Last season proved that the OUA West can be the wildest conference in the CIS, with teams one through six jockeying for positions on the final day of the season. With 2016-17 on the horizon, you should definitely expect the unexpected again from the OUA West, which remains wide open once again.
1. Western Mustangs: 2015-16, 18-10-0 (36 pts)
Team Strengths: With Greg Dodds and Lucas Peressini tending the net this year at Western, the Mustangs have the best one-two goalie punch in the OUA West. Dodds is a proven winner in this league, and the reviews of the 2014-15 OHL goalie of the year, Lucas Peressini, have been very good. Mike DiPaolo will return to the Mustangs this year giving them some truculence, and the prospect of getting Robert Polesello in a top six role early in the season could give Western an offensive boost. Matt Marantz, Spenser Cobbold, Andrew Goldberg, and Ray Huether all return to Western's forward unit and look to build off strong showings in 2015-16. The Mustangs are notoriously well coached, and always seem to find ways to win games.
Team Concerns: Western loses some very key players in David Corrente, Stephen Gaskin, Shaun Furlong, Alex Micallef, Stephen Sanza, and Noah Schwartz. Not only were they point producers, but great leaders with substantial CIS experience on their side. Western will now need players like Sean Callaghan and Jonathan Laser to take a step forward this season on defence. If they don't, their defence could run into some trouble. After not having a single player reach double digits in goals last year, Western wouldn't mind someone taking control of the offensive squad this year, but the fact they still managed to score 103 goals in the regular season a year ago shows how deep they are.
Recruit Class: It's very strange seeing just one player coming to Western directly out of the OHL. However, Lucas Peressini is one heck of an OHL player, and any team would be thrilled to have his services. Defencemen Rylan Bechtel and Austin Adam are two big bodies who looked good in preseason, and Rylan Ball can fit in with Western too. Mitch Brooks and Mitch Fitzmorris both have a certain tenacity about them that make Western a little tougher up front, but certainly don't replace the scoring of Furlong or Schwartz. Western's recruit class includes a few solid players, but by Mustang standards, there's a strange absence of star power.
Verdict: Western has every right to be considered the team to beat in the OUA West again this year. Had it not been for a roster riddled with injuries last season, Western would have inevitably had a better regular season. But they still managed to put the pieces together late in the season and wound up at nationals in March. This year it's a different Western team, but don't expect anything less than the usual from the Mustangs this year.
2. Ryerson Rams: 2015-16, 14-13-1 (29 pts)
Team Strengths: The Ryerson Rams have arguably the most talented roster in the OUA West this season. After two offseasons with major-junior heavy recruit classes, the Rams have more than enough offensive and defensive talent to contend with the powerhouses of the OUA. Michael Fine returns for his fifth season, poised to break a number of franchise records, and with players like Matt Mistele and Josh Sterk on his wing, the Rams top six has a ton of potential. Defensively, Alex Basso comes back fully healthy, and Brandon Devlin looks stronger than ever after a great finish to his 2015-16 campaign.
Team Concerns: No more Troy Passingham in net for the Rams, who turn to Taylor Dupuis, Charlie Graham, and Brodie Barrick in the net. It's a relatively inexperienced crease without a clear-cut number one at the moment. Someone needs to step up and be a brick wall if the Rams intend to go on an extended playoff run. Much like last season, there's definitely star power on the Rams, but can they find chemistry early in the season? Chemistry was a problem at times for the Rams in 2015-16 when they stumbled through a few tough stretches in the season. The sooner the Rams figure out their chemistry, the better they will be.
Recruit Class: Hard not to consider what Ryerson has done on the recruit front this year as some of the best offseason work in the OUA. Matt Mistele is debatably the most notable recruit in the school's history, and Josh Sterk was highly sought-after out of the OHL. Landon Schiller and Devon Paliani both add depth and more grit to the team, while NCAA transfer John Carpino offers speed and top six potential. Defensively, Austin Kosack and Daniel Poliziani add puck-moving presence, Matt Nosella will be a project player, and Josh Chapman adds another element of toughness to the lineup when he gets healthy. Finally, Charlie Graham in net had a very nice training camp, and will be in tough competition with Dupuis and Barrick this season.
Verdict: Call it a homer pick if you want, but the Ryerson Rams have the tools to contend for top spot in the OUA West. The potential has existed for a while, but the Rams have never been able to put it all together over a full regular season. Despite that, there's good reason to bet this is the year the Rams finally hit their stride.
3. Windsor Lancers: 2015-16, 14-11-3 (31 pts)
Team Strengths: The Windsor Lancers were quietly the second best offensive team a season ago in the OUA West. Their 101 goals ranked second only to Western, and Windsor had the best possession numbers in the OUA West as well. Eric Noel and Ryan Green are both substantial losses, but Dylan Denomme has proven over his two years with the Lancers that he's one of the most gifted scorers in his conference. Justice Dundas scoring 14 goals a season ago was a surprise to many, and will be given the chance to prove he's no fluke. In net, Windsor will get Blake Richard back after his OUA all-rookie team honours from last season, get the SJHL MVP in Kris Joyce, and long-time LaSalle Vipers goalie Paolo Battisti. The Lancers have historically been one of the hardest teams to beat in the league, and will be so again in 2016-17.
Team Concerns: Losing Kenny Bradford and Paul Bezzo was definitely a blow to them defensively, and the Lancers will have to look elsewhere to replace their leadership and physicality. The Lancers always seem to strike gold finding players from Jr. B, but this year their defence is full of them, and they'll have to find a way to get them up to speed in this league very quickly. Some scoring depth was also lost from last season, and the Lancers will again have to turn to a group of youngsters to supply a secondary punch.
Recruit Class: The Lancers didn't bring much in the way of major junior experience, but Kevin Hamlin has a knack for finding successful CIS players from the junior hockey ranks. LaSalle Vipers captain Nathan Veres could turn out to be a nice find on defence, and joined by Todd Ratchford and Chadd Bauman give coach Hamlin a solid toolset to work with on the back-end. Ian Faubert was a big-time scorer in Chatham last year, and Konnor Haas put up some good numbers in the MJAHL. Marcus Messier also comes into this program after a year out of hockey. In net, Paolo Battisti and Kris Joyce are both interesting players who could turn out to be nice finds for the Lancers down the road.
Verdict: The Lancers are experiencing a pretty big roster turnover on defence and lose some scoring, but they still have the capability of being a top four team in the OUA West. No matter how much they do or don't score, Windsor will make you work for every last inch of ice and will be one of the most physical teams in the CIS all year long.
4. York Lions: 2015-16, 16-7-5 (37 pts)
Team Strengths: Chris Dennis proved to be a complete game changer for the Lions last season as he completed the 'worst' to 'first turnaround in 2015-16. Having had a season to fully understand his roster, Dennis will get a chance to attempt some more advanced tactics in 2016-17. In recent history, York has had one of the best defensive teams, having allowed the second least amount of shots of OUA West teams in the last three seasons. Derek Sheppard remains one of the best defenceman in the conference and is joined by a steady cast of reargaurds again this season.
Team Concerns: No Justin Larson this year, and that may wind up taking a serious chunk out of York's offence. Last season was a much better offensive year for the Lions who had poor offensive showings in 2013-14 and 2014-15. Trevor Petersen obviously provides a big punch for the Lions, but no other forward came close to Larson's 21 assists a year ago. No Andrew Perugini in net for the Lions either, who now turn to Mack Shields, Mitch Maraschiello, and Alex Fotinos. Much like Ryerson, the Lions don't have a clear-cut number one at the moment, and the sooner someone steps up, the better.
Recruit Class: Daniel Nikandrov was a nice snag out of the OHL, and if Steven Janes puts it all together this year, he offers some promise for York's forward unit. Bryce Milson brings CIS experience and stability to the table, Aaron Spivak has proven to be a great team player in the past, and both Dexter Bricker and Scott Feser have been drawing solid reviews from sources out west. On defence, Jack Goranson and Nick Zottl are both big bodies, but will need to prove their worth at the CIS this season. Goaltender Alex Fotinos is coming off hip surgery and Mack Shields bring starter experience out of the WHL. Overall, it's an interesting assortment of players from across the country and shows a clear effort by York to find good players.
Verdict: Not many, including myself, would have seen the Lions winning the OUA West last year, but it turned out to be all for naught after a disappointing first round exit at the hands of the U of T Varsity Blues. York doesn't have the star power that Ryerson or Western have, but with strong defence and good goaltending, the Lions can definitely find a place in the division's top four.
5. Brock Badgers: 2015-16, 6-15-7 (19 pts)
Team Strengths: If the Brock Badgers buy in, they will be one of the most difficult teams to beat this season. The key here is they have the elements to be a difficult team to close, and now with some extra offensive firepower added to the equation this offseason, the Badgers have to be taken seriously. Players like Brody Silk and Mack Lemmon pose nightmares for opponents to deal with, and players like Andrew Radjenovic, Sammy Banga, Mitch Nardi, Matt MacLeod, and Chris Maniccia can torch you on the scoresheet.
Team Concerns: Last year, the season fell off the rails for Brock at about the halfway point. By the end of the year, it looked like everyone including coach Murray Nystrom was taxed, and understandably so after a second half which saw all the offence dry up. If the Badgers are going to have a better year in 2016-17, they simply cannot have a repeat of last year's second semester. Defensively, they lose Jake Cardwell and Dan Tanel. Two very different players, but both serving a purpose on the Badgers last year. They'll need to be replaced for Brock to have success this year.
Recruit Class: Defenceman Dexter Weber and forwards Matt MacLeod and Andrew Radjenovic highlight Brock's offseason. Weber is a well thought of all-around defenceman from the QMJHL, and Matt MacLeod was a bright spot on an otherwise punchless Saint Thomas Tommies team. Andrew Radjenovic returns after a year away from CIS, and has looked fantastic as captain of the Badgers in preseason. NCAA transfers Braden Pears and Sam Quaranta join the Badgers blueline, and Matt Manella, Nicholas Santoro, Jesse Blais, and Brandon Cercone are coming out of various junior leagues. Alex Brooks-Potts and Adam Beukeboom will backup Clint Windsor this year, and all together cap off a class with a few respectable pieces, but a lot of players who have a lot yet to prove.
Verdict: There's no reason Brock can't be right in the thick of the OUA picture this season. They'll pose a challenge for everyone from Laurier to McGill, but only if they buy in right from the get-go. If Brock stays the course, expect a much better season out of Murray Nystrom's boys in 2016-17.
6. Laurier Golden Hawks: 2015-16, 14-14-0 (28 pts)
Team Strengths: Derek Schoenmakers comes into 2016-17 as the leading active scorer amongst OUA West players. His 40 career CIS goals in essentially only three season confirm his place as one of the most prolific goal scorers in the West. Past Schoenmakers, Will Cook and Christian Mroczkowski emerged as effective offensive set pieces last year, and if Andrew Fritsch and Brandon Robinson can put things together at Laurier, they suddenly become one of the better offensive teams in the OUA West. Colin Furlong, Vinny Merante, and Chris Festarini have all played well in the past, and especially if Festarini stays healthy this year, Laurier should be able to find someone who can give them a chance to win between the three of them.
Team Concerns: If Brandon Robinson and Andrew Fritsch don't figure things out at Laurier, this team could be in some offensive trouble. Mac Clutsam was one of the better defenceman in the conference last year, but overall Laurier's team defence last year wasn't great, and they had among the worst possession numbers in the OUA West. If Laurier can find someone either from within, or out of their recruit class to step up and help out Clutsam, that would be huge. But first and foremost, they need to play better team defence this season, which they are definitely capable of.
Recruit Class: Laurier threw in a lot of players this year in hopes that some will pan out to be great pieces. Neil Aird, Jacob Hetherington, Cole Porter, Jeremy Leclerc, and Alex D'Oliveira are all picks out of leagues from across the country. Danny Hanlon offers some offensive flair out of the Trenton Golden Hawks organization, as does Lucas Batt with the Carleton Place Canadians. Alex Annechiarico and Braydon Blight are a pair of big bodies with major junior experience who Laurier hopes can add more of a physical edge to their blueline. Jimmy Soper is a good player who produced in the MJAHL, but Andrew Fritsch and Brandon Robinson are the real wild cards. If they both pan out to their potential, they certainly take Laurier to the next level.
Verdict: Laurier goaltenders ended up getting shelled a lot last season. That showed us that a) Laurier has some resilient goalies capable of stealing a game every now and then, and b) they need to spend less time in their own zone if they want to be consistent. Consistency will be key for Laurier this year, and if they find it, can upset the power balance in the OUA West.
7. Waterloo Warriors: 2015-16, 16-11-1 (33 pts)
Team Strengths: The Waterloo Warriors had one of the best defences in 2015-16, and now even without Joe Underwood, still have one of the best defensive groups in 2016-17. Cam Wind continues to be as steady as they come in the OUA, Stephen Silas is one of the best puck-movers, and there isn't much between Michael Moffat and an OUA first team all-star selection. Eric Diodati comes into Waterloo as a nice fit on defence, and solidifies a top four that will be able to compete with the best forwards in the league. Goalie Mike Morrison has also been known to be air-tight from time to time, making Waterloo a very frustrating team to try and score on.
Team Concerns: No more Colin Behenna, Andrew Smith, or Brett Mackie at Waterloo. Behenna is the biggest loss of the three as the reigning OUA West MVP, and Waterloo will have a hard time outscoring opponents like the used to. Joey Champigny offers promise offensively, and 13 goals out of Riley Sonnenburg last season was a pleasant sign, but Waterloo simply won't have the wealth of offence that they had last season.
Recruit Class: Waterloo is taking a stab at brining in some junior A scorers with Michael Morgan, Cole Murphy, Nick Halagian, Kenny Turner, Michael Siddall, and Zac Coulter. It's possible they hit a homerun with one of these guys, but it's going to take awhile to know for sure. Eugene Makarski will be the third string goalie, and Nik Knezic returns to hockey after multiple years away from the game battling cancer. Eric Diodati stands out as the most notable recruit for Waterloo this offseason.
Verdict: Waterloo will need some time to recover from losing the offensive power they did last season. Waterloo will win games this year by shutting down their opponents, and will need Mike Morrison to give them everything he's got this season. If the Warriors are able to adapt to life without the luxury of having the OUA West MVP on their side, they can still play a factor in the OUA West.
8. Guelph Gryphons: 2015-16, 16-11-1 (33 pts)
Team Strength: The Gryphons have a quietly solid defensive group with the likes of Mac Nichol, Tom Kohler, Reilly O'Conner, and Josh McFadden among others in a cast of steady defenceman. The Gryphon's 69 goals allowed last season was best in the OUA West, and although a big part of that was due to Andrew D'Agostini, he'll be the first to tell you his defence helped him out all year. The Gryphons are comfortable with being the underdog team, and for whatever reason coach Shawn Camp always seems to get the absolute best out of his players every year.
Team Concerns: Guelph is undoubtedly one of the best schools in the CIS for sending players to pro, and although that's great for some guys, it can hurt the team after an offseason like this which saw eight players move on to pro. A number of key players are gone, and it may take another full season for Guelph to fully replace them. The Gryphons lost contributors offensively, defensively, and in net too.
Recruit Class: Guelph had been silent for most of the offseason, and most recruits didn't become public until the end of August into September. Blaize Bridges comes into Guelph after tearing up the MJAHL, and although a small player, holds offensive potential. Ryan Migliaccio finds his home with the Gryphons after playing on the local circuit for years, and joins another former Guelph Storm player in Marc Stevens this year. Nick Boyer transfers from the NCAA, and Guelph also brings in defenceman Max McCutcheon from the Windsor Lancers who should add some size to the d-corps. Josh McFadden stands above the rest as the most recognizable recruit, with AHL games to his credit, and will make a big impact on Guelph's defence.
Verdict: This could be a tough season for Guelph, but as mentioned, Shawn Camp always has a tendency to get the most out of his players. The still have some stable defensive pieces, and if Scott Stajcer regains his pre-CIS form he had with the Owen Sound Attack in net, or even his stint in pro, there's reason to not count the Gryphons out just yet.
9. Lakehead Thunderwolves: 15-16, 8-16-4 (20 pts)
Team Strengths: Lakehead returns for 2016-17 with nine of their top ten scorers from last season. Billy Jenkins proved he's a force to be reckoned with in this league, and having Kelin Ainsworth back this season is a huge offensive boost for the Thunderwolves. Carson Dubchak returns with his leadership, Cody Alcock hopes to stay healthy this season and the Thunderwolves still have ex-OHLers Jacob Ringuette and Justin Sefton on the back-end. All-together, the top-end talent definitely still exists on this Thunderwolves team.
Team Concerns: Without Jeff Bosch in net, the Thunderwolves will need Devin Green, Justin McDonald, or Riley Corbin to step up. Green seems to be the logical choice at the moment, but that may change very quickly if things don't start well for Lakehead. The Thunderwolves allowed the most goals in the OUA West last season, and will need better defence to aid their goaltending as well this year. Now especially without Luke Maw, the Thunderwolves will have to find some more bodies to step up and be defensively responsible all year long.
Recruit Class: Fairly quiet offseason for Lakehead, who don't lose a bunch of players, but after a poor regular season in 2015-16, perhaps could have done a little more. Jonathon Masters, Dillon Donnelly and Patrick Murphy theoretically give the defence a much needed boost. If they all play to their potential, Lakehead should be keeping more pucks out of their net. Evan Mignault, Zack Whitlock, Grant Valiquette, Devin Fullum, and Liam Alcalde will all look to help Lakehead's low goal total last year, but we'll find out for sure what roles they fill come opening night.
Verdict: Lakehead has no excuse to be as bad as they were in the first semester of last year. They have top-end talent, but need to find much more consistency this year. Lakehead is still trying to get back on track to where they were before, and it may still take more time for them to get there.
10. U of T Varsity Blues: 2015-16, 11-15-2 (24 pts)
Team Strengths: The U of T Varsity Blues don't necessarily have to have a great regular season in order to have a solid playoff run. They proved that last season when they snuck into the playoffs, proceeded to knock off the #1 seed York Lions, and then brought the Western Mustangs down to the wire. Game stealer Andrew Hunt returns in the net for the Varsity Blues, and it doesn't matter what team you put him on, Matt Campagna is a standout forward. Accompanied by Connor Cleverley, Toronto has a quick-strike offence and the lock-down ability to take the occasional game they shouldn't.
Team Concerns: The U of T Varsity Blues had two of the most lethal weapons in the conference last year with Christian Finch and Patrick Marsh. Without those two this year, they lose scoring talent out of their top six, which they haven't seemed to replace in the offseason. Defence was troublesome last year for U of T, and now without veterans Matthew Oakley and Dylan Heide, there are some serious questions. Luckily for U of T, Josh Hanson is a great defender, but he can't hold down the fort himself. With a big-time loss of veterans, there's no immediate answers for U of T's holes on paper right now.
Recruit Class: For a team that lost as many players to graduation as they did, it was a little surprising to see U of T add so little this offseason. Willy Paul and Evan MacEachern hope to help out the defence, and the hope is that Connor Bebb will turn out to be a classic case of an OJHLer turned CIS sniper. Evan Johnson has been brought in as another option in net along with Mark Manolescu, but who knows how much playing time they'll see if Hunt continues to play well. Connor Graham was a nice late add from the Ottawa 67's, but you can't help but feel like U of T could've done more this offseason.
Verdict: Tough to buy into U of T right now with so many unanswered questions. It's possible that Darren Lowe's tier II recruits blow the doors off the league and make him look like a genius, but it's a bit of a long shot. U of T will need to grind out wins this year, and if things don't go their way this season, it might be time to reevaluate.