Saginaw Spirit and Soo Greyhounds may want to check their rear-view mirrors as the Flint Firebirds approach the fast lane of the West Division ahead of the upcoming Ontario Hockey League season.
Saginaw and the Soo finished tied for the West Division lead in 2018-2019 with both teams putting up 96 points over the course of the regular season.
Way down, at the bottom of the five-team West Division — not to mention last place in the 10-member Western Conference — was Flint with a mere 38 points.
But as we look ahead to the approaching 2019-2020 season, there is light at the end of the OHL tunnel that leads to Flint.
That is, if the second half of the 2018-2019 season can be used as a measuring stick, expect the Firebirds to make major gains in the West Division/Western Conference 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 their last 10 games of the 2018-2019 campaign capped what was a nice second-half surge for the Firebirds.
At the halfway point of the 2018-2019 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.
Meanwhile, 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 contending times beginning with the upcoming, 2019-2020 campaign.
And a pair of recent trades is a means of illustrating how much veteran depth there is on the Flint roster.
Branch dealt Eric Uba (to the Guelph Storm for a third-round draft pick) and Jacob Winterton (to the Oshawa Generals for an eighth-round pick) and in doing so, moved out a pair of forwards who combined to score 30 goals in 2018-2019.
Why move out two productive players for draft picks when Flint is set up to be a possible contender this coming season?
Well, even without Uba and Winterton, the Firebirds have no less than 10 holdover forwards slated to suit up in Flint this season.
Add in six defensemen and one goalie who are slotted in to return and on paper at least, Flint appears to have the parts to make a run for one of the top two spots in the West Division and third or fourth place in the Western Conference.
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 (second round, Florida Panthers) and Keppen (fourth round, Vancouver Canucks) were both picked 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 from the Windsor Spitfires at the 2018-2019 trade deadline.
A blossoming star, 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 to Flint in 2019-2020 is forward Emmet Pierce, who scored eight goals in 24 games for the Firebirds in 2018-2019 after his OHL rights were obtained from the London Knights.
Then there is 1999 birth year forward Jake Durham, who had a breakout season with 35 goals in 2018-2019.
Durham will be one of the Firebirds three overage players for the 2019-2020 campaign, meaning Flint is in position to possibly add two more 20-year olds via the trade route.
Among other returnees is big 2000 birth-year forward Connor Roberts, who had 3 goals, 4 assists, 7 points in just 14 games in 2018-2019 before suffering a season-ending injury. Roberts is a former first-round draft pick of the Hamilton Bulldogs.
Other 2000 birth-year forwards are Hunter Holmes and Jack Wismer, who both tallied 13 times in 2018-2019.
Also available to return on the forward lines is Kyle Harris, who potted eight goals as a 2001 birth-year skater last season.
And one of the youngest players among Firebird veterans 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 last 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 the season and finished with 6 goals, 21 assists, 27 points.
With the above-mentioned 10 forwards all eligible to return to Flint this season, there is still room for the Firebirds top two picks from the 2019 OHL priority selections draft, Brennan Othmann and Braeden Kressler.
Othmann and Kressler are both 2003 birth year forwards with unlimited potential and have already signed with Flint.
On the blue line, besides the aforementioned Kolyachonok, Arizona Coyotes draft pick Dennis Busby is also scheduled for a return to Flint this season.
Busby, a 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.
Joining Kolyachonok and Busby as holdover Firebird defensemen for 2019-2020 are Riley McCourt — who had 32 points in just 47 games last season — along with Ryan Bangs, Marcus Gretz and Michael Bianconi.
McCourt and Bangs both have 2000 birth dates while Gretz was born in 2001 and Bianconi in 2002.
And Luke Cavallin, who has a 2001 birth date, has been groomed to be the no. 1 goalie in Flint in 2019-2020, having already played two full seasons in the OHL.
Meanwhile, Branch, as the GM, likes what is in store for Flint as he peeks ahead at the upcoming season.
“Our brand is growing, our team is growing and I couldn’t be more excited for what lies ahead,” Branch relayed. “We certainly see much better days ahead as an organization.
“As a group we are ready to take the next step forward,” Branch continued. “Our players learned and experienced a lot last season and we like what we have moving forward. We have new staff that we have hired … we have the right people in the right places.”
On the coaching end, young Eric Wellwood is readying for his first full season as the bench boss in Flint after taking over nine games into last year. He will be joined by new associate coach Ryan Kuwabara (who was with Saginaw last season) and incoming assistant Mark Ridout.
It is looking good in Flint. Oh yes it is.
Watch out, Saginaw. Watch out, Soo. Watch out, West Division and Western Conference.
It appears as though the Firebirds are set to make a right turn in Flint.