Welcome back to week two of the Monday Night Major.
With NHL rookie camps in full swing, it’s been a week of practice for those remaining in OHL camps. Having said that, it was not a week without activity around the league.
The toughest time of year
After getting the exhibition season underway last weekend, the league suddenly finds itself without action. Unfortunately, this is typical as every year the second weekend is quiet due to NHL rookie camp tournaments taking players away from the league.
For those left behind, it was a week of practice. For coaching staffs around the league it was a week of evaluating what you have and what will be should one of your NHL drafted players stick in the big leagues.
Hamilton will not have to worry about losing their best offensive weapon in Arthur Kaliyev this year. On the other hand Sault Ste. Marie is left preparing for life without Captain Barrett Hayton. Hayton almost made the Coyotes as an 18-year-old and could make the jump this year.
The coaching fraternity in the league recognizes this is part of life as an OHL coach. Despite that recognition they want their players returning healthy and soon to prepare for the regular season.
The value in the week is that it allows the coaching staff more time to teach new players the system they want to use. Unfortunately, though, it makes practicing the power play a challenge with all of the top options elsewhere.
With the rookie tournaments ending and NHL camps starting in a week, the OHL will be happy to have their players return.
FIVE IN THE BOX
Five in the box is a weekly update on five people of interest around league for on-ice performance or personal interest stories.
The Russian forward returns to the league after leaving the Sudbury Wolves last year to return to Russia after 20 games.
Nizhnikov joins his fourth organization, having been traded four times throughout his tenure in the league. In fact, Nizhnikov was traded prior to playing in the league after refusing to report to Mississauga.
The allure with Nizhnikov has always been a dazzling array of skills. The problem has been finding the ability to execute on the ice when given the opportunity.
Nizhnikov has only scored 66 points in 126 games played in his career thus far. Ironically the Russian was productive with 12 points before walking away from the Wolves.
Could this be the year Nizhnikov finally puts it all together in the league?
This week saw Purboo leave the North Bay Battalion to go further north to join the Sudbury Wolves.
Purboo has served as the backup in North Bay for the past two seasons. With the trade, he finally earns an opportunity to become a number one goalie in the league.
Sudbury had an apparent need in goal with Ukka-Pekka Luukonen graduating to the professional ranks this season and found replacing the OHL’s goaltender of the year a challenge.
The Wolves entered camp with a trio of goaltenders that collectively had under 15 games of experience under their belt. It became apparent in a hurry that more experience was needed if they were to build upon last year.
In 28 career games played, Purboo has a 4.13 goals-against average to go along with a .888 save percentage. The Wolves certainly hope those numbers will improve with regular playing time and a stronger team in front of him.
Christian Purboo was not the only goaltender to change OHL cities this week. Popovich departs Guelph for Flint just a few short months after leading the Storm to an OHL championship.
The overage goaltender moves to the Firebirds to provide stability in goal. It marks the second year in a row that the organization turns to a veteran overager to protect the net.
A year ago they acquired Emanuel Vella in a similar move but hope that Popovich’s experience in the playoffs last year can take the team to its first playoff berth since the 2016-17 season.
While many, including myself, doubted that Popovich could backstop a team to a championship last year, Popovich found a way to get it done. While it remains to be seen how he performs in front of a weaker defensive team in Flint, Popovich should lead the team back into the post-season.
This could be Flint’s most successful year on the ice since moving to Flint. While pundits are not dubbing them a contender yet, the one area they should not question is in goal. Popovich has earned enough respect to know the Firebirds are going to be solid in goal.
It was announced this week that Gilmour would forgo his final OHL season to pursue his schooling options.
The former sixth overall pick of the OHL Priority Selection Draft is coming off a terrific playoff performance where he had 18 points in 17 games played for the Spirit.
The timing of the announcement is interesting as school commitments are typically made prior to this point. Gilmour was also expected to see significant minutes in a scoring role this year after his playoff performance.
With Gilmour’s departure, there is a good chance that veteran defenceman Reilly Webb could end up staying in Saginaw. Webb was rumored to be available earlier in the week as Saginaw attempted to clear up their overage situation.
Saginaw began the week with four overage players on the roster for the three spots allowed. Teams can begin the season with more than three but would have to scratch one until the situation could be resolved.
Is this the year the former 4th overall selection of the Spirit breaks out offensively?
Porco scored 20 goals and added 16 assists last season for Saginaw. That output allowed him to be drafted in the fifth round of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft this summer.
While 20 goals is considered a good season by many, the Spirit will be counting on the left-winger for more offense in his third OHL season.
The third-year is often when a lot of players see an offensive breakout. It would not be a surprise to see Porco reach the point-per-game threshold this year. The talent surrounding the Dallas Stars’ prospect is definitely there as well, making Porco one to watch as the season begins.
OHL Coaches and Health Concerns
This week saw Dale Hawerchuk of the Barrie Colts become the latest coach to need time away from the bench in what is becoming an all too familiar trend around the league.
Several years ago Marty Williamson required time away from the Niagara IceDogs bench for health issues. Dave Matsos collapsed behind the Hamilton Bulldogs bench last year. Matsos did not return to the team last year and will resume his role this year with the team as an associate coach.
Stan Butler, Jeff Brown, Bob Jones, and Ryan Oulahen have also missed time or resigned over the past few years due to health issues.
The role of the OHL coach is not an easy journey to navigate at the best of times.
In September while you are trying to build your team, you are having your best players disappear for NHL training camps. While they expect to get the players back, there are times where they are forced to adjust to the unexpected as their star player graduates to the NHL.
As if that is not challenging enough, you also have to balance the academic requirements of the younger players. Yes, their hockey coach has to make sure they are attending school. These are also young players that are dealing with things for the first time. One of your players could be struggling due to a first relationship ending; you are then not only a coach but a parent.
The coach also has to deal with the parents and agents in terms of ice times concerns for these players; all on top of the demands of trying to make the NHL drafted prospects round out some facet of their game.
We have not even discussed the role of having to deal with the media on a regular basis. If a player is scratched for something personal going on, you have to explain why without compromising the player’s personal issue to the media.
There is little doubt as the league gets bigger that we are seeing an increase in these health issues. While everyone believes there is great pressure to be a coach in the NHL, there might be more in the OHL. We should not overlook these day-to-day situations at the junior level.
Yes, the money may not be as significant but the role in developing young men is significantly taxing.
Hopefully, Dale Hawerchuk can return to the bench next year for the Barrie Colts. In the interim, he needs to take care of himself first. He has spent the last decade looking after young players but now he must look after himself.
Thank you for joining the OHL Network for this week’s edition of the Major.