Erie Otters Coping with Dynamism of OHL

The Ontario Hockey League is far from stagnant, something the reigning league champions, the Erie Otters, are acutely aware of. There are management obstacles that arise in the Canadian Hockey League that simply do not exist at the top level of professional hockey due to a myriad of factors that characterize the OHL as the premiere developmental league for the NHL.

The Otters have had some exceptional players on their roster–quite literally, in Connor McDavid— but are now faced with replacing some of these big-names as they inevitably move on to the NHL. Moves are being made by the team now, heading into their 2017-18 season, and they serve as pieces of the puzzle in revealing the big picture of what the Otters’ long-term plans are.

The Erie Otters recently claimed Gianluca Fuoco off waivers from the Saginaw Spirit. This is their second acquisition since before Emmett Sproule, their first round pick, officially committed to the Otters back in June. The acquisition of Fuoco shortly follows the addition of forward Alex Gritz to the Otters in a trade that sent two of Erie’s future picks to Sault Ste. Marie.

What might these recent preseason moves mean in the grand scheme of the Otters’ game plan for the 2017-18 season?

Still in Win-Mode

The general consensus among most hockey fans who have kept up with the Otters, specifically since acquiring McDavid, is that the club has by now lost all of its really great players to the NHL. This line of thinking draws one to the logical conclusion that the team must now be in rebuild-mode in order to replenish its diminished talent pool.

The trademark of a rebuilding team is typically auctioning off their older players with the most trade value for future picks in order to replenish their prospect pool in an effort to essentially restart from scratch.  We have yet to see these kinds of rebuilding moves from the Otters.

Instead, what we are seeing is smart, tactful moves to reinforce the team’s remaining talent. It’s clear to me that the Otters are not content with their current title of best team in their league– they want the Memorial Cup. After coming so close to victory they could taste it last year, and losing in heartbreaking fashion to the only other team playing in the round-robin tournament that was in their own league.

Spitfires’ Michael DiPietro makes toe save on Otters’ forward Anthony Cirelli during Game 6 of the 2017 MasterCard Memorial Cup between the OHL’s Erie Otters and Windsor Spitfires. (Aaron Bell/CHL Images)

Then-captain Dylan Strome was an integral piece in the Otters’ Memorial Cup run — he was voted the tournament’s MVP following that tough loss in the final. The Otters are missing some pieces now, for sure, but they also didn’t have McDavid when they made it all the way to the Memorial Cup final last year.

There are still a few veteran guys returning this season that were a part of that historic Cup run last season. The thought process of Erie’s management seems to be, ‘Why prematurely scrap that kind of veteran experience when these remaining players can not only still play and win, but can also instill their wisdom into the next crop of younger guys joining the Otters for the 2017-18 season?’

Claiming Fuoco off waivers seems to be a good move for the Otters right now. It backs up my theory that they are not yet in a total rebuild-now mindset, but are in a state of transition, yet retaining the same ultimate goal that they had last year — winning the Memorial Cup.

They are opting to claim players off of waivers to improve their team now in a way that is still strategically future-oriented. They are neither trading away draft picks and prospects for a quick short-term fix, nor going the opposite direction and trading all of their good players now to merely replenish their future picks.

The Art of Waiver Claiming

Waiver claims are typically a cheap and efficient way to improve your team by filling empty roles with a player that can get the job done, even if it’s not a top-caliber guy. Waiver claiming can be an immensely tactical and fruitful strategy if done right.

For example, in the NHL, the Pittsburgh Penguins claimed goaltender Mike Condon off waivers from the Montreal Canadiens at the beginning of the 2016-17 season. They put him in net while Matt Murray was recovering from a broken hand, then traded him to the Ottawa Senators for a fifth-round pick. So, essentially, the Penguins fixed a hole in their lineup, added a free fifth-round pick, and then went back to business as usual and ended up winning another Stanley Cup. Such are the fruits of intuitively using waiver claims to your advantage.

Mike Condon, Fantasy Hockey
Replacing Craig Anderson, Mike Condon jumped 10 spots from the preseason rankings in November. (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

Of course, the OHL is still more limited than the NHL in the strategic moves that teams can make in order to bolster their rosters and formulate assets. The OHL simply does not have the full toolbox that the NHL has for building, tweaking and cultivating their rosters in order to maximize a team’s success.

The ‘O’ is Not the ‘Show’

An obvious difference between the NHL and major-junior leagues is salary. Players in the OHL typically get a weekly or biweekly stipend of around $50-$150. The most important distinction between major-juniors and the NHL, though, stems from the fact that the players that comprise the 60 teams in the CHL are still just kids — many in high school. It’s far more of a developmental league than a business like the NHL is. For that reason, we see fewer trades and rarely any movement between the three leagues that make up the CHL.

Organizations are far more likely to try to accompany the needs of the player they drafted and keep him on that team than simply trade him away to another as this can be very disruptive to the life of a school-age kid. Furthermore, bad player/team relationships could subsequently hurt recruitment. After all, the CHL is also competing with NCAA college hockey for their potential players, which has seen a rise in the number of players that go to the NHL post-college.

NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Northeast Regional Championship semifinal at the SNHU Arena on March 25, 2017 in Manchester, NH. (Photo by Richard T Gagnon / Fighting Irish Media)

The bottom line is, the OHL is not able to function under the same parameters enjoyed by the NHL, so it’s crucial at this level to make very smart decisions with the limited options that they have. The Otters appear to be making the smart decisions in preparation for what may yet be another Memorial Cup run this season.

“Are the Otters Going to Be Any Good This Year?”

This is the big question that everyone wants to know. Can the Otters still be as good as they have been without the big-name stars? Personally, I don’t think they’re going to be nearly as bad as everyone thinks.

They are most likely retaining the likes of Kyle Maksimovich, Gera Poddubnyi, Ivan Lodnia and perhaps even Taylor Raddysh, so there is still NHL-caliber talent on this team. The assumption that the Otters now have to be in rebuild-mode is, I think, fundamentally flawed.

The fact that they are using waiver claims and making trades to bolster their now-slightly-younger roster instead of just trading everyone for future picks doesn’t seem very indicative of a rebuild-centric mindset. All of these signs lead me to believe that the Otters organization has high hopes for this season. That being said, they are still playing it smart by not putting all of their chips in and forsaking the future of their franchise, which is perpetually in a state of flux. That is simply the nature of the game in the OHL.