After a run to the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) Championship last season, the Windsor Spitfires are getting ready for a bit of a reboot. With several graduating players comes a leadership group that needs to be rebuilt. It won’t be easy, but there are plenty of candidates who are ready to take the torch.
Entering last season, the Spitfires were as tight-knit a group as we’ve seen in years. From the youth to the graduates, everyone bonded and battled for each other. When the season started, the club named veteran Will Cuylle as their captain, while veterans Daniel D’Amico, Grayson Ladd, Louka Henault, Wyatt Johnston, and Pasquale Zito all earned an alternate “A.” They were a strong group, and it paid off. However, the club now has a minor issue – only one remains, and even he’s not a guarantee. The leadership group is going to look very different in a few weeks.
When former-general manager Warren Rychel acquired Cuylle (New York Rangers) from the Peterborough Petes before his rookie season (2018-19), they envisioned a pure sniper who could hit and lead the room. While it took the youngster a bit of time to get adjusted to the OHL, something clicked during the COVID-19 stoppage in 2020-21. Maybe it was his time in the American Hockey League (AHL), but he came to the Spitfires in September and immediately took over. The club gave him the captaincy, and he ran with it – 43 goals and 80 points in 59 games, plus an outstanding leader in the room. This was his team, period.
However, now that he’s 20, he’s ready to make the official move to the pros. Who’s in line to take the torch?
1. Forward Wyatt Johnston
This feels like the clear-cut choice right now. Johnston, the Dallas Stars’ 2021 first-rounder, will get a shot to make the NHL this season after putting up a ridiculous 124 points in 68 games last season, en route to the Red Tilson Trophy as the OHL’s Most Outstanding Player. He should get his nine-game trial, but what happens after that?
If he returns to the Spitfires, this will be his team. The 19-year-old was drafted sixth overall by the club in 2019, played in both the World Under-17 Challenge (2019) and the World Under-18s (2021), and was a dynamic linemate for Cuylle last season. They had incredible chemistry and were the faces of the franchise off the ice. After wearing an “A” last season, it only makes sense for Cuylle to pass the torch to him.
2. Defenceman Michael Renwick
Should Johnston not return, there are two very solid options to take control. The first is 20-year-old defenceman Michael Renwick, who came to the Spitfires in a June 2020 trade with the Hamilton Bulldogs. While he was a bit of an unknown before 2021-22, he instantly became a fan favourite by showing skills at both ends of the rink, a willingness to play physical (just 6-foot, 187-pounds), and being a leader on and off the ice. He didn’t get an “A”, but that didn’t stop him from taking charge when needed.
Renwick has all the characteristics of the leader you’d want on a rebuilding club. Each team can only dress three 20-year-olds (over-agers) on any given night, and he should be in line for a spot. What better way to go out than to wear the “C”? The organization runs in his blood; his grandfather is former Spitfires’ coach Dave Prpich. At the very least, he’ll be in line for an “A.”
3. Forward Matthew Maggio
Finally, the Spitfires have another forward that could be ideal for the captaincy if called upon, 20-year-old forward Matthew Maggio. The Tecumseh native grew up around the club, and this would be a perfect send-off.
When Rychel acquired him in July 2019, the youngster was full of potential but hadn’t realized it yet. After struggling in 2019-20, he went to Sweden during the COVID-19 stoppage, and everything changed. He came to the Spitfires in September ready to show what he had. Not only did he blow past all of his previous career highs, going from 14 points in 45 games to 85 points in 66 games, but he became a leader in the room. He’s recognized in the community, humble, and loves the opportunity to help his club.
Maggio was drafted by the New York Islanders in July, so there’s a chance he will sign and head to the AHL this season. Should he return, though, he’s a lock for at least an “A.” If the cards are right, don’t be shocked if he gets the “C” at some point, too.
A New Group of Alternates
1. Forward Oliver Peer
This was one of the feel-good stories from last season. Coming into camp last September, nobody knew what this club had because numerous players had graduated during the COVID-19 stoppage. A handful of players came into camp as free agents, hoping to get noticed. One of them, forward Oliver Peer, made sure he wasn’t going anywhere.
Teams always say, “play your game,” and the rest will work itself out. Peer did that; constantly moving, creating, and playing smart hockey. He isn’t the most offensive player you’ll see (22 points in 31 games for Toronto Jr. Canadiens U18 AAA in 2019-20), but his work ethic, intelligence, and Energizer Bunny mentality have propelled him.
Peer, 19, slowly developed throughout the season into the type of leader you want out there at the end of a game. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the coaches gave him more responsibility in 2022-23 by giving him an “A.”
2. Forward Josh Currie
This is a tricky situation that’s going to work out for someone.
This is a tricky situation that’s going to work out for someone.
The club acquired forward Josh Currie from the North Bay Battalion last season to bolster their middle lines, plus recoup some picks from an earlier deal with the Owen Sound Attack. However, Currie is now 20, and with several others vying for three spots, his chances of returning to the Spitfires are unknown.
The Spitfires had plenty of offence last season when they dealt offensive forward Kyle McDonald to the Battalion. What they needed was a grinding leader, and that’s Currie’s game. The 6-foot-2, 170-pound winger isn’t flashy but goes into the dirty areas, sticks up for teammates, and provides some offence. He was a strong voice in the room during the playoffs and is the kind of player you want to lead your club, whether it’s for a title run or a rebuild.
Whether Currie sticks with the Spitfires or gets traded, someone’s going to get a solid leader. His personality fits that role to near perfection.
3. Forward Alex Christopoulos
Sometimes, you need a leader who simply leads by example. This is where 19-year-old forward Alex Christopoulos comes into play.
Christopoulos came to the Spitfires last season in a deal with the Battalion. A former third-round pick, he became an instant fan favourite with his work ethic and willingness to muck around the crease. While just 5-foot-11, 192-pounds, he’s a bowling ball on the ice and lets his actions speak volumes. Head coach Marc Savard used him on almost every line, and he adapted, no matter the situation.
The veteran has shown he can take control where needed. This would be a golden chance to give him some extra responsibility and let him take his off-ice game to the next level.
Coming into training camp, the Spitfires will have a lot of roster questions, including who’s going to lead the team. While there are some clear choices, others will have a chance to step up and help carry the team.
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.