The upcoming 2015-16 Ontario Hockey League season is set to be one of the most anticipated in Saginaw Spirit franchise history. President Craig Goslin saw the transformation that teams like the Erie Otters and the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds made over the past few seasons, becoming elite OHL organizations. Goslin and owner Richard Garber have worked hard in the off-season putting the team in the best position possible for future success.
The first move was to hire General Manager Dave Drinkill from the Barrie Colts organization to replace Jim Paliafito who accepted a position in the front office of the Toronto Maple Leafs back in July. Drinkill has given new lifeblood to this Spirit organization making some crucial trades over the last two months.
“This has been a very exciting off-season for the Saginaw Spirit,” Goslin said. “First, for us to have Jim Paliafito promoted to the Toronto Maple Leafs is a big thing. Jim did a great job laying the foundation here for the Spirit, and now we've followed that up with an outstanding General Manager in Dave Drinkill. So, we have leadership on the hockey operations side that is really second-to-none and we're just thrilled about the direction of our team.”
The transformation started last season when Goslin and Paliafito made the very difficult decision to trade a number of veteran players in exchange for a core group of highly talented first and second year kids. The thought was to develop those younger players, while also giving them valuable ice time. What happened surprised everyone, as that group of youngsters not only developed, they also qualified for the playoffs, much to the delight of Goslin and his staff.
“Last year we went with the young guys expecting them just to develop, added Goslin. What we found out is that this young team was good enough to make the playoffs last year, it was the youngest team in the history of the Canadian Hockey League to make the playoffs. All these guys are back and we've added pieces to it. So, if you liked last years team in terms of their skill set, they're back and then we've added to that skill set. So, it's going to be exciting for our fans and we feel we have the foundation here for a future champion; whether that be this year, next year, or the year after, we should have a three or four year run here and it's really going to be fun for Spirit fans.”
Goslin pointed out that with the amount of talent on this team, there might be some issues new to the organization. There could be some guys from last year battling just to find their way onto the third or fourth lines, which is not necessarily a bad problem.
“You know our franchise has never been in this spot with this much talent,” Goslin continued. “We've had years where we've had really good teams, but this is going to be a tough team to make, we have forwards that are going to be on our fourth line that would be on other teams first and second lines and that's a high-class problem. I have a hunch that we're going to score a lot of goals this season.”
The Spirit closed out the pre-season on the road Friday September, 19 against the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. The team will now return home Thursday September, 24 for an historic home opener as they renew a rivalry familiar to many local Hockey fans.
The Flint Firebirds are the newest OHL franchise and they will make the half-hour bus ride up I-75 for the 2015-16 Spirit home opener at the Dow Event Center. Fans from both communities are buzzing with excitement, ready to make this one of the most memorable rivalries in the OHL. Goslin hopes the magic of the old Gears' and Generals' rivalries will make its way back to Saginaw and Flint.
“We are thrilled to have the community of Flint as partners in the OHL, it's going to be really good for the Saginaw fans.” said Goslin. “We are thirty-four minutes from door-step to door-step from the Dow Event Center to the Dort Federal Credit Union Center so it's pretty exciting to have both communities with fans who remember the old rivalry when both the Gears and Generals had quality hockey programs and we're excited to get that going again.”
Spirit head coach Greg Gilbert is anxious to get to work with this talented group of young players. After losing a lot of veterans last year and taking a completely re-structured and young team to the playoffs, Gilbert is ready to point this team in the right direction and show them how to be champions.
“It's time to move ahead,” Gilbert said. “We went through our re-build stage last year with the youngest team in the league, and we took our lumps, but going through that experience is going to be an eye-opener for our young players and they get to see what it's all about.”
Gilbert got one of the pieces to the championship puzzle when the Spirit acquired veteran defenseman Will Petschenig from the 2015 memorial cup champion Oshawa Generals in exchange for a conditional fifteenth round pick in the 2016 OHL priority selection draft. Gilbert will be looking to Petschenig to use his skill and experience to teach the younger Spirit players what it takes to become a champion.
“Will has been through that process, he won a memorial cup with Oshawa last year and that experience, for him, I'm sure was huge and he can bring that to our hockey club. You know, he's a competitive kid, and everything he does he wants to win whether it's a scrimmage or exhibition games, he just wants to be a champion and he is a champion at heart, so his leadership and experience is definitely going to help bolster that back line.”
Petschenig, a 6-foot-3 inch 210-pound native of Manotick, ON is exactly what the Spirit have been missing on the back end. He plays a very physical game and concentrates on doing his job on the defensive end, something he hopes to pass along to the younger Spirit defensemen.
“It's nice coming to a team where I can help out with the younger guys,” Petschenig said. “I want to be a leader here, and to win a championship you have to play defense first, so I think that's the big adjustment the team will have this year. Whatever I can do to help out the younger guys, that's what I want to do and hopefully bring a championship here. I hope to bring a solid, physical, defensive-style game and be a leader both on and off the ice. I'll try to chip in offensively, but my game is really as a physical stay-at-home defenseman.”
Dylan Sadowy and Mitchell Stephens will continue to lead the Spirit after they return from their respective NHL training camps. The pair will also bring the added experience of spending the off-season working out with the under-20 Canadian junior national team in Calgary over the summer.
“It was my first taste of anything team Canada related,” Sadowy said. “Stevie (Mitchell Stephens) had U-18 the year before, so he kind of knew what to expect. But it was a new experience for me and I made the best of it, and now we'll see what comes from it.”
“I had a good summer of training back in Peterborough and then I went to the World Juniors camp,” Stephens added. “You know, I thought I had three good games and guess I made a good name for myself, but that being said, it's all going to unfold here when I get out on the ice with these guys. The biggest thing about summer training is to get bigger, faster, stronger and I think I did that this summer.”
In terms of physical transformation, the most noticeable change seemed to be with 6-foot-6 inch 235-pound second-year defenseman Keaton Middleton. It looked like he put on 20-to-30 pounds of solid muscle, which will help as he heads into his first NHL draft-eligible season. He also had the most unique off-season workout program as he spent the summer as a mason-tender shoveling brick mortar alongside his brother.
Middleton's older brother Jacob plays for the Ottawa 67s (also in the OHL) and Jacob was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the seventh round of the 2014 NHL entry draft. Keaton spent a portion of the summer working out with the under-18 Canadian junior national team before joining his brother as a mason-tender.
“It was pretty wild actually” said Middleton of the under-18 Canadian junior national team camp experience. “There were a lot of really good hockey players at the camp and there were some great players who made the team as well, so it was just a great all around experience to see how I measure up to all those great players. Me and my brother worked out everyday in the mornings this summer, then it was kind of nice because we also labored for mason's all summer, so that was like an added workout.”
The Spirit will also return many of the top young players from last season. Players like last years top OHL priority selection pick Tye Felhaber, and defenseman Marcus Crawford. The team will also have some key veterans returning like Connor Brown, Blake Clarke, and Artem Artemov; along with goaltender Evan Cormier.
As far as the 2015 OHL priority selection draft, the Spirit could not be happier with their new draft picks. Brady Gilmour heads the most talented draft class in franchise history along with Kirill Maximov and Zion, Illinois native Cole Coskey.
Gilmour joined his older team mates in Calgary where he was invited to the under-17 Canadian Junior national team camp. He likes the atmosphere here and is excited to get his major junior hockey career started wearing a Saginaw sweater.
“I went out west for the U-17 camp in Calgary which was a great experience,” said Gilmour. “There were so many talented players out there, and even having the U-18 players and the U-20 players where I was able to watch those guys and see where I kind of have to be and where I want to be in the next couple years. The guys here have all been very welcoming and very good to me, so I'm just trying to be a good rookie and a good team mate, but yeah it's fun here because everyone is just like one big family.”