A writer’s selection of storyline material ahead of the approaching 2018-2019 Ontario Hockey League regular season.
Wolves Country. Since entering the OHL in 1972, the Sudbury Wolves have never won a league championship and have never participated in the Memorial Cup tournament. And recent history shows the Wolves having missed the playoffs in three of the past four seasons.
But while the championship drought will likely continue in 2018-2019, the Wolves should at least make a return to the Eastern Conference playoffs.
There is a pack of Wolves ready to show their teeth led by overage forwards Darian Pilon and Drake Pilon on down to sophomore centre Blake Murray and sizeable, speedy pivot Quinton Byfield, who was the first overall pick at the 2018 OHL draft.
Murray scored 21 goals as a rookie on a last-place team in 2017-2018 while Byfield has future OHL star written all over his lanky frame.
The twin terror Pilon brothers, who hail from Sault Ste. Marie and who went from the house league midget level in the Soo to the defunct Canadian International Hockey League to the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League to signing with the OHL Wolves as free agents three years ago, are the epitome of heart, hustle and perseverance.
A competitive season is a virtual must for the Wolves and a Sudbury fan base that is as a loyal as there is in the OHL.
To be sure, there is an onus on second-year head coach Cory Stillman to at least get the Wolves into the playoffs.
Sidebars are that Stillman twice won a Stanley Cup as a National Hockey League player and that his new assistant coach is the ageless Bud Stefanski. Not only did Stefanski have OHL success as a head coach with the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors and Barrie Colts but he is Stillman’s father-in-law.
A resurgence in Sudbury would be a feel-good story not limited to fans and supporters of the Wolves. The Wolves have a lengthy history of local ownership that dates back to 1972.
Capital Gains. Ottawa 67’s are poised to become an Eastern Conference contender in 2018-2019 under the second-year watch of general manager James Boyd and head coach Andre Tourigny.
But let us no forget that it was former Ottawa coach and general manager Jeff Brown who traded for or drafted current 67’s standouts such as forwards Sasha Chmelevski, Kody Clark and Austen Keating and defensemen Noel Hoefenmayer and Kevin Bahl.
While Boyd and Tourigny are known as good hockey men and Ottawa is on the verge of Eastern Conference contention, it is Brown who assembled much of the star cast in the nation’s capital.
Bulldogs Run. Hamilton Bulldogs have multiple key components to replace from their 2017-2018 championship season. But considerable talent still remains in Hamilton including 30-goal forwards Matthew Strome and Arthur Kaliyev.
Worth following is whether world class forward Robert Thomas, who helped spark the Bulldogs run to OHL glory after being acquired in a mid season trade with the London Knights, returns to Hamilton this season.
Thomas has a good shot at sticking in the NHL with the St. Louis Blues as a 19-year old center. Should he return to Hamilton, the Bulldogs could opt to trade him and recover a good chunk of the draft picks that general manager Steve Staios traded away for veteran players that aided last season’s championship run.
Spirit Rising. Saginaw Spirit is a force to be reckoned with and is expected to challenge the London Knights (yes, them again), Guelph Storm and Windsor Spitfires for elite status in the Western Conference.
Adhering to the blueprint of fourth-year general manager Dave Drinkill, the Spirit is poised to continue its progress over the course of the upcoming 2018-2019 season and beyond.
Saginaw took a step forward in 2017-2018 as the youngest team in the OHL. With head coach Troy Smith at the helm in his first season in Saginaw, the Spirit advanced to a playoff spot in the Western Conference in 2017-2018 after missing the post season in 2016-2017.
Looking back, Saginaw has not won a playoff series since the 2011-2012 season and the last time it won a playoff game was in the first round of the 2013-2014 campaign. In fact, over its last five playoff series appearances, Saginaw has lost 20 of 21 games.
Now to the present.
Led by a pair of overagers in defenseman Keaton Middleton and recently-acquired forward Albert Michnac, the Spirit is finally ready to rise.
Then there are 1999 birth year skaters such as 27-goal scorer Cole Coskey, fellow forward Brady Gilmour and defenseman Reilly Webb who all contributed to the improvement of the Spirit in 2017-2018.
Tall, lanky and rangy, Webb, an NHL draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings, was acquired by Drinkill from Hamilton at the 2018 OHL trade deadline for stock-piled, excess draft picks. Gilmour is also an NHL draft pick of the Red Wings.
Quite clearly, there is plenty of production from the returning forwards besides Coskey and his 27 goals and Gilmour, who tallied nine times in an injury-filled 2017-2018 season that limited him to 41 games.
But that’s not all.
There are three NHL draft picks from the 2018 proceedings who all have 2000 birth dates — defenseman Bode Wilde and forwards Blade Jenkins and Damien Giroux.
As for the goalie situation, Saginaw used its first pick at the 2018 Canadian Hockey League import draft to take Russian-born Ivan Prosvetov. The 6-foot-5 Prosvetov was a fourth round pick of the Arizona Coyotes at this year’s NHL draft.
Add them all up and toss in 2001 birth year forward Nick Porco, who was Saginaw’s first-round pick in 2017, and there is a moving Spirit in mid Michigan.
Porco, a Sault Ste. Marie product, is about to enter his second OHL season and there are those, including his former minor midget coach, Beau Moyer, who think the big left winger will score 20 to 25 goals in 2018-2019 after scoring only five as a rookie in 2017-2018.
In Like Flint. Among the players who loom as major factors in getting the Flint Firebirds back into the Western Conference playoffs are goalie Emanuel (Big Fella) Vella, defenseman Dennis Busby and forwards Ty Dellandrea, Connor Roberts and C.J. Clarke.
Vella was acquired by Flint from the Mississauga Steelheads during the off-season. Firebirds general manager Barclay Branch was able to obtain the services of the 6-foot-4, 195-pound Vella for a fifth-round draft pick in 2019.
Having played in only 21 games through his first three seasons in the OHL after being a third round draft pick of the London Knights in 2014 who was later traded to the Owen Sound Attack, Vella came into his own upon being dealt to Mississauga prior to the start of the 2017-2018 campaign.
After bouncing from London to Owen Sound and seeing little action, Vella spent the entire 2017-2018 season in Mississauga and posted a record of 17-10-1 to go with a 3.28 goals against average and .896 save percentage.
Vella’s win-loss record of 17-10-1 is all the more notable considering Mississauga finished in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with a mark of 33-32-3, just above the .500 level.
As for Busby, it speaks volumes about his ability and upside that despite playing in only two games last season because of a collarbone injury, the Arizona Coyotes took the 2000 birth year defender in the fifth round of this year’s NHL draft.
Over to the forward troika of Dellandrea, Roberts and Clarke, the betting from this corner is that they will combine for 90 to 100 goals this season and give the Firebirds as good a “big three” of front-liners as there is in the Western Conference. The trio combined for 61 goals in 2017-2018, including 27 from Dellandrea.
In fact, look for Roberts, who is a 6-foot-4 centre and former first round pick of Hamilton, to have a monster season in what will be his third OHL term in 2018-2019.
What is also to like about Flint is the Firebirds young, head coach standout Ryan Oulahen and a staff that includes associate coach Darcy Findlay, formerly of the Central Canada Hockey League.
All in all, Flint figures to make the Western Conference playoffs this season though the Firebirds are probably a good year away from being a contender. Still, this is a team that could be a nice surprise in 2018-2019.
Attack Mode. What is rather certain about Owen Sound from this view is that Todd Gill is a very good coach, who with better veteran goal-tending, would have led the Attack to a second round playoff upset of the top seeded Soo Greyhounds last spring.
What is also rather certain is that Owen Sound again has net concerns heading into the 2018-2019 season. Youngster Mack Guzda showed well as a 16-year old rookie in 2017-2018 but lacks age and experience.
Up front, Owen Sound should be able to light it up again in 2018-2019 with a formidable Attack that includes high-end draft picks and trade acquisitions via general manager Dale Degray.
Good goal-tending and Owen Sound is again a Western Conference force. Average goal-tending and Owen Sound could be a Western Conference flop.
Either way, this is the consummate small market franchise that is an OHL jewel.
Young Pups. The 2018-2019 version of the Soo Greyhounds will be decidedly different from the 2017-2018 edition.
Gone, by way of graduation, are a plethora of key cogs from the Greyhound team of 2017-2018 that piled up 116 points from a regular season record of 55-7-6 before losing to Hamilton in the OHL championship playoff finals.
And as the Greyhounds do stand to return a smattering of third and fourth year players for 2018-2019, a number of skaters who played secondary roles as rookies in 2017-2018 will be asked to step up this season.
Five rookie forwards from 2017-2018 who could well spell the difference between an above or below .500 team for the Soo this season are forwards Ryan Roth, Joe Carroll, Cole MacKay, Brett Jacklin and Zack Trott.
Coaches Corner. With former Bulldogs head coach John Gruden having joined the NHL’s New York Islanders as an assistant coach, David Matsos has taken over as the bench boss in Hamilton after being its associate coach during the 2017-2018 championship season.
Formerly a head coach in Sudbury with the Wolves for parts of three seasons, Matsos is happy to be the lead guy on the bench again.
“This is a great organization,” he said of the Bulldogs. “I’m from (nearby) Burlington but my decision to come to Hamilton in the first place had less to do with location and more to do with the franchise and who is running things here.
“Our management team (led by Steve Staios) is dialed in and provides us with all the resources to be successful and develop these players,” Matsos relayed.
Look for Matsos — who won a Memorial Cup in 1993 as a high scoring winger with the Soo Greyhounds — to prove himself in his second go-round as an OHL head coach.
As Matsos has time on his side in Hamilton, there are a few coaches who could come under fire if their teams don’t get off to a good start.
Topping that list could be Kitchener Rangers head master Jay McKee. Rangers general manager Mike McKenzie wasn’t shy to move out a pair of assistant coaches over the past year and there is a feeling that McKee isn’t exactly on terra firma in Kitchener.
And even though he is a rookie head coach, Greg Walters may be under pressure to produce quickly in Oshawa, where Generals owner Rocco Tullio has a reputation — deserved or not — for being somewhat of a meddler.
Oh, and we should mention that Tullio’s son, Ty, was Oshawa’s first round pick at this year’s OHL draft. What happens if owner dad is not happy with rookie forward son’s ice time?
Friendly Forecast. At this stage, this is how Hockey News North projects how the teams will finish, by conference, this season.
Western Conference: 1. London Knights. 2. Saginaw Spirit. 3. Guelph Storm. 4. Windsor Spitfires. 5. Owen Sound Attack. 6. Kitchener Rangers. 7. Soo Greyhounds. 8. Flint Firebirds. 9. Erie Otters. 10. Sarnia Sting.
Eastern Conference: 1. Niagara IceDogs. 2. Ottawa 67’s. 3. Oshawa Generals. 4. Barrie Colts. 5. Peterborough Petes. 6. Hamilton Bulldogs. 7. Sudbury Wolves. 8. North Bay Battalion. 9. Mississauga Steelheads. 10. Kingston Frontenacs.
PHOTOS: Quinton Byfield of the Sudbury Wolves and Connor Roberts of the Flint Firebirds.