The Erie Otters fought with everything they had all season. In the end, it was not quite enough to qualify for the OHL Playoffs.
With a chance to make the playoffs during the final week of the season, the Otters had four chances to make something happen in the standings. But due to an incredibly difficult schedule which included playing seven games in 10 days, they ran out of gas.
Despite falling just short, it doesn’t take away from what the Otters almost accomplished.
Consider for a second what the Otters had at the start of the season. They had zero NHL drafted prospects. They had questions in goal. They had questions on defense. They had questions up front. Who was going to score their goals?
If that wasn’t enough, the Otters lost three of their best players for over a combined 100 games due to injury. Hayden Fowler was out for months. Max Golod had a slump and injuries. Luke Beamish couldn’t stay healthy.
That’s not to mention they had players in Chad Yetman and Joseph Mack who had never played center before and Petr Cajka who was new to North America. That’s a lot to overcome.
And the Otters still made it to the last weekend with a shot at the playoffs. This is pain, pride and promise personified.
That's a wrap on the year, but things are looking up with a bright future in Erie. Hear from the team in this last post game edition of Otters Soundbites. pic.twitter.com/mkO8ysXIMr
— Erie 🦦🦦🦦 (@ErieOtters) March 17, 2019
The Otters knew they were done on Friday after losing in Guelph 5-2. It didn’t matter if you were a player or coach, this realization hurt. They worked all season for the chance at getting to the tournament. Not making it hurts.
The players said basically the same thing. Although it hurts, it can turn into something promising later if they work for it. They’ll remember this feeling of falling just short. They won’t want to have to endure this again.
They had every opportunity to make it happen. They won in London. They defeated Guelph. They defeated Ottawa. But going 0-4 against Barrie and Kingston was too much to overcome. When the Otters think back to this season, they’ll remember how close they came and how painful it was to come up just short.
When I talked to teams coming through Erie Insurance Arena this season, they told me the same thing when it came to why the Otters were such a tough team to play against.
They work very hard. They have an arena that gets very loud. They play honest. And they play the right away. This sentiment was not a one off. This was a theme all season.
The Otters might not have had the talent to match the opposition most nights. But they did more often than not bring the hard hats. Teams thought they could come to Erie and get an easy game. They got anything but an easy game.
Coach Chris Hartsburg said it best. “Adversity was at the forefront. It started with over 100 games missed between Golod, Beamish and Fowler. The schedule wasn’t exactly an easy grind. We got a lot accomplished as far as getting better.”
Hartsburg was right. The Otters did see noticeable improvement. Although they accrued 56 points both last season and this season, they improved in wins by three with a noticeable drop off in overall talent. Every time they stepped on the ice, they played for their pride and it showed.
When evaluating a team, one must see if there is a clear plan for the future. The Otters have that in spades. Consider they had just one overage player on their roster for game 68. That was goaltender Cole Ceci. Everyone else is eligible to come back next year, although some decisions will have to be made. More on that later.
For now, let’s focus on what’s coming. The Otters will pick third in the upcoming OHL Priority Selection. They will pick eighth in the CHL Import Draft. That’s two potential game-changing players. There’s three players that could come to Erie if they decide to change their course. Austen Swankler who is a Michigan commit, Ryan Alexander who is an Arizona State commit and Aidan Campbell. Of these three, I think Campbell has the best chance of coming. GM Dave Brown said talks are happening, but nothing new to report at this time. Campbell was in Erie with his parents Saturday watching the game.
Campbell is from Cranberry Township, PA. Swankler is from Irwin, PA. The Otters seem to try to go after the Pittsburgh kids. Why not? It’s close to home and they can play in a league with a direct road to the pros. Alexander is good friends with Jamie Drysdale. But as of now, there’s nothing to report on that front.
The word here is competition. Given the two high picks as well as two second rounders, there could be a log jam for playing time. This summer and how it’s handled will go a long way in how the roster looks come late summer.
There is a clear plan in place. Brown knows which direction the team is going to go with the third pick. It’s reasonable to expect a forward be picked in that spot with Drysdale, Jack Duff, Ryan Martin, Jacob Golden, Luke Beamish and Kurtis Henry all in the fold. Three names to keep in mind for the Otters are Brennan Othmann, Connor Lockhart and Mason McTavish.
How the Otters go will depend on how Kingston and Flint pick. Shane Wright is expected to go to Kingston with no issues. The early word I’m hearing is that the Firebirds could take a strong look at Othmann, who is considered one of the best snipers in the entire draft. If this happens, that leaves Lockhart and McTavish for the Otters.
Both Lockhart and McTavish are centers. Lockhart is smaller but is an excellent skater. McTavish has size and finish and can dominate both ends of the ice. The Otters will get a great player here. I tried asking Brown where he’s leaning. He wouldn’t bite. But it would be an upset if it’s not Lockhart or McTavish.
The Otters fell just short this season but are looking strong next season. But it is of utmost importance for them to nail their early draft picks to keep the momentum going. The playoffs should no longer be their only goal. Winning a round or better is more what they’ll look at next season.
There is no shame in what happened this season in Erie. Most agree better days are coming for the franchise. After consecutive 56-point seasons, the fans are hungry for a winner. The Otters are primed to take the next step. Now, they have to go out and just do it. No excuses. The expectations are higher. We’ll see if they can meet those expectations.
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2021-22 season will mark eight seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager.