Last December, Saginaw Spirit head coach, Greg Gilbert took over a team on a mid-season downward spiral. The fifty-year old former NHL player and three-time Stanley Cup Champion only needed half of a season to turn the 2011-12 campaign around. And with Gilbert at the helm, the 2011-12 Spirit team finished strong and made a run deep into the OHL playoffs. Gilbert was honored for his efforts and was named the OHL Coach of the Year.
This summer, Gilbert is fortunate to have control of the team for a whole season, and he is wasting no time getting back to work assembling this younger group of talented hockey players; while at the same time, making some assistant coaching changes so everyone will be on the same page when the OHL season opens Friday September, 21 in Guelph, Ontario. The Spirit will play two games on the road against the Guelph Storm and Owen Sound Attack before returning to the Dow Event Center on Thursday September, 27 to host the Sudbury Wolves for the 7:11 p.m. home opener.
The Spirit veterans, new draft picks, and free agents reported for training camp on Monday August 27 at 2:00 p.m. Gilbert and his staff wasted no time trimming the roster, assuring he would have ample time implementing his coaching system with his complete 2012-13 team.
Thirty-three players initially suited up for camp on Monday afternoon. By the end of Wednesday's third and final blue/white scrimmage, Gilbert and his staff had decided on the best twenty-four players for the 2012-13 Saginaw Spirit roster.
“We were at thirty-three players, and now we're at twenty-four, we let nine guys go after our third scrimmage on Wednesday morning,” said Gilbert. “We wanted to get down on our numbers right away and start getting to work implementing our system and how we are going to play this year.”
“It's been going good; the kids have been working hard, we have a lot of work to do, there's no question we are benefitting from having a lot of returning players from last year, although we are going to be a younger team, but the kids are working hard and we'll get better as the year goes on.”
Gilbert has also tweaked the coaching staff this year, enlisting longtime Spirit assistant, John Kisil - who has worked with the defenseman in previous seasons to now coach the team's Centers and Forwards. Gilbert replaced former assistant coach, George Daniel with Warren native, Jeff Blum. Blum will coach the defensemen this year.
Blum played his college hockey at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he captained the team before moving on to a five-year semi-pro career with stops in the Colonial Hockey League, the International Hockey League, and the United Hockey League. Blum is the brother of former Saginaw Lumber King player/coach (former NHL player), John Blum.
“Blum'er (Jeff Blum) has great coaching experience,” said Gilbert. “He's coached at a lot of levels and he's played at a lot of levels obviously, so he brings the experience. I think it's a benefit for our organization to have somebody come in who has actually played the position to help develop these young defenseman at a very important position - you know; I could do it, Kis (John Kisil) could do it, but the deeper knowledge I think of someone who has played that position professionally is definitely a huge benefit for our players.”
The Spirit were fortunate to have three players taken in the 2012 NHL draft this past June in Pittsburgh, Pa. Forward, Justin Kea was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the third round, 73 overall; while Goalie, Jake Paterson was also taken in the third round, 80 overall by the Detroit Red Wings, and Forward, Garret Ross will join Brandon Saad in Chicago, as he was taken in the fifth round, 139 overall.
Kea was surprised to be selected as high as the third round in the draft, but he was elated to be chosen by Buffalo. “I really didn't expect to go that high,” said a humble Kea. “I guess Buffalo really liked me, so I was happy to go that high. I went to a prospect camp and they ran me through a little combine, finally sending me to their developmental camp, which was pretty neat,” noted Kea. “You really start to get a good perspective of what it's like to be a professional hockey player.”
Spirit goalie, Jake Paterson couldn't have been happier to have been selected by the Detroit Red Wings, where he will have the opportunity to work with his childhood idol, (former Red Wing goalie) Chris Osgood. Osgood was instrumental in selecting Paterson, as he made many trips up to Saginaw to scout the young Spirit goal tender throughout the season and into the playoffs.
Paterson was in Pittsburgh when the Red Wings called his name in the third round, and he understands now why Osgood and the Red Wing scouts had spent so much time in Saginaw last year. “It was great,” said Paterson of his experience at the NHL draft in Pittsburgh this summer. “I went down to the draft in Pittsburgh and had a great experience, it was an amazing weekend, then I went to the developmental camp in Traverse City and it was unbelievable having the top young guys in Detroit's system shoot on me; I had a great time and I'm just glad to be a Red Wing now.”
“I talked to Ozzy (Chris Osgood) a couple times throughout the year,” continued Paterson. “I also heard he came out to a lot of the games last year, which was good to know, and I saw him at the draft as well; we didn't talk too much during the summer workouts, but it was very nice to hear what he had to say during last season, and I hear he is going to be in contact with me throughout this year, which is good to know.”
Dearborn native, Garret Ross was passed up after his first two NHL draft-eligible season's while playing in the OHL (2010, and 2011) leaving him one last chance to get drafted in the 2012 NHL draft. Ross had a very productive 2011-12 season, which prompted the Chicago Blackhawks to draft him in the fifth round, joining fellow Spirit player, Brandon Saad in the Chicago organization.
“I was draft eligible for three years (and my first two years) I was passed by, but I just continued to work hard and I figured there is still a chance for me and it turned out for the best,” said Ross. “Saad'er (Brandon Saad) and I actually went to the (Blackhawks) prospects developmental camp together, and it worked out great because we ended up being roommates. It would be cool to be teammates again in Chicago, but I understand he's their top prospect, so he will make it (to the NHL) a little before me, but I'm going to keep working hard and hopefully we can be team mates again a few years down the road.”
Greg Gilbert is very excited about the newest prospects joining the team, noting he was very satisfied with the performance of the young Spirit draft picks from the 2012 OHL priority, and CHL import drafts. Saginaw's top three selections from the OHL priority draft secured spots on the final roster; Jeremiah Addison, Brandon Prophet, and Dylan Sadowy were the teams first, second, and third picks respectively.
“Jeremiah (Addison) has some great skills, he's a great shooter with a very high competitive level,” said Gilbert. “Dylan Sadowy, our third pick, is a really smart player, a good hard worker with great skill and I think he's going to be a very good player for the Spirit organization for a long time. Brandon Prophet, our second round defenseman is a left hand shot with good size, but he's just coming off knee surgery this summer, so he's a little behind right now so his first priority is to get healthy, get good and strong and get in shape so he can get back to one-hundred percent, but he's going to be a good player, he's very mature for his age.”
The Spirit added two Russian players in the CHL import draft as well. Forward, Andrey Alexeev, and goalie, Nikita Serebryakov also made the final roster cuts. “Andrey Alexeev is a skilled left wing-right wing-center,” Spirit head coach Greg Gilbert said. “I mean, he can play all three positions, he's a very good playmaker who has a great head for the game on the offensive side; he's not an overly big guy, but he has good quick speed, he's a very good setup man and we feel we're going to benefit having him in the organization.”
“Nikita Serebryakov is a 1995 (born) goalie who came over in the import draft and he's very athletic, not the biggest guy, but he has a very high competitive level; he has a few things to learn, but Terry Barbeau (our goal tending coach) will be working with him, as well as all three of our goalies right now very closely, so we're looking for good things from those guys down the road here in Saginaw.”
The “meat-and-potatoes” of a successful OHL team seems to always come from the second year, third year, and fourth year players. Guys like Vincent Trochek, Jake Paterson, and Jimmy Lodge will have to step up and contribute after losing great veterans such as Brandon Saad (Chicago Blackhawks), Saginaw native, Brad Walch (Washington Capitals FA), and Josh Shalla (Nashville Predators).
Brandon Saad will remain on the Saginaw Spirit roster, but he will likely be playing for the Chicago Blackhawks or their AHL affiliate, the Rockford (IL) Icehogs this year, considering he spent the entire 2011-12 pre-season and the first two games of the regular season with the Blackhawks. Saad was then added to Chicago's playoff roster for the 2012 post-season after finishing in Saginaw. Josh Shalla - who has aged out of the OHL - will likely end up with the Milwaukee Admirals (Nashville's top farm club) in the AHL. Brad Walch - who also aged out of the OHL -signed a free-agent contract with the Reading Royals (Pennsylvania) of the East Coast Hockey League. The Royals are an affiliate of the Washington Capitals.
Vince Trochek (Florida Panthers third round draft pick, selected 64 overall in the 2011 NHL draft) is entering his fourth season with the Spirit; he's been here through the good times and the bad. He will be using his experience to help bring the younger guys up to the speed and skill level of playing hockey in the OHL. “I'm ready to pass on my knowledge,” said Trochek. “Now, it's kind of more like, I've been through it all; I've been into the playoffs and gone far, and I've also been knocked out in the first round, and I know what it takes to make it through a long season. This year, we have a lot of younger guys and I'm going to have to help them out and get them to understand what we're doing in practice, and help pick them up whenever they're down. We're going to work our butts off and just give it everything we've got and hopefully we can make a run deep into the playoffs this year.”
Jimmy Lodge (2013 NHL draft eligible) knows what these younger Spirit players are going through; as the Downingtown, Pa native went from a shy rookie last year, to a confident second year veteran who has great potential to make a big impact in the OHL this year. Lodge has had a busy off-season as he was selected to represent Team USA in the 2012 Ivan Hlinka memorial tournament in the Czech Republic and Slovakia this past August, where the best (under 17) players from around the world were selected to represent their respective countries in this hockey showcase.
If the Team USA selection wasn't enough for Lodge, he was then selected as one-of-forty U.S. born players in his age group to play in the CCM/USA all American Prospects game later this month (Sept. 29) in Buffalo, New York. “I came into camp knowing a lot more, and knowing a lot more guys, I'm much more confident compared to last year not knowing anyone,” said Lodge. “It's a big help having one year under my belt.”
Lodge is certainly more confident, and he seems to be carrying himself more like a veteran following his experience this summer, which can only mean great things for the Saginaw Spirit and for his upcoming NHL draft-eligible season. “We had the tryout camp in Rochester, NY in early August,” explained Lodge. “They picked the team, then we headed out to the state of Washington for a game, and finally we went to the Czech Republic.” “It was really cool seeing the top players from every country in my age group and getting back on the ice to play competitively against some of the best players in the world.”
The Spirit will play five exhibition games beginning with a road contest against the defending OHL champion London Knights on Sunday September 2 at the John Labatt Centre in London, Ontario before starting the regular season.
Notable dates for the month of September are as follows: Friday September 21 the Spirit will open the 2012-13 OHL season on the road against the Guelph Storm. Saturday September 22 the Spirit will travel to Owen Sound, Ontario where they will visit the Owen Sound Attack. Thursday September 27 the Spirit will host the Sudbury Wolves for the 2012-13 OHL season home opener at the Dow Event Center.
With Greg Gilbert at the helm for a full season, Saginaw Spirit fans should feel secure knowing their team will continue to be one of the top organizations in the Ontario Hockey League.