Having to rebuild an Ontario Hockey League team is nothing new for Flint Firebirds general manager Barclay Branch. In his first and prior gig as an OHL general manager, Branch was at the helm of the Sudbury Wolves rebuild.
Branch spent two years in Sudbury as the Wolves started a rebuild process that continued during the 2017-2018 season with Rob Papineau as the new GM. The Wolves are now one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference this 2018-2019 OHL season thanks to the efforts of both Branch and Papineau.
Now nearing the completion of his second season as the GM in Flint, Branch has positioned the Firebirds for better days ahead beginning with the 2019-2020 campaign.
Flint will miss the playoffs for a second straight year this 2018-2019 campaign. With nine games to play in the regular season, the Firebirds have a record of 11-43-5 and will have the first or second overall pick at the upcoming, April 6, OHL priority selections draft.
Flint will have five picks in the first three rounds at this year’s draft. The Firebirds have selections in each of the first two rounds and three more in what looms as a pivotal third round.
Ergo, Branch and his Firebirds scouting staff, which includes Sault Ste. Marie natives Freddie Coccimiglio and Mike Oliverio, have a glorious opportunity to come away with a plethora of plum players from among the top 60 selections at the April 6 OHL draft.
Coccimiglio scouts the Niagara region for the Firebirds and Oliverio keeps a watch on northern Ontario for Flint under Branch as the GM and Dave McParlan as the head scout.
Despite Flint’s woeful record this season, there is reason for future optimism with a promising core of Firebirds slated to return in 2019-2020.
Center Ty Dellandrea, Flint’s leading scorer this season with 56 points, is poised to again lead the way in what will be his fourth year with the Firebirds in 2019-2020. Dellandrea 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 has been a point-per-game player for Flint in 21 outings since being obtained in a trade with the Windsor Spitfires.
Arizona Coyotes draft pick Dennis Busby is also scheduled for a return to Flint next season. The 2000 birth-year defender played in only two games in 2017-2018 because of a collarbone injury and has suited up for just 18 matches in 2018-2019 since recovering from a broken foot that he suffered at Arizona’s training camp.
Then there is forward Jake Durham, who has had a breakout season with 34 goals. Durham is a top candidate to be one of the Firebirds three overage players for the 2019-2020 campaign.
Major injuries to Busby and 2000 birth year forward Connor Roberts and an assortment of other ailments managed to slow down the rebuild in Flint this season.
Undaunted, Branch has soldiered on as the point guy on the Firebirds rebuild ranch. And the fourth year OHL general manager, who paid his dues as an assistant GM with the erstwhile Belleville Bulls over a lengthy, 11-year run, likes what the future holds in Flint.
“We have stayed with our young guys and have added more younger players to what we are trying to build here in Flint and along with the coaching staff, we have a good feeling about what lies ahead for us,” Branch told Hockey News North.
An even-keeled, up-front individual, Branch has refused to use the extraordinary number of injuries that the Firebirds have had to deal with this season as an excuse.
“I would rather try to keep things positive and continue working at what we are trying to accomplish with the Flint Firebirds,” Branch said evenly. “We have a number of good players who are good character individuals and we like what we have moving forward.”