Last week, I took a look into the race for the Ontario Hockey League’s Rookie of the Year, but it is clear that Erie Otters phenom Connor McDavid is the favorite in that category. This week, I delve into a race that won’t be as easy to predict, the OHL’s Coach of the Year. Last year’s winner, Greg Gilbert of the Saginaw Spirit, took over in Saginaw midway through last season, yet the team’s play after his hiring earned him the recognition. Gilbert will gain consideration again this season, but I don’t see a repeat in this category in 2013.

If I were casting a vote today, my choice would be another coach who took over behind the bench mid-season, Sheldon Keefe of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Keefe has led the Hounds to an incredible turnaround over the second half, and a season once thought lost by even some of the Greyhounds most ardent supporters has sprung new life. Sault Ste. Marie is now fairly secure in a playoff spot, eleven points ahead of ninth place in the West with fourteen games remaining, and just three points behind the Plymouth Whalers for the division lead and home-ice advantage. Since taking over a 13-14-0-2 Sault Ste. Marie club on December 3rd, Keefe has guided the Greyhounds to a 16-7-0-2 record.

There are certainly other coaches worthy of consideration as well. Staying in the West, Dale Hunter of the London Knights has guided an excellent team to another excellent season, and Greg Ireland has done an admirable job in guiding the Owen Sound Attack to another contending season. In the East, Dale Hawerchuk of the Barrie Colts could get the nod this season, as the Colts are in charge of the conference with 71 points in 53 games. Rookie head coach D.J. Smith has his Oshawa Generals competing for the East Division title, and could be poised for a promising post-season run.

You can also throw Todd Gill’s name into the mix for guiding his young Kingston Frontenacs club to an impressive first-half of the season, though a recent slide has dulled Gill’s chances some. If Kingston can regroup down the stretch, it wouldn’t be a surprise to hear Gill’s name thrown into the conversation. Trent Cull has done wonders for the Sudbury Wolves this season, and if the Wolves are impressive over the final month of the season and into the playoffs, much like Gill in Kingston, Cull could insert himself into the mix for the award as well.

With so much hockey left to be played, it is perhaps too early to call this race for any one candidate, and the coach of the year award is very much still up for grabs as teams play out the final weeks of the season.

Players Of The Week

Top Forward

Kerby Rychel (Windsor Spitfires) – It was an incredible week for Kerby Rychel of the Windsor Spitfires, as he led his Windsor Spitfires on a trip around eastern Ontario. The trip started Thursday night in Peterborough, a memorable game for Kerby who recorded a career best six points, including a goal, in the Spits 9-4 win. A couple nights later, Rychel would record another multi-point game, scoring again and adding two helpers, though Windsor came out on the losing end in Ottawa. While the Spitfires lost again Sunday afternoon in Kingston, Kerby would score his team’s only goal, extending his point-streak to seven games. Rychel has scored six goals and seventeen points over those seven games, including three goals and ten points in three contests this past week, and is an easy choice as the league’s top forward this week.

Top Goaltender

Joel Vienneau (Kitchener Rangers) – The Kitchener Rangers acquired veteran goaltender Joel Vienneau from Sudbury at the trade deadline expecting big results, and Joel hasn’t disappointed since joining the club. Vienneau saw more pucks than any other goaltender this past week, yet put up some of the league’s best numbers, helping the Rangers take five of six possible points. Wednesday night in Guelph, Vienneau stopped 38 of 40 Storm shots to leave town with the win, but in the rematch on Friday night, Joel was called on for even more, stopping 40 of 43 shots in regulation and overtime. The Rangers were unable to come up with the win in the shootout, but rebounded with a win Sunday afternoon, as Vienneau made 36 saves to preserve a 4-3 win over London. Facing a staggering 122 shots in three games, Joel gave up only eight goals, earning himself a save percentage of .934. For keeping the Rangers near the top of a tough Western Conference, Vienneau is our pick as the week’s top goaltender.

OHL Power Rankings

1. Belleville Bulls – (Last Week: 2) After weeks of chasing down the leaders, the Belleville Bulls reach the summit this week in the OHL Power Rankings, taking advantage of a favorable portion of the schedule to narrow the gap between themselves and the Eastern Conference leaders. After Friday night’s game in Kingston was postponed due to the snowstorm, the Bulls rattled off a pair of weekend victories, defeating Erie at home on Saturday before winning in Ottawa on Sunday afternoon. The postponed game in Kingston has been re-scheduled for March 11th, but Belleville begins the week ahead with a home contest against Kingston on Wednesday night. Friday night, the Bulls play in Mississauga, and then return home for a Saturday night game against Sudbury. Belleville ends the long-weekend Monday afternoon, hosting Barrie.

2. Kitchener Rangers – (Last Week: 4) Up two spots this week to land at number two, the Kitchener Rangers are clearly the hottest team in the Western Conference, looking to secure a favorable home-ice position for the playoffs. The Rangers grabbed five out of six points possible in their three games this past week, and have just one regulation loss in their last nine games. Kitchener opened the week with a road win in Guelph on Wednesday night, but dropped the back-end of the home-and-home series, losing Friday night in a shootout. Sunday afternoon, the Rangers were impressive at home, defeating London. Kitchener plays three games over the holiday weekend, beginning Friday night with a visit from Plymouth. The Rangers travel to Erie for a Saturday night game, before ending the week with a Family Day Monday afternoon game in Guelph.

3. Plymouth Whalers – (Last Week: 6) The Plymouth Whalers continue to climb up the OHL Power Rankings, and enter the top three this week, recovering from a Friday night loss at home to Barrie to post back-to-back wins over the weekend. Saturday night, the Whalers defeated Owen Sound, then traveled to Brampton to pick up another win on Sunday afternoon. Plymouth has four games scheduled in the coming week, beginning with a mid-week clash Wednesday night in Saginaw. Friday night, the Whalers travel to Kitchener before returning home to face Guelph the following night. On the holiday Monday, Plymouth plays an afternoon contest in Sarnia.

4. Oshawa Generals – (Last Week: 9) A five-spot leap sees the Oshawa Generals re-enter the top five this week, and remain fighting in contention for the East Division crown. The Generals were flat in the opening game of their three-game weekend, dropping a decision on home ice to Erie, but answered with a pair of solid victories, winning in Niagara on Saturday, and back at home over Sault Ste. Marie on Sunday evening. Oshawa has three games in four nights scheduled over the upcoming holiday weekend, which begins with a pair of road games. The Generals play in Saginaw on Friday night, and in Sarnia on Saturday, before returning home for a Family Day matinee against Sudbury.

5. London Knights – (Last Week: 1) After nine straight weeks at the top spot in the OHL Power Rankings, the London Knights finally relinquished position, falling four spots to land at number five after three straight losses by one goal this week. At home on Thursday night, the Knights lost in overtime to Sarnia, and a night later, London lost another home game, this time versus Owen Sound. Sunday afternoon, the Knights couldn’t muster enough for the victory in Kitchener, and will look to get back to their winning ways with three games over the holiday weekend. Friday night, London plays in Erie, then the Knights move on to Niagara for a Sunday afternoon game. The next afternoon, London returns home for another tilt against Erie.

6. Owen Sound Attack – (Last Week: 7) The Owen Sound Attack are up one spot this week after splitting a pair of games over the past week, but .500 hockey will not be enough to keep up with the leaders in the West. On Friday night, Owen Sound won a big game in London, but lost the next night, when they played in Plymouth. With four games this week, the Attack are sure to be busy, beginning Wednesday night when they play host to Guelph. Owen Sound travels to Guelph for a rematch on Friday, then return home to play against Niagara a night later. Monday afternoon, the Attack wrap up the week with a holiday game in Peterborough.

7. Saginaw Spirit – (Last Week: 10) Wins in both contests this past week allow the Saginaw Spirit to rise three spots this week, winding up at number seven in the OHL Power Rankings. Victories Friday, in Sarnia, and Saturday, back at home versus Barrie, sees Saginaw improve to 5-1-1 in their last seven, and the Spirit hope to continue their recent success with a busy, four-game schedule this week. Wednesday night, Saginaw plays host to Plymouth, and the Spirit remain home for a couple more games over the weekend. Friday night, Oshawa comes to town, and, a night later, Saginaw hosts Windsor, before both teams travel across the border for a Monday afternoon game in Windsor.

8. Guelph Storm – (Last Week: 3) Down five spots this week, the Guelph Storm plummet from the top three in the OHL Power Rankings after splitting a pair of games against Kitchener. Wednesday night, the Storm were beaten on home ice, but exacted some revenge Friday night in Kitchener, winning in a shootout. Like many teams around the league, Guelph plays four times this week, starting Wednesday night in Owen Sound. Friday night, Guelph hosts that same Owen Sound team, before heading back out on the road for a game in Plymouth on Saturday. On holiday Monday, the Storm return to home ice for another battle with Kitchener.

9. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds – (Last Week: 5) While the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds have completely turned around a poor start to the season, they found themselves outmatched this week, falling four spots in the Power Rankings after losing two of three games on the road. After a Thursday night win in Brampton, the Hounds were on the wrong end of scores Saturday, in Peterborough, and Sunday, in Oshawa. After a five-game road-trip, the Greyhounds return home for a relatively quiet week on the schedule. Sault Ste. Marie plays twice this week, playing host to Sarnia on Wednesday, and Kingston on Saturday.

10. Barrie Colts – (Last Week: 8) The Barrie Colts continue to lead the Eastern Conference standings, but they also continue their slide down the OHL Power Rankings, dropping two more spots to land at number ten this week. After a good start to a three-game weekend resulted in a victory in Plymouth on Friday night, the Colts couldn’t capitalize over the weekend, losing in Saginaw on Saturday, and in overtime Sunday afternoon in Sarnia. Looking ahead, Barrie ends a six-game road-trip with a date in Ottawa on Wednesday, then returns home for a Saturday night game against Mississauga. The Colts head right back out on the road, finishing the weekend Sunday afternoon in Brampton.

11. Sudbury Wolves – (Last Week: 11)  No change this week for the Sudbury Wolves, who hold firm at number eleven this week in the Power Rankings after a quiet week saw them take three of four possible points. Both of the Wolves games would wind up being decided in a shootout, as Sudbury lost at home to Brampton on Friday, but won a night later when Mississauga came to town. The Wolves play three times over the upcoming holiday weekend, as they host Kingston on Friday night before hitting the road, playing in Belleville on Saturday, and in Oshawa on Monday afternoon.

12. Brampton Battalion – (Last Week: 12) The Brampton Battalion hold firm at number twelve this week, but losses in two of three games halted any momentum they had built as of late. Thursday night, the Battalion lost at home to Sault Ste. Marie, but rebounded with an overtime victory in Sudbury the following night. Sunday afternoon, Brampton returned to home ice, losing again, this time versus Plymouth. The Troops have three games on the schedule in the coming week, beginning Thursday in Peterborough. Brampton hosts Barrie on Sunday afternoon, and finishes the week’s work with a contest in Ottawa on Monday afternoon.

13. Sarnia Sting – (Last Week: 13) Overtime was kind to the Sarnia Sting this week, who won twice in extra time over the past seven days. Thursday night, the Sting got the bonus point in London, but lost a night later, back at home versus Saginaw. Sarnia rebounded on Sunday afternoon in Barrie, winning again in extra time. The Sting play four games in the coming week, starting in Sault Ste. Marie on Wednesday night. Friday, the Sting play in Windsor, and return home a day later to battle with Oshawa. Sarnia ends the week on Monday afternoon, playing host to Plymouth.

14. Peterborough Petes – (Last Week: 15) The Peterborough Petes continue their slow climb up from the bottom of the OHL Power Rankings, and they rise another spot this week to finish at number fourteen. Peterborough won two of their three games this past week, giving them four wins in their last six, as they begin to close the gap on the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. On Wednesday, the Petes won big in Ottawa, scoring double-digits, but were stopped a night later, giving up nine goals against the visitors from Windsor. Saturday night, Peterborough played host to Hockey Day In Canada, and the hometown Petes pulled off an exciting victory over Sault Ste. Marie. The Petes will look to continue their playoff chase with three more games this week, which begins at home on Thursday night, as Brampton visits. Friday night, Peterborough returns for another contest in Ottawa, before returning home for a Family Day matinee against Owen Sound.

15. Windsor Spitfires – (Last Week: 14) The Windsor Spitfires drop a single spot in this week’s OHL Power Rankings, landing at number fifteen after losing two of three games on the road this past week. Things started well for the Spits on Thursday night, a big win in Peterborough, but a game originally scheduled for Friday in Ottawa had to be postponed due to the snowstorm. The game was re-scheduled and played on Saturday night, but Windsor lost a high-scoring game. Sunday afternoon, the Spitfires lost again, this time in Kingston, ending their road-trip on a sour note. Windsor returns home for a pair of games this week, as they play host to Sarnia on Friday night. The Spits then play a home-and-home series with Saginaw, playing on the road Saturday, and returning home for the rematch Monday afternoon.

16. Mississauga Steelheads – (Last Week: 17) The Mississauga Steelheads rebounded from a poor first week of February with an excellent week, as they earned five points from their three games, climbing to number sixteen in the Power Rankings in the process. The Steelheads began their week with a pair of wins on home ice, defeating Kingston on Wednesday, and Niagara on Friday, but were denied a perfect week in Sudbury on Saturday, losing in a shootout. Mississauga plays three times over Family Day weekend, beginning at home to Belleville on Friday night. Saturday, the Steelheads play in Barrie, then return to the Hershey Centre for a holiday Monday matinee against Kingston.

17. Niagara IceDogs – (Last Week: 16) After putting an end to a lengthy losing streak last week, the Niagara Icedogs now find themselves on another, as they drop both contests this week, and see the Eastern Conference leaders pull further away. The ‘Dogs were defeated by identical 4-2 scores Friday night in Mississauga, and Saturday night at home to Oshawa, and hope to prevent the streak from extending when they play in Erie on Wednesday night. Saturday, Niagara travels to Owen Sound before returning home to battle with London on Sunday afternoon.

18. Kingston Frontenacs – (Last Week: 19) Putting an end to a horrific losing streak is enough to see the Kingston Frontenacs climb a single spot in this week’s OHL Power Rankings, as they wind up at number eighteen. A loss Wednesday night in Mississauga saw the Fronts losing streak reach twelve games, and Friday night’s scheduled home game against Belleville was postponed due to the storm, and re-scheduled for March 11th. Kingston put a stop to the skid on Sunday afternoon, winning on home ice over Windsor. The Frontenacs begin a long six-game road-trip with four games in the coming week, which begins on Wednesday in Belleville. Kingston plays weekend games up north, playing in Sudbury on Friday, and in Sault Ste. Marie on Saturday, before wrapping up the week on Family Day in Mississauga.

19. Erie Otters – (Last Week: 18) It seems an injustice to see the Erie Otters slide back to number nineteen this week, after splitting a pair of games on an eastern road-trip. Friday night, the Otters lit the lamp seven times in Oshawa to earn the victory, but were shut down a night later in Belleville. Erie will be busy, playing four times this week, which starts with a visit from Niagara on Wednesday. The Otters remain at home for two more games over the weekend, playing host to London on Friday, and Kitchener on Saturday, before taking to the road, playing Monday afternoon in London.

20. Ottawa 67’s – (Last Week: 20) The Ottawa 67’s continue to toil through a lengthy home stand, and after losing two of three games, remain at the bottom of the OHL Power Rankings this week. Wednesday night, the 67’s lost a wild game against Peterborough, and after Friday’s contest against Windsor was postponed, the teams replayed the tilt Saturday, with Ottawa coming out on top. Sunday afternoon, however, the 67’s lost to Belleville, and Ottawa will finish the home-stand with three more games this week. Wednesday, Ottawa hosts Barrie, Peterborough visits on Friday, and the 67’s end the weekend on Family Day, with a matinee game versus Brampton.

The ITO Players of the Week and OHL Power Rankings can be found every Tuesday throughout the season right here at OHLWriters.com. Until then, you can regularly find my ramblings about the Ontario Hockey League, as well as the Toronto Maple Leafs, @N24Nicholson.

Anthony Nicholson is the Sports Editor for Toronto News 24 covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and regular contributor to OHLWriters.com. Contact Anthony anytime for a conversation by joining him on Twitter, or send mail to anicholson@n24.ca.

Photo: Kerby Rychel of the Windsor Spitfires earns the nod as the OHL’s Top Forward for week 20, scoring three goals and ten points in three games. (Photo Courtesy: Terry Wilson/OHLImages)