Taking your game to the next level is difficult in the best of circumstances. Add in a pandemic and it becomes a monumental task. After 500-plus days without an Ontario Hockey League (OHL) regular-season game, the Windsor Spitfires are gearing up for 2021-22, and that means players need to find their rhythm again. For three sophomores, it’s also a chance to show that they’re ready for the next step.
Going from rookie to veteran isn’t just a matter of flipping the calendar but pushing forward in your development. It’s showing that you’ve worked hard, honed your skills, and are ready to show you can be a regular contributor. Some players have difficulty making that transition, and it could take a season or two to find their game. However, other players find that new gear immediately and become outstanding social media content. It’s always neat seeing which players can level up right away.
Let’s take a look at three Spitfires who could be in line for a breakout season.
Spitfires’ Breakout Candidates
3. Goaltender Xavier Medina
This is the situation that Spitfires’ goaltender Xavier Medina has waited three years for.
A club’s third-round pick in 2018, Medina saw the crease was full with starter Michael DiPietro and rookie Kari Piiroinen, a Finnish import. Instead, he waited a season, saw DiPietro get traded, and then joined at the start of 2019-20.
Medina and Piiroinen battled tooth-and-nail for the starter’s role, which eventually went to Medina. Unfortunately, COVID-19 hit in March 2020, and the league had to shut down. Soon after the season ended, Piiroinen left the club and signed back home with Tappara Hockey in Liiga.
A year-and-a-half later, Medina owns the crease, but now he has a giant task in front of him — proving he can be the guy for an entire season. His stats in 2019-20 were reasonable for a rookie – a .886 save percentage and a 3.46 goals against average. However, if he wants to lead this young team to any playoff success, it’s time to show he can push his game up a notch.
The 19-year-old Detroit-native showed poise, patience, and impressive maturity when he last wore the Spitfires’ jersey. While he had holes in his game, he was clearly confident between the pipes. Now, he has the chance to take his game to a new level while mentoring 2021 second-round pick Kyle Downey in the process. This could be a perfect scenario for both, and the club would be all the better for it.
2. Forward Pasquale Zito
When former Spitfires general manager Warren Rychel selected Pasquale Zito in the second round in 2019, he saw an energetic, 200-foot forward that oozed potential. It’s worked out pretty well.
Zito came to the club with the reputation of doing anything he could for his team. Need a big goal? He’s got you! What about a late-game defensive stop? Sure thing! That monster hit or defence of a teammate to start the game? Of course! While he’s not big physically — just 6-foot, 174-pounds — his heart is another story. The Ottawa-native is showing heart-and-soul tendencies that every club covets. His teammates appreciate him, and the fans have jumped on board. The Detroit Red Wings saw something in him, too, selecting him in the sixth round of the 2021 NHL Draft.
With 13 points in 46 games in 2019-20, plus a couple of tilts to help his linemates, he’s just starting to skim the surface of what could be a huge OHL career. With limited playing time in his rookie season, any comparisons are difficult to make. However, all of the tools are all there and, with increased responsibility, this has the makings of a big season for Zito.
1. Forward Wyatt Johnston
Dallas Stars fans are going to be keeping a close eye on Wyatt Johnston this season.
When the Spitfires selected the 5-foot-11, 151-pound center sixth overall in 2019, there were some critics who questioned Johnston being taken so high. He had a slow start, but a trip to the World Under-17 challenge, where he tallied five points in five games for Canada Red, changed everything.
Johnston came back to the Spitfires with confidence and quietly finished the season with 30 points in 53 games. He wasn’t a flashy guy, but his vision and intelligence regularly made him one step ahead of the defenders.
While the OHL canceled its 2020-21 season due to the pandemic, Johnston was a part of Team Canada for the World Under-18s. He put up four points in seven games, but it was his overall game that drew attention, doing anything and everything his team asked. The tournament gave scouts the view they wanted. Originally rated anywhere from the end of the first round into the third round, the Stars liked what they saw and chose him 23rd overall in July.
Johnston came to the Spitfires’ camp earlier in September with a renewed energy. He has the confidence and drive to prove the sixth selection was worth it. While 30 points are impressive for a rookie, we could see a sophomore explosion from the now-6-foot-2, 178-pounder. With numerous graduations during the pandemic, he’s a leader on this club and watching him continue his development is going to be a treat for fans at the WFCU Centre.
Sophomore Spitfires Eager to Prove
The COVID-19 pandemic was difficult for everyone in the OHL. Nobody knew what was happening or when the next steps would take place. The time off only created a hunger for the players to show how much they’ve developed. They’re chomping at the bit to prove that not only do they belong, but they can thrive in a league that is seeing incredible change. These three players, in particular, are a key part of the Spitfires’ future, and it starts with a breakout season. Hockey is not only back at the WFCU Centre, but it’s about to be a whole lot of fun, too!
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.