The Saginaw Spirit embark on their twelfth OHL season on the road Thursday September 19 against the Barrie Colts, and Friday September 20 against the Kitchener Rangers before returning home Wednesday September 25 for the home-opener against the Erie Otters. The puck is set to drop at 7:11 pm Wednesday September 25 to kick off the 2013-14 OHL season.
After a rebuilding year in 2012-13, which saw a very young Spirit squad make the OHL post season only to bow out after the first round, getting swept by the eventual OHL champion London Knights, the Spirit wasted no time getting to work in the off-season filling gaps to bolster a much needed backend and beginning the process to balance out the roster with a nice mix of veterans, rookies, and solid second year players who received valuable ice time last year.
On April 3, 2013, just five days after the end of Saginaw's 2012-13 season, GM Jim Paliafito and the Spirit brass started working the trade network to clear up space for the April 6, 2013 OHL priority draft. The next move was to make sure Spirit head coach Greg Gilbert would be around to mold one of the most exciting and productive looking teams in Saginaw Spirit history. On May 13, 2013 the Spirit added one year to Gilbert's contract, ensuring that the former fifteen-year NHL veteran will lead the Spirit for the next three years, at least until the end of the 2015-16 season.
On June 5, 2013; Spirit GM, Jim Paliafito made a move acquiring the first-of-four veteran signings when the Spirit reached an agreement with 1994 born defenseman, Sean Callaghan in a deal with the Ottawa 67's. Two days later, Palifito completed a deal which brought 6'-2” 200 lb 1994 born right wing, Cody Payne over from in-state rivals the Plymouth Whalers. Payne was originally drafted by the Boston Bruins in the fifth round (145 overall) of the 2012 NHL draft; Payne's NHL rights were then traded to the Dallas Stars at the 2013 NHL trade deadline in a deal which saw Jaromir Jagr go to the Bruins for their Eastern Conference Championship run.
Four days following the Cody Payne signing, the Spirit added even more of a veteran presence when they acquired 1993 born center, Kristoff Kontos (son of former NHL player, Chris Kontos who played 16 NHL seasons). Kristoff Kontos comes to the Spirit from the Mississauga Steelheads.
Paliafito's most recent acquisition came recently when the Spirit acquired overage defenseman, Justin Sefton from the OHL's 2013 Robertson Cup Champion London Knights. Sefton was originally drafted in the third round (89 overall) in the 2011 NHL draft by the San Jose Sharks.The Sharks never signed Sefton to an NHL contract, so the Columbus Bluejackets invited the Thunder Bay, Ontario native to this years NHL camp as a free agent.
Sefton will help bolster the Spirit defense; which seems to be the only area where the Spirit will not be solidly stacked. Paliafito worked very hard in the off season to balance out this Spirit team, and it looks as though they will be putting a great product on the ice for the 2013-14 OHL season.
“I think we have a nice young nucleus, along with a mix of some veterans,” Spirit GM Jim Paliafito said. “With the progression our young kids should make (getting valuable ice time last year) we're very excited about our team this year. Up front I think we're going to be deep, and I like our two goaltenders. On the backend, I've liked what I've seen so far; although the defense will be our only gray area at this point; we'll take a look at how we do in the exhibition season and the early part of the regular season and we will go from there.”
Getting Bigger To Get Better
Last year's Spirit team was identified by their youth (and the defensemen's inability to clear guys out in front of the net). This year's team will have a nice balance of young players as well as veteran leadership; but it will be their size that defines this year's group. Over the past few seasons, guys like Justin Kea and Nick Moutrey stood out physically on the ice. This year eighty percent of the entire Spirit roster will look like Kea and Moutrey (physically) on the ice. No player on this year's Spirit team will appreciate this beefed up roster (particularly the bigger defensemen) than goalie, Jake Paterson.
“It's my third year here and I'm excited to be back,” said Paterson. “We've added some size over the summer, so I'm definitely excited for the season to get going for sure; one of our biggest concerns was trying to add some size to our lineup and I think our defense will obviously be a lot bigger and stronger than it was in past years, mostly because of the size and strength I will have clearing guys out in front of me this year; which will make it easier for me to see shots and hopefully make the game easier for myself.”
Key Vet's Ready to Groom Younger Players
The 2012-13 Spirit team was very young and there are a number of third and fourth-year guys who are willing to step up and help the younger first and second year players adjust to the size and speed of the OHL game. “For me personally, coming in as a third year guy, it feels a bit different,” said 2013 Winnipeg Jets NHL draft pick Jimmy Lodge. “I'm kind of used to being one of the young guys, but I'm looking to step up and take on more of a leadership role this year. “With our older guys leaving - as a veteran now - it's time for me to step in and be more of a role model for the new guys,” continued Lodge. “I'm always there for the younger guys because I remember going through that as a sixteen year-old in this league; if they need me, I'll be there for them.”
Lodge and 2013 Buffalo Sabres NHL draft pick, Eric Locke worked so well together on the top line throughout the second half of the season last year, they will be looking to continue that magic this year. Like Lodge, Locke will look to use his previous success to help the young Spirit players. “We need to come out of the gates fast,” said Locke. “Some of us are going to NHL camps and when we return, we need to bring back that same intensity and show the young guys how much hard work it takes to get to the next level and if everyone comes together and works hard, you can't ask for much more.”
Building a Team of “High-Compete” Players
Spirit head coach Greg Gilbert knows which type of players he needs in order to play the aggressive, hard-nosed, competitive brand of hockey he has been trying to create in Saginaw over the last year-and a-half. With the help of Spirit GM Jim Paliafito, Gilbert is closer than ever to having the type of players who will change the culture of hockey in Saginaw.
“We had to fill some holes, we had some guys who won't be returning; obviously our OA's (overagers) who aged out last year is a factor, plus there has been a couple other guys who retired from playing, so we had to find some players and Jimmy (Paliafito) has done a great job acquiringCody Payne from Plymouth and Sean Callaghan from Ottawa; they're big kids, big bodies with veteran experience; also, our younger (first-year guys from last years team) did a tremendous job getting in shape over the summer, so there's no question we're going to be better than last year.”
“We draft players who play hard,” continued Gilbert. “We just want players who have high-compete levels, guys who will not accept losing; so, that's what we're trying to create here, that type of culture where we go into every game and the opposition is going to know it's going to be a tough night; whenever you get everyone playing that same way, with that same willingness to win, with a high-compete level, you're going to give yourself the best opportunity to win.”
The Spirit will begin the 2013-14 OHL season with two road games in Barrie, Ontario on Thursday September 19 and Kitchener, Ontario the following night September 20. The boys will then return to the Dow Event Center on Wednesday September 25 where they will host the Erie Otters in the home opener of the 2013-14 campaign.