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OHL: Breaking down the Western Conference in 2023-24

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The London Knights and the Sarnia Sting went 23 years without meeting in the Ontario Hockey League playoffs. They finally went head-to-head in 2023 as the final two teams standing in the Western Conference.

Four months later, 10 teams are ready to try to do what London and Sarnia did last season.

The Saginaw Spirit will spend the year preparing to play the best of the best as they host the 2024 Memorial Cup tournament.

How does everyone stack up?
Here’s a look:

Teams to catch

Saginaw Spirit

They are the hosts of the 2024 Memorial Cup tournament. They have to be good. And they will be. Michael Misa is now 16. After what he did as a 15-year old he might as well be 27. Zayne Parekh is a year older on defence. He scored a record 21 goals at the age of 16. How many can he get now? The Spirit have added Valentin Zhugin up front and Braden Hache on the back end. Expect more moves to enhance an already strong core. Andrew Oke has been to two World Junior tournaments with Team USA while being a backup in Saginaw. The net is now his.

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London Knights

The Knights went all the way to the OHL Championship Series last spring. Logan Mailloux, Sean McGurn, George Diaco and Brett Brochu graduated. Everyone else was eligible to come back. London has one of the deepest rosters in the league. They may have the deepest blue line period and now they have added last year’s OHL playoff MVP Michael Simpson in goal. Throw in what their younger players learned about what it takes to go on a long playoff run and add the businesslike approach that has existed from Day 1 of training camp from a team determined to get back to the finals and finish what they came close to accomplishing last season and the Knights will be a tough team to face all season.

Teams in pursuit

Owen Sound Attack

If the Attack had set their sights on a year when the core of their team would be ready and able to do its greatest damage, the year would have been 2023-24. Colby Barlow, Cedrick Guindon. Deni Goure, Sam Sedley and others have been together and growing for a couple of seasons and now they are poised to take a massive run. For the past two years, Owen Sound has been knocked out in the first round but the full-time addition of 17-year-old Carter George between the pipes could be the final puzzle piece the Attack have been looking for.

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Erie Otters

From 2013 to 2017 the Erie Otters made 50-win seasons a habit. They did it for four years in a row. Keep in mind there are only 68 games in an OHL year. Now think about how hard that must be. In the five OHL seasons played since then the Otters have yet to win 30 games even once. It has been a tough climb back following the graduations of players like Connor McDavid and Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome but this year’s Otters team should have no trouble winning 30 games. They could win a whole lot more. Matthew Schaefer was selected first overall in 2023 and will come as advertised. He’ll get help from forwards Carey Terrance, Pano Fimis, Martin Misiak, Ondrej Molnar and others. The Otters are ready to prove they are finally back.

Guelph Storm

A year ago the Storm got off to a start they may not have expected. After one month of the season, Guelph had two wins. That had the Storm a long way from finishing ninth overall in the OHL standings (which they did) but it was a climb that Guelph made. Matthew Poitras should give the Red Tilson Trophy a run this year as Most Outstanding Player and Michael Buchinger and Cam Allen are now bona fide veterans so there are big reasons to think the Storm will bring some strong gusts to the season. Allen did undergo a shoulder operation which will have him out until the New Year.

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Flint Firebirds

The Firebirds went seven games against the Saginaw Spirit in the first round of the playoffs last spring and every team that made it to round two heaved a sigh of relief. The Firebirds played as if the five players on the ice were a single entity. They are very well coached and being a year older and a year wiser could elevate them in the West this season.

Soo Greyhounds

Sault Ste. Marie has missed the playoffs in an un-Greyhound-like two of the past three OHL seasons. The skill on defence will jump off the ice. Matt Virgilio will become a household name if he isn’t already. There is all kinds of local talent reading the way like Jordan D’Intino, Bryce and Brodie McConnell-Barker and Delaware’s Caleb Vandeven. Expect to see Sault Ste. Marie back in the post-season in 2024. The addition of overager Jack Beck from Ottawa makes the ‘Hounds attack even more potent.

Teams building back

Windsor Spitfires 

The Spitfires might be the Western Conference’s most interesting team. You could easily make an argument that can win games this year. Overager Alex Christopoulos knows how to score and he has help from Liam Greentree, Ryan Abraham and another possible overager in Oliver Peer. You could also make the argument that Windsor could look toward more of a rebuild after acquisitions of players like Shane Wright a year ago.

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Kitchener Rangers

An argument could easily be made that the Rangers were the best eighth seed ever in 2023. They dispatched Windsor in four straight games in the first round. But let’s remember that despite finishing in eighth place, they had built their team for a run last year. Star power like the Francescos (Pinelli and Arcuri), Danny Zhilkin and Filip Mesar have all graduated. There are heir apparents on the roster. They must now take the reins of the team. The return of Jackson Parsons in goal from injury will definitely help.

Sarnia Sting

No team has been hit by graduation quite like the Sting. Five of their top six defencemen and eight of their top 12 scorers in total have moved on. Sarnia has drafted well. Ryan Brown and James Barr should be excellent players in the OHL. The entire roster is full of players who compete hard so the Sting will make it hard on opponents this year but this team is very young and inexperienced. Ben Gadreau could return in goal to start the season.