TORONTO - The Guelph Storm dominated last season, except when it mattered most.
The Ontario Hockey League champions came up short in the Memorial Cup final, losing 6-3 to the WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings. While the Storm would love to become the 10th team in Memorial Cup history to win major junior hockey's top prize the year after losing the final, coach Scott Walker is careful when discussing his team's chances.
"I think that would be a little bit of an aggressive statement," Walker said. "I think we'll be half decent, but I don't think we're there yet. We lost a lot of depth and high-end players."
Gone are forwards Kerby Rychel, Scott Kosmachuk, Scott Mitchell and Brock McGinn as well as defencemen Matt Finn and Nick Ebert, all of whom played a significant role in helping Guelph win the OHL championship.
Returnees who will play key roles in trying to help the Storm get back to the Canadian junior hockey championship include forwards Robbie Fabbri, Jason Dickinson and Tyler Bertuzzi, along with defencemen Zac Leslie and Ben Harper. Goalies Justin Nichols and Matthew Mancina are also returning this season, which opens Wednesday.
"Fabbri could be one of the best players in the league," Walker said. "This guy is competitive and probably the most exciting player eligible for this year's draft. Even in exhibition games he's drawing oohs and aahs from the fans."
Fabbri was third in club scoring last season with 45 goals and 42 assists in 58 games while Dickinson had 26 goals and 52 assists in 68 games. Bertuzzi had 10 goals and seven assists in 18 playoff games.
If the Storm is to get back to the Memorial Cup, it will not be easy.
In the Western Conference, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds have a host of returning players and Sheldon Keefe has proven himself to be a highly effective coach. GM Kyle Dubas has departed for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but he leaves behind a star-studded group that includes centre Sergey Tolchinsky, who scored 31 goals and added 60 assists last season, as well as forwards Bryan Moore, Michael Bunting, Blake Speers and Jared McCann.
The big question surrounds rugged defenceman Darnell Nurse, a first round pick of the Edmonton Oilers in 2013, who could make the jump to the NHL. The feeling is Nurse's game could use some fine-tuning at the junior level.
The Erie Otters also have several of returnees, including blue-chip prospect Connor McDavid, who is expected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NHL draft.
Fellow centre Dylan Strome will compete with McDavid for ice time and is expected to be a high draft pick next June. Also, left-winger Andre Burakovsky, a first round pick of the Washington Capitals, may be sent back, but because he is from Austria, he could play in the American Hockey League.
The London Knights could be a factor depending on who they get back from the NHL. Max Domi is likely to start the season in Arizona with the Coyotes and Bo Horvat could make the Vancouver Canucks even though neither had a particularly strong season last year. Russian defenceman Nikita Zadorov started last season in the NHL playing seven games with Buffalo and if he is returned to London along with Domi and Horvat, the Knights could contend.
In the East, the Oshawa Generals should be a dominant team if left-winger Michael Dal Colle is returned by the New York Islanders who chose him fifth overall in the 2014 NHL draft. The Islanders do not have a lot of depth up front which could play a role in Islanders management electing to keep the 18-year-old. Dal Colle and centre Cole Cassels will lead the offence.
The Kingston Frontenacs have been assured they'll get scoring whiz Sam Bennett back from the Calgary Flames and all eyes will be behind the bench where 28-year-old Paul McFarland takes over as coach after a two-year stint in Oshawa as D.J. Smith's assistant.
The Peterborough Petes took huge strides toward respectability under coach Jody Hull last season and if tough left-winger Nick Ritchie is returned by the Anaheim Ducks, there is every reason they will continue to rise. Ritchie, who recorded 31 goals and 43 assists with 136 penalty minutes last year, could be one of the most dominant players in the OHL.
The Niagara IceDogs, led by centre Carter Verhaeghe and left-winger Brendan Perlini, will also be very competitive. Vince Dunn is a steady defenceman while centre Johnny Corneil is expected to take a bigger role.