Youth movement in Colts country
KEVIN LAMB PHOTO Logan DeNoble of the Peterborough Petes looks for an opening against Justin Murray of the Barrie Colts during their exhibition game in Barrie last week.
Normally a contender in the OHL's Eastern Conference, the Barrie Colts are undergoing an extensive rebuild this season.
With 11 new faces on the roster and only four players with more than three years of experience, expectations have been toned down a fair bit for the young club, which kicks off its 2016-17 regular season on the road Friday night against the Kingston Frontenacs.
Still, with what is expected to be an almost wide open conference, the Colts believe they can maybe sneak up and surprise some teams this season.
"I know we work hard," Barrie general manager Jason Ford said. "I know we're young and I know we have lots of character, and maybe at the end of the day some of these teams take us for granted and we can sneak up on them and surprise them."
While the Mississauga Steelheads head into the regular season as the clear favourites in the East, most of the other conference opponents appear to find themselves still in various rebuilding stages.
"I think it's going to be a very interesting year," Ford said, "one where you can, honestly, maybe list three teams that should be near the top, but two to 10 can really finish anywhere."
Rebuilding seasons are a rarity in Colts country. The club has missed the playoffs just once since coming into the OHL as an expansion team in 1994-95.
"We feel we have a lot of good building blocks in place," Ford said.
"You hope the goal is for every player to get better as the year goes on and then, as the year goes on, you never know -- some of these kids could surprise and step up to the forefront," he added. "We'll just have to see how everything plays out."
Barrie wraps up the opening weekend Sunday afternoon in Ottawa. After a trip to Sudbury next Friday, the Colts kick off their home schedule Saturday night against the defending Memorial Cup champion London Knights.
Here's a look at this year's Barrie roster.
SAY GOODBYE: Mackenzie Blackwood.
SAY HELLO: Christian Propp.
It's no easy task replacing a World Junior-level goalie like Blackwood. The New Jersey Devils prospect played in 139 games in the past three seasons.
The Colts are handing the keys to returning backup David Ovsjannikov, who was acquired from Saginaw early last season.
"The door's wide open here for David to be No. 1," Ford said of the towering six-foot-six, 238-pound Czech Republic native who got into 21 games with Barrie, boasting a 2.97 goals-against average and .915 save percentage.
"Last year, playing more games, he realized what kind of shape you have to be in and he's worked hard over the summer, and he's come in twice the shape he was in last year," Ford added.
Consistency in goal will be key for a young club with not much experience on the blue line.
"We feel he's become a better technical goalie since he's come here, so there's lots of opportunity here for David," Ford said. "He's hungry and he's ready for the season."
The Colts will carry three goalies on the roster into opening weekend, with rookie Propp and Ruan Badenhorst behind Ovsjannikov.
Propp, a fifth-round pick in 2015, is coming off an impressive training camp and exhibition season, and could push Ovsjannikov for starts.
"He's got the size. He's got the athletic ability and he's a pretty focused kid," Ford said of the six-foot-two, 182-pound Propp. "He had some good experience last year with Guelph (Jr. B) and there's an opportunity here for him as well."
Colts head coach Dale Hawerchuk proved with Blackwood he isn't afraid to give a 17-year-old goalie the reins, and that could happen with Propp.
"We're not going to rush him by any means, but at the same time there's lots of opportunity to play for him, too," Ford said.
Badenhorst, a ninth-round pick in 2014, has got into 14 games the past two seasons, posting a 3.79 goals-against average and .882 save percentage.
SAY GOODBYE: Mike Webster, Rasmus Andersson, Greg DiTomaso and Josh Carrick.
SAY HELLO: Tom Hedberg, Tyler Tucker, Joey Keane, Christopher Cameron, Kade Landry and Kyle Auger.
With only two defencemen on the roster with more than 30 OHL games under their belts, the Colts will look to a talented but green group to learn on the fly.
If things go as planned, the back end could be a position of strength for Barrie in the near future and one fans can be excited about.
"I hope so," Ford said. "You don't want to put them on too high a pedestal, but after (Cameron) Lizotte, (Kody) Gagnon and (Justin) Murray, everyone is fairly green."
"I don't think there's any reason why this group can't stay together for a couple of years," the Barrie GM added. "If everything goes well, along the way we're going to see the makings of a real good, solid defence corps."
Webster and Andersson carried a huge load the past two seasons. This season, that load will likely fall on the rugged Lizotte and returning super sophomore Murray.
Barrie added to that talented corps with the signing Wednesday of Homer Glen, Ill., native Joey Keane, a fifth-round pick in the 2015 OHL draft.
The 17-year-old played in 55 games last season with the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League (USHL) and has the skills to become a top-four defender the club can rely on in all situations.
"Over time, he's going to be a good defenceman that brings a little bit of everything to the table," Ford said of Keane, who had previously committed to attend Miami of Ohio University. "He's got a great attitude and he plays the game hard. He's difficult to play against."
Keane, who had two goals and 11 points last season, played a top-four role for Dubuque in the playoffs.
"He's a guy we're excited about," Ford said.
Another new face Colts fans could learn to love pretty quickly is that of Tucker. The 14th-overall pick in this year's draft can play at both ends of the ice and plays the game with an edge.
The six-foot, 200-pound defender moved from the Thunder Bay area to Toronto to better himself in the GTHL, and then this summer moved to Barrie to get in top shape before camp.
"Talking to some of the other coaches in exhibition that played against him and they liked what they'd seen," Ford said. "Tyler's got some push back. He's got some poise with the puck and moves well for a big guy.
"He's a smart hockey player and I think he's only going to get better over time. He's not afraid of putting in the work."
The rookie played well with Swedish import pick Hedberg, who is expected to be a top prospect for this year's NHL draft.
Returnee Matt Brassard should see a bigger role after getting into just 28 games last season, and along with Gagnon, rookie Christopher Cameron and Lizotte give the club four defenders over six-foot-two.
Puck mover Kyle Auger was acquired from Windsor in the offseason in the deal for Julius Nattinen, while rookie Kade Landry rounds out a young group that gives Hawerchuk plenty of choices on the back end.
Though the club will start the season with 10 defencemen on the roster, expect them to get that number down to eight shortly, possibly via the trade route.
Barrie will head into Friday's contest without Lizotte, who is expected to miss at least two weeks with an unspecified injury, while Brassard, who didn't play through camp, and Hedberg are day-to-day and remain questionable for this weekend's start to the season.
SAY GOODBYE: Kevin Labanc, Andrew Mangiapane, Justin Scott, Dylan Sadowy and Nattinen.
SAY HELLO: Kirill Nizhnikov, Kyle Heitzner, Jason Willms, Curtis Douglas and Jaden Peca.
As big as the turnover has been on defence, Barrie's biggest question heading into this season may be its scoring. Yes, that's hard to believe with a head coach who seems to get the best offensively out of his forwards, but Hawerchuk will have his work cut out for him with the departure of OHL scoring champ Labanc (San Jose), Mangiapane (Calgary), Scott (Columbus) and Sadowy (Detroit) to pro hockey.
By the way, that's 163 goals and 368 points out of the Barrie offence. That's more than half gone from the 295 goals the club scored last season, second highest in the OHL to only London.
"There's no question for us to win hockey games we're going to have to continue scoring," Ford said. "Guys that played in lesser roles last year are going to be counted upon for more production this year."
Barrie will lean heavily on overagers Cordell James, Anthony Stefano and Roy Radke, while much more offence will be expected from returnees like Giordano Finoro, who took his game to another level in the playoffs, Zach Magwood, and Ben Hawerchuk. The trio had 18 goals combined last season.
"All those guys will be given an opportunity to play," Ford said.
"I think some of those 18-year-olds that have been kind of waiting in the wings the last year or two, there's a few of them that are chomping at the bit and really ready to show that they can produce as well."
The Colts paid a heavy price (10 possible draft picks) for the acquisition of Nizhnikov from Mississauga, but they believe they got a dynamic offensive talent that will fill the score sheet over the next few years.
"His stick skills and his shooting for his age group in the draft were right up there with anybody else. He was one of the best," Ford said of the young Russian, who moved to Canada to play minor hockey.
A good skater and strong for his age, Nizhnikov, who was taken seventh overall by the Steelheads, is the type of building block vital for a rebuilding team like Barrie.
"We're excited to get him going and there's a real good opportunity as a 16-year-old to play quality minutes for a young kid," Ford added.
Other rookies the Colts are excited about include talented two-way centre Willms, hulking six-foot-eight, 200-pound, fourth-round pick Douglas, Orillia native Heitzner and winger Jaden Peca.
Willms is coming off a strong camp and showed the makings of a centre the club believes will play a key role in the near future.
"He's always looking to defend and make sure his home responsibilities are taken care of, but at the same time he scores as well," Ford said of the third-round pick in 2015. "He scored in minor hockey, in Jr. B. He scored in our training camp.
"At the end of the day, he's a kid that gets the job done."
With Keigan Goetz, James, Radke and Stefano, the Colts still have four overagers on the roster. The club hopes to address the situation via the trade route early in the season, once Radke returns from camp with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Barrie will also expect more up front from returnees Lucas Chiodo, Adrian Carbonara and Aidan Brown.
The club is still hoping to convince 20th-overall pick Jack McBain to sign with the team. McBain draws some comparisons to former Colt and current NHL star Mark Scheifele.
"He's a special athlete when you dive in and learn about him," Ford said.
McBain has signed on to play with the Tier II Jr. A Toronto Canadiens and has yet to decide between playing in the OHL or going the NCAA route.
"We're just keeping the dialogue open with his parents and Jack, and that's all we can do for now," he said.
FIVE STORIES TO KEEP AN EYE ON
WANT TO FIGHT?: Not likely. The OHL lowered the threshold to automatic disciplinary action from 10 fights to three for a player. Each additional fight after that means a two-game suspension.
NOT THEM AGAIN: That's right, OHL fans. Darth Vader, or more commonly known as London, is set to take another run at the Memorial Cup. With a lineup loaded with talented American players, the Knights have to be the favourites. Imagine if Mitch Marner were to return. Clearly, the Force is with them.
THE HOST WITH THE MOST: That's what the Windsor Spitfires hope they will be as they get set to host this year's Memorial Cup. The Spits have been loading up, adding former Colt Nattinen, and it's likely plenty more moves are on the way. London and Windsor games should be on your viewing list this season.
FLINT BACK ON TRACK: Well, it appears the Firebirds are, but if only U.S. politicians would wake the heck up and help the city with its water issues. As for the hockey team, after last season's ownership fiasco, the league took over, and hiring former Belleville/Hamilton boss George Burnett was a huge step in the right direction.
WILL TROUT SWIM AWAY?: Mississauga is the clear favourite in the East and with many of its conference rivals in various stages of rebuild, it could run and hide away with top spot. With NHL prospects like Michael McLeod, Nathan Bastien, Sean Day, Vili Saarijarvi and Jacob Morevare, the Steelheads could be thinking all in this season. Can anyone in the East reel them in?
(Flip a coin after Mississauga)
1. Mississauga Steelheads
2. Hamilton Bulldogs
3. Peterborough Petes
4. Ottawa 67s
5. North Bay Battalion
6. Oshawa Generals
7. Kingston Frontenacs
8. Barrie Colts
9. Sudbury Wolves
10. Niagara IceDogs
1. London Knights
2. Windsor Spitfires
3. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
4. Sarnia Sting
5. Owen Sound Attack
6. Kitchener Rangers
7. Erie Otters
8. Saginaw Spirit
9. Guelph Storm
10. Flint Firebirds