A pair of Sault Ste. Marie area products who played on teams that made it to the recent Memorial Cup final could return to the Ontario Hockey League in 2017-2018 as overage players.
Proven players who are also character individuals, goalie Mario Culina of the Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires and defenseman Owen Headrick of the OHL champion Erie Otters loom as credible options to fill key overage spots next season.
All 20 OHL teams are allowed to dress three overage players apiece.
Should Culina return as an overager for the 2017-2018 campaign it almost certainly would not be with Windsor. Michael DiPietro, who brilliantly backstopped the Spitfires to the 2017 Memorial Cup championship, is set as Windsor’s starter and is two years younger than Culina.
But Culina — who was signed by the Spitfires as a free agent early in the 2015-2016 season — could be attractive to an OHL team in search of veteran, capable experience.
Over two OHL seasons as the backup to DiPietro in Windsor, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Culina produced an overall record of 23-13-2 with a 2.79 goals against average and .901 save percentage. He has also earned extensive praise from Spitfires coach Rocky Thompson for his work ethic and ability to perform in pressure situations when called upon.
And while being an overage backup to DiPietro in Windsor makes little sense for either Culina or the Spitfires, there are about a half dozen other OHL teams that could be in the market for a veteran goalie of character and ability.
There is a possibility that Culina might opt to play at the Canadian university level next season. But if he has aspirations of playing as an overage in the OHL, Culina just could be the answer for a team in search of net experience.
Meanwhile, Headrick — a former teammate of Culina’s with both the Soo Thunder minor midgets and Soo Thunderbird juniors — is one of Erie’s top overage candidates for next season.
The 6-foot, 185-pound Headrick has two full seasons of high-level hockey under his belt. The slick defender from Garden River First Nation played in 63 games with the Lake Superior State Lakers of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association over parts of two terms before defecting to Erie and the OHL midway through the 2016-2017 campaign and suiting up for a whopping 53 matches with the Otters, regular season, playoffs and Memorial Cup tournament included.
After four straight 50-win regular seasons, Erie is set for a rebuild in 2017-2018. As Headrick would no doubt be a good option for Erie as an overager, the Otters could also cash in and trade him to another OHL team for younger talent and/or draft picks.
Headrick, to be sure, has a lot of upside to him as a smart, puck-moving, fluid-skating defenseman with a pro future ahead of him. And like his old friend Culina, Headrick could be a quality overager in the OHL come next season.