OHL 20 in 20: Flint Firebirds

With new beginnings in Flint, the Firebirds set out to build a winner in the Vehicle City  

By Josh Sweetland/OHL

Exciting things are happening in Flint as the city and surrounding region are abuzz with the an inaugural season of OHL hockey right around the corner. 

The Firebirds sold out their home opener 44 days in advance of the regular season as the newly entitled Dort Federal Credit Union Event Center has undergone numerous upgrades, including a brand new state-of-the-art LED scoreboard.

A home-and-home set with the I-75 neighbour Saginaw Spirit to open the season is circled on the calendar and Firebirds general manager Terry Christensen says an old hockey rivalry is being rekindled in the state of Michigan.

“You really understand how many hockey fans there really are in the city of Flint and also up in the Saginaw area from the old IHL days when the Flint Generals and the Saginaw Gears used to battle it out in the 1970’s and early 1980’s,” Christensen recalled. “It’s a natural fit for us to play back-to-back games to open the season. This hasn’t been a situation where the people of Saginaw and their ownership team led by Richard Garber and Craig Goslin were upset that we’re in such close proximity – they’re just as excited about the rivalry as we are.”

While Firebirds owner and governor Rolf Nilsen and president Costa Papista are busily overseeing the process off the ice in Flint, Christensen and head coach John Gruden, a fellow Minnesotan who patrolled the blueline in the NHL with Boston, Ottawa and Washington, are monitoring the situation on the frozen sheet.

After the Plymouth Whalers franchise missed the playoffs in 2014-15 for the first time in 23 years, the newly branded Firebirds will look to pick up the slack with an experienced blueline and one of the OHL’s best goaltenders.

Captain and Dallas Stars prospect Alex Peters is healthy after a knee injury limited him to just eight games last season while reliable 6’3”, 207Ib. Carolina Hurricanes draftee Josh Wesley, 19 year-old Mathieu Henderson and overage offseason acquisition Zack Pittman will also be capable options for Gruden and assistant coach Dave Karpa who enjoyed a 12-year NHL career on the blueline with Quebec, Anaheim, Carolina and the New York Rangers.

The blueline addition folks in Flint are most excited about is 5’10”, 165Ib. Finnish rearguard Vili Saarijärvi, a third round draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings this past June. The ninth overall pick in the 2015 CHL Import Draft spent last season with the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers and was also named the World Under-18 Hockey Championship’s Top Defenceman as a member of Team Finland after he recorded three goals, six assists and nine points while capturing a silver medal.

“Vili isn’t real big but his abilities are very impressive,” said Christensen. “The thing that really put the stamp of approval on him for us and confirmed that what we have seen from him is a real good reflection of his skill set was when the Detroit Red Wings selected him with their third round pick. Ken Holland and his scouting staff have done such a great job with their European draft picks throughout their history. They’re really close to us and we know he’ll get a lot of looks from their player development people. He will fill a need for us on the blueline with regards to our powerplay.”

With a healthy, stabilized blueline, the Firebirds can turn their attention to cutting down the workload on prized goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic who faced a league-high 1,994 shots last season while still recording five shutouts and a .916 save percentage.

Christensen, who is well acquainted with Nedeljkovic from past hockey endeavors, speaks glowingly of the 2014 OHL Goaltender of the Year.

“Everything that Alex is getting he deserves because he’s worked very, very hard for it,” Christensen said. “The thing about Alex is that, not only is he a great athlete, but he also works hard in school and he’s getting his college degree as he plays in the OHL. He places a lot of value on developing himself off the ice. He’s a great player and an even better person who has great balance in his life and that’s one of the reasons he’s able to perform the way that he has.”

Though he’s expected to see the lion’s share of the work in goal for Flint, Nedeljkovic will share the crease with 18 year-old Zack Bowman. The Firebirds have also received a commitment from 2015 fourth round selection Kyle Keyser.

The biggest question looming for the Firebirds ahead of their inaugural OHL season is goal scoring. With the graduation of veterans Mathew Campagna, Victor Crus-Rydberg, Gianluca Curcuruto, Yannick Rathgeb and the likely departure of offensive weapon Sonny Milano to the Columbus Blue Jackets organization, a void remains that will need to be filled if the Firebirds hope to be competitive in the wild west.

After a solid rookie season and a productive summer that included a gold medal at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, 17 year-old Will Bitten appears poised to step into a larger role this season. The first round selection in 2014 posted 15 goals, 16 assists and 31 points in 63 games last season.

“Will is a real character player,” Christensen noted of the sophomore centreman. “He’s not a big guy, but there are some guys that are his size that come along and they overcome that with a great work ethic, a passion and a commitment to their game. Last year he got better with every game and his effort was always consistent. In his particular case it’s a culmination of everything he’s but into his game and the support he’s received from his family throughout his career.”

While Bitten will be looking to raise his stock ahead of the 2016 NHL Draft, the Firebirds will need overage winger Connor Chatham, who is a third round pick of the New Jersey Devils, to build off an injury-shortened 17 goal campaign in 2014-15. Veteran centreman Francesco Vilardi, 18 year-olds Ryan Moore, Cullen Mercer, Bryce Yetman, the recently acquired Zach Grzelewski and 17 year-old Czech forward Matyáš Kantner will also be looked upon for contributions up front.

Even with their offensive firepower suffering some losses through graduation, the Firebirds enter the season with strong goaltending and a quality blueline, one that will work to reverse a 2014-15 Whalers trend that saw the team outshot in 50 of their 68 games.

“We’re really looking forward to seeing what’s in store this season,” Christensen concluded. “There’s been such a strong show of support from the Ontario Hockey League, the fans and the surrounding community here in Flint and Genesee County as we lay the foundation for something special. Ultimately, we want to put forth a community-centred team that competes hard every night and gives our fans something to be proud of.”

A new chapter of OHL hockey in the state of Michigan gets underway on Thursday September 24th when the Firebirds visit the Saginaw Spirit. The Firebirds host their home opener against Saginaw on Saturday September 26th.

2014-15 Record: 23-38-5-2 (4th West Division)
Head Coach: John Gruden (1st season)
Key additions: Vili Saarijärvi, Zack Pittman, Zach Grzelewski, Matyáš Kantner, Samuel Duchesne
Notable graduates: Mathew Campagna, Victor Crus-Rydberg, Gianluca Curcuruto, Yannick Rathgeb, Sean Callaghan, Mitch Jones, Danny Vanderwiel
Leading scorer: Connor Chatham* (48 GP, 17-20–37)
Leading scorer (defencemen): Mathieu Henderson (68 GP, 5-29–34)
Leading scorer (rookie): Will Bitten (63 GP, 15-16–31)
Leading goaltender: Alex Nedeljkovic (55 GP, 20-28-5-2, 3.13 GAA, .916 SV%, 5 SO)
Fast Fact: Alex Nedeljkovic has made the most career regular season saves of any active OHL goaltender with 4,490
#OHLOpeningWeek schedule: Thurs. Sept. 24 at Saginaw (7:05pm) / Sat. Sept. 26 vs. Saginaw (7:30pm)

* – among returning players

WATCH AND LISTEN: GM Terry Christensen shares his outlook on the 2015-16 season and Firebirds Players to Watch. will feature one team each day in advance of the 2015-16 season which begins Wednesday September 24.

Read more OHL 20 in 20 previews:

Central Division:  Sudbury Wolves

West Division: Windsor Spitfires

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