He has been a backup in each of his two Ontario Hockey League seasons with the Windsor Spitfires. But the ability, potential and work ethic of Mario Culina have him positioned to become a potentially-valuable overage goalie for the 2017-2018 season.
The immediate question is where Culina will play in 2017-2018.
It won’t be in Windsor as the reigning Memorial Cup champion Spitfires have spectacular, holdover starter Michael DiPietro, a highly-regarded National Hockey League draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks who is two years younger than Culina and with plenty of OHL eligibility remaining.
Over two OHL seasons as the backup to DiPietro in Windsor, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Culina produced an overall record of 23-13-2 with a 2.79 goals against average and .901 save percentage. He also earned extensive praise from outgoing Spitfires coach Rocky Thompson as a team player with a penchant for performing in pressure situations when called upon.
So, who will Culina be playing for this coming season?
The OHL is on so-called vacation for the month of July and there is a trade embargo until August 1. But just because teams are forbidden from making trades during July does not mean general managers are refraining from talking.
Windsor general manager Warren Rychel is probably in position to ask for a third round draft pick or a young prospect in exchange for Culina, who joined the Spitfires in 2015-2016 as a free agent from the Soo Thunderbirds of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
While Culina has never been a starter in the OHL in his role as a backup to DiPietro through two seasons in Windsor, there are those who view the slender Sault Ste. Marie product as a no. 1 goalie going into his overage season in 2017-2018.
A couple more questions. Which OHL teams are looking for a no. 1 goalie? Which OHL teams are willing to trade for an overage goalie who has been a backup through two seasons in the league?
No general manager is going to play the role of goalie-seeking desperado before the 2017-2018 season even starts. But the key is that Rychel truly appreciates what Culina has done for the Spitfires over the past two seasons and will not stand in the way of the goalie’s desire to prove himself as a starter elsewhere in the OHL.
On a few other OHL teams besides Windsor, Culina would have been a starter in 2016-2017. Then again, if not for the OHL opportunity that Windsor gave him, Culina might still be playing in the NOJHL.
At any rate, the feeling is that once the OHL trade embargo is lifted, Culina will be traded sometime during the month of August so he can mentally prepare for the 2017-2018 season.
Physically, there is little doubt that the determined goalie with the 1997 birth date will be more than ready when the 2017-2018 season begins.
His Sault Ste. Marie goalie instructor, Jamie Disano, describes Culina as a “workout machine.” Others who know Culina rave about his work ethic and character.
All Culina needs now is to be traded from the shadow of his good friend DiPietro and become a no. 1 goalie in his own right.
Better late than never.
PHOTO: Mario Culina raises the Memorial Cup as a member of the 2017 champion Windsor Spitfires.