The Erie Otters are turning some heads in the hockey world.
Due to not having a single player on their roster drafted by an NHL team, many expected the Otters to go through the doldrums of a long, rough season. While the season has had its downs, it’s had many ups as well.
Those ups have them making a strong run at a playoff spot in the Western Conference. That’s impressive for a team who doesn’t have anybody within the OHL’s top-50 in scoring.
After an impressive 4-3 overtime win in London, the Otters come home for a pair of tough games against Niagara and London. With three games in hand on the two teams above them (Windsor and Sarnia) and down just three points, a successful weekend could propel them into a playoff spot.
While that is a great achievement for a team clearly building for the future, making the playoffs is a goal but not their ultimate goal.
GM Dave Brown Speaks
I had the chance to catch up for a couple minutes with Otters’ GM Dave Brown. That was the main question I posed to him. How important is making the playoffs for this team?
While he acknowledges that is a good achievement, the team is not even looking at that as part of their plan. Their main focus is on the things they do night in and night out that will eventually turn into long-term success. Brown pointed at the London game and how the team competed and played against one of the best in the OHL as a sign of where things are and are going.
In other words, Brown was more concerned about how the Otters bounced back from being throttled at home by Kitchener. From that lens, things are looking up in Erie.
Want proof the playoffs isn’t the be all for the Otters this season? I asked Brown about the status of one of their best offensive players Hayden Fowler. Surely his return would boost the Otters in the stretch run and potentially in the playoffs should they make them. Brown only cared about one thing for Fowler, his overall health.
“Unless he (Fowler) is 100%, he isn’t playing”, Brown told me.
That shows clearly the focus is towards a brighter future starting next season and beyond. Their goal now is to position themselves for long-term success. Why bring back Fowler just to make a playoff round if you don’t need to? Ensure he is 100% so he can make a bigger impact later.
Speaking of impacts later, the Otters are primed to pick within the top-five at the next OHL Priority Selection. Want to know how prepared Brown is for this? When I asked him how ready they were for the draft, they said they could draft tomorrow if they had to. Not only that, they know what they need and have a plan in place to get that.
What is that need? Considering they have one of the best 16-year old defenseman playing for them in Jamie Drysdale and other young pieces such as Jack Duff on the blue line ready to take the next step, it’s easy to see them look at offense and specifically a center.
The Otters have a chance to land an impact forward with a top-five pick. Thanks to some recent trades, their cupboards aren’t as bare as they used to be. We are seeing a plan working itself into place. These plans point to a successful future.
Chris Hartsburg’s Impact
This might be one of the best overall coaching jobs in the OHL given the talent he has and overall results. Erie is a tough building to come to. Just ask Niagara, Guelph and Ottawa about that. And ask London about how Friday’s game went?
If there’s one thing true about the Otters, it’s that Hartsburg has his team working hard every shift while trying to play a fast, up tempo game. If teams aren’t ready, the Otters take advantage of them.
And we have to talk about goaltending. Since Christmas, it’s been much better. Outside of one bad start by Daniel Murphy, he’s given them over .900 goaltending. He’s the clear number one and has shown signs of taking the next step. Is this the Shane Clifford effect? Time will tell on that one.
But for now, Hartsburg has done an outstanding job of having his team ready most nights. And on the off nights, they generally come back strong the next night.
The Otters are in a good spot. They are playing meaningful games now while keeping focused on what matters, the future. It’s this kind of plan and execution that makes the Otters one of the more desirable destinations given the leadership that’s there. Now we’ll see if Brown and company can keep the plan moving forward.
So far, you couldn’t ask for a better start.