While the Niagara IceDogs may be the favourites, among pundits, to finish atop the Central Division entering the 2018-19 OHL season, the Barrie Colts are hoping to have something to say about that. With a roster of 17 returnees from last year’s Central winners, it’s expected Barrie will make another run at finishing among the top teams in the Eastern Conference standings.

Still, as he always emphasizes, Dale Hawerchuk wants his players focus to remain squarely on their own game as they kick off the 2018-19 OHL campaign, Sept. 20, against the Owen Sound Attack at the Barrie Molson Centre.

“You just want to be ready right off the bat here and put our best foot forward,” the head coach explained. “Every year you can always guess (the standings), but you still got to play the games. We just want to get our best foot forward here early on.”

Barrie will have to defend its division title without, possibly, four of its top five scorers. OHL Rookie of the Year Andrei Svechnikov (Carolina), OHL scoring champ Aaron Luchuk (Ottawa) and Dmitry Sokolov (Minnesota), racked up a combined 140 goals and 283 points, but have all moved on to pro hockey.

Zach Magwood, who potted 40 goals and signed a three-year entry level NHL free agent deal with the Nashville Predators this summer, is expected to get a long look with Nashville’s American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee.

The Colts still boast some firepower up front, led by Ryan Suzuki, Lucas Chiodo and Jason Willms, but without the elite scoring trio of Svechnikov, Luchuk and Sokolov, the offence will have to be more spread around this season.

“I think it’s similar every year, you’re always looking for guys to step up and jump into a bigger role,” Hawerchuk said. “It always helps when they get some confidence right away and get rolling.”

Czech import rookie and Buffalo Sabres prospect Matej Pekar will slide into a top-six role, while Jaden Peca, Aidan Brown, Ben Hawerchuk and Luke Bignell will all be looked upon to raise their offensive production.

In Suzuki, the Colts have one of the OHL’s rising stars. Last year’s first overall OHL pick had a strong rookie campaign with 14 goals and 30 assists in 64 games and, after helping lead Canada to gold at the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup this summer, is expected to be the OHL’s top prospect for the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.

“He’s definitely taken some big strides, but I think we all expected that,” Hawerchuk said of the 17-year-old. “He’s a smart player and he sees the ice well. He’s got more strength to him, so I think after that first year of experience you feel so much better about yourself.”

Led by first-round pick Riley Piercey, the Colts have a solid mix of size and skill in their four rookies up front. Barrie midget triple-A centre Tyson Foerster, Connor LePage, Peter Fleming and Piercey won’t be rushed.

At six-foot-three and 185-pounds, Piercey boasts all the qualities of a top power forward, but Hawerchuk says the club will be patient with its prize young forward.

“Sixteen-year-olds, it’s always tough,” Hawerchuk said of the 16th overall pick. “The pace is quick, it’s happening fast. Even for the bigger guys it always seems quicker, they got to get those big bones moving quicker. But there’s always a little bit of a honeymoon period for those guys to figure it out. The sooner they do, the sooner the whole team is better.”

The Colts strength this season is likely on the blue line with all seven returning. Joey Keane, who has been impressive in NHL camp with the New York Rangers, has become of the OHL’s biggest stars on the blue line and should find himself among the top scorers on the point.

Punishing defender Tyler Tucker, who left a mark in camp with the St. Louis Blues, and captain Justin Murray, who leaves everything on the ice, lead a solid group.

Nathan Allensen got stronger through his rookie campaign and is expected to play a top-four role, while fellow sophomore Matthew Hill is stronger and should play a bigger role alongside towering veteran Chris Cameron.

“They’re all returning, so that should bode well,” Hawerchuk said of his blue line. “You have to execute every year. It’s good to have experience, but as a group they need to take that next step and usually they do the next year. So, hopefully that happens.”

The Colts will start the year with a crowded crease. Second-year puck stopper Kai Edmonds returns along with rookie Jet Greaves, but the club will give Vegas Knights prospect Maksim Zhukov, 19, the opportunity to run with the starting job. Barrie’s first-round 2018 CHL import pick (48th overall) got stronger as training camp went on. The six-foot-three, 187-pound Russian will be in between the pipes in the season opener against Owen Sound.

“(Zhukov) will start, but all three have been really good at camp,” Hawerchuk. “We’ll let them battle it out for a while and then make some decisions. I don’t think it’s a bad situation right now. Three guys, lots of extra shooting and that, but over time, yeah, we’ll get down to two.”

Another tough decision the Colts brass might have to face down the road is with their overagers. Chiodo, Hawerchuk and Murray make up the three allowed to suit up every night right now, but that picture could also get crowded if Magwood is returned to the club.

“He signed a contract, so I would think he’s going to stay up and you hope he does,” the Colts head coach said. “You hope he does well. They’re going to give him every shot there and if it changes, then we’ll deal with it then.”

Puck drop against the Attack is 7:30 p.m.

COLTS AT A GLANCE

2017-18 RECORD: 42-21-4-1 (1st Central)

HEAD COACH: Dale Hawerchuk (ninth season)

KEY ADDITIONS: Maksim Zhukov, Matej Pekar, Riley Piercey

KEY DEPARTURES: Andrei Svechnikov, Aaron Luchuk, Dmitry Sokolov, TJ Fergus, Leo Lazarev

LEADING SCORER: Lucas Chiodo (30-49-79)

LEADING SCORING DEFENCEMAN: Joey Keane (12-32-44)

QUOTE: There’s good attitude and good camaraderie early in the year,” Hawerchuk said. “We find them pretty close already, so that’s a good sign.”

Photo: Ryan Suzuki is one of the OHL’s rising stars and the second-year forward is expected to play a leading role for the Barrie Colts. Terry Wilson/OHL Images photo

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