The Erie Otters open Training Camp for the 2023-24 OHL season on Sunday afternoon at Erie Insurance Arena. Over the next three days, the team will engage in both practices and scrimmages with a total of four scrimmages planned on Monday and Tuesday. Their first preseason game is on Sept 1 when they host the Brantford Bulldogs.
As the Otters get ramped up for the new season, they face several key questions. Today, we look at five questions facing them in 2023-24. The answers to these questions will go a long way in determining how their season will go.
Stan Butler’s Impact
For my money, this is going to be one of the biggest questions facing the Otters in 2023-24. How will the players respond to Butler’s style of coaching?
Butler brings a no nonsense approach while being honest with where players stand. He also now has a full offseason and Training Camp to be able to implement what he wants. Players will need to come into camp ready to go from the opening whistle.
Butler’s teams have traditionally been known as a defense first team. That won’t change now. But what doesn’t get enough attention is how much puck possession matters. With a revamped team up front, the Otters appear to be in better position to play a puck possession game.
This much we can count on. Butler will demand the very best from the players. Hard work and doing things the right way will be at the core of how they operate. The question will be who completely buys into this approach and who could fall behind? In talking to the players last season, everyone seemed excited to have the chance to play for Butler. Now we’ll get to see it play out.
The Otters enter the new season with a good amount of center depth. Carey Terrance and Pano Fimis project to be the top-two centers once everyone is back from NHL camps. The trade for Fimis last season had this season and possibly next in mind.
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This depth should allow the Otters to be more dangerous offensively. That’s where the question comes in. Can this re-worked forward core reach their potential? First-overall CHL Import Draft pick Martin Misiak should slot into the top-six right away. A potential first line of Terrance, Misiak and Malcolm Spence could be hard to stop. But the Otters do have other ways of deploying their top six. Speaking of Spence…
Malcolm Spence Breakout?
Is 2023-24 the season in which Spence breaks out? There are many, myself included, who think that’s a strong possibility. The question here becomes how will he handle higher expectations?
Spence put together an impressive rookie season that saw him score 16 goals and 42 points. He doesn’t turn 17 until Sept 22. A strong argument could be made that he’s already the best forward on the Otters given his overall skill set.
Spence put that skill on display at the recently completed Hlinka/Gretzky tournament. After shining in key defensive situations, he stole the puck and scored the golden goal on a breakaway. That goal could be a sign of things to come with the Otters. He’s not draft eligible until 2025 thanks to his late birthday.
Teams are going to know to focus on Spence in their game planning. How he continues to adapt to the league and the way opponents try to shut him down will be worth watching. Don’t be surprised if he gets a letter on his jersey as soon as this season. While the skill on the ice is evident, his leadership off the ice is even more impressive. All the elements are there for a huge breakout. Now we’ll see if that is realized.
Here’s the other massive question facing the Otters in 2023-24. Can the defense and goaltending each take the next step? With Butler in charge, each will certainly get their chance to improve.
It’s generally expected the defense will be led by Owain Johnston and Spencer Sova. They’ll be joined by Alexis Daviault and first-overall pick Matthew Schaefer among others. One thing immediately jumps out. Speed. In Sova and Schaefer, you get two of the better skaters on the blue line. Nathan Sauder and George Alboim are each ready to take the next step as well. Under Butler’s approach, this unit should see improvement. But just how much improvement will there be?
Then we get to the goaltending. It’s well documented that there were struggles as a whole last season. Nolan Lalonde will be back to put last season behind him. Assuming a more structured team in front of them, the goalies should see less quality shots against. Another question to watch will be how the rotation will work with both Kyle Downey and Jacob Gibbons in the fold. Collectively this group needs to be a difference maker for the Otters to get to where they want to go.
Under the Radar Players to Watch
You know who the stars are. But which players could rise up and be a difference maker for the Otters this season that might not be getting the attention? A couple of names stick out for me.
The first two are Kaleb Smith and Bruce McDonald. They each have a chance to elevate their games and solidify the bottom six. While they won’t light up the scoreboard every night, they could score at key moments and make the plays that won’t hit the scoresheet.
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The other player I’m curious about is second-round pick Wesley Royston. As a traditional power forward, he plays a style of game that is hard to play against. While he’d need to adjust to the OHL, he could be someone who is a day one starter and can start to impose himself. The Otters were very excited to draft him. Whether it’s now or a little bit later, we will hear about Royston.
Who else will rise up and make an impact? Camp will start to answer some of those questions. The Otters believe they are trending in the right direction after making some changes and then winning the right to draft first overall in the OHL Draft and CHL Import Draft. If they can get some good answers to these key questions, a good 2023-24 season could be in the cards which is something everyone in the organization would welcome.