Flint Firebirds posted a winning record in the tough Western Conference of the Ontario Hockey League in 2016-2017 before giving the heavily favoured Soo Greyhounds a good run in the first round of the playoffs.
Fast forward to the 2017-2018 campaign and what might be termed a temporary reverse.
While Flint will miss the playoffs this season, first-year general manager Barclay Branch has positioned the Firebirds well for the 2018-2019 campaign and beyond.
It was a couple of months into this season when Branch, second-year head coach Ryan Oulahen and other members of the Flint hockey department made the decision to move valuable veteran assets in exchange for younger players and high draft picks to try to better position the Firebirds for next term and into the future.
“We decided as a staff to set ourselves up, not just for one season, but for sustained success,” Branch told Hockey News North in a telephone interview. “We knew there would be bumps and bruises along the way this season but we are all on board with the plan and we all feel good about where we are headed.”
As the GM, Branch said the Firebirds are in “very good hands” with the aforementioned, 32-year old Oulahen and his assistants.
“When a team is rebuilding it’s a lot easier to be the GM than one of the coaches,” Branch pointed out. “The coaches are the ones who are there day in and day out with the task of developing young players and putting them in key situations where they are playing major minutes against more experienced players from opposing teams.”
The group of youngsters that are in place via moves made by Branch and former Flint boss George Burnett (who is now the coach and general manager of the Guelph Storm) is one that is flush with plum potential of 2000 and 2001 birth date players.
The brash crew features second-year forwards Ty Dellandrea and Connor Roberts, second-year defensemen Dennis Busby and Riley McCourt, rookie forward Ethan Keppen, first-year defenseman Marcus Gretz and freshman goalie Luke Cavallin.
Of note, Dellandrea, who was Flint’s first-round pick at the 2016 draft, has netted a team-high 25 goals for the Firebirds thus far this season.
Roberts, who was a first-round, third overall pick of Hamilton in 2016, has 13 goals in 38 games since joining the Firebirds — along with the aforementioned McCourt — in a blockbuster trade from earlier this season that sent veteran forwards Nicholas Caamano and Ryan Moore to the Eastern Conference-leading Bulldogs.
Then there is Busby, a second-round of the Firebirds in 2016 who played like a veteran as a rookie defender for Flint last season.
Busby injured his clavicle just before the start of this season and then re-injured it just two games into the 2017-2018 campaign. The slick, hard-nosed blue-liner subsequently had season-ending surgery and just recently returned to Flint and is now skating with the Firebirds.
And between the pipes, Cavallin looms as the clear-cut goalie of the future in Flint. A second-round pick of the Firebirds in 2017, Cavallin has played in 26 games for the Firebirds this season and has a 6-15-1 record on a last-place team that has an 18-39-5 mark.
Branch likes what is happening in Flint.
“Our coaches have done an outstanding job with this young group,” Branch enthused. “Our young kids have had ample opportunity to develop and play in all situations and Ryan (Oulahen) and his staff deserve credit for the great work they have done.”
Oulahen, to be sure, is considered to be a rising star among coaches in the Canadian Hockey League.