When a team has been at the bottom of the standings, it figures that there is no place to go but up.
Two years ago, the 2018-2019 season, it was the Kingston Frontenacs who finished in last place in the 20-team Ontario Hockey League. And this past season, the 2019-2020 campaign, it was the North Bay Battalion which had the dubious distinction of having the worst record in the OHL.
Of note, the successive last-place teams in Kingston and North Bay are both members of the OHL’s Eastern Conference.
After its league-worst record of 14-52-2 in 2018-2019, Kingston improved marginally to a 19-39-4 mark in 2019-2020. However, the slight boost was not enough to save the job of head coach Kurtis Foster, who was recently fired to make room for the return of Paul McFarland as the bench boss in Kingston.
The 34-year old McFarland, who has spent the past three seasons as an assistant coach in the National Hockey League, was Kingston’s head coach for three seasons before that. And McFarland is headed to a really good situation as he makes for a rerun in Kingston.
To be sure, the Frontenacs can return 10 of their top 11 scorers from 2019-2020 including forwards Shane Wright (39 goals, 27 assists, 66 points), Zayde Wisdom (29-30-59) and Jordan Frasca (15-28-43.)
Then there is right winger Martin Chromiak, who is being projected as a possible second or third round pick at this year’s NHL draft. Chromiak joined the Frontenacs in January of this year and proceeded to light it up with 11 goals, 22 assists, 33 points in only 28 games after moving to Kingston from his Slovakia homeland.
Kingston can also return 19-goal scorer Dawson Baker as an overage forward in 2020-2021 — and the Frontenacs are banking on Ryan Dugas to be the no. 1 goalie after two seasons as the backup in Kingston.
Of note, Kingston had a much better record with Dugas in net than any other goalie over the past two seasons. With Dugas tending twine, the Frontenacs had a record of 16-21-0 — without him, they were simply awful with a 17-70-6 mark.
Over in North Bay, meanwhile, the Battalion is coming off of a 2019-2020 season in which it posted a league-worst record of 17-41-4. But a mid-season coaching change from franchise mainstay Stan Butler to Ryan Oulahen resulted in a fresh start for the Troops.
Under Butler — who had been the Battalion hockey boss since the inception of the franchise in 1998 — North Bay had a record of 5-23-0 through 28 games of the 2019-2020 season. But after the 35-year old Oulahen took over from Butler behind the bench, the Battalion posted a 12-18-4 record and was within four points of a playoff spot when the COVID-19 crisis abruptly ended the OHL season.
Looking ahead to the 2020 OHL season, North Bay is poised to return its top three scorers, including 25-goal producer Brandon Coe, who is a mid round prospect for this year’s NHL draft.
And of significance, the Battalion has a prize goalie in 6-foot-6 Joe Vrbetic, who isn’t eligible for the NHL draft until 2021.
Vrbetic, who won’t turn 18 until October 24 of this year, took over as North Bay’s no. 1 goalie as a rookie this past season and posted a record of 14-25-1 on a Battalion team that finished in last place with a 17-41-4 mark. In other words, when Vrbetic wasn’t in net, North Bay had a rotten record of 3-16-3.
Of note, before joining the Battalion in 2019-2020, Vrbetic starred for the Powassan Voodoos of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League in 2018-2019.
Don’t count on championship contention for North Bay or Kingston come the 2020-2021 season. But do expect the Battalion and Frontenacs to turn heads as ascending teams in the OHL’s Eastern Conference.
And to pick one over the other — look out for Kingston. But don’t look past North Bay.