Hockey season is back! Less than three months after their whirlwind run to the 2021-22 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) Championship, the Windsor Spitfires are ready to hit the ice for their 2022-23 training camp. While it’s been a short summer, a lot has changed and it’s creating some intriguing stories as we get ready for the home opener.
When the Spitfires left the ice following their Game 7 loss to the Hamilton Bulldogs in mid-June, there was plenty to celebrate after a historic season. However, while the players and fans enjoyed the success, team executives went to work. Now, after one of the shortest summers in team history, training camp begins on Thursday morning. In total, 57 players will head to the WFCU Centre in Windsor – 31 forwards, 17 defencemen, and nine goaltenders – and there are plenty of storylines to look at from coaches to goaltending and free agents. Let’s dive into them.
5. Can Marc Savard Repeat the Magic?
In August 2021, former OHL and NHL great Marc Savard left his job as an assistant coach with the St. Louis Blues to take on the task of being the Spitfires’ bench boss. Coming off the COVID-19 stoppage was tough enough, but adding in a new roster and a different brand of hockey created an even bigger challenge. He had big skates to fill too, as he took over for multi-season coach Trevor Letowski, who got the call from the Montreal Canadiens in July 2021.
One of the issues that had long plagued the team was not making the second round of the playoffs since 2011. Even when they won the 2017 Memorial Cup as hosts, they lost in the first round to the London Knights in Game 7. The hope was that Savard could get them over the hump. Anything extra was just icing on the cake.
While it took a while for Savard and his coaches to get settled in, once that happened, it was tough to stop them. They had the proper lines, off-ice chemistry, and a family-like cohesion they hadn’t seen in a decade. This group played for each other and their coaches and it showed every game. The result was a club that not only broke the playoff series drought but also made it all the way to the OHL Championship. Expectations just went up!
The question now is – can Savard repeat that atmosphere? Everything last season seemed to just click; you could feel it whenever you stepped into the rink. That doesn’t mean it’ll happen again, though. Can the coaches find the right ingredients to repeat the cohesion? With so many new faces, it’s going to be difficult, at least at the start.
4. Will a Free Agent Earn a Spot?
When an OHL camp opens, the majority of the players are brought in through trades or drafting. Each season, though, some are invited as free agents and hope to just make an impression on the organization. Since 2013-14, the Spitfires have had a handful of players come to camp as invites and they impress management so much that they’ve stuck around. For a stretch, it almost became their thing.
From 2013-17, thanks to then-general manager Warren Rychel, the Spitfires had forward Cristiano DiGiacinto, defencemen Jalen Chatfield and Austin McEneny, along with goaltender Mario Culina all make an impact on their roster. The group was also part of their 2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup Championship. In 2017-18, they signed forward Jake Smith and he played well but, after him, the dry spell started… until last season.
Enter 18-year-old Oliver Peer. He came from the Toronto Jr. Canadiens U18 AAA team and simply forced the brass to give him a roster spot. While he wasn’t the most offensively gifted player on the team, he could score on occasion, was reliable at both ends, and was well-liked in the room. The question now is – can GM Bill Bowler find a way to repeat Rychel’s success?
There are three forwards and a defenceman on the camp roster as free agents. While there could be a few spots open that will likely go to draft picks, you can’t rule out a free agent earning a spot or getting signed and sent to the Lasalle Vipers Jr. B (Spitfires’ affiliate).
Coming to an OHL camp as a young walk-on and earning a spot is a real challenge. You’re up against the odds from the start. It’s not impossible, though, and the Spitfires’ history proves that. Let’s see if someone can conquer the beast again.
3. A Crowded Crease
This is going to be one of the more intriguing stories until it’s settled – the battle in goal.
Coming into last season, the goaltending situation was pretty cut-and-dry. Veteran Xavier Medina would start while 2020 second-round pick Kyle Downey would finally get his chance for regular ice. However, it went upside down before anyone could blink.
Medina was in-and-out of the lineup all season, dealing with inconsistency, injuries, COVID-19, and undisclosed issues late in the season. At first, the Spitfires thought Downey could take over (along with 2019 Under-18 pick Matt Tovell). That didn’t go well; the duo was too raw. Instead, Bowler acquired 19-year-old Mathias Onuska from the London Knights at the deadline. He was stuck behind star goaltender Brett Brochu and just wanted a chance to prove himself.
After the deadline, it became Onuska and Medina (Downey sent to Jr. B), until the new acquisition started getting more ice. That set off fireworks.
In early March, Medina was scratched for a few games in a row and, when asked about it, Savard simply said that Bowler was taking care of it. From there, Onuska started the majority of the games through the regular season and playoffs. Medina was strong when called upon, but it was never quite the same.
That brings us to this year’s training camp – Medina, Onuska, and Downey are all there, along with six other goaltenders. Only one of the veterans will earn a spot and even Downey’s not a guarantee if another rookie outperforms him. With so much controversy and confusion last season, this is an area that needs to be settled quickly.
2. Five Overagers, Three Spots
We just mentioned that only one of Onuska and Medina will earn a spot this season. Part of that is because of an OHL rule.
Teams in the OHL are only allowed to dress three “overagers” (20-year-olds/2002-born) for any given game. Last season, they had seven 2002-born players to finish the season. We know that captain Will Cuylle is headed to the pros to try and crack the New York Rangers roster. If he can’t, he’ll be in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Hartford Wolf Pack. It’s a big loss for the Spitfires, as he became everything they envisioned. Another option, defenceman Nathan Ribau, was traded to the Niagara IceDogs earlier this summer.
That leaves the club with five overagers coming into camp – forwards Josh Currie and Matthew Maggio, defenceman Michael Renwick, and Onuska and Medina in goal. It’s likely that one forward, one defenceman, and one goaltender will take up the three spots.
Renwick is a prime candidate for a leadership spot this season and, with three defencemen gone from their playoff run, the Spitfires need all the help they can get back there. Maggio was drafted by the New York Islanders last month, but he could earn a spot if he doesn’t sign in the pros. If he doesn’t come back, that’s where Currie will fit in. You can’t go wrong with either choice.
This will be intriguing to see how it all unfolds. We may not have answers until sometime early in the season, though.
1. Spitfires’ Sophomores Stepping Up
While several veterans are heading into their final season, a handful of sophomores are looking to take control and take the next step in their development. Last season, the Spitfires brought on nine rookies. Some took on bigger roles, while others got their feet wet and are looking at this season as a huge opportunity to make their mark on the team.
First-round picks Ryan Abraham (OHL 2020) and Ethan Miedema (OHL 2021), along with 2020 second-rounder Nicholas DeAngelis, all played important roles during their run to the OHL Championship. Coming into this camp, though, it’s a chance for all three to take control and show how much they have developed.
For the others, such as 2021 second-rounder Bronson Ride, fourth-rounder Christopher O’Flaherty, and 2020 ninth-rounder Wylie Birkett, this is the opportunity they’ve waited for since last season’s camp.
The 6-foot-6, 200-pound Ride showed some offence, good use of his size, and an eagerness to learn last season. He was the seventh defenceman in 2021-22 but there’s no reason he can’t take a top-four spot in 2022-23. O’Flaherty had five points last season after 44 goals in 46 games with the Chicago Young Americans 15U AAA in 2020-21 and the Spitfires will be counting on him to create offence. At 6-foot-6, 210-pounds, Birkett split time between the Spitfires and the Vipers. While he wasn’t overly offensive, his size and heart were big factors. As a result, he could see a spot out of camp.
Coming into this season’s training camp, there’s plenty of hope and confidence, but also lots of question marks. The team is hoping to build off last season’s success and the outcome of these stories will be worth watching as camp unfolds.
A nearly life-long resident of Windsor, ON, I graduated from St. Clair College (Journalism) and University of Windsor (Communications) and have attended Windsor Spitfires’ (and OHL) games for 30-years. My areas include multimedia journalism and photography.