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PLAYING FIELD: Post-pandemic effects cause mixed results on ice

Every OHL player born in 2003 and 2004 'had a vital year ripped away from him,' says sports columnist; Colts host Sudbury Wolves tonight at Sadlon Arena
Hunter Haight was selected 47th overall by the Minnesota Wild in the 2022 NHL Draft.

There are a few things about the post-pandemic Ontario Hockey League that are difficult to figure out.

Blessedly back to playing a normal schedule for the first time in three seasons, the league still has a lot of grey areas where no one knows what’s reality and what could be just a passing phase.

Perhaps the biggest unknown is what is going on with the Barrie Colts, who will welcome the Sudbury Wolves at Sadlon Arena on Saturday. Puck drop is at 7:30 p.m.

Are the Colts a contender? Are they not? Worse, perhaps, are they somewhere in between?

The hockey club’s last two games — both victories — suggest the Colts could bear watching later in the spring. Marty Williamson’s team looked good in dispatching the Sarnia Sting 3-2 in overtime last weekend on the road, and again at home on Thursday night, when they beat the Saginaw Spirit 5-2.

There are just as many indications there could, or should, be another rebuild coming.

The Colts, like the league, have given mixed signals and it’s hard to not cite the after-effects of COVID-19 as a contributing factor.

The trade of former Colts forward Hunter Haight to the Spirit is one such example. Haight, who scored in his return to Barrie on Thursday night, was a former first-round pick in the OHL Priority Selection. He had an uneven season-plus in Barrie and was traded last week for a collection of second- and third-round draft picks.

The Minnesota Wild, who took Haight in the second round of last summer’s NHL Draft, will have made a judgment on him long before the Colts’ cache of draft picks they got in return contribute (or not) in Barrie.

But Haight’s situation speaks to another issue: He lost a year of development when the season was cancelled immediately after the Colts took him eighth overall in 2020. That meant Haight, like every other OHL player born in 2003 and 2004, had a vital year ripped away from him.

To that end, is it fair to pass judgment on Haight and others like him? Moreover, if the 2020-21 season had gone ahead, would at least one of Evan Vierling (New York Rangers) and/or Declan McDonnell (Tampa Bay Lightning) have grown into pro-ready players and been signed by the NHL teams that drafted them?

If either one (or both) of Vierling and McDonnell had been signed, they would be playing in the American Hockey League right now and the Colts wouldn’t be in the awkward position of carrying four overage players, sitting one out each game until the situation is resolved.

Beyond the Colts, there is an even starker example of the negative effects of that cancelled season and the scattered one that took place last year.

When Team Canada announced its final evaluation camp roster for this year’s World Junior team, just five of its 29 players were OHLers. That’s a shockingly low number, even after Brandt Clarke and Shane Wright were added a couple of days later from their NHL teams.

The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the Western Hockey League make up the vast majority of the other 24 invitees. Is it just a coincidence the QMJHL and WHL found a way to play close to a full schedule in 2020-21, and had a far less congested schedule full of make-up games than the OHL did last year?

I think not.

Team Canada’s roster will be chock-full of top-flight NHL prospects, as is usually the case. Others who will likely make the final roster have risen to prominence just in the past year. That group includes players such as Jordan Dumais, Riley Kidney, Zach Ostapchuk and Joshua Roy.

All of them play in either the QMJHL or WHL. Aside from Mississauga Steelheads defenceman Ethan Del Mastro and Peterborough Petes forward Brennan Othmann, no current OHL skater is likely to be a top-six forward or a top-four blueliner when games start on Boxing Day.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a year since Canada started sending a full-strength squad to the World Juniors in the early 1980s, when the OHL was so under-represented.

Back to the Colts. The team’s immediate plans will likely be decided when the World Juniors are completed and defenceman Clarke is either sent back to Barrie, or the Los Angeles Kings decide to keep him.

The fact the Kings haven’t played Clarke over the past month, except for an AHL conditioning stint, is a strong indication Clarke should be back playing junior hockey.

Seattle Kraken/Kingston Frontenacs forward Shane Wright is in a similar position. Aside from Tuesday’s tilt against the Montreal Canadiens, when Wright scored his first NHL goal, he hadn’t played an NHL game in weeks.

Whatever the Kings and Kraken decide to do, it will go a long way to determine where OHL Eastern Conference teams stand as the deadline approaches after the holidays.

It could also provide the most clarity the OHL has had since before COVID-19 struck.

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Peter Robinson

About the Author: Peter Robinson

Barrie's Peter Robinson is a sports columnist for BarrieToday. He is the author of Hope and Heartbreak in Toronto, his take on living with the disease of being a Leafs fan.
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