After finishing eighth in the OHL’s Western Conference last season, the Windsor Spitfires entered 2019-20 looking to take the next step in their rebuild. What they’ve found, though, is that confidence goes a long way. Some nights are easier than others but the education is getting through.
Through the first 23 games, which is one-third of the season, the Spitfires have consistently been at-or-near the top of the conference. It’s been far from easy, and they’re not perfect, but so far it’s a fun ride that few can argue with. Let’s take a look at the team through November as we provide the first report card of the season.
Forward Depth a Bright Light
What a difference a year can make.
In 2018-19, the Spitfires’ forwards scored a disappointing 188 goals. While they had five guys with 20-plus goals, only two others hit double digits. When you’re starting a rebuild, that might be acceptable. Beyond that, it simply can’t happen. The coaches recognized this and now it’s a whole new game.
Up-and-down the lineup, everyone is contributing. Head coach Trevor Letowski could throw out the veteran line of Tyler Angle (Columbus Blue Jackets), Egor Afanasyev (Nashville Predators), and Cole Purboo and know they’ve got a chance to score. Then, he throws out the youth line of Matthew Maggio, Pasquale Zito, and Wyatt Johnson and they’ll provide oodles of energy to keep the pace going.
If everyone keeps on their current trend, there will be nine forwards who hit the 10-goal mark, most of whom could hit 20-or-more goals. Every line is clicking and bringing energy, which gives the coaches plenty of options.
With five forwards on pace for 60-plus points this season, including Dallas Stars’ prospect Curtis Douglas and 2020 NHL Prospect Jean-Luc Foudy, it’s proof that Letowski’s new offensive systems are working. The creativity is flowing and the pucks are getting on goal.
For two seasons, Spitfires’ fans have asked for more creativity and more goals. The team has delivered. Whether they can sustain this pace or not is up in the air. However, the numbers don’t lie. This group is fun to watch.
While the forwards are shining, the defence has become a bit of a question mark for the club.
Offensively, the group is rock solid. Veteran Connor Corcoran leads with 24 points in 23 games, while Louka Henault and Finnish rookie Ruben Rafkin are right behind with 19 and 16 points, respectively.
Rafkin came over in the 2019 CHL Import Draft from the Tri-City Storm (USHL) and, along with fellow rookie Dylan Robinson, is rated as a Player to Watch in the 2020 NHL Draft. Overall, the group has scored 82 points, which is impressive.
While they’re successful with the puck, the defensive side needs work. Many nights see stellar results, but miscues and miscommunications have led to ugly situations and prime scoring chances against.
They are on pace to give up a half-a-goal more per game this season (3.70 v. 3.18 in 2018-19). This is partly because of widely varying goals-against totals from game-to-game. Here’s an example:
- Sept. 20 v. Peterborough Petes – 6 goals against.
- Sept 26 v. Erie Otters – 1 goal against.
- Sept 27 @ Hamilton Bulldogs – 1 goal against.
- Sept. 28 @ Erie Otters – 6 goals against
- Nov. 24 v. Owen Sound Attack – 3 goals against
- Nov. 29 @ London Knights – 6 goals against
- Nov. 30 v. Niagara IceDogs – 3 goals against
It’s a frustrating trend and adjustments are required before long. Fortunately, they have allowed the third-fewest goals against in the conference, which is a bit of a bright side.
There’s plenty to be optimistic about overall. The offence is there and the youth look promising. However, while they’ve been defensively sound at times, the lapses can’t be ignored, especially when this group has generally been together for at least a season.
Patience with the Crease Protégés
From 2015-18, goaltender Michael DiPietro set a high standard, becoming the best in team history. Filling those pads is a colossal challenge.
After DiPietro was traded to the Ottawa 67’s in December, young Finnish goaltender Kari Piiroinen was pushed into the spotlight. He got help from veteran Colton Incze, but the pressure remained.
With Incze graduating over the summer, it’s now up to Piiroinen, 18, along with rookie Xavier Medina, to push the team forward.
After camp, the young Finn admitted there was pressure after the deal, but that was natural. Going home in the summer helped him relax with a blank slate. Was it enough?
Piiroinen had a rollercoaster start but, through 16 appearances, has begun to steady the ship. His 3.57 goals-against-average (GAA) and .879 save percentage (SV%) are improvements from last season but there’s still room to grow. Fortunately, his confidence and composure are as high as ever.
His backup, 17-year-old Xavier Medina, is eager for the future. The Spitfires’ third-round pick in 2018 came to the club over the summer from the Oakland Jr. Grizzlies.
Medina was a rock in his first start, making 18 saves in a 2-1 road win over the Hamilton Bulldogs. Since then, he’s leveled off with at least three goals against in each start. That’s normal for a rookie, though. The potential is certainly there and, once he gets the technical side down, all will be well.
Coming in after DiPietro is a beast, regardless of your talent. Both goaltenders just need time to develop their skills while a new era gets underway. Have a little patience. They’ve steadily improved as the season has progressed and are better than critics want you to believe.
Special Teams Success
It’s hard to argue with the numbers.
Early in the season, the Spitfires struggled both up-and-down a man. They couldn’t find their groove and it cost them. Their power play and penalty kill were near the bottom of the league, which doesn’t help anything. A little patience and practice go a long way, though.
With persistent work, repetition, and systems, the power play has become a well-oiled machine with 10 different players recording at least a point. While they’re near the bottom of the league in power play chances, they’re making them count with a 32.2 percent conversion rate, second in the league.
On the penalty kill, they’ve risen from near bottom-dwellers to upper-half of the league at 77.3 percent. This has always been an area of pride for the club and now they’re getting closer to that 80 percent benchmark.
Special teams were a struggle in the early part of the season, but they’ve certainly made up for it over the last month.
Letowski Letting Team Play
When Letowski took over the club in 2017-18, he implemented defence-first systems. While they seem practical, they don’t allow for much offensive creativity. That truly hurt the club.
Last season, Letowski and his associates, Mike Weber and Jerrod Smith, went back-and-forth with a variety of systems, both offensive and defensive. It resulted in mixed play, but also the yearning for more goals. The players and fans saw what could happen if the team was let loose a bit and nobody was complaining.
Before this season started, Letowski implemented new systems, bringing creativity into the fold. There was some pessimism but overall plenty of excitement. The results have been night-and-day.
While the season is still fairly young, they’re averaging a full 1.4-goals more per game (3.18 to 4.61), and they’ve only scored fewer than three goals on five occasions.
With four NHL prospects, and another five on the “Players to Watch” list for the 2020 NHL Draft, giving a longer leash has been crucial. You can see they’re enjoying the game and that’s translated into wins in the standings.
While there’s some work to do defensively, you can’t argue with the results. Credit is given where it’s due. The staff has turned the team around and it’s been an impressive showing.
Soaring Start to Season
Let’s be realistic – this success is a bit of a surprise. Most figured they would be fighting for home ice all season. Here they sit in the CHL Top-10, though, and among the best in the OHL. It’s a nice place to be and credit is given throughout the lineup and management. With five regulation losses all season, they’re doing something right.
While general manager Bill Bowler hasn’t done much in terms of transactions, he’s made minor deals to help the room. Add in a cohesive roster, proper systems, and talented players, and you’ve got a solid recipe.
While the wins have come, nothing is being taken for granted. They’ve played the fewest games in the league and the organization knows the challenges are only going to get tougher.
The Spitfires have taken advantage of a favourable schedule, including beating some of the league’s best. If they can build on that, plus fix the issues, it will help them once the second half starts.
While there is plenty of room to grow, there’s no question that this group deserves props. It’s hard to justify anything but “they aced it” so far.