OHL Preview – Flint Firebirds
Coach: Ryan Ouhelan (20-43-0-6)
Flint was the worst team in the Western Conference and the 2nd worst team in the OHL standings last season finishing with a dismal 45 points despite starting the season 3-0. They scored the least amount of goals in the league and allowed the most so essentially they were the worst team. They only had two players who scored more than 20 goals for the year and they easily boasted the worst save percentage as a team. Their longest unbeaten streak all season was 3 games and they had two separate losing streaks of 11 games and 9 games.
Safe to say not much went well for the Firebirds last year but they did make some good trades that have a chance to set them up nicely in the near future. First off, they moved a couple of their veterans in Nick Caamano & Ryan Moore who were traded to Hamilton for 17 yr old Connor Roberts & 3 draft picks. Roberts immediately stepped in and played relatively well for Flint developing some nice chemistry with C Ty Dellandrea in particular. 17 yr old Riley McCourt was also acquired from Hamilton in a separate deal for OHL vet Nick Mattinen and he also played well giving Flint two solid 18 yr olds capable of contributing significantly this year.
So while it was a season to forget as far as the standings go, GM Barclay Branch did manage to set his team up nicely this season with a couple savvy deals to compliment his young roster and has done a nice job drafting the last couple years while also adding some more high draft picks in the process. The Firebirds have rotated bad years (46 pts in 2015, 45 pts in 2017) and good years (72 pts in 2016) since joining the league 3 years ago. They hope that trend continues this season as they appear poised to rebound and make a push for a playoff spot.
Ryan Moore is Flint’s all-time leading scorer with 159 pts. (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)
This Flint Firebirds team should be better this season the question is – how much better? Much of their success will rely on several young players to take another step forward and the development of their defence will be key as the highest scoring defencemen that returns – Fedor Gordeev – had only 25 points last year. Their Powerplay ranked 17th and their Penalty Kill was 18th so both need to be much better if this team is going to have a chance.
Goaltending was also an issue and is another question mark going into this season as 17 yr old Luke Cavallin looks to take over the reigns full time. The defence in front of him did a poor job of preventing high quality scoring chances last season so their development will be vital in easing his workload each and every night.
The strength of this team will be up front led by recent 1st round draft pick Ty Dellandrea. Dellandrea, was terrific last year playing in all situations and should be a lock for at least 30+ goals this season. Whether or not he gets enough help up front to carry this team is the concern. This team is young and has a chance to sneak into the playoffs but will need a lot to go right for that to happen.
Gone are veterans F Maurizio Colella and D Jalen Smereck. Collela, led the team with 61 points & Smereck was a high risk high reward player who led the defence with 10 goals & 34 pts but was also a team worst -41. Both played a lot for this team so their losses will be felt.
Connor Roberts celebrates a goal versus Windsor. Photo by OHL images
Offensively how good could they be?
This is no question this is Ty Dellandrea‘s team. Last season the former 5th overall pick in the 2016 OHL draft posted 27 goals & 59 points and he is expected to improve on that significantly this year. He’s smart, he’s fast and has great offensive instincts. Dellandrea is just a wonderful talent and terrific leader with a great attitude which is something that rubs off on his teammates. The question for Flint is who else can step up and provide some secondary scoring to help him.
Connor Roberts was acquired midseason from Hamilton and ending up scoring 15 goals & 27 pts in 44 games. Much more will be expected of the 18 yr old now that he is in Flint fulltime. Roberts was actually taken 2 slots ahead of Dellandrea in the 2016 Draft but hasn’t had nearly the career Ty has had so far. He’s big & talented and we saw glimpses of it late last year he just needs to work on being more consistent. He went undrafted in the NHL draft in June.
The Firebirds also selected Jan Jenik (3rd rd, ARZ) in the 1st round of this year’s Import draft in the hopes he could come in and help take some of the pressure of Dellandrea. He is reportedly in camp but has not officially signed yet so his status for the 2018-19 season is still up in the air at the moment.
A couple of 19 yr olds in Jake Durham and C.J. Clarke also return. Both are experienced vets capable of contributing offensively. Durham had 30 points in 68 games while Clarke had 16 goals in 66 games. Both will be expected to increase their productivity this season.
Hunter Holmes is another player that flashed some potential last season. He was able to chip in 11 goals & 20 points in 40 games.
Vierling, is a dynamic prospect who is smart, fast and highly skilled. He is also the now former teammate of 1st overall pick Quinton Byfield. He brings a lot of what Dellandrea does already who should be the perfect mentor for the 16 yr old. Vierling has a terrific shot & release while also explosive skating ability. He should have an immediate impact in Flint and is the future of this team.
2019 Draft Eligibles
LW Ethan Keppen was the 10th overall pick in the 2017 OHL draft. He is a prototypical Power forward who has good size and battles hard for loose pucks. He also has nice hands in close and has a very quick release. He played well with Hunter Holmes last season and managed to chip in 10 goals. This season he’ll be looking to double at least. He has the tools to break out in his draft year.
Overall, this forward group has some real nice players capable of putting up some big numbers in the OHL – eventually. Vierling & Keppen are the future while Dellandrea is the leader right now. He should make those around him better but the rest of the group could struggle to score if those two young kids aren’t ready to step up yet. If they are, look out.
How good is the defensive unit?
This defensive unit, looks to be better on paper but it’s tough to tell how much better until we see them all on the ice together.
Fedor Gordeev, is a huge 6’6″ defenceman who is surprising mobile given his size. He also flashed a little offensive flair from time to time and and was named the most improved player for Flint this past season. Defensively, he’s getting better but needs to cut down on his penalties (106 PIMS). He’ll likely compete with Riley McCourt for top pair minutes.
McCourt, was acquired from Hamilton and really settled in nicely down the stretch. He is a very smart, savvy player and an excellent puck mover. He should be able to provide some more offense to a defense core that really lacks that potent offensive player on the back end.
Dennis Busby is a fascinating story. He missed virtually all last season with a broken cavicle but was one of the final cuts for Team Canada’s U18 team before that & had a nice season as a 16 yr old the year before. So, the Arizona Coyotes took a chance on him and drafted him in the 5th round of the 2018 Draft. His story is here.
With Busby back in the fold, the Firebirds could have their #1 defenceman capable of running the Powerplay and logging a ton of minutes. Before his injury, Busby was billed as a exellent two way player with good leadership qualities and a solid puck mover.
Marcus Gretz is an intriguing player who played last year as a 15 yr old (late 2001 birthday). He’s a big kid who’s not NHL draft eligible till 2020 but he has some real nice skill and should get more opportunity this year.
Nikita Alexandrov was taken in the 1st round of the 2017 Import draft but he really struggled adapting to the North American game and was only able to net a disappointing 3 points in 58 games while posting an awful -36.
19 yr old Hakon Nilsen, 17 yr old Zach Pilon and 16 yr old Michael Bianconi likely round out the group.
Overall, Flint’s defensive core should be much better this year thanks to the return of Dennis Busby from injury, the maturation and development of young Marcus Gretz and Riley McCourt playing a full season now in Flint. Good but not great group.
Flint’s starter Garrett Forrest moves on so 17 yr old Luke Cavallin takes over as the full-time starter.
Cavallin, did manage to get into 31 games last year as a 16 yr old so should be ready to step up and be the man now in Flint. Originally drafted in the 2nd round of the 2017 OHL draft, Cavallin has good size, moves well and tracks the puck extremely well. He’ll need to continue to work on his fundamentals and consistency obviously but he has a chance to be real good for the Firebirds.
Emanuel Vella, an overager, was recently acquired to backup Cavallin. He posted a 3.28 GAA & .896 SV% last season for Mississauga.
Flint has the chance to sneak up on teams this year. They’re relatively young but have some talented pieces in the mix. They’re probably not going to challenge for Tops in their division unless they get incredible goaltending but this looks like a 7th or 8th in Conference team with upside.
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