By Mark McKelvie @Mark14McKelvie
The Barrie Colts fell one goal short of an OHL Championship last season losing a Game 7 heartbreaker to the London Knights who scored a final second goal to clinch their second straight Robertson Cup.
While bitterness remains and is surely fresh on the mind of players and fans alike, don’t expect it to hold back the Colts who return motivated with a group of playoff veterans.
“We had lots of guys last year who stepped up in the playoffs when we had guys out of the lineup,” said Colts General Manager Jason Ford. “I think the experience those guys gained from that playoff run is going to help them all that much more this season.”
Players like Andreas Athanasiou, Zach Hall, and Mitchell Theoret were big contributors in helping the Colts capture the Bobby Orr Trophy providing a strong supporting cast for top playoff scorer Mark Scheifele who is poised to turn pro with the Winnipeg Jets this fall.
Scheifele is one of several marquee players departing the reigning Eastern Conference Champions along with fellow Canadian World Junior forward and Boston Bruins prospect Anthony Camara, and key overagers in forward Steven Beyers, former captain Ryan O’Connor, and goaltender Mathias Niederberger who posted the league’s third best goals-against-average and second best save percentage last season.
While the Colts do lose some stars on offense, top scorer Zach Hall is eligible to return as an overager and Ford expects other returning players to fill those vacant roles this season.
“If Hall and Theoret return as overagers I expect them to be two of our more prolific scorers, Hall really came into his own last season and he should be an elite scorer again.” said Ford.
Opportunities will be available this season in Barrie for players to step in and help shape the identity of a club aiming to contend once again.
“Athanasiou is a guy with lots of speed and skill, he is 19 now and he should be able to produce a little bit more this year. Erik Bradford, Josh MacDonald guys like that who really didn’t get a chance to get much power play time last season might get called upon,” said Ford. “I think all those guys with that ice time and being the first out the gates, their numbers will go up this season.”
The Colts also boast a trio of top prospects eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft led by exceptional defenceman Aaron Ekblad. The former first overall pick enters his third season and recently captained Canada’s Under-18 Team to Ivan Hlinka gold. Pesky forward Brendan Lemieux, also fresh off Ivan Hlinka gold in addition to a solid rookie campaign, will have scouts tracking the Colts all season alongside draft eligible Kevin Labanc, a former USNTDP forward who committed to the club in the offseason.
Another player new to the competition of the OHL is Colts first round pick in the Priority Selection Matthew Kreis. A top scoring forward in minor midget for the Halton Hurricanes, Kreis is capable of bringing fans in the Molson Centre to their feet with his outstanding speed and skill.
“He is a competitive kid who is a good skater and very skilled and he put up big numbers last season. He loves to play the game and he is a smart player in all three zones,” said Ford. “We watched him very closely last year and we were sitting there at the draft and we knew we had a lot of defence returning so when he was still there we knew he was the kid we wanted to take.”
The question mark for the Colts this pre season is between the pipes with a few players in the mix to replace Niederberger.
“We’ve got Alex Fotinos coming back who joined us as a 16-year-old and he is a talented goalie who just needs to get some experience,” Ford said. “We’ve also got Mackenzie Blackwood, a 1996 birth year, who played last season for Elmira Jr. B and Daniel Gibl a Slovak goaltender we took in the Import Draft. He gives us three guys who are young but are going to battle it out.”
With competition for every spot in the lineup combined with the maturation of talented young players, expectations are high for the Colts looking for their third Central Division title in five years.
“I think we are right in the mix to battle for the division and top spot in the Eastern Conference, the good thing is we’ve got a good handful of guys that were there two years ago (eliminated in the Eastern Conference semi-finals) and even more than that who were there last year. Those guys have been together through six playoff rounds and what it comes down to is pulling for each other when the games get important,” said Ford.
Without making guarantees, Ford and the Colts hope everything goes as planned and with a little good fortune fans in Barrie will be cheering deep into the spring again.
“With some luck along the way maybe we will be competing right up there again this year.”
Click here to watch the Colts 2013 OHL Priority Selection picks.
ontariohockeyleague.com will feature one team each day in advance of the 2013-14 season which begins Thursday September 19