Their season is over, the draft is complete and the buzz from the potential ownership change has simmered down to a dull roar. For the Windsor Spitfires, it’s time to settle into the offseason and evaluate how the past season has gone.
To say this season was a unique one would be an understatement. From the get-go, inconsistent hockey was the theme as the team looked to form its own identity during this new rebuild.
Earlier this season, we gave a report card after 20 games. We now sit down and give the Spitfires their final 2018-19 marks. Where did they make the grade? What about improvements? It’s time to clean up your desks as we salute the end of the season.
Veterans Hold Down Fort
When you’re rebuilding a club, having the proper veterans is essential. These are the guys who are entering at least their third season, so they know the lay of the land.
An ideal group puts up points and prevents them just as easily. While these veterans did well on the defensive end, putting up points was an issue.
Cole Purboo, 19, was the bright spot with 29 goals. He did it all: scored, played a 200-foot game and earned the alternate captain’s “A.” You couldn’t ask for much more.
Next was 19-year-old Curtis Douglas. The Dallas Stars prospect planted a career-high 27 goals in 66 games. While still learning consistency, Douglas proved he could control a game when he wanted to.
Captain Luke Boka took a step back offensively with just 32 points in 64 games (down from 40 points in 2017-18). However, he was his usual crafty self defensively, which was a big bonus on most nights.
Beyond the trio, the veterans were in tough with the puck.
Tyler Angle and Chris Playfair, both 18, missed significant time with injuries. Angle recovered to score a career-high 44 points but it wasn’t the season either had hoped for.
Two veterans brought in at the deadline – Chase Campbell and Ben Garagan – provided depth and energy but combined for just six points in 23 games.
Defensively, Sean Allen had just seven points but was a plus-13 and plenty of toughness. Joining him was 18-year-old Connor Corcoran, who had a career-high 32 points but a forgettable rating of minus-45.
Finally, in net, 20-year-old Colton Incze gave them some stability with rookie Kari Piiroinen, who’s just learning the OHL ropes.
While this wasn’t a high-offensive group, they provided more quality defence and sound leadership. Hopefully, next season will be a step up.
These Kids Are Alright
While you need quality veterans, the core of the rebuild is a strong group of youngsters and the Spitfires have just that.
General manager Warren Rychel has spent the last two seasons carefully building a roster that would make any fan base proud.
Leading the charge are 2018 first-rounders Jean-Luc Foudy (10th overall) and Will Cuylle (third overall from the Peterborough Petes). The two came advertised as an offensive duo, and after combining for 90 points this season, have shown they’re going to be just fine.
Joining them is 18-year-old forward Daniel D’Amico who, despite not scoring in his final 18 regular season games, more than doubled his point totals from his rookie season (19 to 46).
D’Amico, Foudy and Cuylle all finished in the top-six for Spitfires’ scoring.
Defensively, sophomores Nathan Staios and Louka Henault both smashed their point totals from a season ago. Henault went from two points to 22 while Staios climbed from 12 points to 29. Staios struggled with a minus-29 rating, but his offence was at least a step in the right direction.
Sophomore Grayson Ladd was also having a career season on both sides of the puck before going down with an injury in late January. Ladd came to the Spitfires in the Logan Brown deal in 2018 and is expected to be a key piece moving forward.
In goal, the Spitfires brought Piiroinen along at a near snail’s pace. The 17-year-old Finnish rookie had an up-and-down season but, given he’s playing for Finland at the World Under-18s, there’s lots of promise there.
Rychel has put together a feisty young core and they’ve already shown they’re worth watching over the next couple of seasons. The kids are going to be just fine.
Curious Coaching Creates Confusion
Let’s be honest – being a Spitfires coach this season wasn’t an easy job. Between balancing veterans and rookies, creating line chemistry and finding the right combos with special teams, it’s not a job that’s for the weak.
Head coach Trevor Letowski was joined on the bench by long-time associate coach Jerrod Smith and relative newcomer Mike Weber. The trio brings a unique combination of playing experience and coaching experience the rink.
There were some early positives, like getting the younger players plenty of ice time and showing some faith in Piiroinen. However, it also came with routine line shuffling, lack of on-ice chemistry and a stingy defence-first system that stifled creativity.
In December, they finally stuck with the same lines (Cuylle and Foudy were put together, too). You could see the chemistry on display during games. They were also creating more offensive chances, which everyone wanted to see.
As the season came down the stretch, though, the line shuffling continued and the systems were a game-by-game decision. Coming to the rink, nobody knew which Spitfires team they’d see that game. Was this the defence-first team or would we see a four-goal outburst?
Their special teams also struggled with their power play finishing at the fourth-lowest in the league at 18 percent and their penalty kill dipping below 80 percent (79.9) for the first time since 2015-16. What should have been rock-solid special teams had become white knuckle.
Nobody believes this was an easy job, but frustration grew as the season moved along. There were more questions than answers.
This coaching staff has plenty of experience and knowledge. You want to give them the benefit of the doubt. However, when you see the same mistakes over-and-over again, you have to scratch your head and wonder what’s coming next.
The Management Rollercoaster
While the overall rebuild plan is unfolding as he wants, it’s safe to say Rychel wouldn’t mind a re-do or two if given the chance.
Coming into the season, Rychel brought in Foudy and Cuylle, had his young crop ready to work and was prepared to make deals that strengthen the draft cupboards and the future. Until January, Rychel’s resume was impressive. He dealt star goaltender Michael DiPietro to the Ottawa 67’s for several picks, made necessary changes to the roster and seemed poised for another (final?) rebuild.
It’s the period from January to now that has left a question mark, though.
When you deal players off a roster, you create a void. If you don’t fill that void, it’s tough to keep an energetic, healthy club. Rychel moved players out, but lacked bodies coming in. After the trade deadline, the Spitfires had no healthy scratches and no safety net.
The team lost Ladd and forward Kyle McDonald to injuries in January, leaving them shorthanded. When Rychel didn’t bring anyone onto the roster on a permanent basis, they had to work with what they had.
It created a very short lineup in the toughest part of the season and, by the playoffs, they ran out of steam.
We also can’t ignore the controversy with the new potential owners. It could turn out fine but the optics were poor at-best. However, Rychel and his team get credit for telling the public what was happening.
Rychel will go down as one of the better general managers in Spitfires’ history. However, he’d likely prefer re-dos on a couple of moves this season, such as bringing in proper depth and changing how the 2019 drafts unfolded.
Hopefully, Rychel has a chance to get another crack at an “A” grade.
Verdict: A Cautious Optimism
There are two extremes in the sports world – those who are all about sunshine and rainbows and those who focus on the doom and gloom. The Spitfires’ reality is found somewhere in the middle.
With the young roster ready to break out in 2019-20, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic. This might be the best group the Spitfires have seen since the Taylor Hall and Adam Henrique days. They have offensive potential, are hungry and want to bring this city a fourth Mastercard Memorial Cup.
Does that mean it’s all great? No.
There have been questionable decisions. There has been controversy. Heads were scratched and faces palmed. When mistakes are made, and nothing changes, you have to ask yourself why. If parts are broke, you fix them. That’s part of hockey.
This season went how it should have gone, in terms of the long-term goal. The future looks very good. Now, they just need to fix the question marks and uncertainties. That’s not impossible.