It seemed like a Cinderella story in the making. The seventh-seed Mississauga Steelheads team, doubted by most who believed the veteran Barrie Colts squad would have no problem ousting an inexperienced group, took their opponent to seven games in the first round of the playoffs.
Once believed to be a long-shot to even reach the postseason, they looked like they had been there before, attaining inspired victories such as their 7-0 win at home to stave off elimination in Game 6. It was quite a journey getting there, with all sorts of ups and downs and growing pains for some of their key members.
But looking ahead to next season, they won’t be a team setting out to learn again — instead, they’ll be looking to win it all.
The biggest question mark heading into 2016-17 is Alex Nylander. Arguably Mississauga’s best forward last season, his return in Game 2 of the aforementioned quarter-final seemed to single-handedly revitalize the team, setting the tone for the rest of the series.
Nylander led all Steelheads skaters and all OHL rookies in scoring with 75 points (28G, 47A) in just 57 regular-season games, adding a team-leading 12 points (6G, 6A) in six postseason games.
Drafted eighth overall by the Buffalo Sabres last week at the 2016 NHL Draft, the former CHL Import Draft selection could go one of four ways next season: he could return to the OHL, start the season in the AHL, start the season in the NHL or go back home to play professional hockey in Sweden. The last option is the least likely, but the other three have almost equal potential.
Sabres general manager Tim Murray likely won’t want to rush the stud sniper, so we can rule out the NHL being a legitimate threat. So really, it’s between the AHL and the OHL, with the latter obviously looking more attractive to the Steelheads, who will surely push for their star to come back for another year.
Mike McLeod and Nathan Bastian, also selected in the 2016 draft (both by the New Jersey Devils) will be back next year, ready to provide top-six offense alongside Nylander. McLeod is primed for a break-out season as the team’s top center, and Bastian may not be far behind in point scoring as a top-line winger.
Also drafted was Sean Day, the defenseman once granted exceptional status who has fallen out of favor with many NHL scouts.
Selected 81st overall in the third round by the New York Rangers, Day made it very clear that he is already physically and mentally ready for next season, a campaign he hopes will change the unfavorable perception many have of him after a disappointing draft year.
He and Nicolas Hague, a potential top-10 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, will battle it out for top-pair duties on the left side.
On the right, newly-acquired standout defender Vili Saarijarvi will have the spot on lock, should he choose to report. The Steelheads got him in a trade with the Flint Firebirds last week after he reportedly made it known that he would not play for the struggling OHL franchise in 2016-17.
He led all Firebirds defenders with 43 points in 59 games last season, and the prized Detroit Red Wings prospect would provide a tremendous boost to the Steelheads blue line.
Providing supplemental support will be second-year OHLers Ryan McLeod and Owen Tippett — both top-five picks at the 2015 OHL Priority Selection Draft. The younger McLeod is expected to have a drastically improved offensive output, while Tippett is expected to be a top-six sniper.
The club’s top pick in the 2016 OHL Draft, Kirill Nizhnikov, will also provide some uplift, although he is more of a long-term project for Mississauga. Still, the big-bodied, talented goal scorer was considered one of the most major junior-ready prospects in his draft class, so he may make a bigger impact on the team than most expect.
With a loaded offense and a much-improved defense in 2016-17, the only thing Mississauga needs now is a goaltender. Over-ager Jack Flinn just graduated from the OHL, so a trade may be necessary unless the Steelheads believe someone in the system is ready for full-time, starting duties.
They’ll need to make a decision soon because once they have a netminder in place, the Steelheads are going to be the team to beat in the East.