Here and there in the Western Conference of the Ontario Hockey League with about one third of the 2023-2024 regular season schedule still on the slate:
• Gavin Hayes continues to pay dividends for the Soo Greyhounds since the Team USA world junior hockey gold medal champion was a trade deadline acquisition from the rebuilding Flint Firebirds. In seven games with the Greyhounds, the 19 year old forward has seven goals, six assists, 13 points for a Soo team that is in a logjam race for first place in the Western Conference with the Saginaw Spirit, London Knights and Kitchener Rangers. The Greyhounds paid big to get Hayes — who is a signed National Hockey League draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks — from Flint at the trade deadline, parting with 18 year old forward Connor Clattenburg, 17 year old forward Alex Kostov, a second round draft pick in 2027, a third rounder in 2025, a fourth rounder in 2026 and a fifth rounder in 2025.
• Charlie Schenkel has, at age 19, become one of the better goalies in the Western Conference as the clear cut no. 1 guy between the pipes for the Soo Greyhounds. Getting better as the season has gone on, the big puck stopper has a record of 21-9-2 with a 3.01 goals against average and .890 save percentage. This is Schenkel’s second full season with the Greyhounds after serving in a backup role a year ago. To be sure, Schenkel is one of several veteran goalies in the Western world of the OHL who have been difference makers for contending teams. Others include Michael Simpson of London, Jackson Parsons of Kitchener and Brayden Gillespie of the Guelph Storm.
• But the youngest starting goalie just may be the best of the lot. In his first full season with the Owen Sound Attack, 17 year old Carter George has been a standout while carrying a heavy work load with well over 2,000 minutes of action with a third of the season still to play. On a so-so Owen Sound team, George has a 16-14-3 record with a 2.99 goals against average and .916 save percentage. Five goalies from the OHL have made the mid season rankings list of the National Hockey League’s Central Scouting Bureau ahead of the June 28-29 NHL Entry Draft — and at the very top of the chart is George, a Thunder Bay product who has Sault Ste. Marie roots from his mother’s side. The 6-foot-1, 180 pound George, who has a 2006 birth date, was taken by Owen Sound in the third round of the 2022 OHL priority selections draft from the Thunder Bay Kings AAA program. While he is from Thunder Bay, George has deep roots to Sault Ste. Marie as the grandson of legendary curler Tom Coulterman and the son of Tara Coulterman-George, who is no curling slouch herself. This is one dandy goalie who still has multiple years of potential OHL stardom ahead of him as a soon to be NHL draft pick.
• 2004 birth year forward Tyson Doucette, formerly of the Soo Jr. Greyhounds of the Great North Under 18 Hockey League and the Soo Thunderbirds of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League, leads the Sarnia Sting in goals with 16. Doucette, who made Sarnia as a free agent walk on last season, scored only four goals in 58 games as an OHL rookie with the Sting in 2022-2023. His breakout season as a second year skater in the OHL comes as little surprise to those who have closely followed the late growing youngster since his minor hockey days in Sault Ste. Marie. Doucette is a top candidate to return to Sarnia as an overage player next season. Doucette, while slightly built, has skill, speed and smarts with a hockey IQ that is off the charts.
• As a 2006 birth year forward and in his second season with the Windsor Spitfires after being their second round pick at the 2022 OHL priority selections draft, Liam Greentree is being projected as a possible first round pick at this year’s National Hockey League draft. Despite his young age, Greentree not only leads Windsor in scoring with 27 goals, 37 assists, 64 points but the 6-foot-2, 198 pound skater is also the Spitfires team captain. As the leader of the young Spitfires, Greentree is already an impact player.
• Windsor has one of the youngest defensive corps in the OHL. No less than four of the Spitfires seven defensemen are OHL rookies. And a fifth, second year defender Anthony Cristoforo, has the same 2006 birth year as two of the Spitfires rookie blue liners. The four Spitfire rookie defensemen are Conor Walton, Carson Woodall, Tanner Winegard and import Josef Eichler. Walton — who developed last season with the Espanola Paper Kings of the NOJHL — and Woodall each have 2006 birth dates while Winegard and Eichler were both born in 2005. Then there is the aforementioned Cristoforo with his 2006 birth date. The elders of the Windsor blue line are overager Djibril Toure with a 2003 birth date and Connor Toms, who was born in 2004.
• Backed by workhorse goalie Nathan Day, the Flint Firebirds control their own destiny as they hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference ahead of Sarnia and Windsor. Day has already played in close to 2,200 minutes of game time for Flint thus far this season and has been in the net for 17 of the Firebirds 19 victories. Day, who has a 2005 birth date, is an NHL prospect of the Edmonton Oilers. The reliability of Day as the starting goalie for Flint has stood out. And if the Firebirds do hold off both Sarnia and Windsor for that eight seed playoff spot, they will likely keep calling on Day night after night.
• A boost to the Firebirds being in the driver’s seat for a run at the playoffs has been overage forward Oliver Peer, who was acquired by Flint from Windsor at the trade deadline. After putting up 22 goals, 25 assists, 47 points in 37 games for Windsor, Peer has since potted four goals, five assists, nine points in seven games for Flint.
• Shifting gears into overdrive with the luxury of knowing that it has an automatic berth into this year’s Memorial Cup championship tournament is Saginaw. It can be said that the only real pressure on head coach Chris Lazary and the Spirit right now as they push for first place in the Western Conference is to maintain a good pace ahead of the playoffs– and then try to avoid an early round exit that would have it on the sidelines for anywhere from four to six weeks ahead of the Memorial Cup tournament. This is a Saginaw team that is loaded at the forward and defense positions. There are some, however, who deem Saginaw’s goal-tending to be, um, just average. Time will tell on whether or not the seasoned Saginaw net duo of Andrew Oke and Nolan Lalonde comes through when it needs to.