TORONTO, Ont. -- The field is set, and by Friday night we'll know which team reigns supreme in bantam hockey this season as the week-long OHF Provincial Bantam AAA Championship takes over Thunder Bay this week.
The seven-team field features no shortage of talent across the board, and while a couple of teams can be safely labled as pre-tournament favourites, it's hard to rule out any surprises from happening this week.
In case you missed the final field, allow us to introduce them:
- HNO: Thunder Bay Kings (Host, Playoff Champions); Fort Frances Canadiens (Runner Up)
- NOHA: North Bay Trappers
- OMHA: York Simcoe Express
- ALLIANCE: Cambridge Hawks
- GTHL: Toronto Marlboros
- HEO: Ottawa Jr. 67's
The Toronto Marlboros come into Thunder Bay as the star attraction, and for good reason, as they have a noteworthy resume this season which includes a win at the prestigious John Reid Memorial Tournament in St. Alberta, Alta., as well as a playoff championship in what is Ontario's toughest league, the GTHL. That said, by no means are the team in blue and white going to be a shoe-in to take home the provincial title this week.
Despite possessing a forward core that is littered with talent from top-to-bottom, the team has had its struggles in goal and has had a bit of a bumpy ride the second half as they lost their holding on first-place in the regular season and had to come-from-behind to bounce the Jr. Canadiens before doing the same in Game 7 against the Mississauga Reps.
The Marlboros key to success will come from their offense, which has been a bit streaky of late; struggling to convert on the plethora of chances they seem to generate. If they can get on the right foot in Thunder Bay, it'll be hard for anyone to shut them down regardless of what they get out of the other end. Jamie Drysdale and Lleyton Moore will continue to be the pillars on the team's back-end, while if the recent trend holds true, expect Connor McKenzie to get the nod in the games of most importance.
Not far behind the Marlboros, however, are the York-Simcoe Express; a team that has certainly found its groove heading into the All-Ontario's. Led by Quinton Byfield, who is continuing to assert himself as every bit the part of a blue-chip prospect, the Express also feature no shortage of depth up front with several forwards that will generate no shortage of OHL Draft interest next year. That said, this team seems to go as Byfield goes, so they'll need their captain to be on point if they want to be playing for gold.
Over the course of the season, the York Simcoe defense has seen some nice improvement and while they may not be world-beaters just yet, they're actually developing into a nice component of the team's overall identity. With a group that's headlined by Jack Bar, Ian Lemieux, Brett Pearce, and Anton Thompson, they have no shortage of size on the back-end and have a group that can give you some tangible value in all three zones.
If you're going to make a projection, a Marlboros v. Express final seems like the most likely of outcomes, but that's not to say there aren't some other teams in the field that are perfectly capable of being a spoiler.
Despite losing top-end pieces like Cameron Butler and Kyle McDonald, the Ottawa Jr. 67's haven't hung their head this season and continue to be a pesky team that can beat you on any given night. Led by their captain, Sean McGurn, the HEO champions also boast a quality tournament resume that was highlighted by their run to the finals of the Marlboros Holiday Classic, where they were narrowly edged by Oakville at the end.
While they're not a team that's laced with top-end talent, they're a very solid team up front and have a number of players who are credible offensive threats at the 'AAA' level. The team also has a nice group on defense with Liam Cavan, Giuseppe Marino, Patrick Larkin, and Ryan Buckley giving their coaching staff a nice compliment of players who can succeed in all types of situations. In net, William Nguyen isn't a terribly big goaltender, but he's got a knack for standing tall in big games, which is precisely what you need your goaltender to do in a tournament like this. Will McEvoy is right there as a 1A/1B type of situation, as well, giving them no shortage of depth in the crease.
The '02 loop in the Alliance certainly isn't going to be confused with being one of the stronger crops from the league in recent history, so perhaps that's the main reason why Cambridge is actually a bit of an underdog heading into the tournament despite navigating their way through the season and playoffs without much stress. While they're a team that doesn't feature a ton of high-end talent by way of OHL Draft prospects at this point, they are a team that plays an excellent team game and will be a very tough out in this tournament.
The lack of star-power seems to be more of a blessing than anything, as the Hawks are one of the most unselfish teams you'll come across, and a team that simply plays hard every single shift. Ben McFarlane headlines their crop of OHL Draft prospects at this point, but it will be interesting to see what type of tournament we see from their players going up against some of the premier teams in Ontario on the biggest of stages.
North Bay is a team that isn't going to get much love coming out of a weak NOHA loop, but they're a team that is certainly capable of an upset or two during the week. After all, let's not forget that they did beat the Jr. Canadiens in Buffalo, proving that they have the ability to at least hang with the big boys.
Pacey Schlueting is likely to be the star attraction once again, as the big rearguard is mobile and offensive-minded every time he's on the ice. It'll be a good test to see where he's at, as the Trappers defender has been rumoured to potentially be en route to the GTHL next season, although we'll see whether or not anything does indeed come from that. Up front, the team has several decent forwards, but size isn't exactly working in their favour in that area. That said, Joe Jordan is an industrious forward who simply seems to produce points regardless of opposition. Consistently outperforming his skill-set, we'll see what type of week the stocky forward can muster.
And let's not forget the host entry, either, who will benefit from not having to undergo a gruelling travel schedule to play in the tournament this week. If they come out of the gates hot, that could certainly be a storyline they can take advantage of as the other teams shake off the rust from a long bus or plane ride to get there.
Owen Perala and Michael Stubbs are the forwards that are going to need to produce for the Kings to have some success this week, as their top offensive duo are certainly capable of holding their own against any of the teams in the field. Like Jordan, Stubbs is an undersized forward with an admirable work-rate and propensity to create chances. Perala has more of a pro-frame at this point than anything, and is a nice compliment as a north/south winger who's effective on the forecheck, in front of the net, and creating space in general. The team also has some nice size on the blueline, as captain Matt Halhushak and Dylan Bertrand are shaping up as credible OHL Draft prospects, as well.
And hey, while Fort Frances won't be expected to produce much as a 'AA' team playing against some of the premier Ontario teams this week; maybe David will pull off an upset just to throw a wrench into everything.