By Rob Benneian @robbenneian
The Plymouth Whalers don't rebuild, they reload.
They may not have the same veteran laden club that won their second straight West Division title and battled the London Knights in a thrilling five-game Western Conference Final just a few months ago, but the winning attitude in Plymouth remains the same.
"I don't think we ever have a rebuilding year," said Whalers Assistant General Manager Brian Sommariva. "Our ownership group has always encouraged us to be competitive every year and that's always been our belief. Some years may be stronger or weaker, but we never have a rebuilding year."
Sommariva points to the Whalers impressive streak of playoff appearances, 22 straight years dating back to the 1991-92 season including winning the J. Ross Robertson Cup as OHL champions in 2006-07, as proof.
The feeling in Plymouth is this season won't be any different.
"The expectation is to be a playoff team this year," Sommariva said.
Last year’s Whalers boasted a strong crop of 1993-born stars now destined for the pros. Florida Panthers prospect and Red Tilson Trophy winner Vince Trocheck led the way offensively, along with a pair of Anaheim Ducks prospects in Rickard Rakell and Stefan Noesen, and Colorado Avalanche draft pick Garrett Meurs to name a few.
Capitals 2012 first rounder and playoff beast Tom Wilson can return as a 19-year-old but will surely get an extended viewing in Washington, leaving fellow first rounder, 1994-born Chicago Blackhawk prospect and World Junior Gold medalist Ryan Hartman up front as one of the few veteran returnees alongside 2014 top prospect Matthew Mistele who managed 60 points his sophomore season.
"Offence is going to be something we're going to be really challenged for," Sommariva acknowledged.
He listed four additions who could hold the key to unlocking more scoring punch for the Whalers. Connor Chatham, a six-foot-two winger from Illinois, and Francesco Vilardi, acquired in a deal with Sudbury, are both eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft and will be looking to add their names to the growing list of Plymouth Whalers NHL draftees.
Plymouth also acquired London, ON, native Carter Sandlak in a deal with Belleville for what he can do both on and off the ice. Sommariva said the overage forward fits the Whalers mold.
"Carter Sandlak is going to be a good addition for us," Sommariva said. "He's a Mike Velucci type of player: he's got grit and he's got skill. He's hoping to earn an NHL contract in his last year."
The Whalers selected New York Islanders prospect Victor Crus-Rydberg in the 2013 CHL Import Draft and expect the Swedish centre to take on a prominent role.
"When you start adding some of these guys, it's not a bad top six," Sommariva said. "If you can get some goals from your third line and your fourth line, we'll have a pretty decent year."
Even if goals are hard to come by, the Whalers are confident that their goaltender, 17-year-old Alex Nedeljkovic, can steal them some games.
"Ned's a very confident goaltender," Sommariva said. "He's very calm and has a soothing presence on our team. Guys play well in front of him. Pucks hit him, the rebounds are controlled and he smothers a lot of stuff."
Nedeljkovic emerged as a goaltending star late last year earning both OHL Goaltender and Rookie of the Month honours in February, then Vaughan CHL Goaltender of the Week honours in early March, and won the starting job from incumbent Matt Mahalak midway through last season and never gave it back.
In fact, Nedeljkovic, also a top prospect for the 2014 NHL Draft, played so well that the Whalers felt comfortable in dealing the veteran Mahalak, a 2011 selection by the Carolina Hurricanes, to the Kingston Frontenacs. Riley Corbin, 18, played five games for the Whalers a year ago and will be challenged for backup duty by Zack Bowman, who was taken in the fourth round of the 2013 OHL Priority Selection.
The group charged with keeping the crease clear in front of those goaltenders is headlined by a pair of NHL drafted players, Capitals prospect and projected U.S National Junior Team defenceman Connor Carrick and Columbus Blue Jackets choice Gianluca Curcuruto.
"Connor Carrick had a phenomenal year, he did so many great things," Sommariva said. "He's a staple back there. Gianluca Curcuruto had a much improved year (after coming over in a deal with the Soo Greyhounds) and he's happy here."
Sommariva tabbed 2012 draft pick Mathieu Henderson as a potential breakout candidate on defence and called import Yannick Rathgeb an "intriguing prospect." The Swiss defender has been a high point producer and has represented his country internationally at the U16, U17, U18 and U20 levels.
With an eye on adding to their playoff streak, the Whalers goal is to continue moving players along in their hockey careers. Among the recent Plymouth Whalers alumni to suit up in the NHL are Rakell, who skated in four games with the Ducks last year, Wilson, who dressed for Washington's final three playoff games, and 2010 second overall pick and Stanley Cup winner Tyler Seguin.
"Our job is to move guys on to the NHL," Sommariva said, "and if they make it, that's a feather in our cap."
Click here to watch the Whalers' 2013 OHL Priority Selection picks.
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