When the clock struck noon on Tuesday, Jan. 10, officially signalling the 2022-23 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) trade deadline, it started the unofficial second half. Windsor Spitfires general manager Bill Bowler did everything in his power to put his team in a position to win. Now, it’s up to the club to make it happen, and that creates five great storylines along the way.
Coming into the trade deadline, the Spitfires had several goals they wanted to tackle including forward depth, a strong defenceman, and, maybe most importantly, keeping the locker room cohesion that they treasure. It’s a tricky mix to find, but after four trades that saw five veterans enter and three leave (along with significant draft picks), they think they have what it takes to not only return to the OHL Championship but take the title. Last season’s loss to the Hamilton Bulldogs in Game 7 is fresh in their minds and they’re not playing around.
5 Stories to Watch After Trade Deadline
As the chaotic second half begins, here are five stories to watch.
5. Costanzo and Onuska Battling for Crease
This has become a bigger story than anyone anticipated. Coming into the season, it was clear that 20-year-old Mathias Onuska was the Spitfires’ starting goaltender and 17-year-old Joey Costanzo would back him up. The veteran was a key piece to the club’s 2021-22 OHL Championship appearance so it was all falling into place… until it wasn’t.
As this season has progressed, the whole situation has been turned upside down. Onuska has struggled to find last season’s consistency while Costanzo has been nothing short of lights out, bringing back memories of 2015 second-round pick Michael DiPietro, who was a young star himself.
There was talk around the WFCU Centre that the club could upgrade before the deadline, which would have ended Onuska’s time with the Spitfires. However, Bowler kept the pair together and the club remains hopeful that the veteran can find his way. However, as of Jan. 19, the two goaltenders have been statistically polar opposites. Costanzo has a 13-2-0-1 record in 21 games, sporting a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.86 and a save percentage (SV%) of .911. Onuska is 13-7-3-0 through 23 games with a 4.14 GAA and .870 SV%, both of which are worse than last season.
This becomes a big story heading into the second half. Will the 2023 NHL Draft-eligible Costanzo take over permanently or can Onuska find the consistency that fans saw last season? While the former seems more likely, nobody would complain with a solid 1A/1B tandem heading into the playoffs. Keep your eyes on this one; it’s bound to be a ride!
4. Can the Cohesive Room Continue?
Approaching the deadline, one of the biggest concerns the Spitfires had was making sure any upgrades in the room didn’t clash with their cohesion. It’s one of the tightest groups the club has seen in a long time and any stick in the spokes could cause issues.
Bowler brought in five players — forwards Brett Harrison, Shane Wright, and Aidan Castle, plus defencemen Rodwin Dionicio and Jacob Holmes — who he felt could add to the ice and the room. Holmes was captain of the Sudbury Wolves before the trade while Wright captained Team Canada at the 2023 World Juniors and the Kingston Frontenacs in 2021-22.
On the Thursday after the deadline, head coach Marc Savard said it’s been a good start. Holmes already has an “A” on his jersey and the team has called him “a great human.” One reason he was given an “A” was because second-year forward Ryan Abraham, who started the season as an alternate, went down with an injury in late November. While the club is hopeful he will return soon, Savard said it gives them a chance to put the letter on different players to see who fits it. That can only benefit the club down the stretch as there will always be a strong voice and leader in the room.
All five players seem to be happy to be with the Spitfires and the feeling appears to be mutual. While it’s going to take some time for everyone to properly gel, the end result should be worth the wait.
3. Will Wright Live up to Hype?
When you say Wright’s name, a lot of things will pop into your head — Captain Canada, Seattle Kraken prospect, OHL Exceptional Status recipient in 2019 (can enter the OHL Draft a season early), etc. His resume is the stuff of dreams and his production in the OHL (160 points in 121 games with the Frontenacs from 2019-2022) is jaw-dropping. However, with all of this comes one word: hype.
Before the Spitfires made the trade, questions were asked. Was he that missing piece? Was he worth 17-year-old Ethan Miedema (2023 NHL Draft) and the multiple high picks? Was he going to fit in with an already tight locker room?
From the moment Wright walked into the WFCU Centre after the trade, he made it about the team. During the Jan. 10 press conference, he said he talked with Bowler and Savard about the team, its culture, and how they see him fitting in and developing. He also saw what the coaches did with their 2019 first-rounder Wyatt Johnston, who exploded for 124 points in 68 games last season on route to making the Dallas Stars this season. It was the perfect situation for the Kraken prospect.
Now that Wright has settled in, he appears genuinely happy and acts like a pro. The room has made him (and the other acquisitions) one of their own and, through his first three games, he has four goals and two assists on a line with Harrison and captain Matthew Maggio. The puzzle pieces are simply fitting together.
Wright has all the tools to make this a successful run, both on and off the ice. If he can keep up his production, while helping build the room, this is going to be a solid story to watch as the playoffs approach.
2. Rookie Ice Time
When a team brings in five veterans for a playoff run, you’re going to have changes in the lineup. Unfortunately, that tends to mean less time for the rookies.
This season, Spitfires’ 2022 OHL Draft rookies, forwards Liam Greentree and AJ Spellacy plus defenceman Anthony Cristoforo, have all worked tirelessly to earn spots in the lineup. The results speak for themselves as the group has combined for 59 points, led by Cristoforo’s 24 points in 34 games. On Jan. 8, just before the deadline, Savard said the trio could be “the best 1-2-3 from the draft” and that made life easier on Bowler and director of scouting Frank Evola. Since there wasn’t as much pressure to hit a home run with the 2023 OHL Draft, they could move picks out in trades. They did just that; currently, the club has their first-rounder but won’t pick again until the sixth round.
Savard added that bringing in the veterans doesn’t take anything away from the rookies. In fact, being able to put out all four lines is a luxury that the coaches are excited about. In the same interview, Greentree said that Savard has always rewarded hard work with ice time. If you put the effort in, you’ll see the ice. The rookie was given a shot on the top line with Maggio and veteran Jacob Maillet in late November and ran with it. While he might slip down the lineup a bit in the second half, he, Spellacy, and Cristoforo have earned the coach’s trust and that will prove valuable in crunch time.
1. Defending the Conference Crown
At the start of 2021-22, the Spitfires knew they had a roster with potential. When you feature players like Johnston, Maggio, and Will Cuylle (New York Rangers), plus an offensive players coach like Savard, it’s a recipe for success. With a few additions at the trade deadline, the club came together perfectly and went on an unexpected run to the OHL Championship, eventually losing to the Bulldogs in Game 7. This season, they want their revenge. However, that’s far easier said than done.
The Spitfires are currently in a battle with the Saginaw Spirit and London Knights for the top seed in the Western Conference. While the Spirit didn’t load up at the deadline, the Knights did, along with the Sarnia Sting (current fifth seed) and Kitchener Rangers (current ninth seed). In fact, the Sting made multiple blockbuster trades in hopes of getting out of the first round for just the second time since 2007-08 (lost in the second round). While Savard’s club is in a good spot, they can’t take any of it for granted.
With four more games against the Knights, 20 overall against a very tough Western Conference, and road games against the Ottawa 67’s, Peterborough Petes, and North Bay Battalion, who all loaded up in the Eastern Conference, points will be precious. This is why Bowler made his moves; the second half could be considered its own season. If the Spitfires want to defend their regular season and playoff conference crowns, it’s time to buckle up and prove they’re worthy. On paper, they’re one of the best teams in the league. However, games aren’t won on a notepad.
This should be an exciting stretch for the Spitfires. It’s time to pack the WFCU Centre and watch as these five stories unfold!
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.