As the bright lights of the Ontario Hockey League have begun to shine on the 2017-2018 season, news and views become common place throughout the major junior loop.
OWEN UP TO IT: Overage defenseman Owen Headrick of the Erie Otters seems to be finding his stride early in his first full season in the league.
At least one National Hockey League scout — Mike Dawson of the Carolina Hurricanes — has taken note of Headrick in the early going of the 2017-2018 campaign and has relayed to HockeyNewsNorth.com that the 6-foot, 185-pound defender from Garden River First Nation seems to be performing with a lot more confidence while playing huge minutes for the Otters.
After a year-and-a-half with the Lake Superior State Lakers of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, Headrick left school last winter for Erie and the OHL and played in 26 regular-season matches before suiting up for 22 playoff games and another five Memorial Cup appearances.
The 53 OHL games that Headrick crammed into half an OHL season — compared to the 63 that he played at Lake Superior State over a year-and-a-half — appear to have the skilled, smart defenseman with the pro-style shot nicely prepared for the 2017-2018 campaign.
The boost in confidence for Headrick began with a reported good showing at the NHL rookie camp of the Boston Bruins and has carried over to Erie where he is benefiting from the coaching expertise and teaching style of first-year Otters bench boss Chris Hartsburg.
MARIO-GO-ROUND: After two seasons as the backup to 2017 Memorial Cup championship hero Michael DiPietro, Mario Culina was hoping to play in the OHL as an overage goalie in 2017-2018.
But despite putting up an overall record of 23-13-2 with a 2.79 goals against average and .901 save percentage over two seasons as DiPietro’s backup with the Windsor Spitfires, no other OHL team put in a claim on Culina over the summer months and the 6-foot-2, 185-pound goalie opted to join the Ryerson Rams of the Ontario University Athletics hockey program.
That Culina was passed on in favour of others by teams seeking overage goaltending experience is somewhat puzzling, especially when comparing statistical numbers.
Simply put, Culina put up better numbers as a backup — with a penchant for performing in pressure situations when called upon — than many of the overage goalies who have managed to find work thus far this OHL season.
At any rate, even though he is enrolled at Ryerson, Culina could still opt to leave school and defer his education should an OHL team come calling for his services at some point.
To be sure, character and ability are not an issue when it comes to Culina. The only issue is the opportunity to show what he can do as a starting goalie in the OHL.
HOUND POWER: Soo Greyhounds remain the choice of the majority who have good knowledge of, and insight into, the OHL as the team to beat in the Western Conference this season.
To be sure, the Hounds have quality depth on the forward lines and on the defensive side as general manager Kyle Raftis has assembled a strong squad for crackerjack coach Drew Bannister and his assistants.
It begins up front where returning forwards Boris Katchouk, Tim Gettinger, Jack Kopacka and Morgan Frost — NHL draft picks, each and every one of them — combined for 116 goals last season. All play an up-tempo style with the combined assets of speed, skill and smarts.
On the blueline, Conor Timmins is not only very good in his own end but the Colorado Avalanche draft pick averaged almost a point per game from his defensive post last season.
And between the pipes, second-year goalie Matthew Villalta is fresh from a strong rookie regular season which led to being a third-round NHL draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings.
A concern of sorts though is that Villalta wilted under the pressure of the OHL playoffs last spring and lost his starting job. Time will tell if Villalta is the main man as this season continues.
FLINT, SAGINAW: They represent two gritty industrial towns while surrounded by the scenic splendor of mid and lower Michigan.
Separated by about 35 exits along Interstate 75, Flint Firebirds and Saginaw Spirit are an emerging OHL rivalry.
And both should be Western Conference playoff teams in 2017-2018 after Flint missed out in 2015-2016 and Saginaw fell short in 2016-2017.
The Firebirds are relatively new to the OHL and about to enter their third OHL season in Flint after relocating from the Detroit suburb of Plymouth while formerly known as the Whalers.
The Spirit, on the other hand, has been established in Saginaw since 2002 upon acquisition of assets formerly belonging to the erstwhile North Bay Centennials.
Ergo, Flint and Saginaw have only been OHL rivals for two years, though the Michigan towns have a prior history as iconic foes from the infamous, now-disbanded, International Hockey League.
And while the Flint Generals and Saginaw Gears will always share fond space in the annals of barn-burning, albeit minor-pro goon hockey, the OHL is now where current history is being made along the I-75 highway.
As nearby rivals, the Firebirds and Spirit have somewhat similar expectations with the the 2017-2018 season underway as members of the highly-competitive Western Conference of the OHL.
Both teams are flush with young talent. Both teams are well-coached and well-managed.
Take a gander at Flint’s top three picks from the 2016 OHL draft who debuted with the Firebirds as rookies in 2016-2017 — forwards Ty Dellandrea and Hunter Holmes and defenseman Dennis Busby — and the Firebirds have a solid foundation for the future in place.
On the more-experienced side, well-seasoned forwards Ryan Moore and Nick Caamano (a Dallas Stars prospect) are top scorers from 2016-2017 who will no doubt be big producers again as 2017-2018 gets into full swing while 6-foot-6 Fedor Gordeev figures to emerge as an impact defenseman after being an NHL draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs this summer.
On the management and coaching end, the Firebirds are in the very good hands of well-prepared, even-keeled general manager Barclay Branch and rising bench boss star Ryan Oulahen. Oulahen, to be sure, was very impressive as a first-year head coach in 2016-2017.
Meanwhile, north of Flint along the I-75 at Saginaw, the Spirit looms as a formidable force for the future with so much young talent.
The roster of 1999 and 2000 birth year players who have already debuted in Saginaw is flush with plum potential and includes forwards Brady Gilmour (an NHL draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings), Cole Coskey, D.J. Busdeker, Damian Giroux, Maxim Grondin and Danny Katic and defensemen Hayden Davis and Brock Hill.
In particular, look for Grondin, a big kid from the remote northeastern Ontario town of Hearst, to break through as a second-year performer in the OHL this season.
Despite all of the plum potential, Saginaw remains a very young squad that will continue to experience some growing as the 2017-2018 season wears on, though having overage goalie Evan Cormier — an NHL prospect of the New Jersey Devils — as the starter should prove to be a bonus.
Like Flint, Saginaw is also well led.
Hard-driven, extremely-detailed GM Dave Drinkill is in his third term as the Spirit hockey boss while good guy Troy Smith is in his first season in Saginaw after more than 10 years of prior OHL coaching experience with the Kitchener Rangers and Hamilton Bulldogs.
PLAYOFF FORMAT: A check of the overall standings and point totals from over the past few years shows just how much stronger the Western Conference is than the Eastern Conference.
A glaring example from the 2016-2017 season is that Saginaw finished ninth and missed the playoffs in Western Conference despite putting up more points than three teams — Sudbury Wolves, Ottawa 67’s and Niagara IceDogs — that made the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.
Currently, eight teams in each of the Western Conference and Eastern Conference make the playoffs.
But there are those who would like to see the top 16 teams make the playoffs, regardless of which conference they play in. London Free Press hockey writer Ryan Pyette is one person who would like to see a format change, if only on a trial basis.
“We go through this same debate every season but the disparity between the Western and Eastern Conferences doesn’t look like it will ever change,” Pyette recently wrote. “Many people have begged for the 1-16 playoff seeding format that the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League uses. I would like to see it approved for one season, just one, almost as a test run. If enough like it, then keep it.”
PHOTO: Overage defenseman Owen Headrick of the Erie Otters.