While many of the Ontario Hockey League’s top players have been away competing internationally, either at the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championships or the 2013 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, the second half of the schedule began this past week, and many players were called upon to play larger roles with their respective clubs. The next two weeks are critical around the OHL, as teams have until the January 10th trade deadline to firm up their rosters, and those who think they have an opportunity to contend for a championship this season will look to stock up on available talent. We’ll take a quick look at some of the players who may potentially be made available for the right price.

Beginning in the Eastern Conference, both the Ottawa 67’s and Peterborough Petes appear to be out of contention, and both clubs have a plethora of talent that may become available over the next few days. Ottawa has already begun their firesale, first sending Tyler Graovac to Belleville and getting Sergei Kuptsov and a pick in return. The rebuilding continued when they sent two veterans, Cody Ceci and Steven Janes, to the Owen Sound Attack, in exchange for Owen Sound’s 2012 first-round pick Jake Middleton and right-winger Joseph Blandisi. Sean Monahan may also be made available by Ottawa, but any deal including Monahan will come at a steep price for any team inquiring. Monahan is one of the top prospects for the upcoming 2013 NHL Entry Draft, and could find himself returned to junior for another season, making the asking price from Ottawa that much higher. My gut instinct tells me that Monahan will remain with the 67’s, but anyone is available for the right price.

In Peterborough, every time you think the Petes have hit rock-bottom, something else happens proving you wrong. Recent speculation has said that many of the Petes top players want out, those who haven’t already fled from the sinking ship. Slater Koekkoek, Alan Quine, and Derek Mathers are the latest three speculated to want out of Peterborough, and, whether you believe the highly-uncredible source or not, all three could be available from the Petes at the right cost. Koekkoek, a first round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning, could fit in well on the blueline of a few contending clubs, but the Petes have made it clear as of late that they will not make deals solely to please a player from this point forward, so any deal involving the rearguard should be sure to see Peterborough receive a solid return. Quine and Mathers could both interest potential contenders, and while Mathers has been linked by the same source to the London Knights, the deal doesn’t seem to make sense, as there doesn’t appear to be a roster spot for Mathers in London.

Over in the Western Conference, things aren’t quite as clear, as it appears as though Windsor, Saginaw, Sault Ste. Marie, and Plymouth could find themselves fighting for the final three playoff spots. The Erie Otters, who are well back of the pack, have a young club and appear to be building for the future around soon-to-be 16-year old phenom Connor McDavid. They may tinker with their lineup, but I wouldn’t expect a lot of noise out of Pennsylvania between now and the deadline.

A few names in the West that could generate interest include Vincent Trocheck of the Saginaw Spirit and Stefan Noesen of the Plymouth Whalers, though again, the asking price for either player would be extremely high, as neither team feels that they are out of the race in the Western Conference. Many feel that Trocheck would be a good fit in Sarnia, playing alongside Team U.S.A. linemate Alex Galchenyuk, but I feel the Spirit would be unwilling to move a player with Vince’s talent to a team they could wind up meeting in the opening round of the playoffs. If either are moved, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s to a contender in the Eastern Conference, perhaps Belleville, who are in need of scoring depth as they compete for the East Division crown.

The return of Alexander Khokhlachev to the Windsor Spitfires is also intriguing, as he could be one of the key cogs in this year’s trade deadline. The Spitfires have announced that he is returning to the OHL, and will be in the lineup on Thursday. Khokhlachev would be a coveted prize amongst some of the contending teams this season, and could see Windsor fetch quite a package in exchange for his services. The Spitfires could also choose to keep him in Windsor for the rest of the season, though you’d have to be incredibly optimistic to say that Koko will stop the Spits from being anything but first-round fodder for one of the top teams in the West. GM Warren Rychel will have to make a decision on how far he sees this year’s club going.

One team that I’ll be keeping an eye on over the next couple of days is the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, who have a team that could really go either way over the second half of the season. General manager Kyle Dubas and new head coach Sheldon Keefe have been evaluating their team, as important decisions will be made over the next couple of weeks. Dubas has proven in the past that he is not afraid to make a big deal that he feels makes the Hounds better, though Sault Ste. Marie has a ton of veteran players who could be excellent additions to a team looking to make a Championship run. On the blueline, Detroit Red Wings prospect Ryan Sproul and Los Angeles pick Colin Miller could each bring a great package back to Sault Ste. Marie if dealt away, as both are unlikely to be returned to junior for another season. Up front, the Hounds have a few players who could help out a contender, Andrew Fritsch, a Phoenix Coyotes prospect, was with the Owen Sound team that won the 2011 OHL Championship, and could bring valuable experience to a team wanting to win it all. If Sault Ste. Marie feels it better to plan for another season, other forwards who could draw interest are Nick Cousins (Flyers) and David Broll (Maple Leafs), both proven leaders who are likely in the twilight of their Ontario Hockey League careers.

Keep in mind that most of this is speculation, and what the general managers decide to do between now and the deadline could be drastically different. Regardless of what goes down, the next few days leading up to the OHL trade deadline should be interesting, and will give us a better idea of what teams are in it to win it in 2013.

Players Of The Week

Top Forward

Nikolay Goldobin (Sarnia Sting) – Coming out of the holiday break, perhaps no player has stepped up for his team more than Nikolay Goldobin, who has kept the Sarnia Sting firing on all cylinders without Alex Galchenyuk in the lineup. A goal in a New Year’s Eve contest against London would be nothing more than a precursor for what was in store when the two teams played again the following afternoon, as Nikolay lit up the Knights for four more goals, including the overtime winner that would end London’s two-month long winning streak. Since then, Goldobin has remained on fire, registering two more goals as part of another four-point performance Friday against Windsor, and adding another goal and two assists on Saturday night in Erie. In six games since the holiday break, Nikolay Goldobin registered eight goals and twelve points, along with a +6 rating, and is our choice as the league’s Top Forward.

Top Defenceman

Ryan Sproul (Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds) – There wasn’t much consultation needed when it came time to choose our OHL Top Defenceman, as Ryan Sproul of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds has been a force to reckon with since the beginning of the second half of the season. Ryan would score goals in all six of the Hounds contests since the break, including two game-winning goals. Closing out 2012, Sproul scored once in a win over Niagara, and did so again in Sudbury a night later. Ryan had a New Year’s Eve to remember, scoring the game-winner as part of his second career OHL hat trick in a big win over Saginaw. The streak continued into the new year for Sproul, scoring the winning goal in Ottawa, and add goals over the weekend in Belleville and Kingston. In his six games, Ryan Sproul scored eight goals, and added an assist against Kingston, and was head and shoulders above all other defenders this week.

Top Goaltender

Alex Nedeljkovic (Plymouth Whalers) – There are a number of goalies who have stepped up their game over the past two weeks, as many guys who don’t always get playing time are getting an opportunity to shine. The Plymouth Whalers have one such goaltender, Alex Nedeljkovic, who has been a steadying force in the Whalers recent surge. Alex was a perfect 4-0 in goal this week, beginning on New Year’s Eve, when he stopped 38 of 40 shots to help Plymouth past Windsor. Nedeljkovic would post a similar 38-of-40 performance two nights later in Guelph, and coach Mike Vellucci chose to go with the hot goalie returning home for a pair of games. Alex wouldn’t disappoint, making 26 saves to ensure a 4-3 win over Owen Sound, and stopped 25 shots in another meeting with Guelph, keeping the Whalers in the game long enough to win in overtime. In his four starts, Alex Nedeljkovic posted a GAA of just 2.23 and a save percentage of .934, leading all goaltenders in the second half of the season, and gets the nod as the first Top Goaltender of 2013.

OHL Power Rankings

1. London Knights – (Last Week: 1) The London Knights picked up right where they left off before the holiday break, continuing a winning streak that had reached 22 games before Christmas. Two more wins gave the Knights the opportunity to tie the 1983-84 Kitchener Rangers CHL record of 25 straight wins against Sarnia on New Year’s Day, but London fans would be disappointed to see their Knights lose in overtime, ending the streak at 24. London won two more games following the loss, extending their point-streak to 27 games. The Knights haven’t lost in regulation since November 1st in Windsor, and will look to continue their success with a three-game weekend, beginning on Friday night at home to Ottawa. London then hits the road for a pair of games, playing in Saginaw on Saturday, and in Sault Ste. Marie on Sunday.

2. Barrie Colts – (Last Week: 3) The Barrie Colts continue to be the team to beat in the OHL’s Eastern Conference, and climb one spot this week in the Power Rankings. The Colts have slowed somewhat over the past ten days, which can be expected with a number of key guys, including Mark Scheifele and Anthony Camara, out of the lineup. Barrie won two of their five games coming out of the break, but continue to hold a comfortable lead in the Eastern Conference standings. With their players returning to Barrie this week, the Colts will look to get back to their winning ways with three games in as many days, beginning Thursday night at home to Mississauga. After a game in Guelph on Friday, Barrie returns home to end the week Saturday night, playing host to Niagara.

3. Sarnia Sting – (Last Week: 2) The Sarnia Sting continue to impress in a relatively weak West Division, and have continued to play solid hockey without some key guys in the lineup. A pair of losses to end 2012 would be quickly erased on New Year’s Day, when they defeated London to put a stop to their lengthy winning streak. Since then, the Sting have been unstoppable, winning three more games, the last two by shootout, to extend their perfect 2013 to four games. Sarnia aims for more success with three more games this week, including a weekday contest on Wednesday night in Sault Ste. Marie. Friday night, the Sting end a four-game road trip in Kitchener, and return home the following night to play against Ottawa.

4. Belleville Bulls – (Last Week: 7) The Belleville Bulls continue to set the pace in the East Division, and have done so for the last few weeks without the services of starting goalie Malcolm Subban, serving with Team Canada. Charlie Graham stepped in admirably, and the Bulls took seven of ten possible points post-Christmas. Belleville defeated Guelph and Kitchener to round out 2012, but lost in a shootout against Peterborough to start the new year. After another loss to Peterborough two days later, the Bulls rebounded with a solid victory over Sault Ste. Marie on Saturday. A quiet week awaits for Belleville with just two games, first Friday night in Kingston, then back at home a night later, hosting Windsor.

5. Sudbury Wolves – (Last Week: 14) The Sudbury Wolves continue to turn heads in the Eastern Conference, erasing a terrible start to the season with an impressive point-streak. The Wolves have only played four games since the holiday break, but have made the most of them, winning all four, and have points in their last ten games, seventeen of them, to make a move in the conference standings. Sudbury has defeated Sault Ste. Marie, Barrie, Brampton, and Mississauga since the holidays, and are one of the league’s hottest teams entering a three-game weekend. Friday night, the Wolves host Mississauga before leaving for a pair of games, playing in Peterborough on Saturday night, and in Brampton on Sunday afternoon.

6. Oshawa Generals – (Last Week: 4) After a big leap before the holidays, the Oshawa Generals find themselves outside the top five in this week’s OHL Power Rankings, as they have struggled to a 2-3 record with as many as ten regulars out of the lineup, either due to injury or playing internationally. The last ten days are as much about what could have been for the Generals, as they bled away important points late in games twice, allowing Owen Sound to rally for three goals in the final seven minutes, and also giving up the game-winner in the final minute against Guelph. Wins over Mississauga and Brampton keep Oshawa in the race in the East Division, and they have a favorable schedule this week, playing three winnable games spread out over five days. Wednesday night, the Generals are in Ottawa, but return home for games against Peterborough, Friday, and against Windsor on Sunday afternoon.

7. Owen Sound Attack – (Last Week: 5) Down two spots this week, the Owen Sound Attack still continue to feel that they can compete in the tough Western Conference, and will be buoyed by the return of starting goaltender Jordan Binnington this week. The Attack have also made a splash leading into the trade deadline, sending Joseph Blandisi and first-round pick Jake Middleton to Ottawa for veteran rearguard Cody Ceci and Steven Janes. Owen Sound started the second half of the season well, with wins over Erie and Oshawa, but three straight losses, to Kitchener, Plymouth, and Saginaw, perhaps forced GM Dale DeGray’s hand into making the deal. The Attack hope to reverse recent trends with three games this week, playing in Erie on Wednesday night, and in Niagara a night later, before coming home to wrap up the week against Kingston on Saturday night.

8. Plymouth Whalers – (Last Week: 16) Another big jump this week belongs to the Plymouth Whalers, who climb eight spots to land at number eight, riding a 5-1 record to start the second half of the season. A loss to London would be the only blemish on the Whalers record of late, and since then, wins over Windsor, Owen Sound, and Guelph twice have them on a nice run. Looking ahead, Plymouth plays Wednesday night in Saginaw, then have a pair of home games over the weekend. The Whalers host Brampton on Friday night, and Erie visits on Saturday.

9. Brampton Battalion – (Last Week: 9) While the Brampton Battalion hold firm at number nine this week, there hasn’t been much to cheer for in the second half of the season for the Troops, but they manage to pick up some bonus points to ensure six points from their last six games. After a big win over Sarnia, Brampton picked up three points from a home-and-home series with Mississauga to close out 2012. The new year wasn’t as kind to the Battalion, who opened the year with three losses, to Oshawa, Sudbury, and Ottawa. Brampton managed a point from a shootout loss to the 67’s, but need to rebound to avoid sliding back down the power rankings. The Battalion have three games to do so this week, opening on the road with games in Windsor on Thursday and Plymouth on Friday. Back at home, Brampton finishes the week with a Sunday matinee against Sudbury.

10. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds – (Last Week: 13) Some good play of late has seen the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds quietly climb back into the thick of things in the Western Conference, and they are up three spots in the OHL Power Rankings, based on a 3-2-0-1 record since the holidays. More impressive than the record is the scoring, as the Hounds seem to have found their offense as of late, scoring seven goals twice in that span. Sault Ste. Marie posted wins over Niagara, Saginaw, and Ottawa, en route to earning seven points in their last six games. The Greyhounds have three home games coming up this week, but they won’t be easy, as they host Sarnia on Wednesday, before entertaining visits from Mississauga on Saturday and London on Sunday.

11. Guelph Storm – (Last Week: 6) Once among the leaders in the OHL Power Rankings, the Guelph Storm have struggled recently, and drop out of the top ten in the first edition of 2013. The Storm have just one win since the break, courtesy of a last-minute goal against a depleted Oshawa lineup, but have since lost three straight, dropping a pair of games against Plymouth, the latter in overtime, and another in Saginaw. After a Tuesday night contest in Kitchener, Guelph returns home for a pair of games, as Barrie visits on Friday, and Kingston comes to town for a Sunday afternoon tilt.

12. Kingston Frontenacs – (Last Week: 11) The Kingston Frontenacs are a team that has been steadily improving all season, and they continue their ascent up the OHL Power Rankings this week, up one spot to number eleven. Playing with one of the youngest teams in the league, the Frontenacs are a tough opponent for any team on any night, but have struggled with the inconsistency typical of a young club. After losing to Peterborough to start the second half of the season, the Fronts split a home and home series against Ottawa, with both clubs winning on the road. Kingston posted a pair of wins on home ice to wrap up the week, first defeating Oshawa on Friday, then beating Sault Ste. Marie in overtime on Sunday afternoon. The Fronts face a three-game weekend ahead, which begins at home against Belleville on Friday night. After that, they head out on the road for a pair, playing in Owen Sound on Saturday night, and in Guelph Sunday afternoon.

13. Kitchener Rangers – (Last Week: 8) Another team missing some key players, the Kitchener Rangers have struggled in their absence, winning two of their five games since the holidays without starting goaltender John Gibson, who won gold at the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championships with Team U.S.A. Coming out of the break, the Rangers lost games to both Barrie and Belleville, but erased those losses with a pair of wins over Owen Sound and Peterborough, the latter coming by way of the shootout. Kitchener dropped their last game of the week Saturday night in London, but can get back in the win column with a busy four-game schedule in the week ahead. Tuesday night, the Rangers play host to Guelph, then hit the road for a contest in Peterborough Thursday. Kitchener returns home for games Friday against Sarnia, and Sunday afternoon versus Niagara.

14. Saginaw Spirit – (Last Week: 15) Up one spot this week, the Saginaw Spirit continue to fight for one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference, a fight that may go down to the wire for the Spirit. Saginaw has been playing well of late, and have split their six games since the holidays, winning three. Wins over Windsor, Owen Sound, and Guelph were tempered by losses to Plymouth, Sault Ste. Marie, and London. The Spirit are currently in the midst of a seven-game home stand, and play three times this week, with a Wednesday night date against Plymouth up first. Friday night, Erie comes to town, and Saginaw finishes the week with a battle versus London on Saturday.

15. Mississauga Steelheads – (Last Week: 12) The Mississauga Steelheads haven’t been able to find any consistency since the holiday break, and they find themselves down three spots based on a 2-3 record over the past week and a half. A loss to Oshawa was followed by a win over Brampton, and thus, the pattern was set. Mississauga lost the second half of a home and home series with Brampton, but answered by defeating Niagara. The Steelheads lost to Sudbury to end the weekend, and begin a long six game road trip Thursday night in Barrie. Mississauga then travels to Sudbury to play on Friday night, and finish the week in Sault Ste. Marie on Saturday.

16. Niagara IceDogs – (Last Week: 10) There are a number of reasons why the Niagara Icedogs are sliding down the OHL Power Rankings, but with a ton of players out of the lineup, Niagara plummets six spots to number sixteen this week. The IceDogs have gone 2-3-0-1 since the holiday break, and their once comfortable cushion in the Eastern Conference standings has shrunk considerably. Niagara’s wins came against Sudbury and Erie, the first coming in overtime, but losses to Sault Ste. Marie, Barrie, Mississauga, and Sarnia (in a shootout) have stalled the IceDogs momentum. With many of their top guns returns clouded by NHL training camps, the team is suddenly unsure of where they stand heading into the trade deadline, and they don’t play again until Thursday night, when they host Owen Sound after the deadline has passed. The IceDogs are on the road over the weekend, playing Saturday night in Barrie, and Sunday afternoon in Sudbury.

17. Erie Otters – (Last Week: 18) While it may not seem like much, the Erie Otters climb to number seventeen this week sees them ranked higher than they have at any point in the last two seasons. With starting goaltender Oscar Dansk away at the World Juniors, the Otters have maintained some respectability, earning five points in as many games after the holidays. Losses against Owen Sound and Niagara were off-set by a pair of victories over Barrie, but Erie would be defeated on Saturday, losing to Sarnia in a shootout. The Otters play host to Owen Sound on Wednesday night, then play a pair of games away from home, first in Saginaw on Friday night, followed by a game in Plymouth a night later.

18. Windsor Spitfires – (Last Week: 17) With losses in all four games since the holidays, the Windsor Spitfires have now lost seven straight, and are heading in the wrong direction to start the second half of the season. The announcement of Alexander Khokhlachev’s return to Windsor will certainly help in their fight to stay in the Western Conference playoff hunt, but it may be time to entertain notions of a rebuild in Windsor. The Spits play host to Brampton on Thursday night, then spend the weekend on the road, playing in Belleville on Saturday night, and in Oshawa Sunday afternoon.

19. Peterborough Petes – (Last Week: 19) If the start of the second half of the season marked a turning point in Peterborough, the Petes are certainly playing the part, as they won three of their five games since the break, earning seven of ten possible points. With speculation running rampant that they are looking to blow things up in Peterborough, the Petes have come together, defeating Kingston before a loss to Ottawa rounded out the 2012 calendar year. The Petes started the new year on the right foot, winning both ends of a home-and-home series with Belleville before gaining a point from a shootout loss in Kitchener. Peterborough plays three games in as many days this week, beginning on Thursday, when they look for redemption at home to Kitchener. The next night, the Petes play in Oshawa, then return home to finish the week with a game against Sudbury on Saturday night.

20. Ottawa 67’s – (Last Week: 20) They may remain at the bottom of the OHL Power Rankings, but the Ottawa 67’s aren’t going away quietly in the league’s Eastern Conference, playing .500 hockey since returning from the Christmas break. A win in Peterborough followed by a loss to Kingston would finish Ottawa’s 2012, but the 67’s would exact some revenge in Kingston on New Year’s Day. Ottawa would lose to Sault Ste. Marie and Barrie, before finishing the week with a shootout victory in Brampton on Sunday afternoon. After playing host to Oshawa on Wednesday, the 67’s head out on the road for a pair of tough weekend games, as they take on London on Friday night, and Sarnia on Saturday.

The ITO Players of the Week and OHL Power Rankings can be found every week for the rest of the season, right here at OHLWriters.com. Until then, join me on Twitter for conversation anytime, @N24Nicholson.

Anthony Nicholson is the Sports Editor for Toronto News 24 and regular contributor to OHLWriters.com, and can be heard occasionally on ‘In The O... The Radio Show’. Contact Anthony anytime for a conversation by joining him on Twitter, or send mail to anicholson@n24.ca.

Photo: Nikolay Goldobin has been on fire for the Sarnia Sting since returning from the holiday break, scoring eight goals and twelve points in six games to move into second place in scoring among OHL rookies. (Photo Courtesy: Terry Wilson/OHLImages)