There is light at the end of the Ontario Hockey League tunnel that leads to Flint. If the second half of the 2018-2019 season can be used as a measuring stick, expect the Flint Firebirds to make big gains in the OHL standings in 2019-2020.
Showing marked improvement, Flint forged its way from last place to second last in the final OHL regular-season standings for 2018-2019. A record of 5-3-2 over its last 10 games of the 2018-2019 campaign capped what was a nice second-half surge for Flint.
At the halfway point of the regular season — the 34-game mark — Flint was deep in last place in the 20-team OHL with just eight points from a record of 3-29-2. At the same time, the 19th-place Kingston Frontenacs had a record of 9-24-1 and were 11 points ahead of Flint.
But the Firebirds ran up a record of 13-17-4 over their next 34 games to finish with 38 points from a 16-46-6 mark. The Frontenacs, meanwhile, went from bad to worse over their last 34 games with a record of 5-28-1 to end up in last place with 30 points from a 14-52-2 record.
Looking ahead, having completed his second season as the general manager in Flint with back-to-back playoff misses, Barclay Branch has helped to position the Firebirds for better days ahead beginning with the 2019-2020 campaign.
Center Ty Dellandrea, Flint’s leading scorer during the 2018-2019 season with 63 points, is poised to again lead the way in what will be his fourth year with the Firebirds in 2019-2020. Dellandrea, who has a 2000 birth date, was a first round pick of the Dallas Stars at the 2018 National Hockey League draft.
Other returnees of note for 2019-2020 are three players with 2001 birth dates — import defenseman Vladislav Kolyachonok and forwards Ethan Keppen and Cody Morgan.
Kolyachonok and Keppen are both being pegged as picks at this year’s NHL draft while Morgan was a point-per-game player (13 goals, 17 assists) for Flint in 30 outings after being obtained in a trade with the Windsor Spitfires.
Of further note, Keppen became a 30-goal scorer in 2018-2019 in just his second season in the OHL.
Another 2001 birth year player who is set to return in 2019-2020 is forward Emmet Pierce, who scored eight goals in 24 games for Flint this season after his OHL rights were obtained from the London Knights.
Arizona Coyotes draft pick Dennis Busby is also scheduled for a return to Flint next season. The 2000 birth-year defender played in just two games in 2017-2018 because of a collarbone injury and suited up for only 27 matches in 2018-2019 after recovering from a broken foot that he suffered at Arizona’s NHL training camp.
Yet another player of promise who was born in 2000 who will be counted on to continue to up his game next season is forward Eric Uba. Uba came on strong to finish the 2018-2019 season with 19 goals.
Then there is 1999 birth year forward Jake Durham, who had a breakout season with 35 goals. Durham is a top candidate to be one of the Firebirds three overage players for the 2019-2020 campaign.
One of the youngest players on the Firebirds is one with a tremendous upside.
He is 2002 birth-year centre Evan Vierling, who Flint took with the second overall pick at the 2018 OHL draft.
Vierling started off slowly as an OHL rookie this season and it took him 25 games to score his first goal. But the smart, slick pivot picked up 11 points over the final eight games of this season and finished with 6 goals, 21 assists, 27 points.
Then there is the group of 2003 birth-year youngsters that Flint took at the recent OHL priority selections draft.
To be sure, it has makings of resulting in a bounty of draft for GM Branch and Firebirds head scout Dave McParlan.
Multiple sources confided to Hockey News North that Branch, McParlan and Firebird scouts Kyle Branch, Freddie Coccimiglio, Derek Langlois, Joe McCann, Mike Oliverio and Tom Watson helped set the table for future success in Flint with a bountiful yield that included five players selected in the first three rounds of the recent 2019 draft.
The Firebirds began with a flash by taking 5-foot-11, 158-pound forward Brennan Othmann as the second-overall pick in the first round. Othmann, a native of Pickering, Ont., recorded an impressive 66 goals, 80 assists, 146 points in 72 regular season games with the Don Mills Flyers of the Greater Toronto Hockey League. He played an integral role in helping the Flyers to an overall record of 77-0-7 record as Don Mills won the regular season and playoff titles in the GTHL. In 13 playoff games, Othmann led Don Mills in scoring with 7 goals, 15 assists, 22 points.
Flint then selected Braeden Kressler in the second round, 22nd overall. The Kitchener, Ont. native played his youth hockey for the Mississauga Senators of the GTHL. Kressler is a 5-foot-8, 148-pound center. He was a point-per-game player over the course of the 2018-2019 season.
In the third round, the Firebirds tabbed Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan native Tyler Dunbar with the 44th overall selection. A slick defender, Dunbar skated for the Soo Minor Thunderbirds of the Great North Midget Hockey League this past season. By being selected in the third round, Dunbar became the highest-ever player from the Michigan Soo to be drafted into the OHL.
The Firebirds picked northern boy Zacharie Giroux in the third round, 57th overall. The 5-foot-4, 135-pound center had 28 goals, 27 assists, 55 points in just 24 regular-season games for the Sudbury Minor Wolves of the Great North loop. He is the younger brother of Damien Giroux, a third-year center with the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit.
The Firebirds then took slick, smart, puck-moving defenseman Matthew Roy in the third round, 58th overall. The 6-foot, 166-pound defender skated with skill for the York Simcoe Express of the Ontario Minor Hockey Association, Eastern Toronto Area.
Branch, as the GM, likes what is in store for Flint moving forward.
“I couldn’t be happier for our organization and all who are involved,” relayed Branch. “Our brand is growing, our team is growing and I couldn’t be more excited for what the future holds.
“I cannot say enough about the job that our scouting staff did at the (recent) priority selections draft,” Branch added. “The hard work and preparation that went into (the draft) was unbelievable.
“We certainly see much better days ahead as an organization,” Branch told Hockey News North.