For the past 20 years I have written a column immediately following the end of the Soo Greyhounds’ season, giving my thoughts as a fan as to how the team fared and usually what I foresee for the following season.
I am a tad tardy this year as, those of you who read my column of last week will know, I had other things on my mind.
Having been adopted as an infant, I was off with my son Blake to B.C. to meet members of my biological family I discovered through my membership in AncestryDNA.
As far as the Greyhounds go, they gave us a helluva season.
They had a franchise-record of 55-7-3-3 during the regular season and at one point put together a streak of 23 straight wins and 29 without a loss in regulation.
All this led the team’s management and many fans to believe that this was a team that could possibly make it all the way to the Memorial Cup, Management, in fact, began to believe so strongly that it went out and gave away Haydon Fowler, the team’s first-round draft choice in 2017, and nine future draft choices starting in 2019 to get Erie Otters’ stars Taylor Raddysh and Jordan Sambrook.
I will admit I had hope, but after the Hounds dumped the Saginaw Spirit in four straight in the opening round of the playoffs and the heavy hitting began in the following series with the Owen Sound Attack, I began to have my doubts.
The flaw I wrote about in a column during the season about what I saw for next year was going to play a role now.
This version of the team wasn’t built as a legitimate contender in the most teams are.
It was a team that I thought actually over-achieved during the regular season when it came to straight wins and losses. The Hounds seemed to have the uncanny knack of when things were going badly, someone would get them a goal that would lead to two or three others and they would be in the win column again.
That probably is what gave management the idea to go for it all, something I agreed with at the time as I thought nothing ventured, nothing gained, and we would get the draft choices back by trading Morgan Frost, who finished second in league scoring in the regular season, and possibly star goalie Matt Vilalta, at the trade deadline next year during what I saw as a losing season.
I saw it as a losing season because of how the team was constituted this year. There was a distinct shortage of 18-year-olds, the team having only three, Frost, Vilalta and defenceman Anthony DeMeo, which would mean that next year the Hounds would have only three 19-year-olds in their lineup.
And I strongly believe the shortage of 18-year-olds played a role in the playoffs this year.
Think about it.
Championship teams usually are heavily laden with 19- and 18-year-olds and have a full complement of three overage players.
This was how it was with the Hamilton Bulldogs, who beat out the Hounds in six games for the league championship. The Bulldogs had three overagers, 10 19-year-olds and eight 18-year-olds.
In comparison, the Hounds had only two overagers, nine 19-year-olds and only three 18-year-olds.
This meant the Hounds had only 14 players in the top age brackets compared to 21 for the Bulldogs. That is a big difference in experience, especially since one of the Hounds’ 19-year-olds was a backup goalie who saw the ice in the playoffs mainly in warmups.
The Greyhounds had a distinct edge in the two lower age brackets, 17- and 16-year-olds, but this is not the area where championship teams are made.
The Hounds had nine 17-year-olds and two 16-year-olds; the Bulldogs had two 17-year-olds and two 16-year-olds.
After knocking out Saginaw, the Hounds were only 10-10 thereafter in wins and losses, beating Owen Sound and the Kitchener Rangers in seven games and losing to Hamilton in six.
But it is a season we will all remember and, of course, hope to repeat not all that far down the road.
After all, it wasn’t that long ago, the 2014-15 season, that the Hounds went for the top prizes, adding stars Nick Ritchie, Justin Bailey, Anthony DeAngelo and Connor Boland at the trade deadline while dealing away their first-round pick, Anthony Salinitri, and a lot of draft choices..
It turned out to be to no avail as they lost to Connor McDavid and the Otters, a team that Raddysh was on, in the playoffs.
But in three short years the Hounds rose to prominence again and if the present crop of 17-year-olds develops as it should, we could be in for another good go in two years.
It is hard to say what we will have for overagers next as so many of the graduating 19-year-olds have pro contracts, but there is one such player, Jack Kopacka, I would love to see return, for both his benefit and, selfishly, for ours.
Kopacka is at times an exciting players, with great speed and a devastating quick-release shot, but I think he could use another year wrapping his head around the mental aspect of the game. He sometimes seems to drift, as if he is not really in tune with what is going on around him.
He scored 30 goals along with 19 assists as an 18-year-old and. He got 31 goals and 32 assists last year. With his talent, he should have had 40-45 goals.
Therefore I think an overage year would be good for him.
I hark back to Jake Muzzin and Colin Miller, two former Greyhounds who, not considered ready for prime time after their seasons spent as 19-year-olds, played overage years with the Hounds.
Both blossomed offensively and defensively. Muzzin had 15 goals and 52 assists in his overage year and won the Max Kaminsky Trophy for top defenceman in the league. Miller had 20 goals and 35 assists.
And look where they are today, NHL stars.
I think it could be the same for Kopacka.
In any event it was a great season and I, as always, look forward to the next one. Come what may, I will be there.
Go, Hounds, go.