Off-Season for Battalion
For North Bay Battalion fans they have seen the script already. Rebuild is a word that is thrown around hockey a lot.
For the North Bay Battalion, fans have been calling for one for a couple of seasons now. Even with players like Justin Brazeau, Christian Propp, Steve Harland, and Cam Dineen leading the charge in recent years, the team has struggled to find some consistency.
The first three years the Troops were in the Gateway City, the team finished second, and third twice in the Eastern Conference. Mix in two trips to the Eastern Finals, along with a Central Division banner and the first three years were about as good as anyone could imagine.
Fast forward to the next three seasons, North Bay has finished ninth, sixth, and seventh. Two playoff spots, one miss and a combined 10 games in the first round losing to both Kingston and Niagara in five games. While not necessarily a disaster, it could be considered a far cry from where the teams’ decision-makers want to end up.
While finishing last in the OHL this year might represent a season where nothing has gone right to some, for General Manager Adam Dennis, there are a lot of highlights to look back on.
“I think the way we finished was great to see,” he explained. “When you’re a teenager, and you’re halfway through the season and quite a ways from a playoff position, it becomes a challenge and a concern for the coaching and management team as to how to keep the guys motivated.”
“That wasn’t a concern with our group,” Dennis continued. “We have the type of player, the type of character in our dressing room where our guys went to work every day.”
The team certainly did not roll over and die. In their final 10 games, before the season was prematurely cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Troops sported a 6-3-1-0 record. Compare that to the two teams they were chasing for the eighth and final playoff spot, (Niagara, 1-8-1-0 and Kingston, 2-8-0-0), North Bay posed a legitimate threat of overcoming them for the postseason.
For Dennis, a lot of the credit rests with the coaching staff.
“They did a great job of getting the most out of our players,” Dennis stated. “I think to a man, our team got better over the season. Our team developed, our young guys got ice that they might not have had in different scenarios and at key positions.”
One of those key positions, and perhaps the most important position on the ice, was in net. Before the season had begun, the Battalion traded out both goaltenders from last season in Christian Propp and Christian Purboo to make room for Joe Vrbetic. When you look at the numbers, it’s not hard to see why.
The six-foot-four netminder was drafted in the second round of the 2018 OHL Priority Selection, 31st overall, and spent the last season with the Powassan Voodoos. There in the Junior “A” circuit, “Vrbs” played in 30 games, recording 16 wins, 9 losses, and 2 overtime losses to go along with a 2.80 goals-against average (GAA), and a .928 save percentage. During the Voodoos playoff run, Vrbetic posted a 4-2-3 record with a 2.44 GAA and .921 save percentage.
“Coming in as a young guy he was forced into some situations that he normally wouldn’t have been, and I think everybody in North Bay saw the growth,” Dennis said. “By the end of the season, he made sure there was a name for him out there, that he’s going to be a goalie to be watched down the road.”
In the last month of the season, Vrbetic posted two shutouts to go along with games with save percentages of .950, .933, and .941. It wasn’t all roses, however, as he allowed five goals against to Ottawa in a period of work, but rebounded by allowing only 2 a week later in a rematch with the 67’s, the top team in the East.
Another player who stood out for Dennis was Alex Christopoulos. Taken in the third round, 50th overall in the 2019 draft, the speedy winger scored 12 goals to go along with 4 assists for 16 points in 57 games. However, five of those 12 goals came from February 20 to the end of the season on March 8. A span of eight games.
“Coming into the season we basically let him know it would be tough to get into the lineup every night as a third-round pick and he took it personally,” Dennis explained. “You want to talk about changing a culture, at the end of every practice, he would grab our assistant coach and do some skating work with him, get him to pull him through the ice.”
“As we have all seen with him, he started to produce some more and score, he had some separation speed,” he continued. “The second half of the year we had about five or six guys lining up to get some skating work done.”
Not to get lost in the shuffle is Alex’s twin brother Paul, Don Mills Flyers teammate Liam Arnsby, and Kyle Jackson. Along the same theme as Joe Vrbetic, they each played a key role in team performance.
“Arnsby’s taken shifts against guys like Quinton Byfield this year, same with Paul and same with Kyle,” Dennis explained. “These guys are going to get bigger, stronger, and the league will get a little bit worse because the overagers, the graduating players, the guys signing pro contracts, they’re not going to be here next year.”
“These guys will get a little bit stronger and a little bit better against their peers,” he added. “I think the experience they went through, and some of the bad games are experiences that you can take and make sure you never want to be a part of, even though they aren’t experiences that we necessarily wanted to take on this year, I think everyone as a whole grew from them. We made sure we paid attention when we played Ottawa to realize the compete level that it takes to be an elite team in this league.”
With the strong stable of rookies who will be moving to their second year, along with the first overall pick in this year’s draft, it’s not hard to imagine the Battalion rejoining the top tier of the league. Thoughts like that can provide some solace during these uncertain times.