The long wait for the Erie Otters is over, finally.
For the first time since Mar 8, 2020, a span of 580 days, the Otters will play a regular season OHL game. They open their 2021-22 season Saturday night in Flint against the Firebirds. This game marks the start of their 25th anniversary season.
Much has changed for this team since we last saw them on the ice for a game that meant anything. The Otters were in position to make the OHL playoffs in 2020 before the pandemic forced the cancelation of the season. But many names you were familiar with have moved on and fresh new faces are ready to take the mantle.
Old Faces Gone/New Leaders Emerge
Austen Swankler is gone. So is Chad Yetman. Maxim Golod has moved on too. Emmett Sproule was just traded to Peterborough. Brendan Kischnick has decided to move on from playing hockey but remains with the Otters in a support role. Jamie Drysdale is off the NHL. Captain Jack Duff has moved on also. With all this turnover comes opportunity.
That started with the announcement of the new captains on Friday. The Otters will be going with co-captains this season. Daniel D’Amato and Brendan Sellan will each wear a C. Who wears the C on a particular night will be based on what jersey the team is wearing.
If the jersey color is blue or white, one of D’Amato or Sellan will wear the C. If the jersey color is silver, they’ll both wear the C for that game.
The Otters also named an alternate captain in defenseman Cameron Morton. Each are very excited for the opportunity to lead this team. Let them speak about the honor for you.
“It’s an incredible honor to have the opportunity to wear the C for this organization, and be looked at as a leader for the group we have in our locker room, D’Amato said. “Our team preaches off-ice habits and behavior, so for myself, being a leader off-the-ice will have just as much meaning as being a leader on-the-ice.”
“It is an absolute honor to be named the Captain of this team – especially looking at the long line of captains before me,” Sellan said. “I could not be happier to have the privilege of being a leader on this team. I want to share my qualities and knowledge with my teammates. I want to be a leader that holds everyone accountable, while more importantly keeping myself accountable each-and-every day.”
“First off, I’m truly honored to be put in the position to help lead this team for the season,” Morton said. “I want to be a leader that shows up to the rink with something to prove, and leads by example at-and-away from the rink.”
A Renewed Optimism
As mentioned above, the Otters have undergone some changes to their personnel. The one thing you’ll notice right away is the young talent they have. They will have three 2005 born players on their opening night roster in Carey Terrance, Taeo Artichuk and Nathan Sauder. That’s their first, second and third round picks in the 2021 Priority Selection.
Both GM Dave Brown and head coach Chris Hartsburg like the current makeup of their team with a nice mix of older players and young talent. But as Brown says, they need to be patient with them throughout this process.
“I think you have to be patient with the process,” Brown said. “Whatever they accomplish this season is icing on the cake for them. We have to nurture them through the process and allow them to get out there and make mistakes as hard as that can be. At the end of the day that’s the only way they’re going to get better. We like what we have now. We have a good support cast of older players that can assist these guys through the tough times.”
Hartsburg likes the early progress of his young players and is starting to see some confidence come from them.
“Specifically our 16 year olds, especially the three of them, got better,” Hartsburg said. “The longer they got into it, the more we had our hands on them, you could certainly see their confidence start to grow and get better in certain areas. They’re going to have their moments where they’re going to show their true colors as being young players but at the same time the foundation is there and they have something to build on.”
This is definitely one area that will be the focus of the early season. Mistakes will be made. But how will these players handle the adversity when it starts to come on a nightly basis? It will be the job of this new leadership to help mentor them along.
Regardless of the expected bumps in the road, the team is optimistic about them and their future with the Otters. Their presence does give them something that will present a new look to teams this season and beyond. Let’s talk about that next.
A New Look Otters
Terrance is considered one of the best skaters in the 2021 OHL Draft. Artichuk has potential in the OHL as a goal-scoring winger. Lucas Ross brings speed and skill to the lineup. Are you noticing a theme yet?
Related: Otters Add Size and Speed at OHL Draft
The Otters have had speed in recent seasons. But now they not only have more speed, they have more skill. That’s what’s giving this team confidence that they could surprise some folks and have a good season. Hartsburg reiterated that they won’t change their approach, but they do have more skill than they did before.
“We’re a blue collar town here in Erie. We’re going to play a blue collar game and we’re going to play hard,” Hartsburg said. “But we do have some skill now. We feel like we have three really good forward lines that are going to be able to contribute offensively and it will certainly be exciting that way. The fanbase will know that the hard work will be there every night.”
Brown agreed with Hartsburg’s assessment. Specifically Brown likes the depth the team has.
“I think there’s a lot to be optimistic about. I think we have a lot of depth, 1-22 I like what I saw from them,” Brown said about his team’s overall preseason performance.
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Adding skill is a new look for the Otters in 2021-22 compared to recent season post OHL championship. Those teams always worked hard and had to depend on that to win games. Now they’ll work hard and beat you that way and with skill. They don’t have a top-end player like Shane Wright playing for them. But they believe they have multiple lines that can contribute and make an impact. Hartsburg said having the speed and skill together will allow them to play an even more pressure game against their opponents.
“It allows us to play a pressure game when we don’t have the puck. We don’t want to give up easy ice. We don’t want to get outmanned coming back to our own end,” Hartsburg said. “The biggest thing is that it allows us to play our relentless game and push the pace until it really becomes uncomfortable for the opposition.”
Whether or not the Otters get the success they’re looking for remains to be seen. But you can count on them being a tough out for any opponent that tries to look past them.
Here are some things to watch as the season gets going as well as some observations surrounding the team.
- We came in assuming Aidan Campbell is the clear-cut number-one goalie. According to Hartsburg, they’re not looking at it that way. The Otters have Campbell, Nolan Lalonde and Marshall Nicholls on the roster. Each will get their chance. “We have a high level of confidence in all three of our guys so right now there’s no real clear cut guy for us,” Hartsburg said of his goalies.
- All Otters are back from their respective camps. Saganiuk spent time at Toronto Maple Leafs’ camp. Connor Lockhart is back from Vancouver Canucks’ camp. D’Amato is back from both Vegas’ and Henderson’s camps and will meet the team in Flint for Saturday’s opener. So expect a full lineup available for that game.
- Injury wise, the team is relatively healthy at this point. Hartsburg said there are some bumps and bruises they are watching and will decide those player’s statuses on Saturday. But it is nothing major.
- The defense is going to be young. Spencer Sova is the clear number-one and is expected to play with Ryan Thompson. Christian Kyrou and Artyom Kulakov are expected to be a pair. Cam Morton is expected to play with either Sauder or Owain Johnston. The oldest defenseman of these seven is Morton then Thompson. They’re each a 2002-born. The rest are ’03, ’04 or ’05. This unit could have some growing pains but it’s a sign the future is bright with the team.
- Since it is the Otters’ 25th anniversary season, they plan on unveiling a lot of plans and promotions. The big game is Jan 29, 2022 when they’ll play their 25th anniversary game. Much more to come on this throughout the season but for now, you can see a list of things they have going on here and know there is much more to come later.
This prediciton is set to surely go wrong. But let’s try anyway. Given the talent around the league and the current state of the Otters, I’m more bullish about them in future seasons but there’s a chance they can make some noise this season. I think they’re good enough for the playoffs. This is dependent upon them getting the necessary goaltending from their trio.
This season is more about getting their young talent ready for the future. A successful season for them will be a playoff appearance coupled with measurable development. I think they can do that.
With that said, I have the Otters finishing seventh in the West and making the playoffs. Sova will be worth the price of admission given his skating and skill set. He projects as a first rounder in the 2022 NHL Draft.
The Otters also have more skill and depth in recent seasons. It’s an improvement from 2019-20 when they would have finished in the last playoff spot. Still there will be many long nights ahead for such a young team in key spots.
But yes. Finally. The Otters are back and are ready to attack the new season. We’ll see if their new look leads to immediate success in 2021-22. All things considered, it should.