Typically after the Trade Deadline, the Eastern Conference separates into a few different categories. You have the teams who are completely untouchable and you know will be playing in the third round at the very least. Then you have the teams who could get hot and go on a run, and then you have the teams who are bottom of the barrel and stand no chance to make it deep. Oftentimes, there’s a handful of teams, sometimes as few as three or four who stand any kind of chance in the playoffs, but this season, that doesn’t really seem to be the case.
Things have become incredibly difficult to predict in the second half of the season, and there are teams right down to 10th in the East that can win on any given night. Despite that, there is one team that stands clearly at the top, and that is the Hamilton Bulldogs. At the Trade Deadline, they made a massive move to acquire Mason McTavish where they gave up plenty of their future for a chance at the Memorial Cup. That wasn’t it for them, however. Perhaps underrated has been their trade for former Kitchener Rangers defenceman, Arber Xhekaj.
The trade to acquire Xhekaj was another one where the Bulldogs walked away from multiple assets for a piece to help them contend in the immediate future. The two trades cost the Bulldogs four second-round picks, five third-round picks, two conditional fourth-round picks, Navrin Mutter, Jonathan Melee, and Alex Pharand. It was an extraordinarily high price to pay and it’s likely that the Bulldogs will be forced to sell off their best players in the seasons to come, but for the time being, they are elite and on another level compared to their Eastern Conference opponents.
Being better on paper doesn’t always mean you will win, and while the Bulldogs were busy spending every penny they could find to get better, there were other teams in the Eastern Conference that took alternate approaches. All three of the Kingston Frontenacs, Mississauga Steelheads, and North Bay Battalion are all expected to be able to compete with the Bulldogs, but none of them mortgaged their future in order to load up and take a run at the Memorial Cup this season.
It was expected that the Frontenacs would be a favourite to win the championship this season in large part thanks to Shane Wright, but so far this season, the Fronts have had their issues and currently sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. Their quest has been complicated by unpredictably strong sides with the Battalion and Steelheads who few people thought would be as good as they are this season.
These teams were quiet when it came to bringing players in. The most notable moves came from Kingston who bought on a budget with Ben Roger and Alec Belanger. The Steelheads did something too, however. They acquired Jake Uberti from the Niagara IceDogs for a trio of draft picks, while North Bay moved an eighth-round pick to Sarnia in exchange for Nikita Tarasevich.
All of these teams (who are contenders) looked comfortable with what they had for the most part, and even while Hamilton sets the league alight with their massive winning streaks, they aren’t in the clear when it comes to some of these other teams. They have their superstars with Wright, Martin Chromiak, Ty Nelson, and James Hardie. They will be there to contend come playoff time, but even still there are more teams who are showing they won’t go down easily when it gets time for their best of seven series.
The Barrie Colts were a team that came into the season with sky-high expectations, and for the most part, they haven’t gotten anywhere near those expectations. Despite that, there is still hope for them to finish inside the top four in the Eastern Conference and earn the home-ice advantage they would desire in the first round. They have games in hand on nearly everyone in the conference, but they would need to get on a roll in order to make it count for more than just fifth place.
The Colts Trade Deadline was one that left many pundits shaking their heads in befuddlement as they shipped Oskar Olausson to the Oshawa Generals while still making a move to acquire Declan McDonnell from the Rangers. This came only months after they traded for former Owen Sound Attack netminder Mack Guzda and had solved their goaltending issues.
But still, the Colts remain an interesting case to study as they continue to show that they can be competitive in the Eastern Conference. They continue to rise towards the top of the standings and still have some elite players on their roster. The aforementioned Guzda is capable of winning games singlehandedly, and when goaltending becomes all the more important in the playoffs, the Colts could have the upper hand on some other teams higher in the standings. Additionally, Brandt Clarke is an electric player that you can’t miss who should have extra motivation with the World Juniors not being played in August. He has another chance to prove that he should be on the Canadian roster.
You would think that after mentioning half of the teams in the Eastern Conference, you would start running out of teams who could make some noise in the playoffs, and in a normal year, you would likely be right. This season, however, that simply isn’t the case. You have both the Generals and the Ottawa 67’s who have shown that they can hang with the best teams in the conference this season.
The Generals are still loaded with firepower with Ty Tullio, Lleyton Moore, and Brett Harrison. They are in much the same situation the Colts find themselves in. They are a team that people expected to be towards the top of the standings, but they have fallen short of those expectations, however, on any given night, they have the ability to break out for something special. Their goaltending has been a bit of a question mark, but their future is strong with Patrick Leaver who has stolen the starting job as a rookie and has had a solid season.
If you have been thinking of the 67’s as a favourable first-round matchup, you might want to change your thought process. Make no mistake about it, this is not the same team that was around in 2018-19 and 2019-20, but they are far from the team that took the ice in December and lost the majority of their games.
They are starting to get healthy and have returned Jack Beck, Tyler Boucher, and Adam Varga back to the lineup, and recently, they have played some really good teams in the Eastern Conference exceptionally close. In their last handful of games, they have beaten the Frontenacs, Steelheads, and Generals while playing a close game against the Bulldogs that they would eventually lose in overtime.
The 67’s have begun hitting their stride and they are showing that they can beat the league’s elite teams. With their style of play, it should have teams at the top of the conference taking note of them. Ottawa ends the tier of teams that are “second-tier”, but there are still three more teams in the Eastern Conference who are stronger than you would typically see.
The bottom of the conference has been a tightly-contested race between the Sudbury Wolves, Peterborough Petes, and Niagara IceDogs who have somewhat fallen off from the race, but a hot streak could have them back in contention. As of now, Sudbury and Peterborough are the likeliest two to reach the playoffs, however, there is little separating them from each other.
The Petes currently hold the upper hand on points percentage, but both teams will finish the season with difficult schedules. On a night-to-night basis, none of the teams in the bottom three would be considered a massive threat to those who have bigger aspirations this season, however, they all play a physical style of game that makes them difficult to play against.
All three teams also have their fair share of talent that could terrorize the OHL for years to come with players like Nick Lardis, David Goyette, Brenden Sirizzotti, Quentin Musty, and Pano Fimis, but they aren’t at the level to go toe-to-toe against the best just yet.
This isn’t a year where you will go into the playoffs and expect the opening round to be nothing more than a warmup for the top four teams in the conference. With COVID-19 outbreaks and other issues meaning that players missed more games than normal in many cases, it’s not a guarantee that the best teams are going to finish at the top of the standings.
Parity is the trending word around the league this season. That’s for a myriad of reasons, possibly tied to the lost season where the bad teams couldn’t load up on future assets and the good teams couldn’t unload their future, but the league is more balanced this season than we are used to seeing. It’s a good thing, and it means that the start of the playoffs has the potential to be just as competitive as the third or fourth round.
There could be some upsets. We could see a team that people thought was a lock to go deep get bounced in the first or second round. One thing is for certain, it’s going to come down to what team is playing their best hockey when the puck drops for the start of the playoffs.
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