The 2018-19 season was a tough one for the Ontario Hockey League’s Flint Firebirds.
They went 16-46-6 last season after starting the year 0-16-1 before beating the Sarnia Sting on Nov. 7.
With the new OHL season underway, hopes are high in the Michigan city as the Firebirds put the past struggles behind them.
“We want to be top five in the Western Conference, that’s our goal,” Flint coach Eric Wellwood said ahead of the Firebirds season opener against Sault Ste. Marie over the weekend. “Everyone has these expectations before the season starts but there is a lot that goes on in a season.
“A lot of things are unpredictable but if we can get into the top five in the conference, we’d be extremely with that,” Wellwood added.
Wellwood added that a year in junior hockey makes a big difference for the development of players.
“A guy like Ethan Keppen goes from being a 17-year-old to being 18 and going into his third year,” Wellwood said. “The familiarity with the league, everybody is one year older and with what the guys had to go through last year, it’s a testament to their character that they’ve come back as hungry as they have.
“Easily we could have had guys coming to us and asking for trades and wanting out, but we didn’t have that,” he added. “You could tell that they understood that it’s a process to get to where we want to get to. As the weeks went on in the season, we had more and more guys buying in to the way we wanted to play and started seeing some success.”
Over the summer, the team added overage goaltender Anthony Popovich, who won an OHL title with the Guelph Storm last season and will get a boost if the NHL’s Dallas Stars return Ty Dellandrea to the OHL.
Dellandrea, who served as the Firebirds captain last season and will handle the duty again this season should he return, was the Stars’ first-round pick (13th overall) in the 2018 NHL Draft.
Dellandrea isn’t the only high-end NHL prospect on the Flint roster as the team also features Florida Panthers prospect Vladislav Kolyachonok, who has earned the praise of his coach.
“Vladdy is the hardest worker I’ve ever seen,” Wellwood said. “He never gets off the ice. He always wants to get better. He’s always watching video and he’s always talking hockey.
“He’s always in a good mood. He’s a kid that’s really bubbly and outgoing. He really fits into the group. Typically, you don’t find that when a European comes over. There always seems to be a tough adjustment but for him, he fit right in.”
NEW LOOK RULES IN QUEBEC
One of the more interesting rule changes comes from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and it involves changes after icing the puck.
Previously, the rule stated that teams icing the puck from the defensive zone would not be allowed to change and the rule has been expanded to include icing the puck from the neutral zone as well.
EXTRA SPECIAL OPENING DAY
As if raising banners at the Art Hauser Centre in Prince Albert wasn’t special enough, the opening day of the Western Hockey League regular season had a little more meaning for Brayden Pachal as he also inked an entry-level deal with the Vegas Golden Knights.
Pachal served as the Raiders captain last season and helped them win a WHL title and berth in the Memorial Cup in Halifax.
Acquired from the Victoria Royals in January 2017, Pachal scored 15 goals and 51 points in 66 games last season.