The Barrie Colts play their first game of the 2016/2017 Ontario Hockey League season tonight in what looks to be an interesting year for the boys.
While the OHL season started Wednesday and has since seen four games completed, Simcoe County hockey fans have been waiting for their squad to hit the road tonight in an Eastern Conference battle between last year’s first and second place teams.
This will not be a battle of Eastern super-powers and regardless of what the first game gives us, it’s going to be a rebuilding year for Barrie.
Gone is the speedy and dynamic Andrew Mangiapane, the solid goaltending of Mackenzie Blackwood and the 2015/2016 OHL points champion Kevin Labanc.
Local fans will also miss the always game-ready Dylan Sadowy and Justin Scott; that’s a lot of known fire-power not in the line-up.
Now in his seventh season behind the bench, Coach Dale Hawerchuk recognizes the label of “youth-movement” attached to his squad.
“We are younger as far as far as experience goes, but I like the skill set in our young guys,” said Hawerchuk. “I like their ability and determination to learn as fast as they been. We’ll assess them as we go along but some of the kids are making good decisions out there already. The learning curve is quick and they have to get on it, but all in all a pretty good pre-season.”
The Colts pre-season record was 3-3 with and was not necessarily a view of what to expect from the team as Barrie has historically used the time to simply evaluate what they need and where.
They did just that in acquiring offensively skilled forward Kirill Nizhnikov from Mississauga in a blockbuster that sent the Steelheads ten possible draft picks. Nizhnikov, selected seventh overall by Mississauga in the 2016 CHL Import Draft, tallied 37 points in 27 games for his minor midget Toronto Jr Canadians last season.
“Not being afraid to pick up guys to add to the team is why I feel we’ve had pretty good success over the years,” said Hawerchuk. “We compete hard here and no matter if you’re young in dressing room or new from elsewhere, the older guys here instil that work ethic in you. That’s where you need your veterans to be working their butts off every time because it rubs off.”
One of the veterans is overager Cordell James. The big centre had 44 points last year, more than his last two years combined. More ice time this season for the long-time Colt should see an even bigger year for him.
“We do have a young team but it’s not the first time,” said James. “We’ll just have to play hard and fast; make sure that coming here isn’t an easy place to play. It’s what we do every year no matter the changes.”
James is not going to shy away from his new role in the dressing room or on the ice. As a leader for this Colts team now, the 6’2 forward joins his seasoned mates Anthony Stefano and Roy Radke to help produce the offense from last year that is now missing from the line-up this season.
“I know going in, people are looking like this team is missing so much, and that may be true to a point,” said James. “But we have some really great offense weapons on this club and I know that our work ethic is second to none. As a leader here, I look forward to what we are putting on the ice.”
One thing that Barrie fans have always been spoiled with is good goaltending, and with Blackwood gone from the pipes most fans may be worried about how the scoreboard will look at the end of the night.
David Ovsjannikov is no slouch and has proven he can carry his own, as last year he was forced to suit up while Blackwood served suspensions and donned the Team Canada sweater in the annual Junior tournament. That said, rookie Christian Propp has been impressive in exhibition games (3G, 1.93 GAA, 0.938 SV%) and there is still Ruan Badenhorst who is reliable when called upon. Having too many goalies to start a season is not always a bad problem. Where folks should be excited about their Colts is on the blueline.
While former Captain Michael Webster and his defencemen brothers Rasmus Andersson, Josh Carrick and Greg DiTomaso are gone, the returning fan favourite Cameron Lizotte will be one of three veteran D-men. Lizotte along with Justin Murray and Kody Gagnon will mentor the youngsters coming in, particularly Tom Hedberg, Tyler Tucker and Kyle Auger.
“I really like how our defense is shaping up,” said Coach Hawerchuk. “We’ve got a core group of young kids who could be a force for a few years. They’ll get wonderful leadership to help in the being new to the league department, but other than that they’ll be fine.”
Barrie has missed the playoffs once in the team’s 21 years. With the upcoming season being branded by many as a rebuilding year, it would be understandable if the Colts lost their title as perennial Central Division Champions and took the post-season off. Despite what looks to be a crazy, unpredictable year in the Eastern Conference, I feel that by season’s end, we’ll be looking at the playoff match-up for Barrie and not what could have been.
Prediction for Barrie: 3nd in the Central Division 6th in the Eastern Conference
Mississauga will be force to be reckoned with as the last couple of years have seemingly pointed to this being the year the Steelheads make a legitimate run at the title.
The Oshawa Generals will be celebrating their 80th year of existence and as a team that is competitive near every year, look for them to not want the special anniversary to end in the regular season.
Windsor is the host city of the 2016/2017 Memorial Cup and they will not want to look like they don’t belong. It will take a special team to keep them out of first... ...The London Knights. Raise your hand if you’re sick of them. Unfortunately for the rest of the OHL, the reigning Memorial Cup Champions are the favourites going into this season and may only have to travel two hours down the 401 to get to it.
Playoff Team Predictions:
Eastern Conference: 1. Mississauga Steelheads 2. Peterborough Petes 3. Hamilton Bulldogs 4. Oshawa Generals 5. Kingston Frontenacs 6. Barrie Colts 7. Ottawa 67’s 8. North Bay Battalion
Western Conference 1. London Knights 2. Windsor Spitfires 3. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds 4. Sarnia Sting 5. Kitchener Rangers 6. Owen Sound Attack 7. Erie Otters 8. Guelph Storm
Barrie opens the season tonight in Kingston at 7 p.m. before tilts in Ottawa on Sunday and then Sudbury next Friday.
The Colts home opener is Saturday October 1 at 7:30 p.m. as they host the nation’s champion London Knights.
For tickets to home games and all other info, click here.