MiHockey previews: Plymouth Whalers return with a loaded roster

By Matt Mackinder - 

The Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers are annual contenders in the Western Conference, and 2012-13 shouldn’t serve as any exception. A deep roster has coach Mike Vellucci and the Whalers expecting a deep run in the OHL playoffs.

Rewind

The Whalers were expected to go all the way to the OHL title last season and went 47-18-2-1 inthe regular season, but were stopped in the Western Conference semifinals by the Kitchener Rangers in a seven-game thriller. Disappointed to say the least, as the West Division champions seemingly had all the ingredients in place – scoring led by Stefan Noesen (38 goals), Alex Aleardi (36 goals), Andy Bathgate (44 assists), Rickard Rakell (28 goals), J.T. Miller (25 goals) and Mitchell Heard (29 goals), a top-notch defense led by captain Beau Schmitz (54 points), Austin Levi and Colin MacDonald, and two No. 1 goalies in Scott Wedgewood (28 wins) and Matt Mahalak (19 wins). In the offseason, Schmitz and Levi signed withCarolina, Rakell withAnaheimand rugged forward Tom Wilson was drafted in the first round byWashington. Heard (Colorado) and gritty forward Cody Payne (Boston) also became NHL property in June, with Heard signing with the Avalanche late in the summer.

Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images

Bench boss

Mike Vellucci is entering his 12th season behind thePlymouth bench. Vellucci always seems to have a competitive team to work with and in recent years, has begun to show more intense emotions behind the bench, usually getting the players in front of him to play with more confidence and a chip on their shoulders. One of the most respected coaches in the league, Vellucci’s name comes up often when drafted Whalers or alumni in the NHL are asked to name their most influential coach, and for good reason. He’s always a contender for OHL coach of the year honors and won the award in 2007 after leadingPlymouth to its last J. Ross Robertson Cup and a Memorial Cup berth, where they were knocked out in the semifinals. No matter the makeup of the team, Vellucci gets the most out of his players and has had current and former players say he is tough, but fair.

Line change

Schmitz, Bathgate and Jamie Devane ended their OHL careers last April as the team’s three overagers, while Levi, Heard and defenseman Dario Trutmann (playing pro inSwitzerland) are also done. Forward Mitchell Dempsey, Plymouth’s top pick from the 2011 OHL draft, was traded to Sault Ste. Marie for defenseman Gianluca Curcuruto in August, while defenseman Connor Carrick chose the Whalers over the University of Michigan shortly after being drafted by Washington in June. Other new faces to Compuware Arena this year include 2012 first-round pick Zack Bratina, NHL prospect Ryan Hartman (2010 draft pick who reneged on the NCAA to play for Plymouth), forward Connor Sills (2011 draft), defensemen Alex Peters (2012 draft), Steve Duda (OHL free agent) and Simon Karlsson (2012 import draft), and goaltenders Riley Corbin (trade with Sudbury) and Alex Nedeljkovic (2012 draft), who will battle for the backup role behind Mahalak.

Alex Aleardi is expected to have a big season for the Whalers (Walt Dmoch/Plymouth Whalers)

If the water bottle is half full…

Even with Schmitz and Wedgewood graduating to the pros, the Whalers return virtually their entire roster from last season and have beefed up considerably.Wilson emerged last season as a legitimate power forward-type and with his size (6-foot-4) and ability, can be downright scary to play against on a nightly basis.  Aleardi is in his fifth and final OHL season and has the potential to put up 90-100 points and 100 penalty minutes. Mahalak has learned from Wedgewood and Plymouth goalie coach Stan Matwijiw the past two years and is ready to be a full-fledged starter in the OHL. All the pieces to the puzzle look to be in place at this point in the season and even if the season gets off to a slow start, keep in mind the same thing happened late in 2006 and look what happened in May 2007.

If the water bottle is half empty…

With as many as 11 NHL draft picks on the roster heading into the season and some already signed, egos could get in the way or players who have already cashed their NHL bonus checks (just look out in the parking lot for the newest and most tricked-out SUVs) may take nights off here and there. Not saying it WILL happen, just saying there is a chance based on past history. Carrick has been groomed during the preseason to take over Schmitz’s role as the power-play quarterback and if he has a hard time adjusting from the USHL to the OHL, there could be more problems. Back in 2010-11, Mahalak was touted as a first-round NHL draft pick and faltered horribly during the first half of the season. Where his confidence is two years later could also be a major factor in where the Whalers wind up, especially if the offense should happen to sputter.

MVP

Many choices here, but let’s go with Noesen. His confidence is booming, as is his scoring prowess and he already has signed with Ottawa after being their first-round selection in 2011. Most nights, if Noesen is on, the rest of the team follows. He’ll most likely wear a letter this season, maybe even the ‘C.’ Very well-spoken and very intelligent, the Texas native has never been one to complain about anything, even during his rookie season three years ago when he was sitting atop the press box half the season. Noesen is a solid, solid hockey player and an even better human being. Can be a clutch, emotional player as well and has respect around the league.

Difference-maker

Wilson, by far. As one who leads by example, Wilson can get the team going with a big hit, dropping the gloves or by showcasing his offense, as he did during the 2012 playoff run. Wilson is the perfect example of how a big hit or fight can change the tempo of a game and if he can stay injury-free and maybe pick his spots this year, expect bigger numbers from Wilson, along with a bigger role.