By Rob Benneian @robbenneian
If the reigning OHL East Division champions are to defend their title in 2013-14, new talent will need to emerge to support a depleting cast of returning stars.
After charging all the way to Game 7 of the East Final last season, the Belleville Bulls could lose close to half the squad that topped the Eastern Conference regular season standings a year ago.
Departing stars from that group include 2012 NHL first rounder in starting goaltender Malcolm Subban, a Boston Bruins draft pick, and Minnesota Wild prospect and Bulls leading scorer Tyler Graovac, both 20-year-olds eligible for the American Hockey League.
Captain Brendan Gaunce, also a first round pick in 2012 by the Vancouver Canucks, is eligible to return as a 19-year-old but is expected to get an extended look in his first full NHL camp.
However, Bulls General Manager and Head Coach George Burnett hasn’t been concerning himself with players who may not be returning to his club.
"Once somebody walks through our door, we know he's here. Until he gets back, we're not expecting him and we plan accordingly,” Burnett said. “Having a solid group of 96's and 97's to come in and play and make a contribution while those guys are away is why we play the exhibitions."
While you cannot easily replace a goaltender of Subban’s caliber, Burnett won't need to look far for his successor.
“Charlie Graham has played some terrific games for us and handled himself with tremendous poise,” Burnett said of the Bulls 2011 seventh round pick. “Last year, you look at his record and his numbers, they were very competitive with many of the top goaltenders in the league. He's anxious to carry the ball and wants to be the guy. He's ready for the challenge."
Several other overage candidates for the Bulls are hoping to earn a contract or fight for a place in the pros, including Alan Quine, Austen Brassard and Jake Worrad. There will be an opportunity for young players to strut their stuff and there’s no shortage of players in Belleville hoping to be the one to leave his mark.
"It's our biggest training camp ever here in 10 years,” Burnett said. “We've got 54 kids attending camp and I expect it to be very competitive. There will probably be some disappointed people at the end of camp when they're not able to move forward and have to play elsewhere.”
Burnett said he hopes the competition will bring out the best of the players in camp, with players like 2012 OHL Priority Selections Daniel De Sousa, Michael Cramarossa and Chad Heffernan getting a chance to expand their roles.
"Those three guys are all expected to play integral roles on our team,” Burnett said. “They've all had strong summers of work and it's never been a question of how hard they prepare themselves. I'm hoping they push some of the guys who are a little older or who are ahead of them on the depth chart and challenge them for their minutes."
Niki Petti, Belleville’s top pick in 2012, showed glimpses of what he could do in his rookie season, but at times was buried on a crowded Bulls depth chart. Burnett said heading into his second year, more will be asked of the talented forward.
“I fully expect Niki to be in our top six this year and contribute at a high level,” Burnett said. “He's got great skill and works extremely hard. He was the 12th pick in the draft and a lot of kids would have moaned and groaned about having a limited opportunity on some evenings, but he just put his head down and went to work."
It was Petti’s flexibility, not only to play up and down the lineup but his ability to line up at both centre and the wing positions, that earned him positive marks from his head coach.
Joining Petti as players who will be counted on to produce offensively for the Bulls are a pair of 19-year-old forwards in Garrett Hooey and incoming Luke Cairns, who spent the last three seasons with the Erie Otters. Canucks prospect and the Bulls' top scoring defenceman Jordan Subban also returns for a third season.
Burnett said he expects the club’s top two picks from the 2013 OHL Priority Selection, defenceman Justin Lemcke and forward Jake Bricknell, to step into the lineup and contribute from day one.
"They’re ready to play, skill-wise, maturity-wise in year one,” Burnett said. “We've had a fairly large graduation on our back end, so we're looking for a young man like Justin to come in and be counted upon. Bricknell has a high skill level, competes hard and has shown a willingness to be involved in every aspect of the game. Our people really felt strongly that he was someone who was ready to play."
Whether the team is once again focused around an older core or Burnett turns the reins over to a younger squad, the Bulls are headed in a positive direction.
"A sign of a good organization is through a graduation, you've made some moves to get right back in there again," Burnett said.
Click here to watch the Bulls' 2013 OHL Priority Selection picks.
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