OHL Preview – The Niagara Ice Dogs
Niagara Ice Dogs
Head Coach: Billy Burke (35-23-0-10)
Niagara entered last season with high expectations despite coming off a disappointing season the year before where they barely snuck into the playoffs before ultimately getting swept in the opening round. They lost Captain Ryan Mantha but returned a much more experienced group especially up front and with the return of their outstanding goalkeeper in Stephen Dhillon they appeared to be primed to make a run at their division. They did exactly that finishing 2nd in their division with 80 points which was the highest point total for them since 2011-12. They acquired OHL veteran Sam Miletic from London at the trade deadline and he helped carry them to 2nd round of the playoffs before bowing out to the eventual Memorial Cup Champions – The Hamilton Bulldogs. It was considered a successful season for the Ice Dogs but now expectations this year are even higher – they’re looking to the win the OHL.
PHOTO COURTESY OF OHL IMAGES
If Niagara has a shot at winning the OHL Championship – this is the year to do it. Yes, the loss of Sam Miletic is going to hurt this team there’s no doubt about it. He scored 20 goals & 38 points in 28 games during the Regular season and added another 12 points in 10 playoff games. His arrival gave the Ice Dogs two legit scoring lines and he helped Akil Thomas become a better player. The Ice Dogs also lose their Captain and fan favourite Johnny Corneil who put up 48 points in 64 games. Both players were Top 6 forwards and gave this team a lot of leadership but there’s still enough there to make it work. Overager Adrian Carbonara who was also acquired last year at the trade deadline from London – also moves on.
There is plenty of room for optimism though going into this season for a couple reasons. For one, Stephen Dhillon (undrafted & unsigned by an NHL club at the moment) should still have the opportunity of returning as an overage goalie. If there’s one overager who is vital to this team’s success this year – it’s him. Secondly, Niagara’s Top 3 scorers from last year in Akil Thomas, Kirill Maksimov & Ben Jones all return and are expected to have big seasons. While a little short on depth I certainly expect Niagara to aggressively pursue a couple players to also help bolster their lineup up front at some point in the season. Lastly, their defence while mostly an unheralded group did come on late last year and all starting 6 defencemen that finished the playoffs should return. That means a talented, experienced group that has been through 2 years of playoff battles now returns and look to make their 3rd trip to the playoffs in 3 years – a memorable one.
Kirill Maksimov of Niagara scored 80 pts in 62 games in 2017-18
Can the Ice Dogs be a two scoring line team again?
Niagara returns their Top 2 Centers in 19 yr old Ben Jones (LV, 7th rd) and 18 yr old Akil Thomas (LA, 2nd rd) so the potential is there to still have two scoring lines. Jones & Thomas had 79 and 81 points respectively. With leading goal scorer Kiril Maksimov (EDM, 5th rd) penciled in on the Top line already they should at least have one potent offensive line for sure. Maksimov had 34 goals last year in 62 games and could easily surpass 40 goals this year. The key will be finding the right combination of wingers for the rest of the Top 6 with LW Miletic & LW Corneil gone. One move Niagara will likely do to balance the lineup is switch Maksimov to LW where he seems to flourish anyways. Young RW Philip Tomasino is a good bet to get a shot at one of the two winger spots – quite possibly with Thomas & Maksimov on the Top line. That would leave the veteran Ben Jones with 19 yr old RW Danial Singer (24 goals) on one side and potentially Oliver Castleman on the left. Ideally, Niagara upgrades here before or during the season but for now that would at least give them a shot at two scoring lines. The second line is not as good as last year yet.
***UPDATE*** Danial Singer was traded for slick winger Ivan Lodnia who had 59 Points last year for Erie and Swiss Import pick RW Kyen Sopa who is regarded as a big time goal scorer also signed.
2019 Draft Eligibles
C/RW Philip Tomasino was drafted 5th overall by Niagara in the 2017 OHL draft. He is small but highly skilled, has a strong work ethic and good hockey sense. He attended the Team Canada U18 development camp and by numerous accounts showed well but did not crack a deep & talented roster. Tomasino should get a shot at Top line duty at some point this season and if he does end up playing alongside the likes of Maksimov and/or Akil Thomas his numbers could skyrocket. As an NHL prospect his size and frame will be a concern but there’s no doubt he has the tools to be a high draft pick if he continues bigger and stronger. Last year, he had 24 points in 61 games.
RD Billy Constantinou has dynamic offensive potential but plays a solid 2 way game. He’s not the biggest kid but is a good skater and should could more opportunity this year. He had 3 goals and 12 points in 44 games last season.
How good is the defence?
Niagara’s defence last year was nothing spectacular but they meshed well as a group and improved as the year went on. In the playoffs, I thought they really stepped up as a unit scoring some big goals and blocking a ton of shots. Most of them are smaller defenders and none of them are drafted by an NHL club but they skate real well and work well together.
Liam Ham is probably their #1 defenceman by default but in essence they are more like a team full of #2’s and #3’s. He led the team with 32 points in 63 games. Elijah Roberts can really skate and likes to rush the puck. He’s probably the most offensively gifted of the group and led them with 8 goals.
William Lochead is their best & toughest defenceman defensively. He’ll be an overager this year but should be back. Justin MacPherson, who had 0 goals in 66 Regular season games scored twice in the playoffs while Drew Hunter who had 10 points all year also chipped in 2 goals & 5 pts in 10 playoff games. MacPherson has since been traded to Kitchener while the Ice Dogs signed hulking Czech defender Daniel Bukac (7th rd, BOS) who played the last 2 seasons in the WHL.
It’s a veteran group who has been together for a couple years now including 2 playoff runs. While there are no game-breakers or superstars on the back end they have consistently improved and should be a strength this season. Without question, the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.
The backbone of this team is Stephen Dhillon. He didn’t have the greatest year stats wise during the Regular season (3.34 GAA, .899 SV%) but was absolutely stellar in the playoffs posting a league best .924 SV% including a .917 SV% in the series versus the eventual Memorial Cup Champion Hamilton Bulldogs. In that series, he faced 206 shots in 5 games (average of 41 SA/game) and did his best to help Niagara advance.
If there was ever a reason to give a guy an NHL contract just watch the tape of Stephen Dhillon tonight. He has been absolutely unbelievable again as Niagara has no business even being in this game. Shots now 47-22 Hamilton 6 mins into OT.
— ☘️🏒SPR 🏒☘️ (@TheOilKnight) April 8, 2018
His return as an overager is imperative to this team as 19 yr old backup Colton Incze is inexperienced. The fact he never got drafted and still remains unsigned by any NHL team absolutely blows my mind.
Niagara has to be considered one of the favourites to win the OHL. How far they go will depend on a few of their stars like Maksimov, Thomas, Jones & Dhillon. They’re well coached, have a veteran defence and are an experienced group. Depending on who they can add to their lineup like they did with Miletic last year might ultimately decide how far they go. There’s no doubt this might be the last kick at the can for awhile with many of these core players expected to graduate next year so Niagara should be all-in this season and will be a fascinating team to watch.
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