Fine first half for Flint Firebirds

December 21, 2016

They routinely out-shoot the opposition. Ergo, it might be argued that the Flint Firebirds could have a few more wins on a respectable record that stands at 16-15-2 heading into the second half of the 2016-2017 Ontario Hockey League season.

Regardless, it has been a tidy turnaround in Flint for a Firebirds entry that missed the playoffs in 2015-2016 with only 20 wins in 68 games.

Currently in possession of the eighth-and-final playoff spot in the hotly-contested Western Conference of the OHL — where 8 of the 10 teams have records above the .500 mark — the makeover in Flint from last season to this has been noticeable.

With a new, enhanced hockey department featuring veteran OHL general manager (and successful coach of many years) George Burnett at the top and rookie bench boss Ryan Oulahen having learned the ropes well from North Bay Battalion coaching master Stan Butler, the Firebirds have been a feel-good story in their second season in Flint since the franchise relocated from Plymouth.

The 54-year old Burnett is one of the most-respected, trustworthy individuals in major junior hockey, a gentleman in a game that has its share of shallow, shifty-eyed shammers. And the Firebirds scored big in hiring the 31-year old Oulahen as head coach after he served a productive five-year apprentice as a Battalion lieutenant under the aforementioned Butler.

On the ice, while the Firebirds have been far from spectacular, they have been consistent, with a three-game losing streak the only real slip in an otherwise-even first half.

Trades and moves made by Burnett and assistant GM Joe Stefan have paid off at the expense of excess draft picks, of which the Firebirds still have plenty of extras in the cupboard that could be used for future barter. The reliable Stefan, who spent seven seasons as an associate/assistant coach with the erstwhile Whalers of Plymouth, is a valuable presence for the Firebirds in the mid Michigan area.

Leadership and experience among the Firebirds overage class has proven to be invaluable and a credit to Burnett, Stefan and Oulahen for identifying the trio they wanted as 20-year olds.

Holdover defensemen Mathieu Henderson and Alex Peters and shutdown forward Everett Clark, acquired by Burnett in an off-season trade with the Mississauga Steelheads, serve as prime-time overagers for Flint.

Henderson is second in scoring on the Firebirds with 7 goals, 28 assists, 35 points from his blue-line post.

Clark has provided some offense from his defensive-forward role with 9 goals, 11 assists, 20 points.

And Peters — who is the Firebirds captain — has 2 goals, 9 assists, 11 points.

Veteran players who served other teams in the OHL well have carried on in Flint after being acquired in trades instigated by Burnett.

Forward Kole Sherwood, obtained from the London Knights, has 13 goals, 17 assists, 30 points.

And defenseman Jalen Smereck, formerly of the Oshawa Generals, has 4 goals, 15 assists, 19 points.

Leading the way among the forwards have been a pair of returnees from the first season in Flint — Ryan Moore and Nicholas Caamano.

Moore leads the Firebirds in scoring with 17 goals, 25 assists, 42 points. Caamano — a National Hockey League draft pick of the Dallas Stars — is third on the Flint points chart with 15-18-33 totals.

Between the pipes, veteran OHL goalie Connor Hicks has been getting his game together following a sluggish start in Flint after being acquired from the Hamilton Bulldogs in the trade involving holdout forward Will Bitten.

Hicks has elevated his performance over his last 10 starts and for the season now has a record of 9-6-2 to go with a 2.87 goals against average and .893 save percentage.

The Firebirds other goalie, 19-yearb old rookie Garrett Forrest — a former standout with the Powassan Voodoos of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League — has lost his last four starts and will be out to try to regain his game in the second half of the season. Despite his recent struggles, Forrest has decent numbers — 6-8-0 record, 3.46 goals against average and .884 save percentage.

Rookies have not been lost as Flint forges on as an OHL work in progress as a trio of 2000 birth-year skaters from the 2016 OHL draft have all contributed for the Firebirds — forwards Ty Dellandrea and Hunter Holmes and defenseman Dennis Busby.

Dellandrea has 5 goals, Holmes has 4 and Busby is a +3 on the plus-minus chart.

Dellandrea and Busby both suited up for Team Canada entries at the World under-17 Hockey Challenge that was held earlier this season in Sault Ste. Marie.

Don’t expect a championship flag with the Firebirds logo to fly in Flint this season.

But the Firebirds have gained respect on and off the ice in year two in Flint and the outlook ahead gives a clear indication of prospective-potential and promise.

PHOTO: Flint defenseman Mathieu Henderson is a point-per-game skater for the Firebirds.

What you think about “Fine first half for Flint Firebirds”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *