The Barrie Colts return home Saturday night with their coach having passed a milestone and having entered rebuilding mode with some legitimate cause for optimism.
Head coach/general manager Marty Williamson was behind the bench for his 1,000th OHL game Friday night in Mississauga, a 5-4 loss that ended a long spell away from home for his hockey team.
The Colts play at Sadlon Arena for the first time in two weeks tonight when the Kingston Frontenacs visit. Game time is 7:30 p.m. Two more follow on home ice: Thursday versus Saginaw and Saturday when the Ottawa 67’s visit.
Backed by solid goaltending by both Sam Hillebrandt and Ben West, the Colts’ fortunes have turned somewhat since the OHL trade deadline. They’ve managed to get better despite trading away some of their top players and having their best, defenceman Beau Akey, out for the season. All this comes at a time when two Colts, Cole Beaudoin and Riley Patterson, are gaining traction ahead of the 2024 NHL Draft that is slated for Vegas in June.
“We are all competitive people, sure,” Williamson said during a telephone chat before Friday’s game, “… but it got to the point where we kind of looked around (before deciding to make trades) and wondered what it was we were doing. It was probably time to look ahead.”
One player who has benefited from the team’s new direction is forward Tai York.
“I think, really, it’s guys knowing our roles and playing them better,” said York, who scored a goal and added an assist Friday and is on a run since being promoted to the Colts’ top line.
A respectable six-game road stretch, when the club won twice and gained points in two other overtime/shootout losses, has put the Colts firmly in the playoff picture with a realistic chance to catch the Frontenacs for the Eastern Conference seventh seed if they can beat them Saturday night and then again on Family Day on the road.
“We want to (continue to) make a push for that sixth or seventh seed,” said York.
Beaudoin, with whom York has been playing of late, continues to evolve into a two-way workhorse. He is expected to be taken in the first two rounds of the Vegas draft. Patterson had a slow start to his OHL career in the fall but has hit his stride lately and earned OHL rookie-of-the-month honours for January. His NHL Draft status is still murky, but he is expected to be picked, possibly as high as the third or fourth round, which would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.
“It’s a good opportunity for me to play with two guys like that,” said York.
It's a paradox perhaps, but the Colts are making a more positive impression in the community than they did last year, when the team was much better on paper and in the standings. Crowds have been bigger and livelier, especially Saturday nights since the beginning of December.
Saturday’s game is expected to be the latest in a string of weekend sellouts or near sellouts. When the Colts beat the Oshawa Generals in a shootout in their last home game, one NHL scout made light of how packed in everyone was at Sadlon Arena.
“Like my dad’s can or sardines,” he quipped after being asked by event staff to move from his standing-room-only perch in the aisle. “I’ve had more close contact with you tonight than I have with my wife and kids the past month.”
That scout made it plain he was in the building because Beaudoin, Patterson, Bode Stewart, who are all forwards, and defenceman Kashawn Aitcheson, who, as a late-born 2006, is not eligible until next season, have made the trip up Highway.400 worth it.
“They have some ways to come yet, but I like what I’m seeing lately,” said the NHL scout.
Another aspect to the Colts’ mini-bump of late is better form from older players such as York, who are finally getting a chance to play valuable top-six minutes after breaking into the OHL in the aftermath of the pandemic. The cancelled season of 2020-21 and the disrupted campaign that followed seemed to especially effect the Colts’ plans to integrate younger guys into a lineup that was heavy on high-enders such as Brandt Clarke, Evan Vierling, Ethan Cardwell (since graduated) and Jacob Frasca, as well as captain Connor Punnett, who were traded at the deadline, along with import Eduard Sale, who has struggled in his first season in North America.
With Sale gone and Akey (Edmonton) out, it currently leaves the Colts without a single player who is drafted or signed by an NHL team — a rarity for any OHL club but especially for Barrie — though that will change in Vegas.
Beyond York, forwards Zach Wigle and Michael Derbidge have also had their moments since Williamson has given them more ice time. Trade pickup Thomas Stewart has been especially solid on the back end, but he will outgrow junior hockey at season’s end.
Moving forward, a lot of hay still needs to go in the barn, but at least the Colts have useful hands at their disposal, provided the club can convert with its import pick(s) this summer and continue to bring along a player or two still lurking on the fringes of the lineup, such as last year’s first-round pick, Shamar Moses, and 2022 second-rounder Carter Lowe.
Just as important, the Colts must get a good return in this year’s priority selection, where they expect to pick about sixth or seventh overall.
Optimism didn’t seem possible through November, when the Colts were outside the playoffs, having been dreadful on the road, not much better on special teams and trying to figure out where to plug holes in their lineup that was beset by injuries.
“We are making steps in the right direction,” Williamson said while pointing out factors such as injuries could throw a spanner in the works. “… I’m proud of how our guys have responded.”