It is a team that I have been touting as an Ontario Hockey League contender-in-waiting since last summer. It is also a team that most pundits figured would miss the Ontario Hockey League playoffs for a second straight season in 2017-2018.
But through 50 games of the 2017-2018 campaign, the Saginaw Spirit shows as a pleasant surprise in the tougher Western Conference of the OHL. Not that I am all that surprised as the Spirit is a team that I have been following closely as an OHL squad that is clearly on the rise.
And what may be most impressive about a Saginaw squad that has a respectable record of 25-19-6 through 50 outings thus far this season is how young the Spirit is.
Of the 26 players on the Saginaw roster — 15 forwards, nine defensemen and two goalies — all except a trio of 1997 birth date overagers 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 player born in 1998 who would be a potential overager in 2017-2018 and he is hulking, 6-foot-6 defenseman Keaton Middleton, who is a National Hockey League draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Besides, Cormier, Crawford, Kohn and Middleton, every other 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.
The engineer of the Spirit project just off Interstate 75 at Saginaw is third-year general manager Dave Drinkill, who is somewhat of a youngster himself.
The affable Drinkill, who is in his mid-30s, put a plan in place when he was hired as Saginaw’s GM in the summer of 2015. The plan included a revamp of trading off older, established players and building through the draft with multiple, excess picks.
Having served a lengthy apprenticeship with the OHL’s Barrie Colts in the player personnel department — eventually becoming assistant GM — after graduating from the reputable sports administration program at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Drinkill immediately went to work for Saginaw preparatory to the 2016 priority selections draft, which would be his first at the helm of the Spirit.
To be sure, Drinkill’s two priority selection drafts as Saginaw’s hockey boss — the 2016 and 2017 processes — have yielded a number of up-and-coming players who are making a mark on the Spirit roster.
The 2000 birth year plums include forwards Blade Jenkins, Damien Giroux, Maxim Grondin, Jake Goldowsky and Danny Katic, defenseman Caleb Everett and goalie Cameron Lamour.
Jenkins, Giroux, Grondin and Everett are currently on the NHL Central Scouting rankings for this year’s entry draft and Goldowsky and Lamour could well find their way on to the next list.
Another player with a 2000 birth date whose name is worth filing away for future reference is that of big, smooth-skating defenseman Bode Wilde.
Wilde, who was a second round pick of the Spirit in 2016, is currently honing his skills with the U.S. National Team Development Program. Wilde is being projected as a possible first or second round pick at the 2018 NHL draft and there are those who feel the prime defender could find his way to the OHL next season and take a walk on the wild side to Saginaw.
Meanwhile,the number of 2001 birth year rookies who are earning their keep in Saginaw this season is an impressive lot and includes forwards Nicholas Porco, Adam Preuter, Ryan Stepien and Camaryn Baber (recently elevated from the Soo Thunderbirds of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League as an injury replacement) and defenseman Duncan Penman.
Drinkill, to be sure, has not overlooked northern Ontario kids in either of the 2016 and 2017 drafts.
Giroux and Lamour are both from the Sudbury area, Grondin hails from Hearst, Katic calls Timmins home and Porco and Baber are both Sault Ste. Marie boys.
Then there are 1999 birth year skaters such as 24-goal scorer Cole Coskey, fellow forward Brady Gilmour and defenseman Reilly Webb who are contributing to the success of the Spirit this season and who all have future OHL eligibility of at least one more term after this one.
Tall, lanky and rangy, Webb, an NHL draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings, was acquired by Drinkill from the Eastern Conference-leading Hamilton Bulldogs at this year’s OHL trade deadline for stock-piled, excess draft picks. Gilmour, currently on the injury list, is also an NHL draft pick of the Red Wings.
As for Drinkill, not to say that he has become the best GM in the OHL in such a short period of time. But the Barrie, Ont. native has a work ethic that is unsurpassed in the OHL and not only does he study and prepare but is thorough when doing his homework.
Drinkill also went out and got the best man available when former Spirit head coach Spencer Carbery took a job as a pro assistant during the past summer. Drinkill quickly identified former Kitchener Rangers head master and Hamilton Bulldogs associate Troy Smith as the right guy for Saginaw and hired him to replace Carbery behind the Spirit bench.
Smith has brought his prior OHL experience and a calm demeanour to Saginaw and has the rising Spirit in a battle for fourth place — and home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs — with the London Knights, though both teams are not that far ahead of the Owen Sound Attack, Guelph Storm and Windsor Spitfires for sixth, seventh and eighth place in the Western Conference.
A playoff spot has yet to be clinched for Saginaw this season. But it will be.
All that remains to be determined is in which place the Spirit will land. Which is in the hands of Smith and the players to try to accomplish.
EYES ON PORCO
You can just see it in him. You can just close your eyes and vision what he is going to accomplish in future OHL seasons.
Smooth skating, strong and still growing at 6-foot, 170 pounds, the aforementioned Nicholas Porco simply looks like a hockey player.
The stride is there. So is the awareness. He knows where he is at when on the ice and he knows where he is supposed to go next. He has what coaches and managers and scouts call a “high hockey IQ.”
All he is lacking is experience — and numbers. Saginaw’s first pick, fourth overall, at the 2017 OHL draft, Porco has but 2 goals, 5 assists, 7 points in 39 games for Saginaw thus far this season.
Not to worry, though, says Saginaw GM Dave Drinkill, who tracked Porco for two seasons while the left winger developed under reputable coach Beau Moyer with the Vaughan Kings of the Greater Toronto Hockey League.
“I know his numbers aren’t where any one wants them and from the outside looking in they don’t look great but Nicholas is developing and playing the right way,” Drinkill relayed to Hockey News North.
“Nicholas is playing good minutes for a 16-year old, he has just had some bad luck and is snake bitten but it is coming for sure,” assured Drinkill.
“I don’t get worried about numbers on a 16-year old player,” Drinkill added. “It’s all about adjustment to the league and getting ready for the years down the road.”
Porco does have two of his seven points — both assists — over his past six outings and in the words of Drinkill, “is coming on as he gains confidence and continues to get used to the league.”
And Troy Smith, as Saginaw’s head coach, has also had plenty of good to say about Porco and his positive attitude, work ethic and skill level.
Coming from a very supportive, large Italian family in Sault Ste. Marie, Porco certainly has his share of supporters from his home town, a huge throng of which turn out to cheer for their favourite OHL player from a rented box in the Essar Centre whenever Saginaw is in the Soo to play the Greyhounds.
His dad, Frank, and his mom, Jennifer, are among the many relatives who are following the progress of a kid who just might become the next player from Sault Ste. Marie to blossom into an OHL standout.
And the friendly gentleman who can be spotted wearing a white Spirit jersey with the number 71 and the name PORCO on the back is none another than young Porco’s grandfather, Nick Porco.
The Spirit can also talk a good game.
Saginaw boasts one of the best play by play announcers in the OHL in the person of Joey (Slick) Battaino, who calls all of the team’s games, home and away, on radio station WSGW 100.5.