NOJHL champs will be …

TIMMINS - The puck drops on the Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League regular season Thursday night in Cochrane, with the Crunch playing host to the Mattawa Blackhawks.

It is kind of fitting that these two relocated franchises will meet in the first game of the season for a league that has expanded to nine teams for the 2014-15 campaign.

The Crunch, formerly the Elliot Lake Bobcats, are coming off a very successful preseason that saw them win all four games — by a combined score of 33-7.

Things have not gone quite as smoothly for the Blackhawks, formerly known as the North Bay Trappers, who dropped their first two of three exhibition games 5-3 and 12-2 to the Crunch.

In addition to a pair of relocated franchises, the NOJHL will also feature a pair of expansion teams this season — The Powassan Voodoos and the Elliot Lake Wildcats.

The league has also been divided into two divisions for the 2014-15 campaign, with the Crunch, Blackhawks and Voodoos joining the defending champion Kirkland Lake Gold Miners and the Abitibi Eskimos in the Eastern Division.

The Western Division includes the Soo Thunderbirds, who finished first during regular season play last year, the Sudbury Nickel Barons, the Wildcats and the Blind River Beavers.

Following is a preview of all nine NOJHL teams and a look at how they will likely finish this season.

1. Cochrane Crunch

Coach: Ryan Leonard. GM: Ryan Leonard.

Predicted finish — First overall, First in Eastern Division.

Cochrane fans have to be excited about the way the Crunch marched through the preseason, scoring goals almost at will and making short work of the Blackhawks and the Voodoos. True, one of those teams has a coach who took over shortly before their first two exhibition games and the other is an expansion franchise, but you still have to be impressed with the killer instinct of the Crunch.

There is no shortage of offence in Cochrane, with newcomers like Cody Gratton (Cambridge Winter Hawks, GOJHL), Reed Gregory (Rocky Mountain Roughriders, T1EHL), Josh Racek (Bay State Breakers, USPHL) and Ryan Gryszka (Lambton Shores Predators, GOJHL) joining Dustin Cordeiro, Aviv Milner and Jacob Erwin to give the Crunch a strong attack.

The Crunch blue-line is just as impressive, with captain Max Glashauser, Ned Simpson and James Vuillemot being joined by newcomers such as Brandon Plourde, Joey Mavrin (Chicago Jr. Bulldogs, NA3HL), Dustin Deugau (Calgary Northstars, AMHL), Jackson Atkinson (OHA Maroon Mavericks, OEMHL) and Connor Lovie (Mount Brydges Bulldogs, SOJHL).

The group features size, toughness, the ability to move the puck quickly and create offence.

If the Crunch have one weakness — and that is a mighty big if — it might be in goal.

Troy Paquette has looked like the real deal during the exhibition season and despite being only 17 years old he appears to have the poise to succeed in the NOJHL.

His backup, Matthew Young, has struggled at times, however, and if Paquette is lost to injury for any length of time it might derail the rise of the Crunch to the top of the standings.

2. Soo Thunderbirds

Coach: Jordan Smith. GM: Kevin Cain.

Predicted finish — Second overall, First in Western Division

Under coach Jordan Smith, the Thunderbirds play a defence-first style of hockey.

Strong goaltending is an important part of that approach and the Soo appears to be strong between the pipes heading into the 2014-15 campaign.

Brian Kment, who wrestled the starting job away from NOJHL regular-season MVP Joel Horodziejczyk during the playoffs, is back. Horodziejczyk was traded to the Pembroke Lumber Kings in the off season.

In the unlikely even that Kment should falter, Mario Culina (16, 1.89, .921) is waiting in the wings. Culina is coming off an impressive season with the Waterloo Wolves, of the AHMPL.

The Thunderbirds graduated all-star Tyler Jones, but NOJHL rookie-of-the-year Owen Headrick is back for another season in the black, red and white and he should help anchor the blue-line.

Up front, the loss of captain Gavin Burbach and Darcy Haines should be offset by the addition of Matt Pinder, who averaged almost a point a game with the Cambridge Winter Hawks, of the GOJHL.

In addition, Anthony Miller, who put up 66 points for the Thunderbirds last season, is back, along with players like Jaren Bellini and Brett Jefferies.

3. Kirkland Lake Gold Miners

Coach: Marc Lafleur. GM: Marc Lafleur.

Predicted finish — Third overall, Second in East Division

The defending-champion Gold Miners have the potential to eclipse this prediction if they stay healthy and get solid production from a number of key newcomers.

Kenny Fitzgerald returns to the Kirkland Lake goal crease and will team with Devon Debastos, a Timmins Majors graduate who was the top goalie and MVP in the Great North Midget League last season. Few teams appear as strong in goal, with the possible exception of the Thunderbirds.

The Gold Miners may have lost captain Dan Morin, but their blue-line is still deep and talented, with NOJHL all-star Jeremy Picard-Fiset leading the way.

The return of Ethan Strong and Dylan Rosen should also help strengthen the Kirkland Lake defence, as will the addition of former Timmins Major Nick Hautanen, as well as Chris Pearson (Morrisburg Lions, EOJHL).

Up front, the Gold Miners should have no shortage of offence, with 80-point man Steven Babin back.

Zach Pease will have an opportunity to expand his offensive roll in 2014-15, while newcomers Tyler Romain (Napanee Raiders, EBJCHL), Ryan Swain (New Jersey Rockets, MetJHL) and Luc Soares (TPH Thunder, T1EHL) proved in the exhibition season they are capable of putting the puck in the net.

Tristen Hazlett (Lakeville North High, USHS) is another newcomer who has shown some offensive promise.

4. Abitibi Eskimos

Coach: Paul Gagne. GM: Paul Gagne.

Predicted finish — Fourth overall, Third in East Division

While most NOJHL teams have their rosters set at the conclusion of the exhibition season, the Eskimos are best described as a team in flux.

With their season set to start on Saturday night, at home against the Voodoos, the status of two of the Eskimos’ top offensive players remains up in the air.

Brady Clouthier, the Eskimos’ leading scorer last season, was checked heavily into the boards from behind in the first exhibition contest and had not skated since the injury, as of Monday.

Ryan Tront, meanwhile, suffered an upper body injury on a similar hit in the final exhibition game against the Gold Miners last Thursday.

Already short on forwards, the loss of either player for an extended period of time — without adequate replacements being found — could leave the Eskimos fighting with the also rans at the bottom of the standings instead of hanging with the top franchises.

Brenden Locke and Ryan Attwood, picked up from the Espanola Rivermen, have looked good in camp, as have youngsters Harrison Jacobs and Kyle Levis.

Defence remains the strength of the Eskimos, even with captain Kevin Walker and fellow veteran Kealey Cummings getting ice time on the forward lines.

Newcomers Josh DeJulio (Kapuskasing Flyers, GNML) and Martin Rancourt join a group that includes Brennan Roy, Ryan Kerr and perhaps Jamey Lauzon.

Matthew Wilson, who looked good in the exhibition season, opted to quit the team following the final preseason game.

In goal, the Eskimos will start the season with the tandem of Chet Tooker (Central Wisconsin Saints, MNJHL) and Braddock Baalerud (Bobcaygeon Bucks, GMHL), who beat out former Espanola Rivermen netminder Alex Chandler for the two jobs.

5. Mattawa Blackhawks

Coach: Aaron Corbiere. GM: David Beauchamp.

Predicted finish — Fifth overall, Fourth in East Division

The Blackhawks may be playing catch up because of the late addition of head coach Aaron Corbiere, hired to replace Zane Neily, the Trappers coach who had been expected to coach the squad during its inaugural season in Mattawa.

Despite losing their first two exhibition games to the Crunch in Cochrane — 5-3 and 12-2 — the Blackhawks proved they are going to play an aggressive, in-your-face style of hockey.

Assuming they can do so without taking too many penalties, that should allow the Blackhawks to finish in the middle of the pack.

The Blackhawks lineup features a number of former Trappers, including C.J. Nicholson,

Henry Yawit, Nick Grose, Christan Sgroi, Kyle Bariland Tyler Broderson, as well as former Gold Miners Alex Hulford and Matt Whidden.

Newcomers who have made a positive impression include Jimmy Philbin, Zack Nadeau,

Alex Dajia and Kyle Huhn.

6. Sudbury Nickel Barons

Coach: Jason Young. GM: Mike Mooney.

Prediction — Sixth overall, Second in West Division

The Nickel Barons added goalie Jessie Morin in a trade with the Blind River Beavers during the off season and he may end up getting the bulk of the starts in net if Michael Muzyka, currently in camp with the Sudbury Wolves, of the OHL, does not return.

His success will depend a great deal on team the Nickel Barons ice in front of him.

The blue-line should get a boost if Moosonee native Khadyn Butterfly, also currently in camp with the Wolves, returns.

Jonathon Lavigne and Yanic Hebert will be back on the Nickel Barons defence and he will be joined by newcomers Ryan Mooney (Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves, GNML) and Brett Whitehead (Toronto Red Wings, GTHL.

Up front, the Nickel Barons leading scorer, August Jarecki, and Dylan Callaghan will be back and the team has brought in a number of players to try to boost the offence, including Lucas Toth (Toronto Jr. Canadiens, GTHL), Christopher Rossi (Winchester Hawks, EOJHL), Jacob Bonin (Melfort Mustangs, SJHL) and Danny Lepage (Hoosac School, USHS).

For the Nickel Barons to exceed expectations this season they will need to put the puck in the net more often than they did in 2013-14.

7. Powassan Voodoos

Coach: Scott Wray. GM: Chris Dawson

Predicted finish — Seventh overall, Fifth in East Division

It is a little difficult to predict the finish of a team that has only 12 players listed on its roster, none of them goaltenders, but it is a safe bet they will find somebody to stop the puck before they take to the ice in Cochrane Friday night.

Two of the players the Voodoos do have signed, forwards Aaron Sullivan and Brandon Major, are from Timmins.

Powassan’s attack will also feature Nathaniel McLeod, Michael Silveri, Aaron Dart, who formed the top line for the GNML’s North Bay Trappers last season.

Other forwards who might make key contributions include Dante Juris (Topeka Roadrunners, NA3HL), Hunter May (AHI Fighting Spirit, NSHL) and Brett Lepisto (Hancock Bulldogs, MHSAA).

At this point, the Voodoos have only four defenders — Nolan Smith (Halton Hurricanes, GTHL), Jeremy St. Pierre (Trappers, GNML), Josh Ibbitson (Trappers, GNML) and Kyle Hauswirth (Hancock Bulldogs, MHSAA).

How coach Scott Wray and general manager Chris Dawson fill out their roster, likely with players from the North Bay Battalion, of the OHL, could have a significant impact on where they finish in the standings.

Stay tuned.

8. Elliot Lake Wildcats

Coach: Nathan Hewitt. GM: Todd Stencill.

Predicted finish — Eighth overall, Third in West Division

The Wildcats are the NOJHL’s other expansion franchise and unlike the Voodoos they do not have the benefit of an affiliation agreement with the Battalion.

Some of they key players the Wildcats have brought in for their inaugural season include forwards Spencer MacLean (Hill Academy), Jeffrey Wilson (Clarington Toros, ETAHL), Shane Woolsey (Ridley College), Alec MacKenzie (Clarence Beavers, EOJHL), Tanner Bowditch (Central Ontario Wolves, ETAHL) and Jason Wilson (Ottawa Jr. Senators, CCHL).

At 6-4 and 220 pounds, MacLean will bring size to the forward ranks.

The Wildcats will also have some size on the blue-line, with the addition of 6-4 Dakota Wood (Nickel City Sons, GNML).

Other key contributors will include David Chiarelli (Nepean Raiders, CCHL) and Liam Knoll (Clarington Toros, ETAHL).

Playing in the weaker West Division, the Wildcats might be able to surprise a few people.

9. Blind River Beavers

Coach: Don Gagnon. GM: Warren Lavoy.

Predicted finish — Ninth overall, Fourth in West Division

The Blind River Beavers have not finished last in the NOJHL standings every year, it just seams that way some times.

Beavers coach Don Gagnon will try to avoid that happening this season, but it won’t be easy.

Blind River will likely rely upon 20-year-old Nick Kazmierczak (Twin Cities Northern Lights, MNJHL) as its main puck stopper this season.

Some of the notable players they brought in this off season include high-scoring forward Chris Zajac, (Naperville Central High School), forward Jeremy Joyce (Reeths-Puffer High, USHS), forward Chris Corgan (Aquinas College, ACHA III) and 6-2, 201-pound defenceman Ronson Odjig (Sudbury Bulldogs, NDMHL).

Others expected to make key contributions include forward returning veteran forwards Jacob Boisvenue, Leo Lightning and Matthew Neault, as well as forwards Dylan Farmer (Bloomington Jr. Blaze, MWJHL) and Cole Gilligan (North Central Predators, ETAHL).