A whopping 58 points separated the lowly Flint Firebirds from the Soo Greyhounds in the final regular season standings from the 2018-2019 Ontario Hockey League campaign.
However, expect the two West Division/Western Conference opponents to be a lot closer over the course of the upcoming, 2019-2020 season.
Flint travels to the Soo a week from today in the regular season opener for both the Firebirds and the Greyhounds.
After mustering just 38 points from a record of 16-46-6 in 2018-2019, Flint figures to surpass the .500 mark in 2019-2020. In fact, I am thinking that the Firebirds will double their points total from last season to this.
To be sure, the Firebirds are deep in veteran talent at the forward, defense and goalie positions.
Leading the way up front are National Hockey League draft picks Ty Dellandrea (Dallas Stars) and Ethan Keppen (Vancouver Canucks) while former first-rounders from other teams, Connor Roberts (Hamilton Bulldogs) and Cody Morgan (Kingston Frontenacs), have the ability for breakthrough seasons.
And watch for high-scoring overager Jake Durham and second-year forward Evan Vierling, who was Flint’s first-rounder in 2018, to also light the lamp with regularity this season.
On the blue line, impact seasons are on the agenda for NHL draft picks Dennis Busby (Arizona Coyotes) and Vladislav Kolyachonok (Florida Panthers), not to mention fellow veteran defenders Riley McCourt and Marcus Gretz.
Then there is Flint’s big off-season acquisition, overage goalie Anthony Popovich.
The under-rated Popovich back-stopped the Guelph Storm to the OHL championship last spring and he gives Flint another seasoned goalie to go with third-year Firebird Luke Cavallin.
Popovich played in 52 of Guelph’s 68 regular season games in 2018-2019 before appearing in all 24 of its playoff matches and accounting for all 16 Storm victories en route to winning the OHL championship. His regular season stats stood out as a true workhorse winner — 30-13-7 record, 3.29 goals against average and .899 save percentage.
All in all — at forward, on defense and in goal — third-year general manager Barclay Branch has built a good team for second-year head coach Eric Wellwood and his incoming assistants, Ryan Kuwabara and Mark Ridout, to work with.
Meanwhile, as Flint is focused on sharply reversing its fortunes from last term to this, the Soo is set to to build on seven straight winning seasons in which the Hounds averaged a remarkable 45 victories during that span.
The Hounds may be in tough to put up that range of wins again this season — they produced 96 points from a record of 44-16-8 in 2018-2019 — but they again have the makings of a solid club as they get set to take to the ice on Sept. 20 against the upstart Firebirds.
In goal, general manager Kyle Raftis used the off-season to acquire overage puck-stopper Christian Propp from the North Bay Battalion.
As the aforementioned Popovich was an OHL mainstay last season, Propp also got in more than his share of work and production.
Propp posted a record of 24-24-2 with a 3.98 goals against average and .893 save percentage for North Bay last season. He also brings a reputation to the Soo as a character individual with an exceptional work ethic.
On the blue line and up front, the well-coached Hounds will have a number of capable parts despite the graduation of several top producers from a year ago.
Hounds taskmaster John Dean showed as a rookie head coach last season that he is an adaptable bench boss and while he is demanding, he does get a lot out of his players.
And thanks to Raftis as the GM, Dean as the head coach is not lacking in capable veteran performers as first pucks are set to drop on the looming OHL season in a week.
If all falls into place, forward Barrett Hayton should lead an above-average attack that also includes Jaromir Pytlik, Cole MacKay, Ryan Roth, Joe Carroll and Zack Trott.
And on the back end, Montreal Canadiens draft pick Jacob LeGuerrier leads a defense crew that also features Ryan O’Rourke, who is projected as a possible first round pick at the 2020 NHL draft.
NB V. SOO … CAMPBELL
The Greyhounds will play at home twice next weekend.
After Flint visits GFL Memorial Gardens on Sept. 20, North Bay is at the Soo on Sept. 21.
St. Joseph Island product David Campbell, a 2002 birth-year winger, is on the North Bay roster after having signed an OHL card with the Battalion earlier this month.
Campbell played much of his minor hockey in Sault Ste. Marie before moving to North Bay a couple of years ago to play in the Great North Midget Hockey League and then become a fourth-round pick of the Battalion at the 2018 OHL priority selections draft.
He then played for the Powassan Voodoos of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League last season. Campbell’s NOJHL rights have since been acquired by the Blind River Beavers.