series.Special teams are going to play a big role in this series

Prediction: North Bay Battalion in 7 games

4) Niagara IceDogs vs. 5) Ortawa 67's

Thoughts: I fully expected the 67's to not be in the position they are now. I thought they would limp their way into the playoffs during a rebuilding year, especially after parting with two of their biggest forward prizes in Travis Konecny and Sam Studnicka, both traded to the Sarnia Sting. It's also unfortunate that Sasha Chmelevski got injured. I think he has a bright future ahead of him, and the the 67's are being built for the future. That being said, the 67's come into this series playing some of the best hockey of their season. I think an area where the 67's are weak would be along their blueline, but like I mentioned earlier, it's great to have seen them make it this far. The work ethic will really prove to be troubling for the IceDogs. Now Niagara really loaded up at the trade deadline, most importantly (in my view) adding Alex Nedeljkovic (2014 CAR 2nd rounder), one of the best goalies in the league, and overager forward, Stephen Harper. I think guys for the 67's like Dante Salituro (2016 eligible) and Jeremiah Addison (2015 MTL 7th rounder) will have to continue their real strong seasons if Ottawa is to have a chance at winning this series. In addition to those two, Artur Tyanulin has been playing very solid hockey as of late. Overall though, I really like the forward depth from Niagara. Guys like Brandon Perlini (2014 ARZ 1st rounder), Joshua Ho-Sang (2014 NYI 1st rounder), Vince Dunn (2015 STL 2nd rounder), and Graham Knott (2015 CHI 2nd rounder), in addition to the new players added at the deadline make Niagara a really dangerous team. I think ultimately, Nedeljkovic will be the difference-maker in net.

Prediction: Niagara IceDogs win in 6 games.

Unfortunately the playoffs have already started by the time I post this, so we'll just have to see where the Playoffs take us.
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Thank you so much for reading, and I really hope you enjoy this post!

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