The second OHL Pre-Season Showcase is in the books as the Windsor Spitfires (3-0), Flint Firebirds (2-1), Erie Otters (1-2) and Hamilton Bulldogs (0-3) treated fans to fast-paced action at HarborCenter in Buffalo, New York.
The hometown Buffalo Jr. Sabres captured the U15 AAA HarborCenter Cup title across the lobby while several new faces made their debuts in OHL uniforms this past weekend.
Here’s a look at some of the top stories from a busy weekend of hockey in Buffalo and some additional intriguing storylines as the 2018-19 season draws nearer.
FLINT: Roberts, Clarke not wasting any time
If the Flint Firebirds are going to have success this season, they’ll need Connor Roberts and C.J. Clarke to be regular contributors offensively. The two made a strong first impression in Buffalo as Roberts led all players with six points including four goals and two assists over three games. Linemate C.J. Clarke was equally impressive, recording five points including four goals and an assist over three contests.
Neither player has been drafted by an NHL club, so both have lots to prove with a Firebirds team looking to make its return to the OHL Playoffs next spring.
ERIE: Maksimovich leading by example
Elder statesman Kyle Maksimovich enters his fifth OHL season and is applying his past experience of winning an OHL Championship and playing under such names as Connor McDavid and Dylan Strome to his leadership responsibilities as team captain.
Maksimovich, who will attend camp with the Chicago Blackhawks this month, wore the ‘C’ on a young Otters club that missed out on the playoffs last spring. He’s taking a holistic approach to his captaincy in Erie as he draws on the wisdom of those who have gone before him.
“Getting the ‘C’ after Stromer leaves me with big shoes to fill,” he said with a laugh. “Guys like him, DeBrincat, Foegele, Raddysh, Pettit, Cirelli, you learn something from all of them and I like to think I’m well-equipped to help our young guys take the next step in their careers.”
Maksimovich tallied an assist in the lone game he competed in this weekend. He returns to Erie after scoring 31 goals last season.
“The thing with this organization is that it’s always a winning mentality,” he noted. “Last year was a challenge for us, but we never lowered the bar. We always want to expect big things, and with a younger lineup we just have to stay patient and positive as we look forward to the next game.”
WINDSOR: Douglas embraces tag as biggest man in the league
A 6-foot-8-and-a-half and tipping the scales at 255Ibs., Curtis Douglas is a mountain of a man. It wasn’t always that way though.
Douglas has packed 55Ibs. onto his frame from when he first entered the OHL as a gangly 6-foot-7, 198Ib. forward with the Barrie Colts two years ago. The process of filling out his big frame has taken considerable work.
“I’d say it’s about 70/30, a bit of physical maturing and a lot of hard work. I was really bambi-like when I first game into the league but did a lot of work with the coaches there and continued that here with Windsor. I focused on building leg strength this summer and just getting quicker overall.”
Douglas’ summer has been an exciting one. He was a fourth round pick of the host Dallas Stars at the 2018 NHL Draft.
“I like to think I respect the game and don’t take things too far,” he said of being the biggest body in the league. “At the same time, I’m really competitive and I play to win. I’ve found the added weight and muscle has really benefitted me just protecting the puck and being more effective on the forecheck.”
Douglas finished the weekend with three goals and an assist over two games. He cites his biggest NHL inspirations as power forwards Brian Boyle and Ryan Reaves.
HAMILTON: Roy gets a surprise visit
Zach Roy got to wear the Bulldog on his chest for the very first time. What’s more, he squared off with who many consider to be the CHL’s best goaltender.
The 17-year-old Roy made 31 saves in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Windsor Spitfires on Saturday, going head-to-head with 2018 OHL Goaltender of the Year Michael DiPietro. The former Mastercard Memorial Cup champion paid Roy a visit after the game to congratulate him on playing his first OHL contest.
“Yeah I wasn’t expecting that, but it really means a lot,” said Roy with a grin. “I look up to him, I have for a few years now. This is a guy who is probably going to be on the World Junior team and for him to go out of his way to do that says a lot about the kind of guy he is.”
Roy reached the OHL Cup Final with the Toronto Nationals two years ago before spending last season with the Rockland Nationals Jr. A club. The Callander, Ont. native was Hamilton’s fourth round pick in 2017.
“I’m up for a new challenge,” he said of his time through Training Camp with the Bulldogs. “It’s about making the most of an opportunity and it’s a whole different game here than it is in Minor Midget or Junior A. It’s a lot quicker but I’m making the adjustment.”
FLINT: Vierling settling into new surroundings
The second overall pick of the 2018 OHL Priority Selection, Evan Vierling is feeling right at home with the Flint Firebirds. The 16-year-old Aurora, Ont. native played in all three of the club’s games in Buffalo, registering an assist and five shots on goal.
“It’s a thrill to be able to wear the jersey after all the hard work we’ve put in,” he said. “I give my teammates a lot of credit because they’ve made my time in Flint so far very enjoyable and we’ve had a lot of fun.”
Vierling played alongside first overall pick Quinton Byfield (Sudbury Wolves) with the OMHA Champion York-Simcoe Express, propelling himself into the spotlight with a standout showing at the OHL Cup. He finished last season with 63 points (27-36–63) over 33 games.
“Some of the older guys like C.J. Clarke, Ty Dellandrea, Jack Phibbs and Jake Durham have been great to me, made me feel comfortable and just kept things light for us new guys. ”
WINDSOR: Cuylle makes immediate impact
Taken one spot after Vierling, third overall pick Will Cuylle had a memorable first weekend as a Windsor Spitfire.
Acquired by the club on Friday, Cuylle joined the club and suited up on Saturday for a two-goal performance along with a shootout winner in a 5-4 win over the Hamilton Bulldogs. He added a goal in Sunday’s 7-4 win over Flint.
“I thought the weekend went well, winning all three games,” the 16-year-old told Jim Parker of the Windsor Star. “I thought, as a team, we played very well and got better and better as the (event) went on.”
Cuylle joins Nathan Staios, Grayson Ladd, Cody Morgan and Jean-Luc Foudy as one of five first round picks from the past two OHL Priority Selections in the Spitfires lineup.
“Throughout the games I got more comfortable with each shift with the speeds and the new teammates,” he added. “Obviously, it’s early in the season, so there’s lots of room for improvement before our first regular season game.”
HAMILTON: Matsos excited for new opportunity
With John Gruden joining the NHL’s New York Islanders as an assistant coach, Dave Matsos has taken over the lead job in Hamilton and is enjoying every minute. Formerly a head coach in Sudbury from 2014-17, he’s excited to be back in a head coaching capacity.
“This is a great organization. I’m from Burlington, but my decision to come to Hamilton in the first place had less to do with location and more to do with the franchise and who is running things here,” he said. “Our management team is dialled in and provides us with all the resources to be successful and develop these players.”
The Bulldogs went 0-3 on the weekend, but for Matsos the transition from being OHL Champions mere months ago to turning over a portion of the roster requires opportunities for evaluation.
“This is what Training Camp is,” he noted. “You want to showcase the young guys and give them a chance to play. It’s an exciting time for all these guys getting to wear the Bulldogs uniform for the first time and they’ve worked extremely hard to earn that opportunity.”