The book has closed on the 2018-2019 Ontario Hockey League season. But ahead of the 2019-2020 campaign, there will be summer stories relative to player signings and trades and activity within the coaching ranks. Before that, however, we glance at six takeaways from the 2018-2019 term.
TRADER GEORGE: Good man George Burnett of the Guelph Storm is an anomaly in OHL circles as someone who performs the dual role of coach and general manager.
And while Burnett has been a highly-regarded coach in the OHL since 1989, it was his work as the general manager in Guelph that made the difference as the Storm went from no. 4 seed in the Western Conference and no. 8 seed overall to become league champions for the 2018-2019 season.
Starting with the pre-season acquisition of overage (1998 birth year) defenseman Jack Hanley from the reigning OHL champion Hamilton Bulldogs, the 57-year Burnett made no less than eight major trades that assisted Guelph on this year’s title run to glory.
Others that Burnett acquired leading to the January 10 trade deadline were Team Canada forwards Nick Suzuki and MacKenzie Entwistle, forwards Zachary Roberts, Domenic Commisso and Pavel Gogolev and defensemen Sean Durzi, Fedor Gordeev and Markus Phillips.
Along with Suzuki and Entwistle, Phillips played for Team Canada at the 2019 World Junior Hockey Championships.
Through the many meaningful trades that Burnett triggered, he moved out five players, including former Storm first rounders Ryan Merkley and Tag Bertuzzi, who had both worn out their welcome in Guelph.
There were also a multitude of future draft picks exchanged as Burnett built the Storm into an OHL champion for the 2018-2019 season. In all, Burnett traded 17 future draft picks (albeit, some of them conditional) and acquired eight in return.
Burnett did his homework before making the many moves that he did.
For example, both Hanley (with the Belleville Bulls and Hamilton) and Gordeev (with Hamilton and the Flint Firebirds) had previously played for Burnett.
Then there was the fact that Hanley and Entwistle both had previous OHL championship experience as teammates in Hamilton last year — and are both known for their leadership qualities.
To be sure, it was a remarkable run for Guelph on the way to this year’s OHL championship.
The Storm finished fourth in the Western Conference regular-season standings and its 90 points were good for only eighth place in the overall OHL log.
By comparison, the Ottawa 67’s, who Guelph defeated in the OHL championship series, finished first overall during the regular season with 106 points.
But it was the comeback kids from Guelph who became the improbable champions of the OHL.
In winning the OHL title, Guelph ousted favoured Ottawa in Game 6 of the finals. And as it had done in the previous two playoff series against the Saginaw Spirit and London Knights, Guelph overcame big deficits before coming out on top.
In the Western Conference semi-finals against no. 1 seed London, no. 4 seed Guelph lost the first three games of the series only to Storm back and win the next four.
Then, in the Western Conference finals, Guelph spotted no. 2 seed Saginaw a three games to one lead before winning the next three to again take the series by a 4-3 margin.
Finally, it was the coup de grace in the OHL finals against no. 1 overall seed Ottawa.
Ottawa won the first two games of the series but it was Guelph that won the next four to take the OHL championship set.
As Burnett himself noted at the end of the dramatic playoff run that resulted in an epic OHL championship for the Storm: “It was quite the ride.”
HOWLING WOLVES: From a last-place overall finish in 2017-2018 and a woeful record of 17-42-9, the Sudbury Wolves improved by 48 points in 2018-2019.
Fashioning a record of 43-20-5 for 91 points, the Wolves finished in fourth-place in the Eastern Conference in 2018-2019 and won a round of the playoffs before losing to no. 1 seed Ottawa.
Led by goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who was named the OHL’s most valuable player, Sudbury also featured league rookie-of-the-year in big forward Quinton Byfield.
ON TOP IN OTTAWA: The 67’s surged from eighth place in the Eastern Conference in 2017-2018 to first place overall in 2018-2019.
With 106 points from a record of 50-12-6, Ottawa was led by overage scoring sensation Tye Felhaber, who — regular season and playoffs included — scored 76 goals in 86 games.
The 67’s won 14 straight playoff games only to lose their last four to Guelph in the OHL championship series.
GOOD HOT DOGS: Soo Greyhounds have defined consistency — and been a model for it — since 2012.
And — led by high-scoring forward Morgan Frost, points-producing defenseman Mac Hollowell and workhorse goalie Matthew Villalta — the winning ways continued for the Greyhounds in 2018-2019.
All in all, the Greyhounds have had seven straight winning seasons — averaging 45 victories a year during that span — though they do not have a single OHL championship to show for it.
The string of success began during the 2012-2013 campaign when the Greyhounds put up 78 points from a regular-season record of 36-26-6 only to lose to the Owen Sound Attack in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Then came the 2013-2014 regular season and 95 points from a record of 44-17-7. But the end came for the Greyhounds in the Western Conference semi-finals when they were ousted by the Erie Otters.
Up next was a resounding 110-point regular season in 2014-2015 from an eye-popping record of 54-12-2. But Erie would again prove to be a nemesis for the Soo as the Otters upset the favoured Greyhounds in the Western Conference finals.
The 2015-2016 season was pegged as a rebuild term but the Greyhounds still put together a 33-27-8 record, good for 74 points. The Soo then staged a first-round playoff upset before losing to — you guessed it, Erie — in the Western Conference semi-finals.
The 2016-2017 season resulted in 100 points from a record of 48-16-4. But the Greyhounds again fell victim to the upset as they were upended by Owen Sound in the Western Conference semi-finals.
The 2017-2018 term was a spectacular one for the Greyhounds, who breezed through the regular season with 116 points from a remarkable record of 55-7-6. The Soo was heavy favourites to win the league championship only to come up short to the Eastern Conference champion Hamilton Bulldogs in the OHL finals.
A rebuild season was thought to be in order in 2018-2019. But the Greyhounds — with a rookie head coach in John Dean — surprised many by putting up 96 points from a record of 44-16-8. The playoff end was again familiar, though, as the Greyhounds were defeated by the Saginaw Spirit in the Western Conference semi-finals.
Do the math and not only have the Greyhounds averaged 45 regular-season wins since 2012-2013 but they have hit the 100-point mark three times and surpassed the 95-point mark on two other occasions.
FIRED UP IN FLINT: All of the above-mentioned items dealt with teams who made major impacts on the 2018-2019 OHL season.
So why mention the Flint Firebirds — who have finished 19th overall in the 20-team OHL in each of the past two seasons?
Because Flint has given a hint that it is about the shake off the lint that has kept it at the bottom of the Western Conference standings in each of the past two OHL seasons.
To be sure, if the second half of the 2018-2019 season can be used as a measuring stick, expect the Firebirds to make big gains in the OHL standings in 2019-2020.
Showing marked improvement, Flint forged its way from last place to second last in the final OHL regular-season standings for 2018-2019. A record of 5-3-2 over its last 10 games of the 2018-2019 campaign capped what was a nice second-half surge for Flint.
At the halfway point of the regular season — the 34-game mark — Flint was deep in last place in the 20-team OHL with just eight points from a record of 3-29-2. At the same time, the 19th-place Kingston Frontenacs had a record of 9-24-1 and were 11 points ahead of Flint.
But the Firebirds ran up a record of 13-17-4 over their next 34 games to finish with 38 points from a 16-46-6 mark. The Frontenacs, meanwhile, went from bad to worse over their last 34 games with a record of 5-28-1 to end up in last place with 30 points from a 14-52-2 record.
Looking ahead, having completed his second season as the general manager in Flint with back-to-back playoff misses, the aforementioned Barclay Branch has helped to position the Firebirds for better days ahead beginning with the 2019-2020 campaign.
2000 birth-year center Ty Dellandrea, Flint’s leading scorer during the 2018-2019 season with 63 points, is poised to again lead the way in what will be his fourth year with the Firebirds in 2019-2020. Of note, Dellandrea, was a first round pick of the Dallas Stars at the 2018 National Hockey League draft.
Other returnees of note for 2019-2020 are three players with 2001 birth dates — import defenseman Vladislav Kolyachonok and forwards Ethan Keppen and Cody Morgan.
Kolyachonok and Keppen are both being pegged as picks at next month’s NHL draft while Morgan was a point-per-game player (13 goals, 17 assists) for Flint in 30 outings after being obtained in a trade with the Windsor Spitfires.
An OHL star in the making, Keppen became a 30-goal scorer in 2018-2019 in just his second season in the OHL.
Another 2001 birth year player who is set to return in 2019-2020 is forward Emmet Pierce, who scored eight goals in 24 games for Flint in 2018-2019 after his OHL rights were obtained from the London Knights.
Arizona Coyotes draft pick Dennis Busby is also scheduled for a return to Flint in 2019-2020. The 2000 birth-year defender played in just two games in 2017-2018 because of a collarbone injury and suited up for only 27 matches in 2018-2019 after recovering from a broken foot that he suffered at Arizona’s NHL training camp.
Yet another player of promise who was born in 2000 who will be counted on to continue to up his game in 2019-2020 is forward Eric Uba. Uba came on strong to finish the 2018-2019 season with 19 goals.
Still with the 2000 birth-year class, big right winger Connor Roberts is capable of productivity provided he is healthy.
The 6-foot-4 Roberts — who was a first-round pick, third overall, of the Hamilton Bulldogs at the 2016 OHL draft — played in just 14 games for Flint in 2018-2019 before suffering a season-ending injury.
Roberts had shown potential in 2017-2018 after Flint acquired him from Hamilton in a trade. Roberts managed 15 goals in 44 games after joining Flint from Hamilton.
Then there is 1999 birth year forward Jake Durham, who had a breakout season with 35 goals in 2018-2019. Durham is a top candidate to be one of the Firebirds three overage players for the 2019-2020 campaign.
One of the youngest players on the Firebirds is one with a tremendous upside.
He is 2002 birth-year centre Evan Vierling, who Flint took with the second overall pick at the 2018 OHL draft.
Vierling started off slowly as an OHL rookie during the 2018-2019 season and it took him 25 games to score his first goal. But the smart, slick pivot picked up 11 points over the final eight games of this season and finished with 6 goals, 21 assists, 27 points.
If third-year goalie Luke Cavallin can provide good goal-tending for Flint in 2019-2020, watch out for the Firebirds.
DON MILLS DOMINANCE: The Greater Toronto Hockey League champion Don Mills Flyers simply dominated the 2019 OHL priority selections draft.
Don Mills had 14 players selected, including the first overall, second overall and fourth overall picks.
Underage forward Shane Wright went first overall to the Kingston Frontenacs and his linemate, Brennan Othmann, went second overall to the Flint Firebirds.
Then, with the fourth overall pick, the Barrie Colts took Don Mills defenseman Brandt Clarke.