Every season, the OHL has teams or players that exceed expectations. Whether it’s because of increased playing time with players gone to NHL camps, or teams gelling at just the right time, it’s exciting hockey and fans can’t get enough. The 2016-17 OHL season is just a month old but there are already a handful of surprises that are getting attention.
Here is a look at five of those surprises from the OHL’s Western Conference as we come up to the one-month mark of the 2016-17 season:
Flint on Fire
1. The Flint Firebirds
They debuted in the OHL in 2015-16, after moving from Plymouth, MI, and showed immediate struggles. Their final regular season record was 20-42-4-2. Off-ice issues really hurt the club, both on and off the ice, and it led to significant management and player changes. Now, one month into the 2016-17 season, they’re 5-4-0-1 in 10 games and showing remarkable improvement. Off the ice, they’re led by former Hamilton/Belleville coach George Burnett, who took over as Flint general manager, as well as former OHL players Ryan Oulahen and Eric Wellwood, as head coach and assistant coach, respectively. On the ice, the trio of forwards Ryan Moore, Nicholas Caamano and Luke Kirwan have combined for 22 goals and 24 assists in 10 games (seven games for Kirwan). There’s a renewed sense of optimism in the mid-Michigan city, which is sorely needed.
Forwards Finding Their Groove
2. Cole Carter – Forward (Windsor Spitfires)
Drafted by Windsor in the fourth round of the 2015 OHL Priority Selection, the 1998-born Carter came advertised as a kid who was ready for the OHL immediately. Carter spent the 2014-15 season tearing up the EOJHL with the Stittsville Rams, scoring 63 points in 36 games. Being a year older than most taken during the 2015 draft, fans figured he would step in and make an impact fairly soon. He didn’t disappoint with 34 points in 68 games. With a 5-foot-9, 155-pound frame, it was tough to determine how he would handle the rigors of the league, even with a year under his belt. He has passed the test with flying colours. Since several Spitfires’ forwards have missed time this season with NHL camps, Carter has shown he can lead the charge. In nine games, he has 12 points and isn’t backing down. He bulked up to 5 feet 10 inches, 170 pounds and has an energizer-bunny mentality to him. He’s proving on a regular basis that he belongs in discussions about top-six forwards, even with the team going to the Memorial Cup this season.
3. Petrus Palmu – Forward (Owen Sound Attack)
The Attack selected the diminutive Finnish forward during the 2014 CHL Import Draft. The 5-foot-7-inch, 170-pound Palmu was offensively dynamic for Helsinki Jokerit U18s in 2013-14 with 54 points in 31 games. He came to Owen Sound for the 2014-15 season and, after two seasons, had 91 points in 114 games. This summer, he found that extra gear and it is paying off. While he flew a bit under the radar with the Attack during his first two seasons, he is taking control in 2016-17. In his first 10 games, he has 10 goals and seven assists for a slick 17 points. Palmu is one of the older forwards on the Attack and he’s taking the team under his wing. As his leadership and production continue to rise, so will the people taking notice. The Finns have a word – “Sisu” – which is bravery, perseverance and resilience. While Palmu isn’t the biggest guy on the ice, he certainly has Sisu and it shows every game.
Here is a clip of Palmu scoring four goals in an OHL game near the end of the 2015-16 season:
Two Crease Kings
4. Joseph Raaymakers – Goaltender (Sault Greyhounds)
Patience has paid off for the 1998-born Raaymakers. The Sault Greyhounds selected him in the second round of the 2014 OHL Priority Selection. However, the Hounds had their man in net for the 2014-15 season with 1996-born Brandon Halverson, a New York Rangers prospect. Raaymakers learned from Halverson, bided his time and is now ready to take control of the blue ice. As the owner of the crease, he has answered the call to near perfection. In seven games during the 2016-17 season, he has five wins, a goals-against average of 2.79 and a save percentage of .911. His first two games of this season saw him stop 62-of-65 shots on the road against Windsor and London, both of which were Greyhounds wins. It’s been a much-needed season so far for Raaymakers and one that could shoot him into the limelight.
Here is a clip of Raaymakers talking to NHL.com before the NHL Combine in June:
5. Troy Timpano – Goaltender (Erie Otters)
The 1997-born Timpano has been an interesting case for OHL fans since he started in the league. Playing for the Sudbury Wolves from 2013-16, Timpano showed flashes of greatness but was never able to get over that hump. During the 2015-16 season, he played 35 games, had a GAA of 4.74 and a save percentage of .878. The question was whether it was a poor Wolves defence or if Timpano was simply average. Timpano was dealt to Erie this summer to take over from the long-time Otters’ star Devin Williams, who graduated. Though he’s only played four games this season, Timpano is showing he is the real deal with a 4-0 record, GAA of 1.50 and a save percentage of .943. While it’s quite early, it’s the start Timpano needed to prove critics wrong while getting his name in the discussion of elite OHL goaltenders.
It’s still very early in the OHL season but it’s always entertaining to see players and teams emerge that you may not have expected. That’s the beauty of junior hockey; a player or team can break out at any time and it brings fans to the edge of their seats. These five surprises have made the OHL’s Western Conference that much more exciting this season. Their success can only benefit the league as the season goes along.
I’m a resident of Windsor, ON and a graduate of St Clair College Journalism and New Media program as well as the University of Windsor Communication, Media, and Film program. I’ve been a junior hockey fan (specifically the Windsor Spitfires) for 30-years and have written about/photographed junior hockey since about 2005.