Defending OHL’s Western Title: Windsor Spitfires’ 2022-23 Preview

The air is getting crisp, the days are getting shorter, and arena lights are turning on — the 2022-23 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) season is back! For the Windsor Spitfires, it’s a chance to continue from where they left off as the defending Western Conference Champions. However, there are a lot of questions that will take time to answer.

Last season was what Spitfires’ fans had been (im)patiently waiting for over a decade to see. After not making the second round for 11 straight seasons, they shocked the league by capturing the Western Conference regular-season title with a record of 44-17-4-3. They won 13 straight near the end of the season, then clawed their way through 25 playoff games to Game 7 of the OHL Championship (loss to the Hamilton Bulldogs). It was a season where you soak everything in and enjoy the moment. However, with the run comes the inevitable heavy graduation and the club has seen several big names move on. It’s given them a mixture of youth and experience as they hope to defend their conference title. Let’s dig into the roster.

Breaking Down the Roster

Can Forwards Thrive without Johnston and Cuylle?

Out:

  • Will Cuylle – New York Rangers’ system
  • Daniel D’Amico – Graduation
  • Pasquale Zito – Trade with Niagara IceDogs
  • Matthew Maggio – New York Islanders’ system
  • Avval Baisov – Mamonty Yugry (Russia)

In:

  • Liam Greentree – 2022 OHL Second Round Pick
  • A.J. Spellacy – 2022 OHL Third Round Pick
  • Noah Morneau – 2020 OHL 15th Round Pick
  • Ethan Martin – 2021 OHL Fourth Round Pick
  • Colton Smith – Trade with London Knights

What a difference two months make. After leading the OHL in goals (305) last season, the Spitfires are losing significant firepower up front. Captain Will Cuylle (43 goals in 59 games last season), veteran Daniel D’Amico (58 points in 67 games), and veteran Matthew Maggio (85 points in 66 games) are all heading to the pros while veteran Wyatt Johnston (124 points in 68 games) is a toss-up to be returned to the Spitfires at some point. While that’s a lot of offence, there’s still plenty of hope.

Windsor Spitfires OHL Western Conference title
The Windsor Spitfires after winning the Wayne Gretzky Trophy for Ontario Hockey League Western Conference Champions in June 2022. (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

They had a great supporting cast last season who want that next step, including first-rounders Ryan Abraham (2020) and Ethan Miedema (2021), along with veterans Oliver Peer, Alex Christopoulos, and Joshua Currie. The increased ice time will do wonders for their development. They’re also joined by newcomer Colton Smith (son of former Spitfire D.J. Smith) and sophomore sniper Chris O’Flaherty, who have both fit right in. Smith is a traditional power forward who can score and intimidate (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) with equal ability while O’Flaherty had 44 goals in 46 games during his OHL Draft season.

Coming in from the 2022 Draft are Liam Greentree and the highly-touted A.J. Spellacy; both have shown energy, skating, and offensive potential. Noah Morneau, the Spitfires’ 15th-round pick in 2020, is also out to prove that it doesn’t matter where you’re taken.

A.J. Spellacy Windsor Spitfires
Windsor Spitfires’ rookie A.J. Spellacy. (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

One additional loss was forward Avval Baisov, 18, who came over from Russia in the 2021 CHL Import Draft (filling one of two spots each team can have). While energetic, he provided little offence and has gone home. I’ll discuss his replacement below.

Despite losing heavy offence and leadership, it’s something they can overcome. This is a group that’s hungry to take the torch and show they can still defend their Western Conference title.

Renwick Heads Budding Defence

Out:

  • Andrew Perrott – Graduation
  • Louka Henault – Graduation
  • Nathan Ribau – Trade with Niagara IceDogs

In:

  • Tomas Hebek – 2022 CHL Import Draft
  • Anthony Cristoforo – 2022 OHL First Round Pick

One of the Spitfires’ biggest issues last season was their inconsistent defence. While they had some great games, others were a battle of patience. However, with a season of experience comes hope. Leading the way are veterans Nicholas DeAngelis, Bronson Ride, Daniil Sobolev (Montreal Canadiens), James Jodoin, and Michael Renwick, who should take up one of the 20-year-old spots.

Bronson Ride Windsor Spitfires
Windsor Spitfires’ defenceman Bronson Ride. (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

Renwick will likely take the leadership role here at both ends of the rink. He’s in line for a letter and will be counted on for big minutes. Sobolev is second in command after a solid rookie season. While he’s more of a strong, silent type, expect him to see ice in all situations. Jodoin, DeAngelis, and Ride are all coming off rookie seasons where they had some great moments and some learning experiences. They each bring various degrees of two-way play, which will only benefit the club in the long term.

The Spitfires lost two big names to graduation — two-way player Andrew Perrott and offensive weapon Louka Henault (65 points in 63 games) — and shipped Nathan Ribau, 20, off to the Niagara IceDogs. However, they were able to fill two of the holes. They brought in the 6-foot-5, 188-pound Tomas Hebek from Czechia in the Import Draft. He replaces Baisov and joins Sobolev as the two Import slots. The 18-year-old played well in the preseason and has shown a lot of promise so far. Also joining is rookie Anthony Cristoforo, the Spitfires’ first pick in the OHL Draft last May. At 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, he plays a calculated, positional game in his own zone and likes putting up numbers on offence.

Tomas Hebek Windsor Spitfires
Windsor Spitfires’ defenceman Tomas Hebek (82). (Dave Jewell/TheHockeyWriters)

This group has all kinds of potential, but consistency and development will be the focus. If they can continue their development from last season, things are looking up.

Crease Confusion Continues

Out:

  • None

In:

  • Joseph Costanzo – Trade with Niagara IceDogs

Nothing about the Spitfires’ goaltending situation is straightforward. Last season, they started with then-19-year-old veteran Xavier Medina and rookie Kyle Downey. However, after injuries, inconsistency, and COVID-19, they were forced to bring in then-19-year-old Mathias Onuska from the London Knights at the deadline. That helped create confusion off the ice and Medina saw reduced action through the rest of the season and playoffs.

Mathias Onuska Windsor Spitfires
Windsor Spitfires’ goaltender Mathias Onuska. (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

Coming into this season’s camp, all three (surprisingly) returned, creating a crease jam. They all need ice time but the team can only keep one of Onuska and Medina due to the overage rule. To add to everything, the Spitfires brought in 17-year-old Joseph Costanzo from the Niagara IceDogs (2021 second-round pick) the week before the opener. He’ll be looking for a chance to prove himself, similar to what Onuska did last season.

At this point, it looks like Onuska will get the starter’s role with Costanzo backing him up, while Medina and Downey’s futures with the club are up in the air. It continues to be a fluid situation, but will hopefully be settled shortly into the season.

Savard Builds Legacy

Coming into last season, not much was known about (then) new head coach Marc Savard. He left his job in 2020 as an assistant with the St. Louis Blues and joined the OHL shortly after, where he was one of the all-time leading scorers during his playing days in the 1990s for the Oshawa Generals. Fortunately for the Spitfires, he fit right in.

Savard brings a family-style, no-nonsense approach to the game. Do you want offence, creativity, and teamwork? He’s your guy. While it took him time to tweak the systems and lines, everyone jumped on board, played for each other, and the process worked. He became a father figure to the players and brought a sense of humour and seriousness to every conversation. It was clear he was a perfect fit for the organization.

Related: OHL/NHL Alum Marc Savard Named Windsor Spitfires’ New Head Coach

Coming into the new season, Savard has a tall task in front of him. The team is younger, most of the leaders have moved on, and the coaching staff has to find a way to develop a new(er) group in the same fashion. His systems are proven and he doesn’t hold back when teaching. As long as everyone accepts the situation, they’ll be fine.

Marc Savard Head Coach Windsor Spitfires
Windsor Spitfires’ head coach Marc Savard. (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

Savard is joined by associates Jerrod Smith and Andy Delmore, along with a host of other coaches that aren’t on the bench during games. It’s a group that fans may not know much about but are thankful to have. This season is Savard’s chance to take that next step with his coaching legacy. If last season was any indication, fans are in for high-tempo, offensive hockey with a team that sticks up for each other and never quits. It won’t be easy every night, nor should it be, but having this group behind the bench will make the end game worth it.

Bowler Stays the Course

A year ago, general manager Bill Bowler started to develop a reputation for being very quiet. It was a very different approach from his mentor, long-time GM Warren Rychel, who stepped down in July 2019. However, everything changed last season.

Bowler started making small moves in October to shore up the defence, then made a few more in late November to bring some depth to the forwards. It all came to a head at the trade deadline in January when he made a trio of major moves to shore up every part of the roster. That paid off with the trip to the OHL Championship. Any thoughts that he was just sitting on his hands were long gone.

Windsor Spitfires' GM Bill Bowler
Windsor Spitfires’ general manager Bill Bowler. (Dave Jewell/THW)

Now, the Spitfires’ all-time points leader comes into his second full season as GM with a renewed confidence. He has shown he’s not afraid to pull the trigger on deals or signings, pulling a handful of them this summer. In fact, he’s acting a lot like Rychel, just without the pre-deal buzz. Just when you think he’s being too quiet, he shocks the league and has a smile on his face in the process.

Bowler has a plan; he wants to build a consistent winner. While it took a bit of time to find his style, it’s now loud and clear and fans are appreciating it. With him at the helm this season, there’s plenty of confidence about how this club will look both in the short and long term.

The Schedule

The Spitfires will open their 2022-23 schedule on Saturday, Oct. 1 against the Sarnia Sting. It’s the first non-exhibition game between the clubs since the Spitfires eliminated them in Game 6 of the OHL’s Western Conference first round last spring.

This season marks the first time since 2019-20 that the league will have inter-conference games. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the OHL to stick to West versus West and East versus East, in most cases. Now, the clubs can travel a bit more. It’s always a treat for the fans to see teams like the Oshawa Generals, Peterborough Petes, and Ottawa 67’s come to the WFCU Centre.

Their overall schedule (by day of the week) breaks down like this:

Sunday – Eight games
Monday – Two games
Tuesday – Three games
Wednesday – Four games
Thursday – 15 games
Friday – 19 games
Saturday – 17 games

You can check out the entire schedule on our site and get tickets on the Spitfires’ site.

Season Prediction

After last season’s surprise run to the OHL Championship, this is a club that’s eager to show they can compete again. However, where do you set expectations?

Windsor Spitfires Celebrate
Windsor Spitfires celebrate a win in 2021-22. (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

Winning the conference again is a tall order. Everything came together just right to make that happen and they lost several key players over the summer. A more realistic expectation is grabbing home ice in the first round. Once they get there, all bets are off. Their veterans know how to win and the youth have shown a drive that you can’t teach.

This is going to be a younger, entertaining team that, despite some off nights, will take pride in their game. They’re raring to show the City of Windsor what a consistent winner looks like.


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