Fueled by a flurry of off-season hiring, signing and trade moves, the Flint Firebirds have become better-positioned for their second session in the Ontario Hockey League.
With a new-look hockey staff in place led by general manager George Burnett and featuring head coach Ryan Oulahen, associate coach Eric Wellwood, assistant coach Scott MacDonald and assistant GM Joe Stefan, the Firebirds have initial-goal aspirations of moving up in the Western Conference standings in 2016-2017 after missing the playoffs in their debut season in Flint.
To be sure, the Firebirds have level-headed leadership overseeing the hockey operations in the 54-year old Burnett, who has literally spent half of his life in the OHL as a respected and respectable player, coach and general manager.
An even-tempered individual and as gentlemanly as it gets at this level of hockey, Burnett has coached both the Guelph Storm and Belleville Bulls into the Memorial Cup Tournament and has had multiple other winning seasons at the helm of the Oshawa Generals and Niagara Falls Thunder.
Thorough and prepared as a coach, Burnett also brings a reputation for building and re-building OHL teams as a GM as he begins the job of trying to position the Firebirds into a playoff team.
It’s been a busy off-season for Burnett, who was hired as GM of the Firebirds in mid May and given a three-year contract.
Once the hockey staff was finalized, the process of signing top players from the 2016 OHL draft became a priority and Burnett and the Firebirds went three-for-three in short order, inking first-rounder Ty Dellandrea and second-rounders Hunter Holmes and Dennis Busby. And earlier this week, the Firebirds signed Jack Phibbs, who was their seventh-round pick in 2015.
Dellandrea, Holmes and Phibbs are all forwards and Busby is a defenseman.
As for Burnett, he told HockeyNewsNorth.com that he is “excited to lead this new and unique challenge” as GM of the Firebirds.
“I am sure it will be different not stepping behind the bench for the first time in 30 years,” noted Burnett, “but make no mistake, this will be Ryan Oulahen’s team. It will be my job to support Ryan, Eric (Wellwood) and the entire staff in any way possible.
“The group of coaches that has been assembled is young but brings a wealth of experience from playing in the league, playing professionally and coaching with a number of successful, winning OHL programs,” Burnett continued.
On the trade front, Burnett orchestrated a pair of notable transactions over the past few weeks, getting serviceable overage centre Everett Clark from the Mississauga Steelheads for 19-year old defenseman Vili Saarijarvi and then shipping draft picks to the Oshawa Generals for 19-year old defender Jalen Smereck.
Clark and Smereck join a number of fellow high-end OHL veterans in Flint including the Firebirds top three point-producing forwards from 2015-2016 — Will Bitten, Ryan Moore and Nicholas Caamano. Bitten (third round, Montreal Canadiens) and Caamano (fifth round, Dallas Stars) were both selected at the recent 2016 National Hockey League draft.
As forwards, Clark, Bitten, Moore and Caamano combined for 90 goals last season.
Off the ice, Burnett sees progress being made in the Flint and surrounding area.
“The fan base has provided terrific enthusiastic support, the interest shown by quality billet families continues to grow, the relationship with Grand Blanc High School is as good as I have seen, the arena for OHL hockey is excellent and the facilities the players are able to access each day are outstanding,” the normally-reserved Burnett exclaimed.
While there will always be challenges in a given OHL market — and with Flint still new to the major junior scene — Burnett nonetheless sees the Firebirds succeeding.
“There have been and will continue to be some challenges but I am very confident that with a little patience and a quality group of dedicated, hard-working people, the program will succeed,” Burnett said evenly.
“We have had an excellent response from players and their families from our orientation camp to present resulting in commitments from Ty Delandrea, Hunter Holmes, Dennis Busby and Jack Phibbs to date,” Burnett continued. “Also, the additions of strong veteran players Everett Clark and Michigan native Jalen Smereck will continue to bring stability to our group for the coming season.
“It should be a fun ride,” Burnett concluded.