OHL Report: Are the Niagara IceDogs the Team to Beat in the East?
There have only been a couple of teams that have been at the top of the Ontario Hockey League for the majority this season. Ottawa has really ran the East Division, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds are still showing that they have a contending team, and the London Knights are….well the London Knights.
One team that has really surged up the standings since American Thanksgiving has been the Niagara IceDogs. For the first month or so, the IceDogs trailed the surprise Sudbury Wolves in the Central Division. General Manager Joey Burke knew with a roster full of over-agers moving on following the season, he knew he could not waste this opportunity for the IceDogs to potentially endure postseason success. Burke made some of the biggest moves this season to make Niagara a contender, and such transactions have made Niagara arguably one of the best teams in the OHL.
Dhillon Continues to Chug Along
A team’s success starts with goaltending, and Niagara this season has had exceptional play from Stephen Dhillon. The undrafted net-minder has been solid in his fourth full season with the IceDogs. He is 26-7-7 this season, which puts him second in the league in wins. Dhillon has also been one of the biggest work-horses in the OHL. He has played in 41 games, which is tied for second only to Peterborough’s Hunter Jones. Dhillon is also second in the league in saves with 1,235, again second to Jones. Niagara did bring in Jake McGrath from Sudbury at the Trade Deadline to help lighten the load, however Dhillon will likely be the guy Coach Billy Burke goes to come playoff time.
Talent of Defence Bolstered with the Addition of Brassard
All-around defencively, the IceDogs have matured and become a much better team in their own end this season. The play of undrafted defencemen Elijah Roberts and Johnathon Schaefer has been superb, as they have both been staples on the Niagara blue-line for the past couple of season. Joey Burke felt like they needed another piece to help solidify the defence. Just a couple of days before the trade deadline, Niagara received Matt Brassard from Oshawa via trade.
Brassard is in his fourth year in the league, and has certainly paid his dues. After getting traded from his original home in Barrie to Oshawa in the 2016-2017 season, Brassard really settled into an excellent two-way defenceman. After a 51-point season last year, the Vancouver draft pick is close to a point per game this season, with 40 points scored in 47 games. Since coming to the IceDogs, he has only failed to get on the score sheet three times in the 12 games since the trade.
Added Scoring Weapons Deepens the Offence
Niagara started the season with some pretty talented players up front that already made them a tough team to play against.
Ben Jones is on pace have his best season in the league in his final year with Niagara. After a 79-point campaign last season, The Vegas draft pick from 2017 has 74 points in 50 games, along with 45 assists, which is top-10 in the league.
Akil Thomas is right behind Jones in points with 73. Los Angeles’ second-round pick from last summer’s draft is arguably one of the best play-makers in the league. His 47 assists sits him fourth in the ‘O’, thanks to his incredible vision and awareness on the power play.
Kirill Maksimov and Philip Tomasino are another duo that have been consistent for the IceDogs this season. Maksimov had a career last season with 80 points for Niagara. The Edmonton prospect’s production has increased, with 63 points in 47 games so far.
The draft-eligible Tomasino has really upped his game following his rookie season. The Mississauga-native is fifth on the team in scoring with 25 goals and 28 assists. His play this season is beginning to show why the IceDogs drafted him fifth-overall in the 2017 OHL Draft.
Adding Studnicka & Robertson
Despite the present skill level, Joey Burke knew if this team wanted to make a run deep into the postseason, the IceDogs would need scoring up and down the lineup.
That is why on November 20th he traded 11 draft picks, Billy Constantinou and Ian Martin to Kingston to acquire one of the top scorers in the OHL, Jason Robertson. Robertson has been a huge pick up for the IceDogs, and his production has even increased since the transaction. Robertson has scored seven more points with Niagara in four fewer games than he played with the Kingston Frontenacs. Last year with the Frontenacs, he put up 87 points. This season, in 44 games thus far, he has scored 83 points, good for third in the league. His 37 goals and 46 assists place him sixth and fifth in the league, respectively.
That was not the only bit of talent Niagara would add, as apart of the deal that brought over Brassard right before the deadline, the IceDogs also acquired Boston prospect Jack Studnicka in trade with the Oshawa Generals. Studnicka had a career year last season with Oshawa, scoring 72 points in 66 games, an average of 1.09 points a game. This season his scoring has picked up even more. Between the Generals and the IceDogs, Studnicka has produced 52 points in 42 games, which is around 1.24 points per game. Niagara really needed a centre with a scoring touch and experience, and with Studnicka they have both in spades.
Niagara is shaping up to be one of the best teams in the OHL, maybe even a contender to be in the J. Robertson Cup Finals. The East may not have enough depth compared to the Niagara lineup, and the IceDogs could be in for a run not just to the OHL championship, but possibly the Memorial Cup.
stats from eliteprospects.com and ontariohockeyleague.com