The holiday break in the Canadian Hockey League serves as the unofficial midway point of the season. Sportsnet.ca reviews the surprising player and team as well as the disappointing player and team from the Ontario Hockey League.
Surprising team: Saginaw Spirit
Raise your hand if you thought the Saginaw Spirit would be third in the Western Conference standings midway through the season. That’s what I thought. The Spirit has quietly put together one of the stronger teams this season, playing a sound, team-oriented game.
Saginaw is different than the other successful teams in the league who boast a few star players who lead the charge and are responsible for most of the success. Saginaw has found success rolling each line while playing with a red-hot goaltender. Edward Pasquale, who is being touted as a potential first-round pick and quite possibly the first goaltender to be drafted this summer, has been the main key for the team’s success.
Pasquale was the main piece acquired by the Spirit when they traded forward Jan Mursak, defenceman Nigel Williams and goaltender Parker Van Buskirk to Belleville at last year’s trade deadline. Many felt Pasquale was the top young goaltender rising through the ranks in the OHL last season but he failed to steal much ice time from Ryan Daniels. With Daniels in Peterborough this season, the ball has been given to Pasquale and he hasn’t disappointed.
While many fans would quickly point to Jack Combs or Chris Chappell as the top forwards on the team, ask anyone in the Spirit organization about sophomore Jordan Szwarz and a rave review ensues. Szwarz is quite simply the best forward no one knows about in the OHL. An offensive player with elite vision and playmaking skills, Szwarz never backs down from the rough stuff. He is one of the more underrated players in the league and underrated prospects for next summer’s draft.
With the way the Spirit has played this season, they could be a dangerous team come playoff time.
Surprising player: Calvin de Haan, Oshawa Generals
Unable to crack the Generals’ roster as a 16-year old last year, Calvin de Haan doesn’t look one bit out of place this season. A third round priority selection pick in 2007 by Oshawa, de Haan has made an impact in his rookie season. The six-foot, 165 pound defenceman is fourth among defencemen and first among rookie defencemen in league scoring with 35 points in 33 games.
The best way to describe de Haan is a more defensive version of teammate Michael Del Zotto. de Haan isn’t the type of defenceman who takes risks in the offensive zone if it means he will leave himself vulnerable defensively. While NHL scouts have flocked to see fourth-year sniper John Tavares, de Haan has certainly left an impression as he is being touted as a possible first-round pick.
It appears as though the extra year before joining the Generals may have not only given him more confidence but a better command of the game. de Haan has impressed with his ability to control the pace of the game as he is very rarely pressured into making poor decisions with the puck. Add in a physical element and de Haan is a complete player with a bright future.
Disappointing team: Kingston Frontenacs
Prior to the start of this season, few would have predicted the Frontenacs to be sitting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. Halfway through this season and the Frontenacs have failed to take the step forward many thought they would.
Picked as Sportsnet.ca’s dark-horse prior to the season, it was mentioned Kingston was a young team on the verge of turning a corner after a hot finish last season but that a strong start to the season was necessary to turn the corner. Kingston did not get the hot start they were looking for, losing their first five games and seven of their first 10. From there, it seems, the team failed to find the confidence required to change its fortune.
Former NHL all-star and Kingston, Ont. native Doug Gilmour joined the team as head coach in mid-November, when the team had a record of 5-15-4-1. With a rookie head coach and a faint hope of making the playoffs, the Frontenacs have all but written off this season. Kingston shopped its most coveted player, power-forward Josh Brittain, sending him and Peter Stevens to the Barrie Colts for younger players.
The main problem in Kingston is, and has been for the last few seasons, defensive zone coverage and goaltending. One of the problems appeared to be solved when the Frontenacs acquired the up-and-coming goaltender Mavric Parks from the Kitchener Rangers last season. With a struggling defence in front of him, Parks has failed to remain consistent as his numbers, 3.95 goals against average and 0.896 save percentage, would suggest. Despite playing in the weaker Eastern Conference, the playoffs likely aren’t more than a pipe dream this season.
Disappointing player: Jeremy Smith, Plymouth Whalers
How the mighty have fallen. Jeremy Smith went from being one of the top goaltenders in the Ontario Hockey League a year ago to essentially becoming a backup this season. No player has struggled more this season than Smith, which is surprising given the way he played last season and the year before as a 17-year old.
It isn’t too surprising, given the way he has struggled this season, that Smith wasn’t brought back for another world junior tournament. The American starter in last year’s tournament, Smith was left off the roster in favour of Guelph’s Thomas McCollum and Kitchener’s Josh Unice, both goaltenders he was named in place of on last year’s roster.
While teammate Matt Hackett has emerged as a solid goaltender in the OHL this season, no one would have predicted he would outshine Smith in a big way. Hackett started the last four consecutive games going into the holiday after Smith’s last outing, a 7-0 loss to McCollum’s Storm on Dec. 12, resulted in him being pulled during the first intermission after allowing three goals on 12 shots.
Of the 15 games he has played, Smith has allowed just one goal in only two contests. Aside from his last game, where he allowed three goals in one period of play, Smith has allowed a minimum of four goals in each game. His 4.90 goals against average is a league worst while his 0.872 save percentage isn’t much better.
At one point deemed a trade possibility for a team loading up for a run, Smith’s stock may have plummeted to the point where none of the top echelon teams would be willing to take a chance on him. A change of scenery, however, could be the best scenario for his second half.