By: Tyler Hill
The last time the Kitchener Rangers took the ice on March 11th, 2020 in Guelph, things were different. COVID-19 was not on the minds of everyone just yet, but it was starting to be. The major regular season was winding down and they were starting to prepare for a long playoff run with great goaltending from Jacob Ingham and fantastic players such as Riley Damiani, Greg Merieles, Jonathan Yantsis, Michael Vukojevic, and Serron Noel. They had some exciting young prospects who were projected to be NHL draft picks as well, like Declan McDonnell and Donovan Sebrango, along with an exciting young rookie named Francesco Pinelli. Fans were partying like it was 2008 in Kitchener, the last time the Rangers won the J. Ross Robertson Cup as OHL Champions.
But all of a sudden, the regular season was cancelled due to the fast spread of the pandemic in Ontario. Playoffs were cancelled and attention was shifted to the 2020-21 season. The start date kept getting pushed back until the entire seasonー playoffs includedー was cancelled. A year of development gone for these young players, with some of them never getting to play their overage season in the OHL. Some players, like Francesco, went overseas to get in some ice time, impress the scouts, and improve their rankings in the upcoming 2021 NHL Draft.
Now, with the recent release of a schedule for the upcoming season and an increase in vaccine rollout, life is slowly getting back to normal and the excitement on East Avenue is starting to grow.
However, what is the team this upcoming season going to look like? The Rangers have gained a steady amount of players from the past two OHL drafts, as well as the CHL Import Draft. But they have also lost a good amount of playersー especially forwards. Is it time to hit the panic button or start planning the Memorial Cup parade route for Kitchener Rangers fans? Let’s find out.
Sorry to disappoint you Rangers fans, but one of the most solid goaltenders in Rangers history will not be on the Blueshirts roster in October. Acquired in a trade from the Mississauga Steelheads during the offseason before the 2019-2020 season, Ingham impressed from the start. Through 47 games in that season, he posted a 2.96 goals against average with a career high 0.917 save percentage. He also had 33 wins and only lost 8 games in regulation along with posting 2 shutouts. Rangers fans would have loved to see if he could have carried that success over to the playoffs and lead the team to a deep playoff run during the 2020 OHL playoffs. Ingham was selected in the sixth round of the 2018 NHL Draft by the Los Angeles Kings. However, he was sent back down to the juniors for more development before he started with a professional team. A solid goaltender in his short time with the Rangers, Ingham’s successor will have big shoes to fill.
One of the Rangers most successful free agent signings will also be departing. Though the right wing’s overage season during the 2019-2020 season was unfortunately cut short, Yantsis had a final year with 59 points in 63 games. Of his 39 goals, 12 of them came on the power play. A 50 goal scorer for the Rangers in the 18-19 season, the Blueshirts are going to be needing a right winger who can step up with his departure.
The captain in the 2019-2020 season most notably turned it up a notch after he was selected in the 2018 NHL Draft by the Dallas Stars. Dallas sent him back down to the Rangers for more development. In the 2018-2019 season with the Rangers, the centreman managed to reel off 85 points in just 58 games and followed that up with 78 points in 61 games during the shortened 2019-2020 season. Damiani is adapting very well after he moved up to playing in the AHL with Dallas’s affiliate, the Texas Stars, joining an impressive list that included Tyler Toffoli, Brett Hull, and Darryl Sutter as Rookie of the Year with 36 points in 36 games. Damiani’s absence will leave an empty slot at centre, but the Rangers have enough up and coming centres like Pinelli to assuage the sting of his departure.
Like Yantsis, Meireles’ overage season was during the season with the abrupt end. He was doing fairly well as the Rangers’ assistant captain for two straight seasons and a Florida Panthers prospect. He had 97 points in 68 games in the last full season in the OHL and followed that up with 65 points in 48 games during the shortened season in 2019-2020, as well as a factor on the power play. The second centre slot is pretty much up for grabs at this year's training camp- Langdon, Leblanc, or Serpa could be the favorites with Fishman as a dark horse. I think they will play well for the Rangers, but it will be tough to expect them to be high points machines like Merieles during his time on East Ave.
The assistant captain in the season cut short, defenseman Vukojevic settled in during his early years nicely as a physical defenseman who skated well and scored when needed. Though he leaves a big hole at defense, the Rangers seem to have filled his spot with Sebrango and Roman Schmidt, who are looking to lead the Rangers in defense. Vukojevic is a New Jersey Devils product currently playing with their affiliate, the Binghamton Devils. He is eligible to come back for his last year, but given his current success with Devils and his intent to go pro, I just don’t see him coming back to the Rangers.
Pavel Cajan - 2020
Credit to the Rangers for knowing that Luke Richardson was not eligible to play in the OHL after the 2019-2020 season and dismissing uncertainty over Ingham in his overage year and his undetermined intent to go pro. Selecting a goalie in the Import Draft has proven successful before, notably with Ondrej Pavelec from 2005, Phillip Grubauer from 2008, Robin Lehner from 2009, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen from 2018. Cajan, a Czech goalie, is phenomenal, yet lacks any OHL game experience. If he gets the nod for starting goalie, then it will take some time for him to adapt. He did pretty well in the 2020 U18 tournament for the Czechs, posting a 2-1 record with a 1.55 goals against average and 0.917 save percentage in 3 games. With Team Liberec in the Czech Republic in the 2019-2020 season, he had a 15-14-0 record with two shutouts, a 3.13 goals against average, and a 0.915 save percentage over 29 games in the DHL Cup League. He’s no Ingham, but the Rangers may have found a solid replacement.
Filip Mesar- 2021
This Slovakian right wing may fit in well with the top line. For now, I would like the Rangers to leave him on the second line in right wing, because if Pinelli and McDonnell can develop chemistry through teamwork during games, it is going to develop a great line. Plus, they have OHL experience where Filip does not. If all else fails, move Filip up to the top line and McDonnell down and see if Filip can thrive off Pinelli’s passes. Filip did pretty well at the 2021 U18 tournament for Slovakia. In just 2 games, he collected 5 points. Filip did very well with Slovakia's HK Poprad U20, notching 41 points in 33 games along with a plus 25. This season, however, he didn’t really show too much with HK Poprad’s main team, posting only 14 points in 36 games, but he got some experience and looks to advance his skills when he puts the blue jersey over his head in October.
Ville Ottavainen - 2019
Ville played his first season with Rangers during the shortened season and did pretty well on defense. Ville was rumoured to be coming back for the 2021-2022 season with the Rangers but it is appearing to be more and more certain each day that he is going to stay in Finland and play in the Liiga league for JYP.
Calle Odelius - 2021
The Rangers second round pick from the 2021 Import Draft may not be coming just yet. The Swede is reported to be staying in Northern Europe and splitting time playing with Djurgardens J18 and J20 squads. He seems to be a well rounded defensemen who isn’t afraid to get physical and gets a lot of assists, which is why I think he will fit in nicely with the Rangers if he comes overseas in the 2022-23 season.
OHL Priority Selection Draft 2020 and 2021
Andrew is a centreman who I think should be on the third line for the first few games. If he impresses, that would fill the uncertainty over who will be the second line centreman and give the Rangers a solid goal scorer and points getter other than Pinelli and McDonnell. In the 31 games of his draft year, he posted an impressive 68 points, averaging 2 points a game. He isn’t afraid to get rough either, as he had 78 penalty minutes in that same season. What I like about him especially is how he shows up big in the playoffs. He had 34 points in just 13 playoff games in his OHL draft year and averaged 1 goal per game. I think Andrew will fit nicely as a top scorer with the Rangers after a lot of their top scoring players departed after the 2019-2020 season.
Jacob is Andrew’s twin brother. The squad on East Ave. has the Sedin brothers 2.0. Francesco Pinelli also has a hockey brotherー Anthonyー but unless he impresses in training camp, I don’t see him joining Francesco and the Rangers this season. Jacob Leblanc is a right defenseman and will join his brother on the same team once again as they were both on the Southern Tier Admirals AAA squad in minor hockey. Jacob produces points and moves the puck well, a great factor in the playoffs like his brother, Andrew, with 18 points in 13 playoff games. A very good addition to an already strong core of defensemen for the Rangers.
Yet again, another Southern Tier Admirals player. This time, Swick is a much needed left winger for the Rangers as they only had two true left wingers on their entire team last season, with one of them only played two games. Swick may pair well on a line wherever Andrew Leblanc plays for the chemistry of former minor hockey teammates, considering he played well with the Leblancs in the past. In the 2019-2020 season, he put up 55 points in 32 games and added another 24 points in 13 playoff games. A great addition for the Rangers who were in need of a left winger.
It is a battle for starting goaltender in the upcoming Training Camp for Kitchener’s Major Junior A squad, but with Pavel expected to win the spot, Parsons would make a solid backup for the Rangers. Playing his draft season with the Cornwall Colts, he posted 3 shutouts in 23 games to go along with a pretty good 2.28 GAA and a dazzling 0.929 save percentage. His record of 9-11-0 isn’t great, but it’s about even and that's all you can ask for a backup when your starting goaltender needs a rest in the backstretch of a doubleheader.
The Rangers added another left wing but took a huge gamble. Gauthier only played 12 games due to an injury on Detroit Compuware in his draft year, but he still posted 12 points. In the 2018-2019 season, he started drawing eyes with 54 points in 62 games with the Detroit HoneyBaked minor hockey team. Gauthier will need to make a big impression at camp with a big group of prospects vying for his spot.
This entire year’s draft was picked blindly based on players’ 2019-2020 season results as most have not played any minor hockey this year. I think Rehkopf is going to a good team, if he is okay with mostly playing the left wing in the second or third line. However, he has to impress at camp and show he would have done better than his 45 points in 36 games with the Toronto Jr. Canadiens if he got a chance to play minor hockey in his draft year.
Nothing extremely impressive with Mercer when looking at his stats, but he did average a point per game in the playoffs with the Barrie Jr. Colts. However, looking at videos from his time with them Jr. Colts, he is a mature player for his age and knows what it takes to play at a higher level. That being said, he needs to impress at training camp to earn his spot on the roster.
I hope this guy does well as he could fill in that empty left defenseman void, unless Ottavainen or Odelius change their minds. While his stats are not outstanding, Andonovski seems to be a gritty player with 48 penalty minutes in 26 games for the Nationals in 19-20. He has more of a shot this year as the Rangers are in need of another left defenseman, but he will have to earn that spot or Kitchener will have to look elsewhere.
The player the Rangers are most excited to get back may also become a first or second round draft pick in the NHL draft this month. Pinelli is currently ranked 15th among eligible North American skaters, and rightfully so. After a solid rookie season, this year the centreman went to play overseas in Slovenia with HDD Jesenice. There, he put up 11 points in 13 games where the players he played with and against were much older than him. He impressed at this year’s U18 international tournament for Canada as well, posting 11 points in just seven games that gave him and his team a well deserved gold medal. Look for Pinelli to make a huge impact this season.
Sebrango has signed a three year entry level contract with the team he got drafted by in 2020ー the Detroit Red Wings. The defenseman also played with the Grand Rapids Griffins in the AHL, producing four assists and 18 penalty minutes in 31 games. However, he is expected to be back with the Rangers this season, a nice bolster for the blueline with his pro league experience.
McDonnell was the last pick in the 2020 draft, chosen by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Like Sebrango, he spent some time in the AHL this season, posting two assists in 16 games with the Syracuse Crunch. McDonnell was a welcome surprise in the 2019-2020 season for the Rangers, and with some pro experience, this right winger should make a big impact this season on one of the first two lines.
Langdon wasn’t a huge points getter in his first two OHL seasons but he did the small things right- like making good passes, checking, and being physical in the corners when needed. With the centreman’s experience in the league, he may get slotted in the third line.
This left winger may have been the surprise of the season. Drafted in the seventh round of the 2019 draft, Sop impressed so many in the OJHL that he was called up for two games with the Rangers and accomplished an assist. Look for him to be battling with Swick and Rehkopf for the second line left winger spot.
This right winger improved his game from his rookie season significantly and did it in 10 games fewer, going from 20 to 39 points. He looks to improve his game even further in the upcoming season and he could be slotted on the third line. Keep your eyes on Valade in the upcoming season.
Fishman had a pretty decent rookie season, far better than one expected for a fourth round pick. The centre only played 48 games but netted four goals to go along with four assists. This year, he went overseas to Finland to play on Kärpät U20 Akatemia. In just five games, he went on a tear, netting five goals along with two assists. With that small hint of major improvements since his rookie season, he will fit well on the third or fourth line with potential to move up.
In his first full season in the OHL, this centre came to play. Coming off a Sutherland Cup with the Waterloo Siskins in 2019, he notched 14 points in 50 games for Kitchener in the 2019-2020 season. If Serpa can improve on that, he can battle for a third or fourth line spot for the season with the Rangers.
If there is training camp and it is open to prospects, I see Mitchell Martin as one to watch. If not, a call up at least. He was one of the few players to have played in the 2020-2021 season and did pretty well with the NOJHL Rayside-Balfour Canadians, posting 8 points in 10 games. After he was cut from 2019 training camp with the Rangers, he followed up by posting 61 points in 52 games with Rayside. Martin is a skilled centre who knows how to put the puck in the net and I think we will see him in a blue jersey sometime this season.
I was personally shocked when I looked at Motew’s stats. He amazingly went from 11 points in 34 games for the Rangers in the 2019-2020 season to 45 points in 21 games with the Chicago Cougars of the USPHL Premier League this season, and followed that up with 8 goals in 5 games in the playoffs. Let me remind you that he is a defenseman. With that much scoring by a defenseman in that short amount of games, I think Motew will turn it on with the Rangers as well, so expect him to make an impact with the Rangers this season as one half of the second pair of defenseman.
Schmidt is a year younger than Sebrango, but between him and the Red Wings prospect, this may be the best one-two punch in defensemen in the OHL this upcoming season. This is Schmidt’s draft year and his prospects are high as he is ranked 58th by the NHL scouting for North American eligible skaters. He played for the USA U18 Team for 45 games this season, picking up 14 points and showing his physical side while proving his elite defense skills to scouts. Schmidt was committed to Boston University after finishing up his two year stint down south, but the Rangers’ gamble on selecting him in the second round in 2019 pays off in the long run. Expect Schmidt to have a big presence on the blueline for the Rangers this season.
This left winger is heading into his overage year and looking to repeat his surprise breakout in 2019-2020. In the previous two seasons before the 2019-2020 season, he only managed 21 points in 99 games. He did a lot better in the 2019-2020 season with 43 points in 63 games along with a plus 20. I would put him on the top line with McDonnell and Pinelli due to the OHL experience and I believe they will click with the chemistry of past former teammates.
I can see Dickerson getting traded. In 83 games, he has only produced 8 points, though he does have some grit in him and gets penalty minutes. In a season when you need players with OHL experience, he might be a trade target for teams in need of a right winger. Maybe with a move to another team, he can get more minutes to rack up more points.
Xhekaj is a defenseman, racking up 88 penalty minutes in the 2019-2020 season. He did pretty well for points too with 17 points in 51 games, but I think he and Motew will make a good second pair of defenseman behind Schmidt and Sebrango.
Mike McKenzie - McKenzie was promoted to head coach while keeping his general manager title near the end of November of the 2019-2020 season. He will remain in this position and try to guide the Rangers back to the top of the league once again.
Dennis Wideman and Brennan Menard - These two former players will be this upcoming season’s assistant coaches for Kitchener. Wideman is a former NHL player who aided McKenzie in coaching last year and proved to be valuable considering the Rangers were in the CHL Top Ten a short time after his hiring. As for Menard, he was a past associate coach for OUA’s Lakehead University men's hockey team. He also played hockey with Lakehead before he was a coach for five seasons. With his past university coaching tenure and past player experience, Menard will be a good coach for the Rangers with his elite coaching skills while trying to guide the Rangers back to the playoffs.
Like most major sports, this year’s schedule is going to look different. The biggest change is that they are not facing any Eastern Conference teams. Sorry fans, that means Shane Wright, projected number one overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, won’t be playing against the Kitchener Rangers this year. However, fans can take a drive to Eastern Conference teams’ rinks like Hamilton or Mississauga and see him in action. Yes, the 68 game schedule remains but the short trips to Barrie, Hamilton,and Mississauga do not. Instead, the Rangers will be playing 30 games between London, Guelph, or Owen Sound. 62% of the games for the Rangers fall between Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. The Rangers start at East Ave on October 8th against their Highway Seven rivalryー the Guelph Storm.
The Rangers may have four potential NHL draft picks on the team by October. They have a pretty solid group of right wingers, a group of centres led by one of the top forwards in Canada, and one of the most solid defensive cores in recent memory. Their left winger and goalie situation looks a little iffy, but with experience and chemistry, this group can become something special. While a first round win in the playoffs doesn’t seem like a far stretch for this team, a Western Conference finals appearance would be considered a great season for this young and talented group. Look for the Rangers to be a highly competitive team with success on the horizon in the OHL this season.