After posting a winning record and making the playoffs with a veteran-laden team in 2016-2017, Flint Firebirds rebuilt the engine in 2017-2018 and missed the post season with a young group of players.
Now, as he and Firebirds head coach Ryan Oulahen look ahead to the 2018-2019 Ontario Hockey league season, Flint general manager Barclay Branch told Hockey News North that the immediate goal is to return to the playoffs.
The 2017-2018 season marked the initial campaign as Flint’s GM and vice president of hockey operations for the likeable, personable, 42-year old Branch, who served a prior 13-year OHL apprenticeship that included 11 seasons with the erstwhile Belleville Bulls and two with the Sudbury Wolves.
And having made the tough decision to sacrifice a playoff spot in 2017-2018 and trade older, established players in exchange for younger building blocks for the future in Flint, Branch said he and Oulahen have sights set on climbing the Western Conference ladder in 2018-2019.
“We feel we are a playoff team as we move forward and look ahead to the coming season,” Branch began. “Ryan and the assistant coaches deserve a lot of credit for playing and developing our younger kids last season and we feel that we will see the benefit of that during the upcoming season.”
Beginning in goal with Luke Cavallin, who underwent a baptism by fire as a 16-year old rookie last season, the Firebirds are set up with key position players on defence and on the forward lines, many of whom have 2000 and 2001 birth dates.
Dennis Busby and Riley McCourt head the list of defenders with 2000 birth dates while top forwards born in the same year include Ty Dellandrea and Connor Roberts.
The aforementioned Cavallin has a 2001 birth date as does forward Ethan Keppen, who tallied 10 goals as a rookie last season.
Flint also has older, dependable players who were born in 1999 led by 16-goal scorer C.J. Clarke and hulking defenseman Fedor Gordeev, who is a National Hockey League prospect of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
And Branch is in position to add a further veteran presence when it comes to filling out the Firebirds three overage (1998 birth year) positions.
“In the grand scheme of things there is the challenge of competing in the Western Conference which is probably the toughest and best group in the entire Canadian Hockey League, not just the OHL,” Branch noted. “But after we moved out the number of veterans that we did last year, our younger players got the benefit of playing major minutes in all situations.”
With Cavallin between the pipes, Branch said he and Oulahen “have every confidence” that the youngster can be the Firebirds starter as a 17-year old.
“Luke is a special person and a special talent,” Branch said of Cavallin. “On the technical side he checks off all the boxes. He is mentally strong and confident and he practices as hard as he plays.
“Our goalie coach Greg Stefan (who played in parts of nine NHL seasons with the Detroit Red Wings) is really excited about Luke and the potential that he has as we move forward,” Branch added, in further praise of Cavallin.
Cavallin got into 31 games spanning 1,657 minutes as a Firebirds rookie in 2017-2018 and faced a whopping 903 shots. He had a record of 7-18-1 with an .872 save percentage and 4.19 goals against average on a Flint team that finished last in the Western Conference with a mark of 20-43-5.
“He got better and better as the season went on,” Branch said of Cavallin, who finished the second half of the 2017-2018 season alternating game in and game out with since-graduated overage goalie Garrett Forrest. “We really, really like what we have in Luke.”
Besides Cavallin, other center pieces in Flint are the aforementioned Dellandrea and Busby, who were both selected at the recent NHL draft. Dellandrea went in the first round to the Dallas Stars while Busby went in the fifth round to the Arizona Coyotes despite playing in only two games last season after undergoing season-ending surgery to repair his collarbone.
“Ty and Dennis have major upsides to them as players and character individuals,” Branch pointed out. “Not only are they elite, skilled players and leaders but their character really stands out and that is something that teams look for in a player. I know how much of an emphasis that we put on character in Flint.”
The Firebirds may not be ready for prime time in 2018-2019. But through good moves made by Branch as GM and with the 33-year old Oulahen behind the bench as one of the rising young coaches in Canadian major junior hockey, good days appear to be on the horizon for the OHL in Flint.
2018 NHL DRAFT PICKS
Dellandrea and Busby made team history at the recent NHL draft as the two were the first players that were originally drafted by Flint in 2016.
Dellandrea was selected in the first round (13th overall) by Dallas and Busby was tabbed in the fifth round (145th overall) by Arizona.
Dellandrea, a six-foot, 190-pound forward from Port Perry, Ont., totaled 27 goals, 32 assists, 59 points for Flint over the course of the 2017-2018 season.
After being selected by the Firebirds in the first-round, fifth overall, at the 2016 OHL priority selections draft, Dellandrea was named an assistant captain in his second season in Flint. He recorded five game-winning goals and 14 multi-point games for Flint during the 2017-2018 campaign.
Dellandrea was also recognized as the Firebirds most valuable player and winner of the Combined Academic and Athletics Excellence award for the 2017-2018 season. He achieved a perfect 4.0 grade point average at Grand Blanc High School in Michigan during his senior year.
Busby, a 5-foot-11, 188-pound defender from Barrie, Ont., was only able to dress in two games during the 2017-2018 season due to a season long injury. He was a second round, 23rd overall, draft pick by Flint in 2016.
As a rookie two seasons ago in 2016-2017, Busby had two goals, 14 assists 16 points and had an even plus-minus rating in 62 games while playing in all key situations for the Firebirds despite being their youngest defenseman.
Like Dellandrea, Busby is also an academic standout.