Windsor Spitfires’ 2021-22 First Half Grades

Coming into the 2021-22 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) season, the Windsor Spitfires found themselves in a unique position. They were ranked eighth in the CHL Top 10 but, without playing a game and after tremendous roster turnover, there was far too much uncertainty. As they prepare for the second half, following a chaotic first half and well-earned Christmas break, they’re starting to hit their groove and have become solid students in the process.

Before the season started, you couldn’t blame new head coach Marc Savard or general manager Bill Bowler for scratching their heads a bit. While the team had plenty of NHL-calibre talent returning, they also had nearly a dozen new faces in the lineup. It took almost two months for the roster to not only come together but to fully adapt to a new post-COVID lifestyle – new systems, new faces, a new schedule, and new expectations. The result is sitting atop the Western Division standings in a tie with the Soo Greyhounds. The students are developing as the semester goes along, and it’s time for the first-half grades. 

Who has exceeded expectations? Who has a way to go? Here’s a look at everything.

Spitfires’ Offence Lights Western Conference Lamps

Coming into the season, the Spitfires had plenty of questions marks regarding their offence. The cancellation of 2020-21 saw several offensive weapons graduate, including forwards Egor Afanasyev, Curtis Douglas, and Tyler Angle, plus defenceman Connor Corcoran. The team still had Will Cuylle (New York Rangers), Wyatt Johnston (Dallas Stars), and 20-year-old Louka Henault but seemed to lack secondary scoring.

Wyatt Johnston Windsor Spitfires
Wyatt Johnston is having a breakout season with the Windsor Spitfires. (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Not anymore!

Savard took his time, found the right line combinations, and it’s paid off. Not only is the team second in the OHL Western Conference with 110 goals in 26 games (three goals behind the Greyhounds), but they’re on pace to be the highest-scoring Spitfires’ club since the 2009 and 2010 Memorial Cup champions (who averaged about 0.3 goals per game more). Who has stepped up? Almost everyone.

Forwards Kyle McDonald (26 points in 24 games), Matthew Maggio (24 points in 25 games), and Pasquale Zito (18 points in 23 games) have already bettered their 2019-20 point totals. Cuylle’s on pace for nearly 80 points, while Johnston’s 45 points in 30 games shatter his rookie totals and rank fourth in the league.

The rookies have stepped up, too. First-rounders Ryan Abraham (2020) and Ethan Miedema (2021) are both on pace for over 40 points, and most of the other first-years are seeing regular ice time.

While there’s still room for improvement, the offence has been a major highlight for the club. The veterans have stepped up and ensured the rookies don’t have to worry about producing every night. They can adjust to the league and treat this season as a marathon instead of a sprint.

Grade: A – From top-to-bottom, everyone has contributed and made games entertaining.

Spitfires’ Young Defence a Work in Progress

Like the offence, this was a big question mark at the start of the season. The team had veterans Henault and Grayson Ladd (combined 300+ games), but after losing three regulars (Corcoran, Thomas Stevenson, and Ruben Rafkin), the rest of the group was inexperienced, with newcomer Michael Renwick leading the rest with 77 games. They also acquired sophomore Nathan Ribau from the Sudbury Wolves in exchange for Dylan Robinson, but it was tit-for-tat, experience-wise. As a result, it’s taken time for everyone to gel.

Related: Q & A with 2020 NHL Draft Prospect Ruben Rafkin

The Spitfires have four rookies – James Jodoin (2019), Nicholas De Angelis (2020), Bronson Ride (2021), and Daniil Sobolev (2020 CHL Import and Montreal Canadiens’ prospect), but they’re going to take time to develop.

Daniil Sobolev, Windsor Spitfires
Defenceman Daniil Sobolev has been a treat for the Windsor Spitfires. (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

Through their first 26 games, the defence has been a rollercoaster. Some games were outstanding – such as allowing three goals in three games in early December – while others were ugly – allowing 33 goals in six games in late November.

Unfortunately, their offensive side is taking time to develop, too. While Henault has 23 points in 23 games, the rest of the group’s production has been sporadic at best, with Sobolev coming in second at 10 points in 22 games. Fortunately, the forwards have stepped up enough that players like Sobolev, De Angelis (six points in 26 games), and Ride (four points in 15 games) don’t have to worry about offence right now.

The group is trending upwards, but there’s still a long way to go. Patience is key here.

Grade: C+ – It would be unfair to give them a much lower or much higher grade. They started slowly but improved towards the Christmas break. This is worth revisiting later in the season.

Medina Leads Spitfires’ Jekyll-and-Hyde Goaltending

This should have been a strong area for the Spitfires. After beating Finnish goaltender Kari Piiroinen for the starter’s role in 2019-20, goaltender Xavier Medina was primed to finally take over the crease this season.

Not having a 2020-21 season was tough on everyone, but Medina came into this season ready to own his crease once-and-for-all. However, it’s been a rough go. He struggled from preseason, with a goals-against average (GAA) over six, and that carried over to the regular season. He just couldn’t find consistency. Spitfires’ rookie goaltender Kyle Downey (second-round, 2020) was highly-touted and ready to play when called upon. He got into a handful of games in October and November, showing real potential but also a very raw game.

Xavier Medina, Windsor Spitfires
Xavier Medina is eager for a big second half. (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

Then, the injury happened. Medina went down in mid-November and was out for nearly a month. Suddenly, Downey was in the crease, and the club had to call up 2019 Under-18 pick Matt Tovell from Junior B. This was a total toss-up.

Tovell saw action right away, earning a shutout win over the Flint Firebirds. However, it’s been a rough road since. The duo, combined with an inexperienced defence, consistently allowed more than four goals a game and had to rely on the offence to get the wins. Fortunately, Medina returned on Dec. 8 and has been a rock, allowing just three goals on 90 shots in his last three games. His GAA now stands at 2.71; it’s what the Spitfires have needed all along. The question is – can that continue?

Grade: C+ – When Medina and Downey are healthy and on, they’re very tough to beat. When there’s an issue, though, it’s wide-open pond hockey. This is another area to watch in the near future.

Savard Finding His Stride

Taking over for a long-term head coach is always a challenge. Now, add in a pandemic and significant roster turnover and welcome to Savard’s world. The club named him their new head coach in July, taking over for Trevor Letowski. While he immediately started working on his plan, it took him a while to find his stride. Going from the St Louis Blues in 2019-20 to his first junior job was no easy feat.

Everyone knew Savard would need leeway and he was given that. The plan was in place and he never wavered. The result was what you see today; the club sitting second in the conference in goals scored while eighth in the league on the power play (23.8 percent). He implemented systems that are proven and allow the forwards to use their creativity around the goal. It’s flat-out entertaining.

Andy Delmore, Marc Savard, and Jerrod Smith
Windsor Spitfires’ head coach Marc Savard (C) is seeing his hard work come to fruition. (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

How did he get like this? By finding forward pairings that work and sticking to them, such as Johnston and Cuylle. Each line has a pair and a third forward that rotates between the lines. He developed chemistry and found what works and what doesn’t. There were some definite trial-and-error moments early in the season, including forwards scratched despite only 11 dressed, but it’s all a part of the process. The results speak for themselves.

Grade: B+ – It’s been a slow, steady progression, but the fruits of his labour are starting to show. The club is fun to watch, and players are exceeding expectations. It’s hard to argue with his first half as head coach.

Bowler Needs to Make Mark

It’s crazy how much difference two years can make. For over a decade, former GM Warren Rychel didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger on a big trade if he felt the club needed a change. They were often multi-player, multi-pick deals, which were expected. In 2019, he stepped down, allowing his protege, Bowler, to take over.

Since then, Bowler’s been much quieter, almost to the point that fans don’t know how to react. He made two minor deals in 2019-20, involving defencemen Nathan Staios and Joseph Rupoli, but then stood pat at the deadline. That in itself was a major change from Rychel’s gusto approach in previous seasons.

Windsor Spitfires' GM Bill Bowler
Windsor Spitfires’ general manager Bill Bowler has some decisions to make. (Dave Jewell/THW)

This season, Bowler has done admirably, acquiring forwards Alex Christopoulos and Jacob Maillet in minor deals. The team was hit with several injuries, and he did what was necessary to shore up the forward units that were hit hard. That said, with the trade deadline coming up on Jan. 10 (as of now) and the team tied for first in the Western Division, he needs to pick a path and finally make his mark.

Grade: B – While it took some time, Bowler made small moves in the first half that were necessary, and they’ve paid off. To this point, that’s all you can ask of him. However, his time to shine is coming up, which will go a long way in determining a final season grade. Will he go bold like his mentor or continue down the path of easy-does-it?

Overall: Spitfires Building Momentum

The club was ranked eighth in the CHL Top 10 heading into the season. They had all kinds of potential, but the games still had to be played. As the season pushed forward, there was a serious adjustment period, and the club found itself near the bottom of the conference standings. Turnover, new coaches, and post-pandemic life is difficult to deal with at once. That’s where perseverance comes into play, though. The coaches have implemented systems, management has added where needed, and the players have developed the necessary chemistry to build the points. The Spitfires have hit their stride at a fantastic time, and they continue to build momentum.

Have there been issues? Of course. No team goes without them during a given weekend or month, let alone a first half. They get corrected or changed, and everyone pushes forward as best they can. There would be more concern if the team ignored the issues, stayed near the bottom of the standings and pretended like everything was peachy keen. There were ups and downs, but as we finish the Christmas break, the team is in a good position to have a strong second half.

Final First Half Grade: B+

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