This wasn’t the way it was supposed to end for anybody. Here we are, though, saying goodbye to a 2019-20 season stopped early thanks to an invisible global force. With April in full swing, it’s time to look back at the Windsor Spitfires’ rollercoaster season and prepare for the future.
Coming into March, the Spitfires were getting ready for their final six games, hoping to catch the Flint Firebirds for that coveted final home-ice seed in the OHL’s Western Conference. Then, the world got turned upside down by COVID-19, a deadly villainous virus that has halted the globe in its tracks. Now, the season is over and we soak in all the hockey we can find.
Let’s look back at the optimism, the struggles, and the future as we wrap up the Spitfires’ 2019-20 season.
Home Ice Hopes Halted
A year ago, the Spitfires were making national headlines as the team was almost sold to a dentist near Toronto. Once management cancelled the sale in May and Bill Bowler replaced Warren Rychel as general manager in July, it was full steam into training camp.
After finishing in eighth in the conference in 2018-19, the Spitfires looked to take that next step. The goal was home ice and finally breaking their eight-season drought of not making the second round of the playoffs.
Everything started off well, too. Head coach Trevor Letowski implemented new offensive systems and they worked. The club came out strong, winning close games, and was in the CHL Top-10 into the Christmas Break. Expectations had been exceeded but were they sustainable?
When the trade deadline approached in early January, Bowler decided to keep the status quo. At that point, something fell apart. They started losing close games that seemed to be guaranteed wins just two months prior and confidence wavered. By early March, the team slipped to the fifth seed, fighting to catch the Firebirds for that final home-ice spot. Unfortunately, it was all for nothing.
The COVID-19 Pandemic hit the world in early March like nothing we’ve seen in modern times. Initially, the OHL gave teams strict guidelines for games but soon all sports put a complete halt to their seasons. This included the OHL playoffs and the 2020 Memorial Cup; the first cancellation in its 101-year history.
Hockey was done for the season. Just like that. It was a tough decision but certainly the right one for everyone’s safety.
The Spitfires finished with a 34-20-8-0 record, good for the fifth seed with 76 points. While it’s not what they wanted, the 16-point improvement will be beneficial over the long term.
The Good: Depth & New Systems
One of the biggest criticisms in 2018-19 was the Spitfires’ lack of offence. They were young, but the talent was wasted on defence-oriented systems. Only two players – veterans Cole Purboo (55) and Curtis Douglas (53) – scored more than 50 points during the 68-game season.
Fast forward to this season and the difference smacks you in the face. While Purboo failed to reach that total, many others exceeded it with ease. Letowski’s new systems were a big help, allowing creative control in the offensive zone. The players had fun again.
Egor Afanasyev (Nashville Predators) led everyone with 31 goals and 67 points. Douglas (Dallas Stars) hit career-highs in goals (30) and points (60), while Tyler Angle (Columbus Blue Jackets) exploded for 29 goals and 67 points after 44 points last season.
On the back end, Vegas Golden Knights’ prospect Connor Corcoran led the group with a career-best 54 points in 62 games. Louka Henault also got into the act with one goal and 39 points in 62 games.
The rookies chipped in, too. Wyatt Johnston, the Spitfires’ first-round pick in 2019, had a strong second half to finish with 30 points in 53 games. On defence, 2019 CHL Import pick Ruben Rafkin made a strong case for the 2020 NHL Draft with 31 points in 59 games.
The success was noticed by OHL coaches as several players made the 2019-20 OHL Coaches Poll. Captain Luke Boka was named Best Shot Blocker in the conference for the third-straight season, while Corcoran, Angle, and Foudy were all recognized as well.
The new systems clearly worked as they averaged a full goal-per-game more than in 2018-19. It’s one reason to be optimistic heading into next season.
What Went Wrong?
Let’s be fair; despite all of the good, when you go from a conference title battle to struggling for home ice, there’s an issue.
From October through December, it didn’t matter what the score was, you knew the Spitfires had a chance to come out with two points. After Christmas, the deadline hit and a slippery slope ensued.
At the January trade deadline, Bowler kept the status quo, which didn’t sit well with some. They started losing those contests that were nearly a guaranteed win two months prior. A loss here and there snowballed into losing streaks and frustration. This wasn’t the same team that lost just nine games before Christmas.
Part of the issue was a change in systems. Letowski occasionally went back to a defence-first approach, which stifled much of the offence. It was a guessing game to which system would show up on any night. Why fix what’s not broke?
The defensive zone was another concern as turnovers and missed assignments became common. Whether it was miscommunication or systems-related, the players’ frustration was clear.
Part of the issue rested in goal, too. Second-year goaltender Kari Piiroinen was named the starter in September but struggled to find his game after returning from Team Finland at the 2020 World Juniors. While Piiroinen was gone, rookie Xavier Medina took over the crease and the battle for ice was on. Some nights were better than others and they went toe-to-toe into March.
Once the season was finished, the decision was made. Piiroinen confirmed with the Spitfires that he signed with Tappara Tampere of Finnish Liiga. He has plenty of talent but it just didn’t work out. Medina takes the starter’s role heading into next season.
While the season was a vast improvement, there are concerns to address before next season.
Thank You, Graduates
Saying goodbye to a season is normally tough. When you’re graduating and it’s under these circumstances, it’s downright heartbreaking. This is the case for three Spitfires.
The trio is led by Boka, who made his presence known from day one.
Drafted by the Spitfires in the fifth round in 2015, Boka had a reputation for being a hard-working, team-first player. Need a big blocked shot or a timely goal? He was your guy. The Plymouth, MI-native was also reliable, setting the team’s all-time games played record at 313, previously held by John Scott Dickson (306). His absence leaves a big hole for 2020-21.
Right alongside him was Purboo. A ninth-round pick in 2015, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound winger earned a spot in 2016-17 by his willingness to do anything for the team. Through hard work, the forward became an offensive threat and a fixture in the lineup, including 244-straight games before an injury in late 2019-20.
Known for his unique skating style, ability to score the garbage goals, and tireless effort on every shift, Purboo’s work ethic will be hard to replace.
Finally, the Spitfires say goodbye to defenceman Thomas Stevenson, an example of how you never give up in your quest to make a roster.
A tenth-round pick in 2015, the Orleans-native showed that persistence goes a long way. His calm, cool demeanour won over the team in 2017-18 and Stevenson became the reliable two-way player the Spitfires needed for nearly 180 games. His leadership will go a long way for the team’s future defencemen.
Graduation is never easy but it’s heartbreaking when it’s not under your control. This trio did a ton for the city and the organization. Hopefully, the Spitfires can bring all three players back for a game next season and give them a proper farewell.
Tip-Toeing into the Future
With the season wrapped up, we now look to the future.
The OHL held it’s 2020 Priority Selection earlier in April, all done online via phone conferencing. Bowler and his scouts brought in a good group of youngsters who are eager to show their mettle at the next level, whenever that begins.
With that done, the focus turns to the 2020 NHL Draft. While it’s postponed, it’ll happen eventually. The Spitfires had four players make the final Central Scouting List, including Jean-Luc Foudy and Will Cuylle at 33 and 34, respectively, Rafkin at 84, and Henault at 171. Dylan Robinson and Kyle McDonald were on the Midterm rankings but didn’t make the final list.
The CHL Import Draft, which happens after the NHL Draft, will likely be postponed, too. Each team is allowed two Import players and the Spitfires could use both spots. Soon after Piiroinen left the team, Rafkin followed suit, signing a multi-year contract at home in Finland with Liiga’s TPS Turku.
The pandemic will make the OHL summer unpredictable. What we do know is that most of the Spitfires’ roster is eligible to return in 2020-21. If the systems and talent fall into place, that could a perfect recipe for fans after this chaos.
Looking back, this season was nothing short of memorable for the Spitfires. From opening night until the season cancellation, there were more hills and valleys than anyone anticipated. However, the good times gave the fans a glimpse of what the future could hold.
As we say goodbye to the season and the graduating players, new doors open and new opportunities await. The future looks bright in the Rose City and, despite its many quirks, 2019-20 is to thank for that. Bring on a safe and entertaining 2020-21.