The Ontario Hockey League regular season is set to begin in less than two weeks – and there’s a new team to watch out for.
Sure, the London Knights will defend their OHL and Memorial Cup champion status valiantly, but the departure of several key players may make that a bit difficult. The Erie Otters will also have a hard time getting back in the 100-point range at season’s end without Dylan Strome, and it’s unlikely that the Kitchener Rangers can repeat the successful 2015-16 campaign they had.
In the wake of so much change around the league, the Mississauga Steelheads — stocked with plenty of up-and-coming stars like Ryan McLeod, Owen Tippett, Nicolas Hague and more — look to take over as the OHL’s newest powerhouse.
And although pre-season has just begun, general manager James Boyd already has a lot on his hands.
For starters, newly-acquired defenseman Vili Saarijarvi — one of the best in junior hockey right now — suffered an injury over the summer that required surgery and will keep him out of action most likely until November. The prized Detroit Red Wings prospect was arguably the most coveted player when the Flint Firebirds situation unfolded last season; understandably disgruntled due to the situation there, he requested a trade and was subsequently sent to the Steelheads in June.
“I want to be with a team that has a real chance to win OHL, Memorial Cup, and I think Mississauga is in a really good position for that,” Saarijarvi said. “Flint is a great city, great fans, great team, but me and my agent thought it would be better for me to go [to] Mississauga.
“It happens in hockey. Trades come and go. I talked to GM James Boyd and they’re pretty excited and I’m excited, too. I’m happy they’re a good team and there’s a lot of skilled players.”
The leadership and expertise Saarijarvi brings, as well as the fact that he’s one of the rare right-handed top defenders in the league, all contribute to Mississauga sorely missing him before he has even put on the Steelheads jersey. But at least in that case, the player will be back – their leading scorer from last season, Alex Nylander, will most likely be joining the Rochester Americans in the AHL for the 2016-17 season.
After scoring 75 points in just 57 regular-season games, Nylander led the Steelheads to Game 7 of the first round of the postseason — a feat not many had expected of them. Now, because he was selected in the OHL Import Draft, he is eligible to play minor-league hockey despite the fact that he is under 20 years old. His production will have to be replaced by the likes of Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian, as well as Tippett and the younger McLeod.
A series of recent trades has also tied up loose ends. On August 30, Boyd acquired veteran goaltender Matt Mancina — an over-ager — from the Barrie Colts to fill the large void in net left by former starter Jack Flinn (also an over-ager who the Steelheads acquired last year). With that settled, the GM then focused on the looming Kirill Nizhnikov situation.
Selected seventh overall at the 2016 OHL Priority Selection Draft, Nizhnikov was dubbed a “steal” and touted as a future top-six power forward. But when the teenager expressed concern over playing time in Mississauga (the 12-man forward unit is filled with offensively-gifted players who would surely play in front of him), Boyd knew he had to either convince the forward to sign within a matter of days. Otherwise he would be forced to trade him elsewhere.
On Wednesday, he had to do the latter, sending him to the Barrie Colts and netting 10 draft picks (four of which are conditional) to make up for lost assets in past trades.
The OHL season is fast approaching, and with all of Mississauga’s questions mostly solved, they can finally focus on their main goal – to win a Memorial Cup in the spring.