Coach: George Burnett (30-29-0-9)
Guelph entered last season looking to drastically improve on their abysmal 2016-17 season where they finished last in the Western Conference with a 21-20-5-2 record (they were even worse the year before).They also gave up an abysmal 297 goals against (worst in the OHL) that year and were one of the lowest scoring teams in the league. While they made a few strides offensively last season they still gave up an alarming 6 goals or more 16 times in 68 games including a 10-3 beatdown at home to Kitchener back in December. They had some quality talent led by hulking winger Isaac Ratcliffe (PHI, 2nd rd) but too often looked lost defensively with several atrocious defensive performances. The reality is unless a few of their key players (Ryan Merkley & Dmitri Samorukov in particular) don’t dramatically up their intensity & commitment to that side of the puck this team will continue to struggle keeping the puck out of their net and should not be considered a real contender because of it.
After winning the OHL Championship in 2013-2014 the Storm gradually bottomed out finishing worst in the league 2 years later in 2015-16. It’s been a slow process back but this year’s unit has the makings of being a very solid club. The silver lining in being near the bottom of the league is you get good draft picks and Guelph has done a great job at making those picks count. Ratcliffe was drafted 15th overall in 2015, then the highly coveted Ryan Merkley (SJ, 1st rd) was taken 1st overall in 2016 along with Cam Hillis who went 28th. In the CHL Import draft that same year the Storm selected Dmitri Samorukov 2nd overall. In 2017, Guelph selected Tag Bertuzzi with the 2nd overall pick and Mason Primeau 22nd while in the import draft they nabbed Alexei Toropchenko 4th. That pretty much sums up who this team is. They have a lot of guys who were highly touted players before coming to the OHL who now have to prove as a team that they can put it together and achieve success. This team has plenty of question marks but there is no questioning the raw talent on paper.
21 yr olds D Garrett McFadden and C James McEwan are the two overagers who move on. Both were useful players but not irreplaceable. The one loss that could hurt is Alexei Toropchenko who was drafted by St. Louis in the NHL before being drafted by Guelph in the OHL which means if St. Louis chooses – they could sent him to their AHL affiliate San Antonio instead of Guelph. 3rd pairing defenceman Mark Shoemaker could also make the jump to the minors.
Captain Matt Finn of the OHL champions Guelph Storm. (CHL Images)
Offensively how good could they be?
Guelph has the potential to be very good offensively. Merkley creates so much offence from the back end he’s like an extra forward out there. He only had 2 PPG’s all year but led the OHL with 32 Powerplay assists. He’s a threat to join the rush every time he’s on the ice and he has the ability to set his teammates up for tap-ins if the opposing defence isn’t paying attention. The forward group should be much stronger this year as long as Isaac Ratcliffe doesn’t make the Philadelphia Flyers. He had 41 goals last season and could get 50 easily this year if healthy. At 6’6″, 200+ lbs he is a matchup nightmare for many OHL defencemen. He’s supported by C Cam Hillis (MTL, 3rd rd) who was a 17 yr old rookie that scored 59 points in 60 games last season. Hillis, is a small but creative Center should have a breakout season in year two. After that, the Storm have a trio of 19 yr old’s capable of chipping in some offence in Nate Schnarr (ARZ, 3rd rd), Liam Hawel (DAL, 4th rd) & Cedric Ralph (undrafted). All 3 are good at faceoffs too. The real key to this offence exploding however is a couple of 2017 draftees – Tag Bertuzzi & Mason Primeau.
2019 Draft Eligibles
C Tag Bertuzzi is the son of former NHL Todd Bertuzzi and brings a lot of the same characteristics as his father did. The #2 overall pick in the 2017 OHL draft is big, strong and highly skilled. Blessed with a wonderful set of hands, big shot and an array of slick moves I expect Bertuzzi to take a giant leap forward this year for Guelph and probably end up being a 1st round pick. Bertuzzi is also a hard working, high character player who has great leadership traits. Potential future Captain material.
C Mason Primeau is the son of another former NHL’er – Wayne Primeau. The big, hulking center moves around well for a big man and should be able to contribute more offensively this year after registering 7 goals & 13 points last season. He’s smart and reliable defensively so he should also help on the penalty kill.
This team should be able to score but can they defend?
That’s the million dollar question. For as good as Merkley is offensively, he is just as bad defensively. He had 67 points as a defenceman but was also a team low -29. He appears to want nothing to do with playing defence instead just waits to transition to offence thus putting his team in trouble way too often in their own zone. He can look downright AWFUL defensively on a nightly basis with his lackadaisical efforts. Extremely frustrating player to watch.
Samorukov (EDM, 3rd rd) is an offensively talented defenceman in his own right but he too lacks the intensity & overall commitment to defence that is required of this team if they are going to take the next step. Too often he looks to stick check instead of taking the man and needs to do a better job of not letting the opposition get behind him. The physical part of his game that he showed in his draft year practically disappeared last season. While he and Merkley are both good at anticipating passes and getting sticks in lanes, they really struggle when they’re hemmed in their own zone and lose way too many puck battles along the boards that keep plays alive for the opposition. Both must do a much better job this season to give their team a chance defensively.
The defenceman I thought did the best job in his own zone winning puck battles and clearing guys from in front of the net was Owen Lalonde (undrafted). Lalonde, was actually the #2 overall pick in the 2016 OHL draft behind Ryan Merkley but was traded to Guelph after refusing to sign with the team that drafted him – the Sudbury Wolves. I thought he really came into his own in the 2nd half of the season and although he wasn’t drafted he is still a talented 2 way RHD that could still go next year in his draft+1 season. He won’t play Top pair with RHD Merkley ahead of him but should get Top 4 minutes and will be relied on heavily to provide some stability in the defensive zone.
16 yr old LD Mark Woolley started last season as a 15 yr old and managed to play 66 games. He is not draft eligible till 2020 due to a late birthday but he has tremendous poise for a 16 yr old and is a good puck mover.
The rest of the defensive core is a question mark though 17 yrd old Anthony Aguanno who got into 7 games in the regular season and 4 in the playoffs last year has a shot again to make the team. The team’s 1st rd pick in 2018 Daniil Chayka also will be in the mix and as mentioned, Matt Shoemaker may or may not move on to play minor pro.
So it looks like Guelph barring a trade is going to be extremely young on the blueline which is all the more reason for guys likes Merkley and Samorukov to step and set the tone defensively. If they don’t, it’s conceivable this team’s goals against could go up even further than last year which means they might have to outscore teams 7-6 every night to win.
The one saving grace Guelph might have even if the defence is subpar defensively is their goalie Anthony Popovich. He wasn’t drafted by an NHL team this summer but with him back between the pipes the team at least has a chance each and every night. His numbers weren’t gaudy 29-21-3, 3.44 GAA, .902 SV% but considering the team’s numbers in the 10 games he wasn’t in 1-8-1, 4.39 GAA, .865 SV% he at least allows them to compete. He is inconsistent and will let in the odd bad goal but the team at least appears to have confidence in him. Backup Nico Daws is big and looks the part but really struggled last year albeit as a 16 yr old.
Guelph is a still a young team especially on the back end and will likely still have their share of blowout losses. They should be able to score more though which could ultimately lead to high scoring games on both ends which if nothing else should be entertaining to watch. They have a shot at the Midwest Division but it appears they are still a ways away from making a run at an OHL title unless they improve dramatically on defence. Don’t be surprised if they make a trade or two to try and solidify their back end early. It’s possible this season could go the other way and they end up dumping guys they figure will be gone next year but it’s too early to tell on that. Regardless, I expect to see a wildly inconsistent but highly eventful team show up each and every night with mixed results……again.
To comment please do so via Twitter @TheOilKnight