Wolf Tracks: Wolves in the hunt

No roster in the OHL’s Eastern Conference is significantly better than Sudbury’s

Shane Bulitka, left, of the Sudbury Wolves, and Kade Landry, of the Hamilton Bulldogs, battle for the puck during OHL action at the Sudbury Community Arena in Sudbury, Ont. on Friday March 15, 2019. John Lappa/Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network

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It is never wise to be bold about OHL predictions in September. 

Unlike the NHL, where most players are fully grown and their skills are largely developed, OHL players can sprout up several inches in the off-season or come back with new skills and confidence. 

There’s also the challenge of which import picks will actually show up and thrive in the North American game, what NHL-drafted players might crack a pro roster and how many early season trades teams make to bolster their lineup. Or, in some cases, set a rebuild in motion from the get-go. 

Here’s what we know for sure about the Sudbury Wolves, one week prior to their season opener on Thursday, Sept. 19 when they visit the Niagara IceDogs: This is far from a rebuild year. The plan is to build off of what they accomplished last season, and they are well-positioned to achieve that goal.

Sudbury has a deep forward group that includes three 20-year-old overagers who bring tremendous stability to the organization in David Levin, Shane Bulitka and Macauley Carson. They have a budding superstar in Quinton Byfield, who is expected to be a top pick at next summer’s NHL draft. Blake Murray is now an NHL-drafted sniper and seems poised to take a step forward at the OHL level. Like every team, there are also some real wildcards, such as 19-year-old forwards Nolan Hutcheson and Owen Robinson who are looking to have breakout seasons. 

The defence has been given a major boost with the decision by Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Kalle Loponen to come to Sudbury as an 18-year-old. He joins a blueline that includes dependable veterans Peter Stratis, Emmett Serensits and Liam Ross, along with up-and-comers Isaak Phillips and Jack Thompson. 

In the crease, newly acquired Christian Purboo raises the experience meter a little and the team is still high on talented rookie Mitchell Weeks. There’s not enough evidence to anoint it as a position of strength, but it does have the potential to be.

Here’s the good news if you’re a Wolves fan: There isn’t another roster in the OHL’s Eastern Conference that you can point to as being significantly better than Sudbury’s. Again, predictions are for dummies, but it’s reasonable to believe the Wolves have the potential to compete with anyone. 

The Ottawa 67’s were the class of the conference last season and should be really good again. Cedrick Andree is back in net and their defence corps looks very solid. They definitely graduated a lot of talent up front, but the Wolves found out first hand during an exhibition blowout in Kanata that returnees Marco Rossi and Graeme Clarke are awfully good. They’re currently tied in the pre-season scoring race, if there is such a thing, in large part because of their dominance that day playing against a young and depleted Wolves lineup. Don’t get fussed about the result from a Wolves standpoint, but do assume that the Rossi-Clarke connection was not a fluke.

The Peterborough Petes — hopefully including rookie defenceman Josh Kavanagh from Hanmer, who seems to have earned a spot — will be an interesting team to keep an eye on. They have two small, crafty Maple Leafs prospects that should be a treat to watch this season. Toronto’s 2019 second-rounder, Nick Robertson, a 5-foot-8 left-winger, and 2018 third-rounder Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, a 5-foot-11 centre, will be tough to contain. They also have Minnesota Wild selection Hunter Jones in the crease, which could be a big advantage over the field. 

The Oshawa Generals will have a definite presence on the ice this season with 6-foot-5, 220-pound Val Caron native Dan Walker skating alongside 6-foot-6, 218-pound Florida Panthers prospect Serron Noel. They’ll create some space for smaller, skilled guys like Brett Neumann, who scored 45 goals last season, and Montreal Canadiens pick Allan McShane, who potted 34. 

For most of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, it will be about who steps up. Teams like Hamilton, Barrie and Mississauga have young talents that could blossom and dominate, while a team like North Bay will need a huge season from someone like Hanmer’s Brad Chenier to be a contender — something he just might be capable of. 

For the Wolves, there is no Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen to electrify the crowd between the pipes, or a set of Pilon twins to get the fans riled up. But it’s surely the deepest roster we’ve seen in these parts in a while, and some of the best players from last year’s team are a year older and more experienced.

It’s also fair to say that head coach Cory Stillman can now be considered an OHL veteran, too. He set a particular tone in his rookie season and worked the culture as a sophomore a year ago. 

Now is as good a time as any for all of that groundwork to pay dividends.

Jeff Giffen’s Wolf Tracks column runs weekly during the hockey season.