Predicting anything about the Windsor Spitfires’ 2021-22 season was likely to be a challenge at the best of times. With a new roster, new coaches, and a new look at the game, expectations were thrown out the window. That may have been just what they needed, though, as their late-season report cards are in and they look to ace an unpredictable classroom.
When the 2019-20 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) season was cancelled because of COVID-19, the Spitfires knew they had the potential of losing several key talents before they resumed. That’s exactly what happened as nearly a dozen players graduated or left for various reasons. While they came into this season ranked in the CHL Top 10, expectations had to be calmed a bit. A lot had to go right for them to reach their potential. However, as of Thursday night, they’ve completed 50 games of a 68-game schedule with a 30-14-3-3 record, tied for second in the conference, four points back of first. They’ve exceeded expectations and, while there are issues to fix, the students are proving to be quick learners.
The grades are in…
Johnston, Cuylle, and Maggio Lead Deep Forward Group
When the pandemic hit, the Spitfires knew their forward group was going to take a major hit. They were built for 2019-20 and 2020-21 with players like Jean-Luc Foudy (Colorado Avalanche), Tyler Angle (Columbus Blue Jackets), Egor Afanasyev (Nashville Predators), and Curtis Douglas (now Toronto Maple Leafs) all set for breakout final seasons.
When everything shut down for 18 months, though, the team was left with plenty of question marks. While new captain Will Cuylle (New York Rangers) was returning, along with Wyatt Johnston (Dallas Stars), the rest of the forwards were eager but unproven. However, something clicked with them and any uncertainty is long gone.
Cuylle and Johnston, along with veteran Matthew Maggio, have taken control to become one of the best trios in the OHL this season. They went from 86 points, combined, in 2019-20 to 202 in 2021-22. It’s top-line production the team hasn’t seen since the 2015-16 season or even the 2009-11 dynasty. Fans know what they’re getting every night, and it’s pure gold.
They’re not alone, either. All four lines are rolling; from veterans Pasquale Zito (Detroit Red Wings) and Daniel D’Amico to rookies Ryan Abraham and Ethan Miedema, everyone contributes on a regular basis. General manager Bill Bowler brought in three veterans at the deadline – Alex Christopoulos, Josh Currie, and Jacob Maillet – and they’ve all found their niche on the team, whether it’s chipping in offensively or a strong penalty kill. There aren’t any real holes in this group.
Grade: A+ : They’re creative, energetic, and confident. It’s a deadly combination, and they’re hitting their stride at the perfect time.
Perrott (and Veterans) Proving Invaluable on Defence
Like the forward group, the defence was a complete tossup heading into 2021-22. They lost four veteran defenceman, including Connor Corcoran (Vegas Golden Knights) and Finnish-import Ruben Rafkin (signed with TPS Turku), leaving them with only four returnees. Unlike the forward group, this has been a bit of a work in progress, though it’s promising.
Veterans Louka Henault, Dylan Robinson, and Grayson Ladd started the season as the main returnees, with newcomer Michael Renwick in the mix, plus rookies Nicholas De Angelis, Bronson Ride, James Jodoin, and Daniil Sobolev (Montreal Canadiens). It wasn’t the same level of talent as in 2019-20 but they were going to make it work.
Bowler replaced Ladd and Robinson with 20-year-old Andrew Perrott from the Owen Sound Attack and 19-year-old Nathan Ribau from the Sudbury Wolves. Jodoin moved up to forward, too, which has helped everyone.
Related: Spitfires Start 2021-22 OHL Trade Deadline with a Bang
Ribau, Renwick, and Perrott have become significant assets, executing on a nightly basis. Sobolev, 19, has shown to be anything but a first-year player and has adjusted well to the North American game. De Angelis and Ride are coming along as expected, chipping in on both sides of the rink while being kept out of the fire. The coaching staff has done an admirable job in keeping things simple when necessary.
While the group has had success, there are still issues such as questionable zone coverage and costly mental mistakes. It prevents the grade from being as high as other areas.
Grade: B : This is a tough decision. While the defence hasn’t been as successful as the forward group, they’re much better off now than they were in September. It’s a work in progress, and the coaches have worked tirelessly to develop their game. This will be a key area moving forward.
Onuska Challenges Medina
Coming into the season, veteran Xavier Medina was supposed to finally be the clear-cut starter after being their third-round pick in 2018. Between battling Finnish import Kari Piiroinen for playing time from 2018-20 and COVID-19 cancelling the 2020-21 season, this was Medina’s time to shine.
However, the veteran struggled to start the season and rookie Kyle Downey (2020 OHL Draft) was given a shot. In November, Medina went down with an injury, forcing the rookie to join Matt Tovell (2019 Under-18 Draft) as the tandem. They were very raw and struggled until Medina came back in December.
From there, Medina was their rock. The club brought in London Knights’ backup Mathias Onuska, 19, to give Downey some playing time in LaSalle Jr. B. Onuska had been behind star Brett Brochu, so this was his time to show what he was capable of.
However, in late February, Medina started struggling, and the Spitfires gave the former Knight more playing time. The situation came to a boil when Medina allowed seven goals against the Guelph Storm on Feb. 25. The club has listed him as “sick” and Onuska has seen all of the action since. Downey was called up briefly in early March by Bowler.
With the team supporting him, Onuska has done the job they needed, posting a plus-.900 save percentage in four-of-five contests since Medina was sidelined. Despite just five career games prior to joining the Spitfires, he’s shown he can handle heavy workloads so far.
Grade: B- : While their goaltending has struggled at times, it’s on the rise as a whole and gaining confidence. Onuska is capable of handling the workload (alongside Tovell and/or Downey) and that will likely continue with Medina out. It’s not an ideal situation for a contender, but it’s working for now.
Savard Hitting Stride
Taking over for a head coach that was expected to return is not an easy task, but Marc Savard has passed with flying colours.
He joined the Spitfires in August 2021 after former head coach Trevor Letowski joined the Montreal Canadiens in July. The transition from being an assistant with the St. Louis Blues (2019-20) to the developmental OHL was a process and everyone understood that.
Despite the transition period, Savard continuously stressed a “no quit” approach. You’re not going to win every night, regardless of how good you are, but you’re going to play the full 60 minutes. He had the talent – Johnston, Cuylle, Miedema, Henault, etc. – so it was a question of patience and execution.
While it took him a while to find the right combinations, he put Johnston and Cuylle on the top line with Matthew Maggio, creating one of the best lines in the league. The lineup itself (offence and defence) doesn’t change on most nights, save for a minor switch or two. While some games see only 11 forwards, there’s overall stability and the players have responded.
They’re averaging 4.26 goals per game, second in the league (Hamilton Bulldogs – 4.44) and the best of any Spitfires’ team since the 2009-10 Memorial Cup Champions (4.87). Multiple players are having career seasons, and Savard’s coaching is a big reason for that.
Grade: A- : He’s called himself a “proud dad” (to the team) and he should be. While he’s new to the league, and has made mistakes, he’s excelled overall. The club is battling for the top spot in the conference, and Savard is a big reason for that. If he keeps this up, an OHL Coach of the Year nomination could be possible.
Bowler Finally Makes His Mark
When Bowler took over from long-time GM Warren Rychel in July 2019, nobody knew what to expect. Fans were used to Rychel making big, bold moves every season, regardless of the team’s place in the standings. However, was the protege willing to be the same way? Not really.
While Bowler made an early move, sending defenceman Nathan Staios to the Bulldogs for several picks, he was quiet the rest of the season, save for a minor deal or two. It was vastly different than his mentor and fans weren’t sure what to think. However, that all changed this season.
First, he added some depth to the system by assigning multiple picks (Ethan Martin, Jack Greenwell, Jackson McIlwain, and Tanner Winegard) to Jr. B clubs. Martin and McIlwain have both seen time with the Spitfires when the lineup was depleted with injuries or suspension.
With the team finally competing, and several holes to fill, Bowler made multiple splashes prior to the deadline, bringing in forwards Alex Christopoulos, Jacob Maillet, and Joshua Currie, along with defencemen Andrew Perrott and Nathan Ribau, and Onuska in goal.
The idea that he was sitting on his hands was long gone. He’s finally made his mark and showed he’s learned a thing or two from the guy they called “the architect.”
Grade: B+ : Bowler isn’t the in-your-face, wide-open guy that Rychel was. He’s far quieter and calculated, and that’s taken time to get used to. However, when the chips were down, he showed he was willing to make the moves to improve the club.
Overall: Contender Status
Coming into the season, nobody knew what to expect from this club. They lost plenty of talent to graduation or other teams during the COVID-19 stoppage, but still had NHL prospects and players eager to show their worth. Their potential gave them a spot in the CHL Top 10 during the preseason, but everyone knew that it was their actions on the ice that were most valuable.
While it took a while for the lines to gel and for the players to get to know Savard’s systems, it’s been a steady progression to success. They’ve become a cohesive, tight-knit roster that plays for each other every night. They’re not going to win every game but their “no quit” approach gives them a fighting chance.
From the veterans to the rookies, they’re playing their best hockey at the right time, and it’s giving everyone hope. While they have stuff to work on (such as 18th in the league on the penalty kill and playing a full 60 minutes every night), optimism is high and you can see it in their play. Through 50 games, they’ve managed to get within reach of the top to the conference and have no intentions of stopping now. What more could you ask for?
Grade: A- : It’s hard to justify anything less than an A- with this team. They’re tight-knit, playing entertaining hockey, and within striking distance of not only home ice (for the first time in 10 seasons) but the top seed in the conference. It’s what Spitfires’ fans have wanted for a long time. Fortunately, they can see it in person, too. There are issues that need to be worked out before the playoffs start, but you can’t argue with the overall results through 50 games.