Summer for the Erie Otters and the rest of the OHL is almost over. Training camps officially open around the league in a week’s time. For the Otters, there are no shortage of storylines.
The biggest one is the loss of Petr Cajka. He has decided to not return to the team and will play this season in Switzerland. You can see Cajka’s comments to the Hockey Writers here in our story from early July. The Otters have since confirmed this.
The team was clearly hoping Cajka would return after turning in a 20-goal season in 2018-19. Although he was not drafted, many thought he would show a vast improvement this season on a more veteran team.
But the decision has been made and it’s time to move on. The Otters still have a logjam of forwards that will try to separate themselves at camp. That’s where our first major story begins. Who took advantage of this summer and is ready to stamp their place on the roster? Let’s look at two of the “bubble” candidates.
Fighting for a Roster Spot
There are a handful of players that have a legitimate shot of making the Otters’ opening roster. There are two players that I will have a keen eye on as camp opens and preseason games get underway. Those are Elias Cohenand Noah Sedore.
Cohen appeared in only six games last season but did score three goals including a game-winning goal. In limited action, he showed flashes of what he could bring. But can he take the next step and become a full-time starter? Cohen is very much in play for a bottom-six spot.
Sedore appeared in just four games last season but you can see why the team is excited about him. He can create offense and dictate the pace of the game. He can also be a pain in the neck to play against. Will he take the next step in his development?
Had Cajka stayed with the Otters, it would have been hard to imagine both Cohen and Sedore making the roster. Now it’s a very real possibility. But they can’t relax. They need to take this camp and preseason and show that they belong on a full-time basis. Their spots are not guaranteed. They must earn their keep.
The other player we will watch closely is third-overall pick Connor Lockhart. How quickly can he adjust to the OHL? Expect him to start in the bottom six but it wouldn’t surprise me if he makes a strong play for bigger minutes as the season wears on. His skating and his offensive instincts but this within the realm of possibility.
Is Jamie Drysdale Ready to Captain the Otters?
I posed this very question to general manager Dave Brown. Brown acknowledged how much of a leader Drysdale already is, but wasn’t ready to make any decisions on the leadership group. The team will decide that throughout camp.
However with Drysdale wearing the C for Team Canada at the Hlinka/Gretzky Cup, he led them to a silver medal and was one of the best defenseman at the tournament. What really stood out to me was that he wasn’t phased by the big moment. He played the part extremely well and it resonated down to his teammates.
But is Drysdale ready to be an OHL captain at age 17 given all of the responsibilities it comes with? He is well on his way but it will be interesting to see if the team elects to go with a veteran to start. As Brown told me, he will converse with head coach Chris Hartsburg throughout camp and they will decide from there.
My take: it would not surprise me in the least if they tab Drysdale right away. If there’s anyone who can handle the moment, it’s him. It’s no wonder many around the industry believe he can be a top-five overall pick at the 2020 NHL Draft. He just has that it factor very few have. Then again, it wouldn’t surprise me if he starts with an “A”. We’ll see.
If it’s the Otters, goaltending is always a point of conversation. This season is no different. Incumbent Daniel Murphy seems to be heading into 2019-20 as the number one, but he better be looking over his shoulder. Aidan Campbell committed to the Otters and has designs of giving Murphy a run for his money.
The fate of the season for the Otters rests on the blue line and in the crease. They have to improve if they hope to return to the playoffs. Although the team showed moments of good play, it was too inconsistent and that ultimately cost them last season.
They’re going to come into this season with heightened expectations. Will Murphy be ready for the extra attention? Can Campbell make an early statement and earn more playing time given his already impressive track record?
This Murphy/Campbell battle will be very much an interesting thing to watch throughout the preseason. I would expect Murphy to start their opener, but it will be interesting to see how Hartsburg splits the starts once the season gets going. How the preseason goes could determine that split.
Ultimately, if Murphy falters and Campbell answers the bell, we could have a new number one by season’s end. It by no means is set in stone. May the best goaltender win.
The Otters will officially open camp next Sunday Aug 25. The team will release the schedule of events soon all leading up to their two preseason opening games at Erie Insurance Arena on Aug 31 and Sep 1 against the Hamilton Bulldogs.
Will the Otters meet the greater expectations placed on them? We’ll start finding out soon enough.