On to the OHL playoffs

March 23, 2024

What a difference one year can make. Twelve months ago the Soo Greyhounds were ending a lousy Ontario Hockey League season in which they missed the Western Conference playoffs by a wide margin with a mere 55 points from a record of 20-33-15.

And to be quite honest, a faction of unhappy fans were calling for the firing of Hounds head coach John Dean following the 2022-2023 season. But Dean was retained by Greyhound ownership and in the minds of many he has since gone from being a disaster to somewhat of a coaching master.

This time around, the Greyhounds have more than doubled their regular season win total from a year ago and head into the Western Conference playoffs as an appropriate and genuine contender to possibly join the host Saginaw Spirit as the two OHL teams at this year’s Memorial Cup tournament.

As for the Hounds being a playoff favourite this season?

Well, as noted in a previous column, being a favourite to win it all can result in coming up short. Just look back to last year when the Peterborough Petes finished a distant fourth in the Eastern Conference regular season standings. However, not only did the Petes overachieve in winning the Eastern Conference playoff crown but they upset the favoured London Knights in the OHL championship series.

So, who really knows? Perhaps it will be a middle of the pack team from either conference that ends up punching its ticket to Saginaw and, along with the host Spirit, attempts to bring the Memorial Cup back to the OHL by fending off the eventual representatives from the Quebec Maritime Jr. Hockey League and the Western Hockey League. For the record, Peterborough came up short in representing the OHL at the 2023 Memorial Cup. It was the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL who upended the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL to win the 103rd edition of last year’s Memorial Cup.

Okay, let us move on to this year.

As for this year’s favourites to emerge from the lengthy OHL playoff schedule and be the one to join Saginaw — which as host entry, gets an automatic berth into the national championship series — at this year’s Memorial Cup event that will be staged in the mid Michigan city. My choices include the aforementioned Soo Greyhounds and the London Knights, both of the Western Conference.

HOUND POWER: The Greyhounds seemingly have as a good a shot as any OHL team at eventually packing up and heading to Saginaw for the May 24 to June 2 Memorial Cup championship tournament that will be held at the Dow Event Center.

The Greyhounds have been well assembled by general manager Kyle Raftis both through the annual priority selections and import drafts and by way of some shrewd trading. All in all, this edition of the Greyhounds from the goalies, to the set of defensemen, to forward lines one through four is one without apparent weakness.

The forward attack of the Hounds is well spread out while being led by two trade acquisitions in Jack Beck and Gavin Hayes. Beck, an overage skater who was acquired from the Ottawa 67’s prior to the start of this season, leads the Hounds in scoring. And not far behind Beck is Hayes, a signed National Hockey League prospect of the Chicago Blackhawks who was obtained from the Flint Firebirds at the January 10 trade deadline. 

Charlie Schenkel

Then there is the Greyhounds talented trio of dandy defensemen — NHL draft picks Kirill Kudryavstev (Vancouver Canucks), Arttu Karki (Vegas Golden Knights) and Andrew Gibson (Detroit Red Wings.) Combined, the troika is averaging a prolific two points a game for the Hounds from the blue line position and are among the best defensemen in the Western Conference.

And between the pipes, it says here that workhorse starter Charlie Schenkel is as good as any starting goalie among the Western Conference contenders, except perhaps for London Knights overage puck stopper Michael Simpson. 

Meanwhile, the so called supporting cast of the Hounds ranges from good to pretty good to serviceable. There are forwards Bryce McConnell-Barker, Owen Allard, Marco Mignosa, Justin Cloutier, Jacob Frasca, Jordan D’Intino and retread Justin Dezoete. 

KNIGHT SHIFT: Let us now proceed with a few words about the Knights of London. Yes, the Knights, the team that others are so jealous of.

Once again, the Knights are a serious threat to win the OHL. As, it seems, they are just about every year, like it or not. Sorry to say, detractors of the lords of London, the Knights are almost always in it.

Michael Simpson

Without question, London boasts impact players in goal, on the blue line and up front. There is overage goalie Michael Simpson — who won the OHL championship last season while playing for Peterborough — crackerjack defensemen Oliver Bonk and Sam Dickinson and star forwards Denver Barkey, Easton Cowan, Jacob Julien and Ruslan Gazizov.

The Knights also have the Hunter factor as in ageless head coach Dale Hunter. To be sure, Hunter and his brother Mark are owners of the London franchise that is without peer in the entire Canadian Hockey League. This is the 23rd season in a row that the Knights — with the Hunters at the helm — finished with a winning record. Which, in the cyclical world of junior hockey, is surreal.

Meanwhile, away from the Greyhounds and Knights, I also want to make note of both the host Saginaw Spirit and the Flint Firebirds.

SPIRIT RISING: As noted, regardless of what happens in the playoffs, Saginaw will be one of two OHL teams at the Memorial Cup tournament being that the Spirit is the host team.

Calem Mangone

The Spirit will skate into the OHL playoffs among the ‘Big Three’ of the Western Conference, along with London and the Soo.

One of the sparks of the Saginaw engine is defenseman Zayne Parekh, who leads the Spirit in scoring with 90 plus points. Other keys to the Spirit motor are world class forward Owen Beck, young phenom Michael Misa and point per game hustler Calem Mangone. Mangone, a Sault Ste. Marie product, is the epitome of a team first player.

IN LIKE FLINT: Flint is in the lower end of the Western Conference playoff teams. It would be improbable for the Firebirds to fashion a first round upset. In fact, they may not even win a game. But it says here that the Firebirds will be a tough out, led by rookie head coach Paul Flache and a nice assembly of old and young talent. 

The Firebirds have three quality overages — forwards Oliver Peer and Nolan Dann and defenseman Roberto Mancini. Then there is a younger collection of good to mid grade forwards such as Coulson Pitre, Simon Slavicek, Nathan Aspinall, ex Greyhounds Connor Clattenburg and Alex Kostov, rookie Jeremy Martin, high scoring defenseman Tristan Bertucci and workhorse goalie Nathan Day. Of note, Bertucci was recently signed to a National Hockey League contract by the Dallas Stars.

Alex Kostov

Regardless of what happens this spring, the Firebirds have been well set up for future seasons via good work done by general manager Dave McParlan and his Sault Ste. Marie based head scout, Mike Oliverio.

Again, while the Firebirds may not be ready for prime time, they played well enough down the stretch of the regular season to oust both the Sarnia Sting and Windsor Spitfires for a Western Conference playoff spot.

(Feature photo by Bob Davies: Justin Cloutier of the Soo Greyhounds and Connor Clattenburg of the Flint Firebirds, in recent action.)

Leave a Reply

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