By GARE JOYCE
OSHAWA – The Oshawa Generals had big plans a couple of years back.
They had a beautiful new arena, a prodigy who was going to break a goal-scoring record held by Wayne Gretzky and some impressive talent surrounding him. OHL insiders would have told you that the Generals were the frontrunners to end up as hosts of the 2008 Memorial Cup and none would have begrudged them if their bid was approved.
Then a funny thing happened. Or at least a funny thing if you weren’t in a Generals sweater or on the Oshawa staff.
The Kitchener Rangers won the bidding for the Memorial Cup and then they won everything in sight except for the last game of that tournament.
John Tavares, who broke 99′s league record for goals by a 16-year-old by racking up 72 in 67 games, reinvented himself, going from a lethal finisher to a playmaker.
The Generals adopted a win-now strategy and loaded up their roster but the Belleville Bulls, even with their best player, Shawn Matthias, out with mono, knocked Oshawa out of the Eastern Conference final in five games. The score of that final game: 11-0.
Some things, like Kitchener as Memorial Cup hosts, can be foreseen. Some things, like a talent like Tavares looking for new challenges, will surprise. And some things, like that 11-0 score, just leave you scratching your head.
"It was one of those things," Generals coach Chris DePiero says.
Truth is, things started to go sideways early on last season. Brad Selwood was the embattled Oshawa coach and general manager and he kicked himself upstairs as spring neared, installing DePiero as the lead man behind the bench.
"I tried to create a sense of accountability and we had some success, but that’s hard to do if you don’t start from training camp, never mind in the middle of a season," DePiero says.
You’d need a team of accountants to go through the balance sheet after an 11-zip loss. Fact is, though, up to that point, the series had been a tight one: one-goal games, tough losses for Oshawa, the toughest of them Game 2, a 4-3 loss at home after running out to a 3-0 lead in the first period.
"I don’t think that we ever recovered from that," DePiero says.
So what’s in the plans for the Generals the season after the season that was supposed to be? Too early to say. I caught a couple of games at the General Motors Centre this weekend, a come-from-behind 6-4 win over Niagara Friday night, a far-less-impressive giveaway of two points to Ottawa Sunday evening.
Winger Brett MacLean is now in the Phoenix Coyotes’ system. Gone also are many of the veterans that the Generals had rounded up to make a run at the Memorial Cup. It’s a younger team but it’s clear that John Tavares in his NHL draft year is ready for his close-up.
Tavares was projected as the first-overall pick in the 2009 NHL draft before he ever played an OHL game. Physically, he looks nothing like the kid that skated for the Generals at age 14. (He turned 15 days later.) He has only a passing resemblance to the 16-year-old who was named the CHL’s player of the year for 2006-07. He’s not physically mature but is at least physically maturing. Tavares was knocked for his skating – it was about all you could knock him for – but it looks like his added strength has translated into a better burst and a smoother stride.
"I’ve worked on my Olympic lifts and my core strength all summer," he says. "I feel stronger. My first season in major junior I really didn’t know what it was going to take – at least as far as fitness goes – to be successful. But it didn’t take me a whole season to figure it out."
His best stuff, the core strength of his game, is constant and most can never hope to figure it out. Once a shift he does a bit of sleight of hand around the net, makes a knowing pass through traffic and sees stuff in an instant that even very good players would miss if you told them to look for it. He was granted "exceptional" status for his early entry into major junior. Well, he hasn’t lost any of the stuff that made him exceptional. If his physical strength translates into an extra gear and makes him harder to lean on, it will only make his puckhandling that much scarier for OHL defencemen and goaltenders. That’s how it looked on a few shifts against Niagara and Ottawa this past weekend: Tavares would go wide, get a step on a defenceman and then just power in. If Tavares can establish that power north-south, then his east-west stickhandling just becomes that much tougher to chase.
Tavares’s development hasn’t followed a straight line. His 40 goals last season weren’t just a drop from 72 in 2006-07 – they were five less than he scored as a skinny underage junior in his rookie turn. He did run up 78 assists, however, the chief beneficiary being MacLean (61 goals in 2007-08). Tavares had been a pure finisher and it seemed like he reinvented his game on a whim or just to break up the tedium, becoming equal parts scorer and play-maker. It was a change up there with the former Stanislaus Gouth getting in the running for the Lady Byng after spending his entire career as a NHL heel.
So far, four games into the season, it’s hard to say which way Tavares is going to go – five goals and five assists are impressive, but who can say whether he’ll lead the league in goals, assists, or both? It’s a safe bet that his experiences in the summer series against the Russians last year and at the 2008 world juniors have made him more aware of the game in the other end of the rink, stuff that will stand him in good stead this season and when he goes to the NHL. MacLean is gone on to the pros, so the player most likely to immediately benefit no matter which way Tavares goes is Robert Kousal, an OHL rookie and draft-eligible Czech kid who has been a goal-a-game left winger beside Tavares.
Another to benefit would be Generals defenceman Michael Del Zotto. His season is a chance to quiet the constant knocking. Last September many expected that he’d be a top-10 pick in the NHL draft, maybe even a top-five. Outside of Drew Doughty, he was presumed to be the draft-eligible defenceman with the most offensive upside. All season long, though, the drumbeat among scouts was that Del Zotto, for all his offensive gifts, needed a compass or a map in his own zone. He ended up falling to the New York Rangers at No. 20. A lot of players would consider that a win, but it was a long drop from the original projections, especially considering that junior scouts and agents used to make it out to Markham Waxers’ games to see him and not his then less-heralded teammate Steven Stamkos.
"Every draft seems to have a whipping boy," DePiero says. "I think that was the case with Michael … everybody was picking his game apart."
Maybe Del Zotto will quiet the critics and take his game to another level, but it’s a transition that will take time. The New York Rangers sent him back down to Oshawa late last week and he stepped right into the line-up cold on Friday night. The result: A pretty impressive performance against Niagara, something less shiny versus Ottawa. In the latter, you could see what the scouts knocked. Del Zotto never saw a rush he didn’t want to jump into, pinched in Ottawa’s end whenever there was a thin beam of daylight, and drew penalties on giveaways and bad positioning. In fairness, he also put on display the stuff that had everybody raving when he was 16: great skating, on-a-string puckhandling skills and a booming shot.
Nobody is expecting a championship out of the Generals this season. It’s strictly an "if" season. If Tavares pushes by Swedish defenceman Viktor Hedman into the No. 1 slot in the NHL draft. If Del Zotto can get the critics to put their whips away. If complementary players emerge. If the coach gets the accountability he’s trying to instil. If the returning Generals put the last game of last season behind them.
In Oshawa in the early season, this is just a partial list of "ifs." So far, the Generals have hopes, not hard and fast plans, which they might turn to their own advantage.
Gare Joyce will be writing on junior hockey for Sportsnet.ca this season. A veteran journalist, Joyce is the author of Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover in the Secret World of NHL Scouts, When the Lights Went Out: How One Brawl Ended Hockey’s Cold War and Changed the Game and Sidney Crosby: Taking the Game by Storm. He also writes for ESPN The Magazine, espn.com and several Canadian magazines.