Apropos a position of consequence in hockey, it starts between the pipes. And where the stakes are high and there is parity within the two conferences, quality goalies are coveted in the 20-team Ontario Hockey League.
Two good goalies — one born in 1998, the other in 2001 — are in position to elevate the Flint Firebirds come the 2018-2019 OHL season.
The older one, Emanuel Vella, was acquired by Flint from the Mississauga Steelheads in the first move that was made after the off-season OHL trade embargo was lifted on August 1.
It has the appearances of being a good deal for Flint, which finished in last place and missed the Western Conference playoffs in 2017-2018.
Firebirds general manager Barclay Branch was able to obtain the services of the 6-foot-4, 195-pound Vella for a fifth-round draft pick in 2019.
Having played in only 21 games through his first three seasons in the OHL after being a third round draft pick of the London Knights in 2014 who was later traded to the Owen Sound Attack, Vella came into his own upon being dealt to Mississauga prior to the start of the 2017-2018 campaign.
After bouncing from London to Owen Sound and seeing little action, Vella spent the entire 2017-2018 season in Mississauga and posted a record of 17-10-1 to go with a 3.28 goals against average and .896 save percentage.
Vella’s win-loss record of 17-10-1 is all the more notable considering Mississauga finished in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with a mark of 33-32-3, just above the .500 level.
As much as his ability as a goalie who is getting closer to achieving potential as a legitimate OHL starter, Vella is also known for being a character, team-oriented player. He was Mississauga’s nominee in 2017-2018 for the Dan Snyder Memorial Trophy, which is awarded annually to the OHL’s humanitarian of the year.
Though he hails from Toronto and is moving on from nearby Mississauga to continue his OHL career in Flint, Vella is clearly looking forward to playing for the Firebirds.
“It’s very exciting. The team is on the upswing and there’s a lot of high-end young talent in Flint,” noted Vella. “It’s a big hockey opportunity.
“I’m extremely thankful and honoured for the opportunity to finish my junior career as a member of the Flint Firebirds and to be a leader both on the ice and in the community,” added Vella, who recently attended the National Hockey League development camp of the New York Islanders.
As for the youngster who is slated to share the crease with Vella in Flint, Luke 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.
Cavallin, who was Flint’s second round pick at the 2017 OHL draft, is listed at 6-foot-1, 180 pounds.
Both Cavallin and Vella figure to further progress under the tutelage of Firebirds goalie coach Greg Stefan.
The 57-year old Stefan, a former OHL goalie with the Oshawa Generals, went on to play nine seasons in the National Hockey League with the Detroit Red Wings.
Since retiring as a player, Stefan has had extensive experience as a scout and goalie coach at the NHL level. In fact, he was with the Carolina Hurricanes as a goalie coach and scout when they won the Stanley Cup in 2006.
At any rate, as the forecast in Flint is for the Firebirds to move up in the Western Conference standings in 2018-2019 and return to the playoffs, the goal-tending situation seems to be settled with Vella and Cavallin as the older-younger twine tandem.