In the Ontario Hockey League, each season has some level of importance, such as going for a title run, rebuilding a roster, or something in the middle. It’s no different for the Windsor Spitfires as they enter the 2019-20 season with one target – ending their not-so-enjoyable playoff streak.
Last season, the Spitfires scratched and clawed their way to the eighth playoff spot, only to lose in four games to the top-seeded London Knights. It left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, but it also fueled the motivation. The Spitfires haven’t won a playoff series since 2010-11 and that’s on the minds of the entire organization.
With the team gaining that valuable
Record: 25-33-5-5 – fourth in OHL West Division, eighth in OHL Western Conference
Goals Scored – Goals Against: 216-257
Playoffs: Lost 4-0 to No. 1 seed London Knights in Quarter Finals.
Cole Purboo – 68 games, 29 goals, 26 assists, 55 points
Curtis Douglas – 66 games, 27 goals, 26 assists, 53 points
Jean-Luc Foudy – 63 games, 8 goals, 41 assists, 49 points
Ben Garagan – Forward – Nipissing University
Chase Campbell – Forward – University of Waterloo
Jordan Frasca – Forward – Kingston Frontenacs OHL
Sean Allen – Defenceman – Wichita Thunder ECHL
Nathan Staios – Defenceman – Hamilton Bulldogs OHL
Colton Incze – Goaltender – Brantford 99ers Jr. B
Forwards Finding Their Footing
Egor Afanasyev – USHL via trade with Ottawa 67’s
Matthew Maggio – Ottawa 67’s
Wyatt Johnston – first round 2019 OHL Priority Selection
Pasquale Zito – second round 2019 OHL Priority Selection
Let’s be realistic – you can’t score 188 goals in the OHL regular season and expect success. That’s what last season’s forward group managed and it showed in the standings. However, management w
Former Spitfires’ general manager Warren Rychel pulled no punches in the off-season. First, he snagged Wyatt Johnston and Pasquale Zito in April’s Priority Selection. Johnston had 48 goals last season for the Toronto Marlboros Minor Midget while Zito is a two-way forward who scored four points in four preseason games.
Then Rychel got his big fish in June – Egor Afanasyev. Rychel acquired the rights to the 6-foot-3, 210-pound sniper from the Ottawa 67’s in the Michael DiPietro trade in December. Afanasyev, 18, scored 27 goals in 58 games for the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL in 2018-19 and was selected by the Nashville Predators in the second round in June.
Rychel also brought in 17-year-old Matthew Maggio from the 67’s. While had had just seven points last season, he’s already shown some swagger with five points in the preseason.
These four replace Jordan Frasca, who was dealt to the Kington Frontenacs, as well as Ben Garagan and Chase Campbell, both of whom graduated.
Afanasyev, Johnston, Zito, and Maggio join a forward group that’s very similar to 2018-19. It includes captain Luke Boka, 29-goal scorer Cole Purboo, Dallas Stars’ prospect Curtis Douglas, and highly-touted 2020 NHL Draft prospects Jean-Luc Foudy and Will
With the key additions, the forward units have been built for speed, offence, and depth. Last season’s 188 goals should be a distant memory. It’s a group the fans will be proud to come and watch.
Defence: The Spitfires’ First X-Factor
James Jodoin – fourth round 2019 OHL Priority Selection
Ruben Rafkin – first round 2019 CHL Import Draft
Despite trading 18-year-old Nathan Staios to the Hamilton Bulldogs and the graduation of gritty 21-year-old Sean Allen, the core of the group remains in-tact. Thomas Stevenson, Louka Henault, Dylan Robinson, Connor Corcoran, and Grayson Ladd return with motivation.
While Corcoran led everyone with 32 points, Henault will be leaned on to build on his break-out 22-point season. Ladd will also look to stay healthy after a season-ending injury in late January. Meanwhile, Robinson finally gets his chance to play full-time after spending much of last season in LaSalle Jr B.
That group also welcomes two new faces to the party in rookie James Jodoin and CHL Import Ruben Rafkin.
Jodoin is a physical 6-foot-3, 192-pounder out of Oakville while Rafkin, 17, was the team’s 2019 CHL Import Pick from Finland via the Tri-City Storm of the USHL.
Rafkin’s time in the USHL was valuable and he’s already fitting right in. At 6-foot, 195-pounds, he can put up some points and lay the body with equal ability. He’s the type you hate playing against but would love on your team.
While the core of the group is together, there are still some questions that need to be answered. Who will replace Staios’ 29-point season? Can someone step up to become a number one defenceman, or does will management need to bring one in? Will Rafkin, Jodoin, and Robinson be able to adjust to a full season in the league?
Those questions can only be answered over the course of a season and it creates an X-factor on the team. If everything falls into place, though, it’s a group to watch as the season unfolds.
Goaltending: Spitfires’ Other X-Factor
Xavier Medina – third round 2018 OHL Priority Selection
From 2015-2018, there was one name associated with Spitfires’ goaltending – Michael DiPietro. When Rychel dealt DiPietro to the 67’s in December, a new era began. Now, we see whether or not that era can take off.
Finnish goaltender Kari Piiroinen returns for his second season with the Spitfires (2018 CHL Import Draft) and he has something to prove. While there were signs of greatness last season, Piiroinen also showed he was raw and had plenty to learn. That’s what the OHL is for, though. Piiroinen, 18, returned home in the summer, worked on his game, and has shown much improvement through the preseason.
He’s joined by 2018 OHL Priority Selection pick Xavier Medina, who played for the Oakland Jr Grizzlies U18 last season. Medina, 17, was highly regarded by Rychel but chose the Grizzlies after Piiroinen signed with the Spitfires last summer.
With no veterans in their way, Piiroinen and Medina will battle each other for crease supremacy. Medina sported a 1.81 goals-against-average last season and has shown his worth in the preseason.
While the two have just 27 OHL games experience, combined, it creates an ideal competition. The starting role is likely Piiroinen’s to lose but neither is taking that for granted.
Like the defence, goaltending is an area of cautious optimism. The Spitfires need Piiroinen and Medina to hold their own so the team can focus on their own jobs. If all goes well, this is a bright spot for the team’s future.
Make or Break for Bench Bosses
Familiarity can be a good thing. Players get to know their coaches and vice versa. Systems are implemented, styles created, and the team develops together as a group.
That’s what makes this season so big for head coach Trevor Letowski and his staff. Letowski has been with the club since 2015 and their head coach since just after the Memorial Cup win in 2017.
The roster has seen significant overhaul as just five players remain from the Memorial Cup roster. In the process, Letowski and his associates – Jarrod Smith and Mike Weber – have put together systems to create the best balance between offence and defence.
Unfortunately, some of the past systems have stifled offensive creativity. When you combine the inexperience (the Spitfires were among the least experienced clubs in 2018-19) with these systems, wins were tougher to come by.
That’s why this season is so crucial for Letowski, Smith, and Weber. New offensive systems have been introduced, aimed at increasing scoring. With the players a year older and a year wiser, it’s the time for the coaches to show the fruits of their labour.
Letowski has been a head coach for five seasons – three with the Sarnia Sting and two with the Spitfires – and has yet to make it out of the first round. Add in the team’s playoff streak and it’s down to crunch time.
The talent is there to get this team into the second round, from both the coaches and players. Now it all has to come together.
Bowler Era Underway
A lot can happen in a calendar year. At this time last year, Rychel was in charge and had just brought in Cuylle from the Peterborough Petes. Now, new GM Bill Bowler is looking to make his own mark on the club.
Bowler took over as GM in July after Rychel resigned. It capped off a crazy off-season that saw the team restructure their management after nearly selling the club. Bowler had been the Spitfires’ Vice President of Hockey Operations since 2015.
In his first orders of business, Bowler dealt Frasca to the Frontenacs and Staios to the Bulldogs, getting plenty of picks in return. Both had asked for deals over the summer.
With his roster now set, for the most part, Bowler enters his first season at the helm. Like Rychel, Bowler has experience in the executive area of the hockey world, working in the Junior B ranks. Unlike the candid Rychel, though, Bowler is quieter and that’s going to be a change of pace for fans.
Changes of pace aren’t necessarily bad, though. Bowler is the Spitfires’ all-time scoring leader and has a solid reputation in the community. He also shadowed Rychel for much of the last two seasons. While there is a bit of an uncertain vibe from the transition, Bowler needs time to settle in and do his job properly.
Prediction: Battle for Home Ice
The OHL’s Western Conference is always tough and battling for home ice is a
After finishing eighth last season, the time is now to get home ice and finally make the second round. With a roster that’s hungry to prove critics wrong and a coaching staff that needs a playoff series win, it’s a recipe that fans can gather around.
The last playoff series the Spitfires won was the 2011 OHL Western Conference Semifinal. They lost in the Conference Final to the Owen Sound Attack in six games. Since then, the team has gone 6-24 in the playoffs, losing seven straight series.
There will be bumps and bruises along the way. No team goes through a season without injuries, suspensions, or other player issues. It can’t stop them, though.
After going 3-1 in the preseason, it’s a room full of players eager to play for each other and the logo on the front. They know the city is behind them.
Expect a team that never quits, either on the game or each other, and a staff that demands the most from each individual. While there are still questions, the big picture looks promising.
The goal is simple. Go out, get home ice in the first round, and find a way to get those four wins. After that, all bets are off.
Fans want creativity and exciting hockey. They’ve got it; NHL prospects, offensive creativity, defensive veterans, and goaltending that’s eager to prove it’s ready for battle.
Now the fun begins. The 2019-20 Spitfires are ready to take that next step and put the ugly streak well behind them. It all gets underway Saturday night as they host the Peterborough Petes at 7:05 P.M.