With the 2022 Memorial Cup now in the rearview mirror (congratulations to the Saint John Sea Dogs), the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) off-season is underway. However, with plenty of storylines unfolding for the Windsor Spitfires, it’s going to be anything but a day at the cottage for general manager Bill Bowler.
Coming into 2021-22, Bowler had a reputation of being the quiet, calculated GM. It was a real change of pace from his mentor, former GM Warren Rychel, and that took a while for everyone to get used to. However, at the trade deadline, several deals were made to solidify the roster and they took that all the way to Game 7 of the league championship. Now, as the summer gets going, management has a lot to think about and it could result in a very different roster come September’s training camp. Here are five stories to keep an eye on as the heat turns up this summer.
5. CHL Import Draft
Each year, the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) holds its annual Import Draft, consisting of players who were born outside Canada or the United States. Every team in the CHL participates via rotating leagues (West, Ontario, Quebec, West, Ontario, Quebec, and so on) and clubs are allowed two players on their roster. This is where it gets tricky for the Spitfires, though.
In 2020, Bowler needed some help on defence and selected the 17-year-old St. Petersburg, Russia-native Daniil Sobolev. The 6-foot, 209-pound Montreal Canadiens prospect is known for his strong, physical presence in his own end, but also had 17 points in 62 games this season. He’s become an integral part of the defence.
A year later, Bowler went back to Russia and took 17-year-old forward Avval Baisov in hopes of getting some offence. While the 6-foot, 187-pound winger showed offensive potential in the Russian junior leagues, he’s taken more time to get used to the North American style with just five points in 26 games.
This creates a situation for Bowler. The Spitfires have the 56th and 116th picks in this year’s draft, held on Fri., July 1 at 11 a.m. Sobolev will likely return for another season but Baisov becomes a toss-up. He was a healthy scratch for more than half of the games. While he showed incredible energy and tenacity, does the club hold onto him in hopes that he finds the net more? Do they cut bait and make a pick at 56? It’s not a decision Bowler can take lightly.
4. Will Marc Savard Return?
This isn’t a question we wanted to be asking right now. Yet, it’s reality.
When the Spitfires hired former OHL/NHL great Marc Savard as their new head coach in July 2021, it seemed like the start of a fantastic partnership. The rookie coach was eager to hone his craft in junior hockey after spending 2019-20 as an assistant for the St. Louis Blues, while Bowler was searching for a new bench boss following the hiring of long-time coach Trevor Letowski by the Montreal Canadiens.
Savard brought a new, creative vibe to the team. His systems embrace offence, playing the right way, and never quitting, while his off-ice values have built a winning culture that the Spitfires hadn’t seen since their back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010. Everything about this situation just fits right.
However, after the Spitfires finished their run in the OHL Championship, there were rumblings online about Savard being targeted by NHL clubs. He has since said that he’s happy where he is but it’s not hard to have your ears perk up with this.
Savard has been exactly what the Spitfires needed – a young (mid-40s) player’s coach who embraces the “family” culture, brings exciting hockey to the ice and has the sense of humour everyone appreciates. Unfortunately, that’s also highly sought after by NHL clubs. Given his previous success in the pros, could this be a one-and-done with the Spitfires? Hopefully not but it can’t be ruled out.
3. Abundance of Overagers
Part of the reason for the Spitfires’ success this season was Bowler’s slick moves to bring in key veterans. During the playoffs, the club had seven 19-or-20-year-olds and they all contributed in a big way. However, they’re all eligible to return next season and that becomes an issue.
Each team is allowed to dress three 20-year-olds; for 2022-23, that’s 2002-born players. This means the Spitfires have some decisions to make. As of June 29, they had three forwards, including captain Will Cuylle, two defencemen, and two goaltenders, with only three spots to put them.
We can almost immediately rule out Cuylle as he will be eligible for the American Hockey League (AHL) and will likely start his pro career with the Hartford Wolf Pack (New York Rangers’ affiliate). That still leaves six talented players at Bowler’s desk. In early July, we’ll go more in-depth with this situation, giving details about players and our prediction. For now, though, this is going to be a crucial story to watch unfold as the summer goes along. It could go a long way to the club’s success next Spring.
2. Crowded Crease
Sometimes, the best situations during a playoff run end up being among the most complicated in the off-season.
Coming into 2021-22, Bowler had a good idea of what the future held in goal. Veteran Xavier Medina was ready to take the crease full-time while mentoring 2020 pick Kyle Downey. However, struggles, injuries, and COVID-19 forced the club to acquire goaltender Mathias Onuska from the London Knights at the deadline. This created a top-tier duo with Medina and Onuska, while Downey developed with LaSalle Jr. B. However, it’s also leads to a big decision this summer.
Both Medina and Onuska are eligible to return as overagers, but where does that leave Downey? The 18-year-old will likely want to play full-time and having a graduating goaltender as a backup isn’t common. The Spitfires have goaltending options in the pipeline, which creates more options for Bowler. Regardless of the direction they chose, this will be an area of focus before the season starts.
1. Will Wyatt Return?
When Rychel drafted forward Wyatt Johnston sixth overall in 2019, he envisioned a future leader who could light the lamp every night. The club got more than they anticipated.
After a brief adjustment, Johnston finished his rookie season with 30 points in 58 games. At the World Under-18s in May 2021, it all seemed to click, and the Dallas Stars took notice. They took him 17th overall in July. When he arrived at the Spitfires’ 2021-22 camp in September, he was on a mission, and little did anyone know what would follow.
Not only did Johnston earn an “A”, but he was a leader in the room, a leader in the community, and added a cool 124-points in 68 games. It earned him several awards, including the OHL’s Most Outstanding Player. Now, the big question – will he return?
Johnston just turned 19 (May 23) and hasn’t played four seasons in the OHL, making him ineligible for the AHL. Next season, he has two options – the Stars or the Spitfires. He will likely get the nine-game look from the Stars, but what about after that? Will he stick or head back to the OHL?
If he returns, it’ll be a huge boost for the Spitfires, whether it’s for another championship run or one of the best trade baits on the market. If he sticks with the Stars, it would be a great learning experience. Either way, it’s going to be a big story.
While this is the shortest summer the Spitfires have had since their 2017 Memorial Cup championship, it won’t be quiet. Bowler has a lot on his plate, from players to coaching to a draft. If the last year is any indication, he won’t shy away from making a splash or three.
A nearly life-long resident of Windsor, ON, I graduated from St. Clair College (Journalism) and University of Windsor (Communications) and have attended Windsor Spitfires’ (and OHL) games for 30-years. My areas include multimedia journalism and photography.