579 days! The last time the Windsor Spitfires dropped the puck on an Ontario Hockey League (OHL) regular-season game, the calendar read Mar. 8, 2020. Since then, the globe went through the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a light, though, and we’re finally ready to resume life. On Thurs., Oct. 7, after plenty of ups-and-downs, the 2021-22 OHL season gets underway at the WFCU Centre.
When the Spitfires last played, COVID-19 had slowly crept into society. While fans were at the games without much care, the league had several guidelines for players and teams to follow. On Mar. 11, 2020, though, it all changed. Cases were found in pro sports leagues, which caused almost every league in North America to shut down for everyone’s safety immediately. Just like that, the season was done. Nobody knew when the games would resume; in a few weeks, the following September, or longer? It turns out it was longer… much longer. That means there has been plenty of change within the organization, from graduations to departures and a new coaching staff. It’s all very different. The old saying “you can’t tell the players without a program” has never been more true for this club.
Let’s break down the changes, the potential, and what fans can expect at the rink (yes, they can come!).
Young Firepower Up Front
Gone (Since Last Game):
- Luke Boka and Cole Purboo (both graduated after 2019-20), Tyler Angle, Curtis Douglas, Egor Afanasyev, and Chris Playfair (all graduated after 2020-21), and Jean-Luc Foudy (likely American Hockey League-bound).
- Ryan Abraham and Wylie Birkett (2020 draft picks), Ethan Miedema and Christopher O’Flaherty (2021 draft picks), Avval Baisov (2021 Canadian Hockey League Import pick), and Oliver Peer (free agent).
Sadly, with a canceled 2020-21 season, we missed out on a dynamic forward group that included guys like Angle, Douglas, and Afanasyev. However, despite graduations, there’s still plenty of firepower to go around.
Former Top-10 OHL picks Wyatt Johnston (Dallas Stars) and Will Cuylle (New York Rangers) are back as offensive cornerstones. They also have impressive support from veterans Daniel D’Amico, Kyle McDonald, Pasquale Zito (Detroit Red Wings), and Matthew Maggio, who are looking for big seasons while helping mentor the youngsters.
Where’s Foudy? Since he played 34 games in the AHL last season (Colorado Eagles), he’s eligible to return there and his OHL days are uncertain. (Cuylle missed the cutoff by two games!)
The veterans will help the youngsters and that group starts with a pair of first-round picks in 5-foot-9, 165-pound Abraham (14th overall – 2020) and 6-foot-4, 200-pound Miedema (fourth overall – 2021). The duo has dominated the preseason along with the 19-year-old McDonald, each recording six points in six games.
Joining Abraham and Miedema are O’Flaherty, Baisov, and Peer, who came to the club on different routes.
O’Flaherty, a Chicago native, was the club’s fourth-round pick in 2021, putting up 44 goals in 46 games last season. Baisov was the club’s first-round pick in the 2021 CHL Import Draft, scoring 31 points in 18 games for Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk U18 in Russia last season. Peer was a free agent after 22 points in 31 games for the Toronto Jr. Canadiens U18 AAA in 2019-20. His work ethic and 200-foot game won the coaches over.
Call it a rebuild or a reload; this group is an intriguing mix of veteran offensive weapons and youth loaded with potential. It may take time for everything to come together, but it’ll be a fun ride when it does.
Gone (Since Last Game):
- Thomas Stevenson (graduated after 2019-20), Connor Corcoran and Joseph Rupoli (graduated after 2020-21), and Ruben Rafkin (signed with TPS Turku in Finland)
- Nicholas De Angelis and James Jodoin (2020 draft picks), Bronson Ride (2021 draft pick), Daniil Sobolev (2020 CHL Import Draft), and Michael Renwick (trade with Hamilton Bulldogs in 2020).
Like the forwards, the defense will need time to become cohesive. Since their last game, most of the regular defencemen have moved on to new adventures. The only guaranteed OHL returnees are 20-year-old Grayson Ladd, 19-year-old Dylan Robinson, and 19-year-old Michael Renwick, who came over last summer from the Hamilton Bulldogs.
What about Louka Henault? The 20-year-old was a free-agent invitee to the Anaheim Ducks’ camp and was assigned to their AHL-affiliate, the San Diego Gulls. His return is up in the air.
Without Henault, the group lacks experience. The trio (Ladd, Robinson, and Renwick) combine for almost 300 career games, but Ladd alone has 150. Fortunately, all three are defensive-oriented and can use their size well. The question is – can they create enough offense? In 2019-20, they had just 53 points, total. Should Henault return, his 39-points and strong defensive play will add to the group.
The four rookies are eager to help. DeAngelis is a 6-foot-2, 192-pound workhorse who thrives at both ends while providing budding leadership. He’s considered a cornerstone of the future. The same can be said for the 6-foot-6, 195-pounder Bronson Ride, the Spitfires’ second-rounder in 2021. He’s a two-way defender who uses his size really well and chips in offensively when possible. The 6-foot, 201-pound Sobolev is gritty but likes to pinch and create offense. The club had their eye on him for a couple of seasons. Finally, Jodoin is a 6-foot-2, 196-pound former fourth-round pick (2019) who’s eager to finally break into the league. While not offensive, he’s reliable, which they need.
Losing multiple veteran defencemen is tough, but the ones who are returning are strong defensively and can hold their own on the rush. The youngsters will take time to develop at both ends, but they’re in good hands and the ice time will only benefit them in the future.
Goaltenders Eager to Prove Themselves
Gone (Since Last Game):
- Kari Piiroinen (signed with Tappara in Finland)
- Kyle Downey (2020 draft pick)
This might become the biggest question mark on the Spitfires.
In 2019-20, goaltenders Kari Piiroinen and Xavier Medina split playing time for most of the season. However, when the season ended early, Piiroinen left the club and returned home to play for Tappara in Liiga (Finland). This left the starter’s role to Medina.
Just two months later, general manager Bill Bowler drafted Kyle Downey in the second round of the 2020 OHL Draft. Considered one of the best goaltending prospects in the draft, the hope is that he’ll learn the ropes for a season or two while being mentored by Medina. Will that come to fruition, though?
While Medina has been waiting three years for this chance (third-round pick in 2018), the preseason was a struggle. In four appearances, he allowed 20 goals, had a goals-against-average (GAA) of 6.11, and a .829 save percentage (SV%). It was far from what anyone had expected. On the other hand, Downey showed a glimpse of what he can do, allowing half as many goals in 36 fewer minutes while sporting a 3.70 GAA and .875 SV%.
This club is going to score plenty of goals, but can they stop them with equal ability? With an inexperienced defense in front of him, Medina needs to put the preseason in the past and be the Spitfires’ rock. If he can put it all together while helping Downey fulfill his potential, it’ll be a massive boost to the team.
New Coaches, New Era
After the OHL shut down, it was assumed that head coach Trevor Letowski and his staff would be business-as-usual once everything returned. That didn’t happen, though.
This past July, Letowski got the call – he was headed to the Montreal Canadiens to be one of their new assistant coaches. Bowler immediately started his search for a new head coach.
While it took over a month, the club found their guy, hiring former OHL and NHL great Marc Savard as their new head coach. He joined former NHL defenceman and LaSalle-native Andy Delmore, who was named an assistant coach. The two join long-time Spitfires’ associate coach Jerrod Smith as the team pushes into 2021-22.
With a new staff comes a lot of trial and error. Savard was an assistant with the St. Louis Blues in 2019-20, but this is his first chance to develop players at the junior level. With a new(er) staff, the preseason was used to work on systems, line combinations, and just getting to know the roster and organization. Getting everything together is a tough task in normal circumstances, never mind after heavy graduation and a pandemic.
Once Savard and his staff get their full roster together, they’ll have the chance to implement systems and start the process. This won’t be done in a day or two but a slow progression that we’ll see over time. Patience may be required here, but the long-term effects will be worth it.
What Can Fans Expect?
In the early portion of the season, there will be a giant question mark above the ice at the WFCU Centre.
The Spitfires were ranked eighth in the CHL Top-10 during the preseason and there has been talk that the club could compete for a Western Division title. They have a great mix of talented veterans and promising youth. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a guarantee.
During the preseason, we saw a young group that showed creativity and drive but also inexperience and rust. After 19-months without OHL hockey, this isn’t going to be a well-oiled machine right away. Between the significant roster turnover and new coaching systems, we’re looking at a marathon, not a sprint. Will they compete for a division or conference title? We won’t know that for a month or two (or longer).
Fortunately, fans can watch it unfold live. In late September, the Province of Ontario increased capacity in sports venues to 50-percent. This means the Spitfires can accommodate just over 3,000 fans, including season ticket holders, mini-plan holders, and the general public. Everyone at the games must be fully vaccinated, show proof along with a photo ID, and wear a mask unless eating or drinking. After this long of a hiatus, that’s a small price to pay. Single-game tickets went on sale on Oct. 1.
Almost 600 days ago, the world stopped on a dime. Nobody knew what to do, how to do it, or how long to do it for. Over the last two months, though, life has slowly opened up. This Thursday, when the puck drops between the Spitfires and Sarnia Sting, we’ll finally have a sense of normalcy. Let’s just make sure we never take this for granted.
A nearly life-long resident of Windsor, ON, I graduated from St. Clair College (Journalism) and University of Windsor (Communications) and have attended Windsor Spitfires’ (and OHL) games for 30-years. My areas include multimedia journalism and photography.