THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
Greatly Improved Squad is Set for an Exciting Season of OHL Hockey
27th September, 2018 0
Goal tender Ivan Prosvetov (50) plays the puck behind the net in an NHL prospects game vs the LA Kings
Spirit rookie Cole Perfetti (91) scoring one of his two goals in the season opener against the Soo Greyhounds
Photo by Natalie Shaver
Keaton Middleton (55) looks for an open pass in a pre -eason game vs the Kitchener Rangers
Photo by Natalie Shaver.
After finishing the 2018-19 Ontario Hockey League pre-season with a perfect (5-0) record, beating the mighty Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds 5-2 in the season opener on Wednesday Sep. 19, at the Dow Event Center, while also cracking the Top-10 in the first Canadian Hockey League rankings at No. 8 (behind only the London Knights-No. 2 and the Niagara Ice Dogs-No. 5) the Saginaw Spirit are looking to make some huge strides as an organization this season.
General Manager Dave Drinkill has been hedging his bets with some pretty bold moves since joining the Spirit at the start of the 2015-16 season after four seasons as an assistant GM with the Barrie Colts, under the guidance of Colts' GM Jason Ford, now Drinkill is looking like a riverboat gambler who's raking in his chips.
His moves started paying off with the signing of Blade Jenkins a year ago, and continued when defenseman Bode Wilde committed to the Spirit this year, culminating with rookie Cole Perfetti, Saginaw's No. 1 pick (4th overall) in the 2018 OHL priority selection draft, who signed this year then scored the first two goals in a 5-2 opening night victory over the Soo; giving Drinkill an unprecedented tri-fecta after all three players had decommitted from the University of Michigan in favor of the Spirit.
“I'm just happy for the organization and the community that the plan has worked out,” Drinkill said. You know, plans don't always work out the way you want, but after a couple years waiting, and you know, I said when we drafted those guys that the reward would outweigh the risk, and it all came to fruition this summer, so I'm very happy it did.”
The Spirit, who had the youngest team in the OHL a year ago, were forced to give many of the first year players some valuable in-game experience, which is something Drinkill hopes - along with the moves he made this summer - will help bolster the climate of success he's been trying to build here in Saginaw.
“It was a very good off-season for us,” Drinkill notes. “I feel that we improved our team; and not only that, we had a lot of younger players who were playing their first year in our league and now they're coming back. “As you know, in the OHL, a year of experience and age makes a big difference. So, I don't want to put any expectations on the year, but internally, we do set some pretty big goals for ourselves and we want to push towards those goals and make this team a team that can contend in the west for years to come.”
Second year Spirit head coach Troy Smith agrees with the blueprint for success, which he and Drinkill have laid out, and he's excited for his team to find its identity, while making its mark on the league.
“It was a really good summer,” Smith added. “Getting two kids to decommit from the University of Michigan was big for our program, and I think we're starting to establish ourselves as a program that players want to be at, and want to be a part of. Now the next step with that group is to start winning, because that's one area where we obviously want to make that next big step; and it won't be good enough just to make the playoffs this year.”
Smith admits that success doesn't just happen overnight, however, the Hamilton, ON native is laser-focused on the task of creating a winning atmosphere in Saginaw.
“It's going to be about the process and getting better every day,” Smith said of his expectations for this year. “Obviously expectations are higher, as they should be, but we have to take what we learned last year, and now take a step to where we're competitive every night.”
Spirit over-age defenseman Keaton Middleton (a fourth round draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2016 NHL draft, who was also invited to the San Jose Sharks camp this summer) recognizes this team has one of the more talented rosters he's seen in his five years in Saginaw; however, he's also quick to note that talent can only take you so far. It's going to be the focus and hard work that will ultimately make a difference.
“Like I said before we're not going to get ahead of ourselves, we can have a good team, but we're still going to have to go out and perform,” Middleton said. “So we're gonna try and do that; we're just going to have to work as hard as we can.”
The Stratford, ON native will be looking for many of last year's Spirit rookies to grow both on the ice and off this year.
“The way I saw it when I first came into the OHL, is that you kind of turn into a bit of a man,” Middleton continued. “You're sixteen, you're moving away from home, but you mature a lot. You'll definitely see that with these guys as they get older; guys like (Nick) Porco and (Aidan) Prueter, two guys coming in for their second year, they're definitely going to be more mature and they're going to be more mature both on the ice and off, so hopefully I can just lead by example and they'll follow suit.”
Drinkill's biggest off-season accomplishment is, arguably, the signing of Wilde (who was drafted by the New York Islanders in the second round of the 2018 NHL draft) a talented puck-moving defenseman who played in the United States National Team Development Program along with Spirit forward's Jake Goldwoski and Jenkins (who was also drafted by the New York Islanders in the 2018 NHL draft) making Wilde's transition to the OHL a little easier, with the added benefit of having some familiar faces in the dressing room.
“That was cool to have those guys around, for sure,” Wilde admitted. “Those guys were definitely missed after they left (the USNTDP), just good guys and good players, so, I'm happy to be reunited. And of course, Blade, I've known for a while now. Like I said, we went to school together freshman year at TPH (Total Package Hockey in Detroit) and had a lot of fun there messing around, and then at the program that was a fun year too, traveling the world. Now, to have the opportunity to go play for the Islanders with him, is pretty cool.”
With his offensive skills, Wilde should quarterback the Spirit power play this year, however, as good as the Montreal native is at moving the puck, he still makes defense a priority.
“I try and contribute offensively wherever I can, it's a big part of my game,” Wilde admitted. “My offensive instincts have always been a big strength of mine, but I've got to be a D-man first and foremost and take care of business back there before you can play offense.”
Jenkins is coming off a very successful rookie OHL season, where he had 44-points (20-goals, 24-assists) in 68-games with the Spirit, before fulfilling a lifelong dream when he was drafted by the New York Islanders in the 2018 NHL draft.
“It's something you always dream about as a kid,” Jenkins said. “To hear your name called on draft day was truly something special, and having my family and friends there is something I will never forget.”
Adding to an already incredible draft day, Jenkins was reunited once again with his former USNTDP teammate, fellow UofM commit, and now current Spirit teammate, when he and Wilde were both selected by the same NHL team.
“Small world, he actually went to school with me, too; and being drafted by the Islanders, then (Wilde) coming here, it's something you kind of look for in players, to be able to create those relationships”, Jenkins said of he and Wilde. “It's pretty special to have someone like (Bode) with you, who you're able to go along with, all through juniors and hopefully professionally.”
Another off-season priority for Drinkill was the addition of a quality goal tender - which was at the top of his list - in order to fill the void left after former Saginaw goal tender Evan Cormier (a 2016 draft pick of the New Jersey Devils) aged out the OHL at the end of last year.
Drinkill secured the rights to 6-foot-5, 175-pound Russian Import goalie Ivan Prosvetov (a fourth round pick of the Arizona Coyotes in the 2018 NHL draft) with the 15th overall pick in the first round of the 2018 CHL Import draft.
Prosvetov, who was born in Moskva, Russia and grew up playing youth hockey in the CSKA Moskva program, made a big impact in his first season of North American hockey two years ago, when he had a 2.52 goals against average, along with a .928 saves percentage in 44 games with the Minnesota Magicians of the North American Hockey League during the 2016-17 NAHL season, before jumping up to the United States Hockey League last year, where he had a 2.90 GAA and a .913 SVS% through 36 games in the USHL, leading the Youngstown Phantoms to the 2017-18 Clark Cup finals.
The tall, nineteen year-old netminder is looking forward to competing at the highest level of North American junior hockey with his new teammates in Saginaw this season.
“We'll see, I hope it will be a good year for me and for the team,” Prosvetov said. “I know we have a great group of guys here, so I will try to do my best. The (OHL) has guys with harder shots, who score more goals, so it's going to be better hockey for a goalie here too, it's faster and more fun and I'm looking forward to playing.”
With all of the pieces to the puzzle in place, it's now up to the Spirit coaches and players to continue the hard work and focus it takes to make through the grind of a long OHL season, followed by a deep playoff run.
“The biggest thing is that the kids have obviously put in the work over the summer, I think a lot of the kids have gained strength and are prepared for a long season,” Smith concluded. “Last year, with such a young group, they learned what a grueling ride it can be, and now we have to take the next step.”
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THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)