NEWS
09/20/2017 12:07 EDT | Updated 09/22/2017 06:53 EDT

Otters in tough to repeat as OHL champions with new coach and minus offensive stars

The Erie Otters will begin their Ontario Hockey League title defence with a rookie coach and without many of the stars that helped them to a CHL-record fourth straight 50-win season in 2016-17.

With leading scorer Alex DeBrincat, captain Dylan Strome and top defenceman Darren Raddysh all moving on to the NHL, Chris Hartsburg is keeping expectations realistic in his first season behind the Otters' bench.

"We're not going to maintain that forever. I think the biggest thing for us is trying to sustain as much as you can," the son of former NHL player and coach Craig Hartsburg said. "You lose 49 per cent of your scoring and you're going to take a step back in some areas."

Erie, which openes its season Thursday night in Peterborough, won its second J. Ross Robertson Cup last season under head coach Kris Knoblauch, who has also moved on to the NHL as an assistant with the Philadelphia Flyers. Knoblauch compiled a 216-83-14 record over five and a half seasons with the Otters.

Six of the last seven OHL champions have come from the Midwest Division. With London and Erie in rebuild mode, it opens the door for the likes of Owen Sound, which finished a point back of Erie last season with a franchise-best 49 wins, Guelph and Kitchener to step up and take the reins.

"A team like Guelph, that's gone through the changes that they have, but with the players they have coming back and the young guys they have there, certainly they're a team that's ready to win now," said Hartsburg. "Owen Sound obviously having a huge year last year and returning a vast majority of those players."

Nick Suzuki and Jonah Gadjovich combined for 91 goals last season with the Attack, the most of any returning tandem in the league.

The Attack will be tested in goal as Michael McNiven, the OHL's top goaltender last season, has graduated to join the Montreal Canadiens organization. Owen Sound acquired overage goaltender Zack Bowman to fill the void.

The Storm finished in the basement of the OHL's Western Conference last season, missing the playoffs for a second consecutive year. However, with George Burnett back at the helm and potential 2018 top-10 pick Ryan Merkley leading the way, the Storm expect to take a step in the right direction.

"I believe we should show progress, significant progress and it would be very disappointing for me to not be a post-season team," Burnett said. "It won't be easy, but we've added with (Zach) Porier and (Mark) Shoemaker, (Owen) Lalonde, we've added some pieces there that should make significant impact on our team."

Led by Boris Katchouk up front and Conor Timmins on the blue line, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds should win the West Division for a fourth time in five years.

Like the Otters, the defending Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires lost several players in the off-season with the graduation of Jalen Chatfield, Jeremiah Addison and Jeremy Bracco. Mikhail Sergachev is not due back from Tampa Bay and Jets prospect Logan Stanley was dealt to Kitchener, leaving big holes on the blue line.

After falling in five games to the Otters in the OHL final last spring, the Mississauga Steelheads hope to be the club to beat in the Western Conference.

Steelheads leading scorer Owen Tippett (Florida) and Michael McLeod (New Jersey) should be back from their respective NHL clubs while Nathan Bastian (New Jersey) is eligible for the AHL. Ryan McLeod is draft eligible this season and should get more responsibility.

The Peterborough Petes will contend for the East Division title once again this season. Led by Oilers prospect Dylan Wells in goal and Matthew Timms on the back end, the Petes will look to improve on their third round playoff exit last season. Jonathan Ang is one to watch up front.

Barrie won't be challenging for a league title, but the Colts will have a couple players to watch for the 2018 NHL draft, including projected top-2 pick Andrei Svechnikov, who joins the OHL club after spending last season with Muskegon in the USHL.

"He's talented. He's dangerous," said Hartsburg, who spent the previous four seasons coaching in the USHL. "Blue line-in he's as good as there is, I think. He's tough to contain, can score in multiple different ways and he can beat you. For a coach, to add that element to your game, he's going to be fun to watch."