It’s the Christmas break and the Windsor Spitfires are getting ready for turkey, stuffing, and a visit from ol’ St. Nick. As they prepare for the second half, it’s been a productive season as they sit in a tie for first in the Ontario Hockey League’s Western Conference. There are still a few things they’d like to see Santa bring their way, though.
Going from the eighth seed in March to tops in the conference in December is no easy feat. The road has been a challenge, full of hills, valleys, twists, and turns. While they could use some help from other teams, they wouldn’t mind a few gifts under the tree, either.
Let’s take a look at five items on the Spitfires’ Christmas Wish List as the team gets ready for their busy second half.
Spitfires’ Wish List
1. Luke Boka Makes History
Through the Spitfires’ history, only seven players have played in five seasons and only three of those have reached the illustrious 300-game mark. This season, captain Luke Boka has a chance to put his name into the record books.
Boka sits at 282 games, which is the most since John-Scott Dickson played his 306th game in 2005. In the OHL, 300 games is a serious accomplishment, showing durability, talent, and character.
The Spitfires raved about Boka’s game within minutes of drafting him in the fifth round in 2015. He’s lived up to the billing; team captain since 2018-19, OHL Coaches Poll awards, and consistent 30-point seasons.
Should Boka play in every game this season, he will hit the 300 game mark on Feb. 7 in Sarnia. He would then break the team record on Feb. 22 in Barrie, where former Spitfires’ general manager Warren Rychel is the head coach. How appropriate would that be?
This is worth keeping an eye on as we get closer to the two games. The first wish on the list goes to the captain as he looks to make history.
2. NHL Prospect Prosperity
The 2020 NHL Draft in June could be an eventful one for the Spitfires.
Each season, the NHL comes out with a “Players to Watch” list. In November, five Spitfires made the list – Jean-Luc Foudy, Will Cuylle, Dylan Robinson, Kyle McDonald, and Ruben Rafkin. Cuylle and Foudy were “A”-rated players, expected to go in the first two rounds, while the others were “C”-rated, expected to go in rounds five through seven.
With four Spitfires currently drafted, and another five on the Watch List, eyes will be on the team over the next few months. It’s an opportunity to show what they can do. If the team maintains their spot near the top of the conference standings, a long playoff run could really help the stocks, too.
Rychel brought all five players in with hopes of an OHL title down the road. They’ve shown their worth so far and it should only get better. The second wish is all five players getting enough development to hear their name called in June.
3. Piiroinen Keeps Improving
This has been one of the most discussed stories over the last year. When star goaltender Michael DiPietro was traded in Dec. 2018, all eyes shifted to the 17-year-old Finnish import Kari Piiroinen. There was pressure, and he knew it, but he gave it his all. The results were mixed and the critics were out in full force.
Fast forward to this season; the net belongs to Piiroinen and he’s not giving it up. The start of the season saw rollercoaster numbers but his last 10 games have brought more optimism.
Since Nov. 2, he has allowed more than three goals on just three occasions. He even recorded his first shutout of the season just before he left for the 2020 World Juniors. His goals-against-average (GAA) has dropped to 3.40 while his save percentage (SV%) is up to .882.
The numbers are intriguing and, if the team is to continue to have success, he’s at the forefront. He just has to maintain that confidence. The third wish is for Piiroinen to continue to develop and become that legitimate goaltender he’s projected to be.
4. Grinding Defenceman
Putting together a proper defensive group is a challenge for any general manager. A defence that scores a lot but can’t prevent goals isn’t optimal, similar to a defence that is rock solid and physical but has no offence.
When Rychel built this group, he focused on bringing in players who were smooth skaters, good with the puck, and reliable in their own zone. Earlier this season, new general manager Bill Bowler brought in gritty veteran Joseph Rupoli. However, was that enough?
The Spitfires have three defencemen – Rafkin, Connor Corcoran, and Louka Henault – who are best on the offensive side of the game. They also have Grayson Ladd, Dylan Robinson, and Thomas Stevenson who are the silent, steady types. While Rupoli has brought some grit, he’s a seventh defenceman and more depth than anything.
A big, crease-clearer type would be a welcomed addition to the club. While scrappy sheriff-types like former Spitfire Sean Allen are generally long gone, there are still plenty of guys who will dent the boards and make life miserable around the crease.
Who might be available? It’s still a bit early to tell as teams prepare for the second half. However, this is certainly an area that Bowler could focus on up to the Jan. 10 trade deadline.
The fourth wish is finding that guy who can make life agonizing for the opposition, truly helping the club on the road to the playoffs.
5. Playing Time for Kids
Finally, the last wish goes to the young ones.
The team has four 16-or-17-year-old forwards in Pasquale Zito, Wyatt Johnston, Kyle McDonald, and Matthew Maggio. While the latter two have one season in the league under their belts, all four are still young and in need of playing time.
McDonald has been the most consistently used forward out of the four, but still isn’t getting the routine top-six minutes you’d expect. The other three have been mostly on the fourth line, rotating in-and-out of the lineup with veteran Chris Playfair. Johnston, the team’s first-round pick in 2019, is a mild exception. Head coach Trevor Letowski has put him on the second line during a few December games.
While the team has found more success this season, and the veterans have been a big part of that, the kids still need to play regularly.
For their final wish, Johnston, Zito, Maggio, and McDonald look for more ice time in the second half. Boka, along with veteran Cole Purboo, won’t be around next season and the youth will take over. Get them the necessary experience now so they can hit the ground running in 2020-21.
Now the Spitfires wait for Santa to come into sight, bringing gifts that will help them on each game night. With hope the standings will see no fall, for now, we say Merry Christmas to all!!