Too soon to crown Frontenacs favourites in East

Ryan Kujawinski (No. 17) of the Kingston Frontenacs. Aaron Bell/OHL Images.

KINGSTON — It was a great story to open the season: The Kingston Frontenacs running out to a 7-0-0-1 record through the first month of the season and taking command of the Eastern Conference.

Kingston deserves a winning team. Despite Doug Gilmour’s name and star power and Todd Gill’s growing reputation as a coach on the rise, despite a great arena and an absolutely swell town, the Frontenacs haven’t been considered a desired destination for top prospects (see Max Domi as the big one who got away). For too many years, the Frontenacs missed the playoffs or were first-round roadkill. The first month of this season, Kingston wasn’t just winning but occasionally lighting up opponents. It looked like a 180-degree turnaround for the franchise lay ahead.

That was the feel-good story that I went out to Kingston to write on Sunday. Alas, bad timing. The Guelph Storm handed the Frontenacs their first regulation loss, an absolutely emphatic one. The final score was 9-3 and that was a fair measure of the imbalance of play.

I’m reluctant to read too much into one game and, with the start that they’ve had, the Fronts could have come into the game unfocused or over-confident. Still, off the evidence of 60 lopsided minutes I think it’s premature to anoint Kingston as favourites in the conference. The home team gave up more than a dozen odd-man rushes. No names of the offending defencemen — no need to single them out for public shaming, they’ll have their consciences and Gill’s anger to live with. Still, every shift you’d see an errant breakout pass, inexcusable turn-overs and pinches that were gambles less sound than the purchase of a lottery ticket. Just on the play of the backend alone, I’d presume the rest of the conference will close on Kingston when the snow falls.

And yet, in the mire, there were a couple of reasons for hope on Sunday.

With a hockey IQ of 170 and a magician’s hands, centre Sam Bennett does a passable impression of Patrick Kane. “A top-three kid in the OHL this season, a good shot at being a top-five player at the draft,” one scout advised me at Sunday’s game. Of this viewing and a look at a couple of games on the tube, I’m not sure if he has the speed to separate himself from checkers at the next level, but, then again, he does get to where he has to go. When his d-men weren’t coughing up fur balls, the puck would find Bennett’s stick and stay there until a chance developed. He doesn’t play the game in a full sprint but is able to wheel, deal and control tempo of play.

Bennett has eight goals and six assists through eight games played so far this season and has raised his game significantly from his 18-goal, 40-point rookie season. He’s listed at six-foot and 180 lbs., and I’ll wait until NHL Central Scouting has him on a scale and against a tape measure before I swallow it. A former minor-hockey teammate of Erie’s Connor McDavid, Bennett won’t be talked about as one of those once-in-a-generation players but he’ll play a long time as a pro.

Bennett on the first line opens up a lot of ice for Ryan Kujawinski to operate on the second unit. Kujawinski is an absolute load, looks a lot bigger than his list of six-foot-two and 207 lbs. When he hits a scrum in front of the net, three opponents and two teammates get knocked backwards.

Kujawinski looks more like a point-a-game junior this year, ideal for a second-liner on a winning team. New Jersey picked him up in the third round last June, what looks like an awfully good pick for the Devils’ head amateur scout David Conte, who was on hand on Sunday. He might be sticking with Jersey next year and turn out to be a pick in the mode of Adam Henrique, who was not the most talented Spitfire but the one best liked by management in his time in Windsor. That is, a player who’ll in fact have a bigger impact in the NHL than in junior. Said one scout from a rival organization: “He’s such a good skater for a big kid, a great first step and change of direction.”

Game of the week

Saturday afternoon, the top team in the WHL’s Eastern Conference, the Medicine Hat Tigers will travel to Brandon to play the Wheat Kings. The Tigers’ Hunter Shinkaruk is a player of particular interest — at the Vancouver Canucks’ camp he seemed to have eclipsed fellow first-rounder, the more highly-touted Bo Horvat, and a lot of fans were disappointed that he was sent home.

A Calgary native, Shinkaruk has three goals and seven points in four games so far this season. He, like Horvat and other draftees from the class of ’13, are getting down to the short strokes for invitations to the WJHC camp in December.

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