The Saginaw Spirit are hopeful that a bright young coaching staff and a returning core of veteran talent can help put them over the top.
While the Saginaw Spirit reached the OHL Playoffs for an 11th straight season in 2015-16, an early exit at the hands of the mighty Erie Otters left something to be desired.
“We want to show the Western Conference what we have this season,” said second-year Spirit general manager Dave Drinkill. “I think there’s a feeling amongst our players that we maybe underachieved a little bit and we feel we have something to prove.”
The winds of change have blown in Saginaw in recent months with the addition of new ownership that includes long-time Detroit Red Wings mind Jim Devellano and three-time Stanley Cup Champion Chris Osgood. The Spirit also feature a bright young coaching staff led by 2014 ECHL Coach of the Year Spencer Carbery with incoming assistant Chris Lazary, formerly of the Sarnia Sting, alongside him.
Those changes, paired with a mature core of veterans and recent additions in C.J. Garcia and Detroit Red Wings prospect Filip Hronek to the blue line, certainly provide the Spirit with the ammunition to make some noise in the Western Conference.
Like any team, a large part of their success will hinge on their stars.
Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Mitchell Stephens missed a large portion of the 2015-16 season with a broken foot before representing Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship. While he’s likely to miss the better part of a month once again on World Junior duty, a healthy Stephens is a big X-factor.
“Anytime you lose your best player early in the year that’s going to hurt,” said Drinkill. “When you lose a player of that calibre it causes a trickle-down effect on your whole roster and pushes guys into roles that maybe they weren’t ready for. You put your number one centre back into the lineup and that makes a huge difference. It helps keep everyone in the positions they should be in and that’s obviously good for the Saginaw Spirit.”
Stephens, who had 20 goals, 18 assists and 38 points in 39 games last season is joined by 24-goal scorer Kris Bennett and Matthew Kreis in pacing the offence up front. The Spirit are hopeful that third-year winger Tye Felhaber, 19-year-old Jesse Barwell, veteran Hayden Hodgson and sophomores Brady Gilmour and Kirill Maksimov can chip in as well.
Defensively, the Spirit boast a veteran crew of established rearguards, headlined by the recently drafted twin towers Markus Niemelainen (Edmonton Oilers) and Keaton Middleton (Toronto Maple Leafs).
“I think Markus is a player who has a lot more to give and we’re high on his abilities,” said Drinkill of Niemelainen, who has represented Finland in a number of international events. “He’s a 6-foot-6 defenceman who skates like he’s 5-foot-10 and he moves the puck effectively.”
“Keaton is a guy we’ve developed over the past two seasons and he’s an example of a high character kid who will do anything for the betterment of the team,” Drinkill said of the 6-foot-6 Middleton. “As a third year guy we think he’s ready for more of a leadership role with us.”
The recent addition of Czech defenceman Filip Hronek adds another dimension to the Saginaw blue line. The 18-year-old spent much of last season playing against men in the Czech Extraliga.
“We feel Filip can step in and immediately be one of the elite defencemen in our league,” Drinkill noted. “He’s just a short drive down the road from Detroit so he’ll have the opportunity to play big minutes here, see special teams assignments and develop his game with our club.”
In goal, third-year netminder Evan Cormier enters the season having been selected in the fourth round by the New Jersey Devils this past summer.
While Drinkill says the Spirit are looking to tighten up defensively under Carbery, Cormier’s role will still be an important one. The Bowmanville native finished second in the OHL, playing 3,246 minutes last season.
“Evan grew a lot as a goaltender last year. I know he really enjoyed the experience of being drafted by New Jersey and attending camp with them and he’s coming back in great shape ready to take on another workload this season. We know his goal is to make the World Junior Team and we wish him nothing but the best in that pursuit.”
Under new coaching, the Spirit are likely to see a considerable change to the way they play the game. Carbery developed a reputation during his time in the ECHL for valuing responsible defensive play.
“When you look at his past teams, they don’t give up a lot of shots, they always held team defence in high esteem and they had the number one penalty kill in the league the last two years in a row,” said Drinkill.
“With strong goaltending, a capable blue line and improved defensive awareness, we’re going to see a big change and we feel that will translate into success for the Saginaw Spirit.”
2015-16 Record: 24-36-5-3 (4th West Division)
Head Coach: Spencer Carbery (1st season)
Key additions: Filip Hronek, C.J. Garcia, Max Grondin, Damien Giroux, Cameron Lamour, Gianluca Fuoco, Brock Hill, Kyle Bollers
Notable graduates: Connor Brown, Blake Clarke, Artem Artemov, Will Petschenig
Leading scorer: Matthew Kreis* (65 GP, 17-24–41)
Leading scorer (defencemen): Marcus Crawford (66 GP, 2-32–34)
Leading scorer (rookie): Markus Niemelainen (65 GP, 1-26–27)
Leading goaltender: Evan Cormier (58 GP, 21-27-4-3, 3.72 GAA, .890 SV%, 1 SO)
Fast Fact: The Spirit have recorded at least 200 goals for in each of the past 11 seasons dating back to 2005-06, also making the playoffs in each of those seasons.
#OHLOpeningWeek schedule: Wed. Sept. 21 at FLNT (7:00pm), Fri. Sept. 23 at GUE (7:30pm), Sat. Sept. 24 vs. GUE (7:05pm)
* – among returning players
ontariohockeyleague.com will feature one team each day in advance of the 2016-17 season which begins Wednesday September 21.
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