Two coaching vacancies from late July have now been filled and the upstart Saginaw Spirit has solidified its staff preparatory to the 2017-2018 Ontario Hockey League season.
Shortly after the earlier August hiring of seasoned OHL coach Troy Smith as its new bench boss, the Spirit has confirmed the subsequent addition of Ryan Kuwabara as assistant coach.
Smith and Kuwabara join holdover associate coach Chris Lazary to complete the Saginaw bench staff under the leadership of general manager Dave Drinkill.
Smith replaces Spencer Carbery as head coach. Carbery has taken an assistant coach position in the American Hockey League.
And Kuwabara assumes the assistant coach position recently held by John Kisil. Kisil has moved on from the Spirit for a National Hockey League scouting job.
As the 39-year old Smith is a former OHL defenseman with the erstwhile Detroit/Plymouth Whalers, the 45-year old Kuwabara also has Ontario league roots. A former standout right winger and first round draft pick of the Ottawa 67’s, Kuwabara went on to play 14 seasons of pro hockey in Japan after being an NHL draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens.
As a coach, Kuwabara brings four years of experience as a bench boss with the Ancaster Avalanche of the Greater Ontario Jr. Hockey League to Saginaw.
Meanwhile, as he is about to enter his third season as the youthful GM of the Spirit, the aforementioned Drinkill has brought in some front office assistance of his own.
Brian Prout, who has been with the Spirit in a number of capacities for 11 years, most recently as its United States scout, has been promoted to the newly-created position of assistant to the general manager under Drinkill.
All in all, as Smith prepares for his latest gig as an OHL coach (he has 11 years of prior combined experience with the Kitchener Rangers and Hamilton Bulldogs) with bench assistance from Lazary and Kuwabara, Saginaw is seen as a team that is clearly on the rise.
While it may not be ready to compete for the top spots in the tough Western Conference in 2017-2018, 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 boasts promise and potential and includes forwards Brady Gilmour, Cole Coskey, D.J. Busdeker, Damian Giroux, Maxim Grondin and Danny Katic and defensemen Hayden Davis and Brock Hill.
Then there are a pair of 2000 birth year dandies who committed to Saginaw during this off season after being draft picks in 2016 — forward Blade Jenkins and defensemen Caleb Everett. Jenkins was Saginaw’s first round pick at the 2016 draft.
Saginaw has also signed 2017 first-rounder Nick Porco, a 2001 birth-year forward from Sault Ste. Marie who the Spirit took fourth overall at the April 8 minor midget draft.
To be sure, despite all of the plum potential, Saginaw remains a very young squad heading into the upcoming 2017-2018 season, though the Spirit should get a boost from the expected return of New Jersey Devils prospect Evan Cormier as an overage goalie.
Led by Cormier, the Spirit challenged for a Western Conference playoff spot until the latter portion of the 2016-2017 regular-season schedule only to finish in ninth place, albeit with a respectable point total of 63.
Indeed, the 63 points that Saginaw put up were more than three teams who made the playoffs in the Eastern Conference — Sudbury Wolves, Ottawa 67’s and Niagara IceDogs.
In fact, with better secondary goal-tending, Saginaw might well have squeaked into the playoffs.
Cormier certainly did his part with a record of 23-19-7 that was accompanied by a 3.23 goals against average and .899 save percentage.