Erie Otters Turn Page on Tough Season

We knew the Erie Otters were in tough in the 2017-18 Ontario Hockey League season. I’m not sure how many saw being shut out of the playoffs though.

Thanks to a season filled with too many goals against, the Otters couldn’t keep up with the league and found themselves on the outside looking in for the first time since Connor McDavid’s rookie season.

To add to the frustration, the Otters had to part with important pieces of their championship team. It’s never easy parting with players like that. It’s even worse when there are rumors of what’s going to happen hounding the team night in and night out.

It was a November and December to forget. The Otters couldn’t get anything going. You knew moves were coming. The team played distracted.

Then finally, a breath of fresh air filled the locker room of Erie Insurance Arena. The trade deadline was gone. Players could now relax knowing what was going on. It was at this point that the Otters started to become a team. It showed in their play.

Although they fell short of the playoffs, there was a renewed sense of optimism around them that was nowhere to be found early.

OHL, Taylor Raddysh, Erie Otters, Tampa Bay Lightning
Once Taylor Raddysh was traded, the Erie Otters could focus on the rest of the season. (Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

Things We Learned Post-Deadline

1. The Otters Have an Identity

One of the big questions coming into the season was what kind of identity this team would have with a huge roster turnover. Chris Hartsburg made one thing clear coming into the season. He wanted his players to work their tails off every time they were on the ice.

At least by the end of the season, mission accomplished.

Hartsburg on exit interview day said he was without question pleased with where the team was at with having a clear identity. They’re fast. They work hard. They leave it all on the ice. Most importantly, the team has bought into the coach’s message. You can expect this kind of effort from the Otters next season. Considering the young talent this team has, that’s great news for them. Speaking of their talented youth…

2. The Otters Have Two Young Studs

Two players in particular stood out in the second half of the season. Both Hayden Fowler and Emmett Sproule showed flashes of the kind of player they hope to become.

Ask any of their teammates. Their glowing praise for these two is noticeable.

Let’s start with Fowler. He came to Erie as part of the Taylor Raddysh/Jordan Sambrook trade. He had just two goals and four points in 33 games for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He played behind a deep team.

What does Fowler do in Erie? He puts up a line of 10-12-22 in 28 games with a +2 rating. He’s just 16. That’s an over 53-point pace for a full season. Every time he touched the puck, you thought something special would happen.

Fowler’s most memorable moment of the season came in the third to last game of the season against Windsor. He scored two goals in :46 to complete an unbelievable comeback. He scored with seven seconds left in regulation to tie the game against Mike DiPietro. He then won it 39 seconds into overtime thanks to a heads-up play after Kyle Maksimovich got leveled in front of the net.

The awareness and IQ Fowler possesses is incredible for a 16-year old. He’s still under-the-radar league-wide. That won’t last long. Thanks to a late birthday, he’s not draft eligible until 2020. Otters’ fans have something to look forward to for quite sometime.

Sproule got off to a forgettable start. You just never know how some teenagers will handle the transition to junior hockey. He was stuck on the fourth line or scratched throughout the beginning of the season. His confidence was missing. Then according to him, their game against Oshawa was his light-bulb moment. He was confident again.

Sproule finished his rookie season with 5-8-13 in 56 games. The noticeable thing about him though was his skating and involvement in the games. Slowly but surely, he started to make an impact.

Just how high is the upside of these two players? According to captain Maksimovich, both Fowler and Sproule will eventually become 100-point scorers in the OHL. The team is confident in them. We’ll see if Maksimovich’s prediction comes true someday.

3. Chris Hartsburg Handled Difficulty Well

Hartsburg has NHL pedigree. Look no further than that he is the son of Craig Hartsburg. What was impressive about Hartsburg’s work this season was not only how he handled a difficult situation, but also doing it replacing an Otters’ legend in Kris Knoblauch.

Hartsburg kept a consistent message. Did everyone receive that message? Early on, that’s up for debate from the outside. They had a mix of youth and veterans that won a championship. It’s easy to imagine not everyone taking the coach’s message to heart. To his credit, he stuck by his guns.

By the end of the season, the Otters played as a team and played everyone tough. Hartsburg deserves full credit for enduring the tough part and instilling a fun, fast system that players enjoy playing. The Otters have a good leader behind the bench and will look to take the next step in 2018-19.

Chris Hartsburg, OHL, Erie Otters
Chris Hartsburg handled difficulty about as well as anyone could ask for. (Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images.)

4. Young Defense Showed Positive Signs

Ryan Martin finished the regular season with a +12 rating. If you consider the Otters were one of the worst defensive teams in the league, that’s mighty impressive.

Jack Duff became noticeable especially near the end of the season. He didn’t look out-of-place playing a prominent role on the blue line especially when the Otters could only dress five defensemen thanks to injuries. He also had a memorable fight with Windsor’s Luke Boka where he stood toe to toe.

Kurtis Henry didn’t back down from anyone. In the finale against Guelph, Henry and Alexey Toropchenko became besties. They each took two unsportsmanlike conducts on each other and topped it off with a fight that ended their nights.

If the Otters hope to make strides next season, this young defense core must take the next step. The potential is there. We’ll see if they reach it.

5. They Think They’ll Be Special in 2018-19

I got to ask this question to both Fowler and Sproule after their exit interviews. Both said they expect to be a special team in 2018-19. Sproule even went as far as guaranteeing it without mentioning the word guarantee.

I’ll give them one thing. They are confident. You have to like seeing that at a young age from players who can make a major impact in this league in the coming seasons.

The Otters have needs they must fill over time. Consider that they’ll add a high-end player with the fourth-overall pick to add to this core and you see why the future in Erie remains bright.

Who will they add with the fourth pick? Will it be a center? General manager Dave Brown simply said we’ll take the best available player with that pick regardless of position. He also said he’s ready for the draft now. They have a plan and are eager to execute it.

Brown said they’d review the entire organization from players to the way they handle internal stuff. He and the team are dedicated to making the Otters a threat year in and year out.

Erie is a desired destination thanks to Brown and the staff he’s assembled. Although this season was tough, the Otters appear on their way up again. It’s not McDavid special, but it’ll be a new era of Otters’ hockey that should be memorable for everyone involved.

Thanks to sticking with a plan in the face of adversity and having quality people in the organization, the Erie Otters made something good out of 2017-18 when it looked very bad. Better days are ahead at Erie Insurance Arena.