It is being seen as a matter of when, not if. And it should happen within the next season or so. That is, there is a strong hockey Spirit that is set to rise.
The carefully planned evolution is in the Great Lakes Bay Region, specifically the mid Michigan, Ontario Hockey League town of Saginaw.
Adhering to the blueprint of general manager Dave Drinkill, the Saginaw Spirit is poised to continue its progress over the course of the upcoming 2018-2019 season and beyond.
The 2018-2019 campaign will be Drinkill’s fourth in Saginaw but only the third season since the youthful GM put his plan in place to rebuild the Spirit with a bounty of draft picks and selective trades.
To be sure, the Spirit 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.
In fact, with a record of 29-30-9, Saginaw just missed the .500 mark in finishing in eighth place in a Western Conference that is considered to be the most competitive in the entire Canadian Hockey League.
Looking ahead to the 2018-2019 season, Saginaw seems to be in position to challenge for third or fourth place in the Western Conference, which would give the Spirit home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
That aside, the return road to respectability in Saginaw has been a rugged one, full of potholes.
The Spirit 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 and the future.
This is a Saginaw team that Hockey News North has been touting as a contender-in-waiting since last summer. It is also a team that most pundits figured would miss playoffs for a second straight season in 2017-2018.
But with the aforementioned Smith coaxing the maximum out of his young team, Saginaw overachieved in 2017-2018 and while the season ended as expected — a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the no. 1 ranked Soo Greyhounds — the rise of the Spirit can be seen on the horizon.
Of the 26 players who finished the 2017-2018 season on the Saginaw roster — 15 forwards, nine defensemen and two goalies — all except a trio of 1997 birth date over-age players made up of goalie Evan Cormier, defenseman Marcus Crawford and forward Mason Kohn are eligible to return in 2018-2019.
In fact, Saginaw has only one holdover skater with a 1998 birth date who would be a potential overager in 2017-2018 and he is hulking, 6-foot-6 defenseman Keaton Middleton. As team captain, Middleton has obvious leadership traits and his return to Saginaw in 2018-2019 would be a big boost to a strong defensive corps.
Also on the overage front, the Spirit has traded for import forward Albert Michnac, who scored 21 goals for the Mississauga Steelheads in 2017-2018 and whose OHL rights were acquired by Saginaw earlier this summer for a conditional draft pick.
Otherwise, every other returning player on the Saginaw roster was born in either 1999, 2000 or 2001, which quite arguably makes the Spirit the most-talented young team in the OHL.
As noted, the aforementioned Drinkill, who is in his mid-30s, is the project manager of the Saginaw rebuild.
Having served a lengthy apprenticeship with the OHL’s Barrie Colts in the player personnel department after graduating from the reputable sports administration program at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Drinkill immediately went to work preparatory to the 2016 priority selections draft, which would be his first at the helm of the Spirit. (He was hired by Saginaw in 2015 after that year’s OHL draft had already taken place.)
To be sure, Drinkill’s first two priority selection drafts as Saginaw’s hockey boss — the 2016 and 2017 processes — have yielded a number of up-and-coming players who have already made a mark on the Spirit roster.
The 2000 birth year yields include forwards Blade Jenkins, Damien Giroux, Maxim Grondin, Jake Goldowski and Danny Katic, defenseman Caleb Everett and goalie Cameron Lamour.
Jenkins (New York Islanders) and Giroux (Minnesota Wild) were both taken in the fifth round of this year’s National Hockey League draft.
And the number of 2001 birth year rookies who earned their keep in Saginaw in 2017-2018 is an impressive lot and includes forwards Nick Porco, Adam Preuter and Ryan Stepien and defenseman Duncan Penman. And another player from that age group, forward Camaryn Baber, showed well in a few cameo appearances with Saginaw after being recalled from the Soo Thunderbirds of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
Of note, Porco, who was Saginaw’s first round pick (fourth overall) at the 2018 priority selections draft, is being projected by many as a future OHL standout. The Sault Ste. Marie native has character and a work ethic that matches his outstanding skill level.
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 success of the Spirit in 2017-2018 and who all have future OHL eligibility of at least one more term.
Tall, lanky and rangy, Webb, an NHL draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings, was acquired by Drinkill from the reigning champion Hamilton Bulldogs 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.
Jenkins scored 20 goals as an OHL rookie in 2017-2018, Giroux netted 19, Grondin potted 11 as did Goldowski (in just 40 games) while Stepien and D.J. Busdeker managed 10 apiece.
Meanwhile, besides any previously-mentioned defensemen, Hayden Davis and his 27 points from 2017-2018 will also be back in 2018-2019. Davis, who has a 1999 birth date, is a former first round pick of the Niagara IceDogs.
As for the goalie situation, Drinkill used Saginaw’s first pick at the 2018 CHL import draft to take Russian-born Ivan Prosvetov.
The 6-foot-5 Prosvetov was a fourth round pick of the Arizona Coyotes at the this year’s NHL draft. He is already acclimatized to the North American junior game, having spent the 2016-2017 season in the North American Hockey League and the 2017-2018 campaign in the United States Hockey League.
Prosvetov is expected to take over from the graduated Cormier as the no. 1 goalie in Saginaw in 2018-2019 with Lamour returning as the backup.
With all of the returning players to Saginaw plus those selected in the 2018 draft, including highly-regarded first-round pick, forward Cole Perfetti, the Spirit stable is brimming with talent.
And as Drinkill continues to position the Spirit for what is an imminent run at OHL glory, the ghosts of Saginaw’s so-so hockey past are becoming more faint.
Moving up in the tougher-than-tough Western Conference will be no easy task for Saginaw, regardless of all of the potential that it has.
But the job that the tireless Drinkill has done in putting together a deep, talented roster in Saginaw is impressive work on the part of the Spirit general manager.
The Spirit has a steady, seasoned coach in Smith to lead all of the talent that Drinkill has assembled.
And if Prosvetov is the goalie that Arizona projects him to be and if Drinkill can get 2016 second rounder Bode Wilde signed to an OHL card — the big defenseman spent the past two seasons with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program and was a second round pick of the New York Islanders at this year’s NHL draft — Saginaw could be in extra good position to continue a steady climb in the Western Conference standings.
There is little doubt that the patience of the Saginaw ownership group and the support of the many loyal Spirit fans is getting closer and closer to being rewarded.
Games are won and points are collected on the ice, not on paper.
But the Spirit is looming and the betting is that on-ice success is setting up in Saginaw.
SPIRIT OF THE NORTH
As general manager, Dave Drinkill has drafted and signed a number of players from northern Ontario who are currently on the Saginaw roster.
The boys from the north who play for Saginaw include forwards Damien Giroux, Maxim Grondin, Danny Katic, Nick Porco and Camaryn Baber and goalie Cameron Lamour.
Giroux and Lamour are from the Greater Sudbury area, Grondin hails from Hearst, Katic calls Timmins home, while Porco and Baber are both from Sault Ste. Marie.
PHOTO: Saginaw general manager Dave Drinkill (right) being interviewed by Spirit play-by-play radio announcer Joey (Slick) Battaino.