For a change, being the only OHL team in the GTA worked in the Mississauga Steelheads’ favour.
Friday’s have only been the league’s big attendance night for decades and returning from Vancouver means giving three hours back on the time zone change. Taken together, the OHL should have been out in front of the player availability problems that were created by the BMO Top Prospects Game being on the West Coast last Thursday, the night before a full 10-game OHL docket.
Only the Steelheads’ quartet of centre Mike McLeod, defenceman Sean Day and wings Nathan Bastian and Alexander Nylander could get to an arena two hours before game time—the minimum that had to be met to play, as per a Canadian Hockey League-wide protocol. McLeod had a shorthanded goal among his three-point, No. 1 star effort.
For everyone else, the unintended consequence was that it tacitly approved icing less than full rosters, whilst still charging full ticket prices. The Windsor Spitfires played two skaters short during a 2-0 loss against Kitchener with centre Logan Brown and defencemen Mikhail Sergachev and Logan Stanley in the press box. The London Knights, minus Olli Juolevi, Max Jones and Matt Tkachuk and three players suspended for infractions during the Jan. 24 brawl with Sarnia, absorbed a 6-2 home loss against the league-leading Erie Otters. Erie apparently felt no pain from lacking Dylan Strome’s regular wings, Alex DeBrincat and Taylor Raddysh.
The rule also proscribed a showdown between Sarnia Sting defenceman Jakob Chychrun and Flint Firebirds leading scorer Will Bitten, who both watched the 16-skater Sting defeat Flint 4-3.
The Spitfires trio evidently was champing at the bit something fierce. Brown, Sergachev and Stanley each scored in Saturday’s 8-3 win against London.
Guarding against player overuse and travel uncertainty works in principle. Those ideals are undermined when teams' competitiveness is compromised and their base constituencies, diehard fans, have to fork out full price for devalued games. Having one team, Mississauga, gain an advantage through geographic convenience is a bad look for the OHL during a playoff race.
It's hard to imagine the solution that entails giving up potentially lucrative Friday-night dates, especially one that had less competition for eyeballs due to the NHL all-star break. A change would only need to be made when the Top Prospects is on the West Coast game. The 2014 game was held in Calgary on a Wednesday and the OHL had a six-game Thursday slate the next night. Future NHL No. 1-overall pick Aaron Ekblad and then-Barrie Colts teammate Brendan Lemieux made it to their game in North Bay. Six others whose teams were in action also played.
A lighter slate for one weekend might help a few teams avoid having too many home dates in too short a time span after Christmas, when consumers typically have less disposable income. For instance, from New Year's Eve through Sunday the North Bay Battalion had nine home games in 32 days—or one each three and a half days.
Knights' Yakimowicz goes Mads
With coach Dale Hunter serving out a suspension for losing control of his team during the London-Sarnia set-to, another Knight went over the line on Saturday. Two-way centre Chandler Yakimowicz, a St. Louis Blues draft pick (172nd in 2014), drove Spitfires overager Mads Eller's head into the ice and was assessed a match penalty for deliberate attempt to injure.
Eller, whom coincidentally starred for the WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings when they won the 2014 Memorial Cup on London ice, clearly wasn't interested in engaging with Yakimowicz at a time when his team led 3-0.
The act happened one night after Kitchener Rangers radio play-by-play commentator Mike Farwell broke OHL Twitter calling out commissioner David Branch and vice-president Ted Baker for making the Knights “a perfect villain” after not imposing any suspensions beyond the OHL's mandatory minimums for the punch-up with Sarnia. The Knights came out of that with 12 games' worth of suspensions to Hunter and his players.
Whatever #BranchJustice is meted out for a suspendable offence should be primarily based on the degree of malicious intent, not a broadcaster's post-game editorial, of course. What Yakimowicz did on Saturday was a far cry from a hockey play.
(About the hashtag: while Baker makes calls on suspensions, #BranchJustice better serves a sophomoric need to reference early Family Guy. So there is that.)
McEwan helps Storm regain respectability
For the third month in a row, 18-year-old James McEwan increased his production for the Guelph Storm, who have almost escaped the OHL cellar.
Fittingly, McEwan hit a milestone with his 20th goal on Sunday when Guelph reached another by getting to double digits in wins with a 4-2 road victory over Saginaw. The first three months before Jarrod Skalde became coach could hardly have been ghastlier for Guelph. The Storm are now two points away from escaping the cellar thanks to being 8-4-2-2 since Dec. 19, with the late-blooming McEwan putting up nine goals and 19 points over those 16 games.
McEwan was claimed late, ninth round, in the 2013 OHL priority selection draft, but was signed as a 16-year-old. He spent a season with his hometown Junior B Chatham Maroons before a high ankle sprain set him back as an OHL rookie. McEwan is 202nd among North American skaters in NHL Central Scouting's midterm ranking, but the 5-foot-11, 190-lb. playmaker is emerging as a re-entry prospect.
The Storm are too far back to push for the playoffs, but young teams that embrace the spoiler role and play like there's nothing to lose can be fun to watch and tough to face. That junior hockey phenomenon also helps shape for the argument for having a lottery among non-playoff teams for order of picks in the priority selection, like the QMJHL and WHL. It would reward trying.
Canadian NHL team prospect of the week
Andrew Mangiapane, LW, Barrie Colts
The Calgary Flames sixth-rounder (166th overall) struck for a hat trick against Oshawa to finish January with 13 goals and 25 points across 13 games. The 19-year-old one-time free-agent signing by Colts GM Jason Ford has reached 30 goals in 39 games, five fewer than it took him last season.
New name to know
Nick Suzuki, RW/C, Owen Sound Attack
Players with two goals in a game have been known to get greedy at the sight of an empty net. Suzuki, 16, made a veteran move to seal both Owen Sound's 5-2 road win against the Ottawa 67's and his first OHL hat trick last Saturday. Suzuki, who also had the game-winner with 2:09 left, intercepted a pass and took time to gain the red line and negate icing before scoring.
Suzuki, who skates with centre Bryson Cianfrone and left wing Jonah Gadjovich, has 14 goals and 23 points in 42 games. The 5-foot-10, 183-lb. wing is eight goals away from tying Bobby Ryan and Dan Sisca for most goals by an Owen Sound 16-year-old.