by Matt Leacy (@matt41_ito)
The ending may not have gone the way it does in the movies, but the Kitchener Rangers certainly had a memorable season in 2011-12. Throughout the whole lineup the team proved a lot of doubters wrong throughout the year, beating even my own predictions and finishing 3rd overall in the Western Conference. Defeating a tough Plymouth team in the second round of the playoffs shocked the hockey world, before eventually falling to the London Knights in the conference final in what truly was a heart breaking series. Throughout the season there have been numerous headlines, from the outstanding play of goaltenders John Gibson and Franky Palazzese, to the return of Ben Fanelli, this season will be talked about for quite some time.
In goal, the two Ranger netminders went 1 and 2 overall in save percentage, not just in the OHL but accross the entire CHL. For a team that has struggled in net the past few years, this was a huge improvement. John Gibson was spectacular throughout the season stopping pucks at angles that would have made other goalies heads spin. Franky Palazzese stepped up and held the team deep in the playoff race while Gibby was away at the WJHC and while he was injured. I certainly hope these two return to the Aud next season. They will certainly be a huge force in the OHL.
On defense, the great story of Ben Fanelli jumps first to mind. After returning to game action for the first time in almost 2 years, Ben showed that he didn't lose any talent while he was gone. He impressed a lot of Ranger fans with his ability to move the puck and his hard working style. If i was an NHL GM I'd draft him on his heart alone. Not too many players love the game like Ben and have the ability to focus for two years to return. His defense partner Max Iafrate, who was saved from Plymouth early in the season after not really getting much of a shot, also had a strong season, scoring when necessary and holding his own in the defensive zone as well. While the two weren't perfect, they certainly show that Kitchener has depth on their defensive line for next season. Up front you have Cody Sol and Ryan Murphy, who were one of the best defensive lines in the league midway through the season. Sol, in his OA year, scored more goals than all his previous OHL seasons combined. He was a +35 and even led the OHL in +/- for much of the season. He's made huge improvements to his game and I wouldn't be surprised to see him and Julian Melchiori on the blueline in Winnipeg soon. Ryan Murphy struggled early in the year but really stepped it up down the stretch, even leading the OHL in points by a defenseman in the playoffs. A Carolina draft pick, Murph is almost a necessity for next season, should the Rangers hope to make a run.
Early in the season, the main concern of head coach and GM Steve Spott was the ability of the forward unit to score goals. For the most part he was correct, but if you only look at the top line, he couldn't have been more wrong. The top unit of Tobias Rieder, Michael Catenacci and Ben Thompson combined for 196 points, including 78 goals. 42 of those goals were scored by Tobias Rieder. What an incredible season the Oilers pick had. He'll also be a key part of next years run. Heading further down the depth chart, Radek Faksa (29 G, 37A), Andrew Crescenzi (24G, 23A), Tyler Randell with 9 goals in 17 games, and the aformentioned Sol and Murphy (combined 26G, 66A), the team put in a lot of goals from the top players. The main problem for the Rangers was the lack of secondary scoring. Yes, they lost Matia Marcantuoni to injury early in the season, and their entire fourth line was made of rookies, but players like Brandon Francisco, who came in with a lot of hype in a trade from Sarnia, and Brent Pedersen, the Rangers highly touted first round pick, only scored 14 goals between the two of them. If the Rangers want to make a run next season, they need these guys to step up.
Moving on to next season, Kitchener should expect the lineup to be mostly the same. The obvious losses are Tyler Randell, Cody Sol and Michael Catenacci, however the rest of the lineup should remain mostly the same. There is a possibility that John Gibson, Tobias Rieder and Ryan Murphy will all go play for their respective NHL teams, but I think another year in junior would be beneficial for all three. Rumour has it that Andrew Crescenzi will be with the Toronto Marlies next season, and while that would be a loss to Kitchener, I'm not sure he would stick with the Marlies all season. We saw Tyler Randell and Jerry D'Amigo returned from the AHL these past 2 seasons, and it certainly didn't hurt their development. A few key trades to pull in some OA's would help the depth of this team, as well as draft picks Matt Schmalz, Darby Llewellyn and others, next years Rangers squad has the potential to be the best Rangers team we've seen in the Spott era. Let's just hope that they live up to that name.
Finally I want to thank Brandon Sudeyko and the rest of the ITO/OHLWriters crew for bringing me on to cover the Rangers this season. I've had a blast talking to the players and going to all the games. I hope you've all enjoyed reading my opinions. I look forward to next season and a new press box at the Aud (maybe it'll be warmer and more leg room...).