Barring a miracle on ice, Flint Firebirds are going to miss the Ontario Hockey League playoffs for a second successive season. But the last-place team in the Western Conference is showing steady signs of improvement.
Not only does Flint have a record of 4-2-1 in its last seven home games but the Firebirds are 5-4-1 over their last 10 outings.
Which is pretty good considering that at the midway point of the 68-game, regular season schedule, Flint had a record of 3-29-2 through 34 contests.
Thus, with the recent modest surge, the Firebirds have a record of 8-33-3 through 44 games.
Injuries have affected the Firebirds in a big way this 2018-2019 season as ace defenseman Dennis Busby — a fifth-round pick of the Arizona Coyotes at the 2018 National Hockey League draft — and forward Connor Roberts, a former first-round pick of the Hamilton Bulldogs, are among those who have spent a lot of time on the sidelines.
Busby, who like Roberts has a 2000 birth date, has been hard hit by the injury bug.
A slick defender who plays with an edge, Busby played in only two games for Flint in 2017-2018 after breaking his collarbone. And more than a year later, he just recently returned to the Firebirds lineup after breaking his foot last fall at Arizona’s NHL training camp.
Looking ahead, Flint’s best players are slated to return in 2019-2020 and the Firebirds could well be a middle-of-the-pack team in the Western Conference.
It is almost as though Flint was jinxed before the 2018-2019 season even started when Busby was injured. Then, seven games into the season, up-and-coming young coach Ryan Oulahen resigned for health-related reasons.
Through all the adversity of this season, Firebirds second-year general manager Barclay Branch has been a stand-up guy who hasn’t made excuses or ducked an interview request. Which is a credit to the character of Branch.
As noted prior, Flint’s top players are poised to return next season.
Leading the list of eligible returnees are forwards Ty Dellandrea, Eric Uba and Ethan Keppen, along with the aforementioned Busby and Roberts.
Dellandrea, a first-round pick of the NHL’s Dallas Stars, has 15 goals thus far this season as does fellow 2000 birth year forward Uba.
Meanwhile, Keppen, a 2001 birth-year forward, has 14 goals and 2001 birth-year import defenseman Vladislav Kolyachonok has 23 points in only 32 games.
Then there is another 2001 skater in forward Cody Morgan, a first-round pick from the 2017 OHL draft who has a goal, three assists, four points and is a plus-four in six games since being acquired from the Windsor Spitfires.
And a potential overage forward for next season is undrafted NHLer Jake Durham. Durham is having a breakthrough OHL season in Flint with 30 goals thus far.
To be sure, there is plenty more work to be done on the Firebirds rebuild project. But the recent 10-game sample and the 5-4-1 record from it has led to a possible hint of more to come in Flint.