As the Ontario Hockey League season gets under way this week, plenty of eyes will be focused on the West Division thanks to the Sarnia Sting.
With the hiring of Jacques Beaulieu as coach and GM, the Sting began the road back to credibility and they've certainly been fast-tracking that road.
With Nail Yakupov and Alex Galchenyuk — both considered to be top 10 picks in the NHL entry draft next summer — already in the mix, the Sting went out and acquired overage forward Taylor Carnevale from Windsor. Add in goaltender Brandon Maxwell, acquired from Kitchener, to work with youngster Brandon Hope and the Sting already show signs they could be improved.
The Sting proceeded to add American-born defencemen Connor Murphy, a first round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes, and Anthony DeAngelo, while added even more depth offensively by signing American Reid Boucher and Swedish-born import Ludvig Rensfeldt.
The season kicks off Wednesday night when the Plymouth Whalers travel to Owen Sound to take on the defending-champion Attack.
The Sting will be in tough in the West as the Plymouth Whalers bolster a veteran lineup, which includes first-round NHL picks Stefan Noeson (Ottawa) and Rickard Rackell (Anaheim), with the addition of J.T. Miller, a New York Rangers first-rounder.
In the Midwest Division, the Guelph Storm enter the season in the unenviable position of trying to replace eight of their top 10 scorers — who combined for 197 goals — from last season. The highest-scoring returning player is Cody McNaughton (15 goals, 21 assists).
The Midwest features the usual suspects as the Kitchener Rangers and London Knights look poised for another battle near the top of the division.
The Rangers will suffer from the loss of Colorado Avalanche prospect Gabriel Landeskog, who had his rights released prior to the CHL import draft in late-June. The Rangers didn't feel confident enough that Landeskog would return to junior and used their import pick to select Czech forward Radek Faska. The Rangers added American goaltender John Gibson during the summer as well which led the team to deal Mike Morrison to Kingston.
The Knights are in good shape, although goaltending could be a bit of a concern early on. Michael Houser returns but after that, the pickings are somewhat slim.
On Monday, the Knights completed a trade with Plymouth to acquire rookie goaltender Jake Patterson, who will likely start the season as Houser's backup.
Goalie Ian Jenkins died in an accident earlier in the summer.
The Knights will also be looking for sophomore Andreas Athanasiou to improve on a surprising rookie season. The NHL draft-eligible forward had 11 goals and 22 points last season after making the team as a fourth-round pick in the 2010 OHL Priority Selection.
The Niagara IceDogs are also in an enviable position as the new season approaches.
After a season that saw them lose to the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors in the Eastern Conference final, the IceDogs return much of that group. Veteran goaltender Mark Visentin is back between the pipes for his fourth season in St. Catharines and has seen his goals against average and save percentage improve in each of his first three seasons with the IceDogs.
The Majors are missing some talent through the graduation of New York Islanders prospect Casey Cizikas and loss of steady overage defenceman Marc Cantin, who signed a contract with the Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins over the summer.
The Barrie Colts will also garner some more attention this winter after a disastrous 2010-11 season. Winnipeg Jets first-rounder Mark Scheifele will be an important cog in the Colts offence but most, if not all, eyes will be on rookie defenceman Aaron Ekblad. The first player granted exceptional player status since John Tavares in 2005, Ekblad will anchor the Colts blue-line.
In the East Division, the Oshawa Generals look to be a fun team to watch with some solid depth up front and a strong group on the blue-line. The loss of Calvin deHaan will hurt but overage defencemen Scott Valentine and Daniel Maggio will anchor a blue-line that has six members who spent time in the OHL last season.
Goalie Kevin Baillie will see some work but rookie Daniel Altshuller, acquired in a summer trade with the Belleville Bulls, can expect to get some time as well. He requested a trade out of Belleville after making it known he didn't want to compete with Bulls returnee Malcolm Subban for ice time as both are in their draft year.