Sports Hockey

Done with the rebuilding, young Colts ready to run 0

IAN SHANTZ

The Barrie Colts enter the 2008-09 campaign on the upswing. With last season's year of rebuilding now tucked under the team's belt, the Ontario Hockey League squad will look to hammer away at the competition using a group of young up-and-comers, a few slick-looking rookies and a handful of more experienced players.

Improving on last season's seventh-place finish in the Eastern Conference, courtesy of a 28-34-3-3 record, while building on a surprising playoff performance that had the Colts advance through the opening round before exiting in the second, is the task at hand.

"Last year, our goal was to make the playoffs," said Colts head coach Marty Williamson, who is entering his fifth season at the helm and will be behind the bench tonight when the Colts open the season against the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors at the Barrie Molson Centre (7:30 p. m. puck drop). "We had a very successful run,

so you want to improve on that."

Competing in the seemingly wide-open east, the target seems achievable.

"I think the competition is quite interesting this year," the coach said. "There's a couple of teams that are quite strong -- Belleville and Brampton. But there's a group of us ... whoever steps up can have a real successful season."

Stepping up will be the name of the game. Seven second-year players, plus a few others who saw limited ice time last year, will be in the fold to start the season, and how those players perform in the follow-up campaign to their rookie seasons will go a long way in determining the team's success.

Players including Mitch Lebar, Colton Kennedy -- both first-round picks -- Kyle Clifford, Adam Payerl, Matt Stanisz and Jaroslav Kruzik are being counted on to emerge as mainstays on the scoresheet.

They're the supporting cast that will surround forward Alex Hutchings, who led the Colts in scoring last season with 29 goals, and gritty winger Stefan Della Rovere, a Washington Capitals draft pick. Both appear poised to take their games to new heights.

With last year's captain Tomas Marcinko a long-shot to return to the team -- he's signed to a pro contract -- soft-handed rookie Michael Sgarbossa will have an opportunity to play in key situations from the get-go, while fellow rookie Darren Archibald and the team's first-round draft pick in 2008, defenceman Ryan O'Connor, will likely receive generous ice time.

With overagers Daniel Michalsky, Kyle van de Bospoort, Mackenzie Micks and Cory McGillis in the mix, the Colts have an assortment of weapons to turn to in a given situation.

The club also brought in overage defenceman Andrew Eathman earlier this week. A free agent who played last season with the Moncton Wildcats in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Eathman will be in the lineup in tonight's home opener against the Majors so Williamson get can get a good look.

Two of those overagers will be dumped, as teams can only carry three throughout the majority of the season.

Michael Hutchinson and Peter Di Salvo pack a solid one-two punch between the pipes.

"We want to be a more consistent hockey team this year," Williamson said.

When the organization cracks open the book on its 14th OHL season tonight, it will do so with thoughts of improvement on the mind. Here's a breakdown of the 2008-09 team:

Goaltending

A pair of 18-year-old goalies with experience, including that of the playoff variety, can't be a bad thing.

Barrie native Michael Hutchinson was drafted by the Boston Bruins in the summer following a remarkable playoff performance that help vault his team past the Brampton Battalion in the first round. He's expected to return from pro camp shortly for a third season in the league.

Also entering his third season is Peter Di Salvo, who came over from Sarnia in a mid-season trade last year and proved he's capable of getting the job done.

There aren't many question marks in the crease for the Colts entering the season.

"We've got two top goalies and we plan on playing both of them," Williamson said. "We'll let the chips fall where they fall with those two guys.

"We know whoever we put in there, we'll get a great effort."

Williamson calls defence and goaltending "the backbone of this team," and that means he'll push this tandem a little harder this season if need be.

"I think we're going to be a team that doesn't score a ton of goals, so we're going to need big netminding efforts," the coach said. "We're going to challenge both those guys to get some wins this year."

With 2008 draft pick Dalton McGrath waiting in the wings, the option to trade a goalie is there.

Defence Eight defencemen line the Colts' blue-line entering the season -- seven have at least some OHL experience. The one who doesn't is O'Connor, the team's first-round draft pick in 2008. Undoubtedly, Barrie's forte is its back end.

"We'll play to our strengths, which should be our blue-line. We think we have eight blue-liners who can all step in and play in this league," Williamson said. "They all got extensive playing time last year, so they're a little wiser, smarter."

After preaching responsibility to his defensive corps last season, the coach thinks some of his blue-liners can begin to get a little more creative this time around in an effort to give the team's power play -- which struggled last season -- a jolt.

"We're looking for more offence out of these guys. We're looking for them to be a little more dynamic, and I think that comes with age," the coach said. "Our power play needs to be better, which has a lot to do with O'Connor, and Lashoff and Kruzik. Those three will be the main cogs on it. They need to be dominant-type players back there, and we like what we've seen so far."

With defenders such as Dalton Prout and Matt Stanisz starting to come into their own, the blue-line features plenty of depth and experience, so using it to upgrade on offence is a viable option, should the Colts choose to pull the

trigger on a deal at some point.

"Right now, any phone calls I get, they want to know about defencemen or they want to know about goalies," Williamson said. "We're going to run seven (defencemen), and if we can add to somewhere (we might have) a weakness, it's a trade option."

Offence

The Colts combined for 185 goals last season, second fewest in the 20-team league last season. Only the Sudbury Wolves scored fewer.

Barrie will look to Hutchings, who led the team with 29 goals and 45 points last season and was named an all-star. He's turning 18 this season, making him draft eligible and all the more eager to impress.

But the Colts can't count on the third-year forward to carry the load alone. With fellow 45- point man Marcinko likely out of the picture this year, goal-scoring will once again be at a premium, placing pressure on others to step up to the plate.

Sgarbossa, the team's third-round draft pick in 2008, is expected to start the season as the Colts' first-line centremen.

"We'll just have to watch his ice-time a bit, but he's shown us in every preseason game that he's been able to contribute and make players better around him," Williamson said.

Sophomores such as Lebar, Kennedy and Payerl will be asked to fill the goal-scoring void with consistent production, and although it may be a lot to ask from young players, Williamson made it clear he isn't expecting a transition overnight.

"We're counting on them heavily, but I think the second half of the season is where we're going to count really heavily on them," the coach said. "Hutchings came out of training camp last year, we thought, a little bit slow. We didn't think he was going to score 30 goals at that point. But he got about a month or a month-and-a-half under his belt, and you could just see him blossom.

"I think that's the same trend we need to see from Colt Kennedy, Mitch Lebar, Payerl, that whole '91 and '90 class," the coach added. "We want those guys to step up. We need to see those guys kind of really start to get comfortable in this league, and be able to contribute every shift."

Expect to see a trade if the goals don't come.

"I think if we can get some balance, it's going to allow us to be dangerous. Unfortunately, the injury in pre-season to one of our OAs (Michalsky) kind of (threw off) our balance," Williamson said.

"A little bit of time should solve that, we're hoping. If we have to use some of our depth (on defence) to make an addition there, that's kind of what we'll focus on."

Coaching

Williamson brings experience to the bench, and he likely gained a better understanding of what it means to be a patient coach last season, given the rookie-laden lineup he was working with. He should have a good understanding of what makes those rookies tick, as he attempts to motivate them to elevate their games.

Former NHL defencemen Drake Berehowsky enters his second season as an assistant, while former NHL defencemen Jeff Beukeboom is making his OHL debut this season as the team's other assistant coach. Piero Greco returns as the team's goalie coach, while former Penetang Kings coach Wes Parent will be performing video work for the Colts and Dave Drinkell returns to compile game statistics.

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10 Questions To Ponder

As the Barrie Colts step onto the ice to kick-start the 2008-09 OHL campaign, here are 10 questions to ponder.

1. They say defence wins hockey games, but goals matter too. Where will they come from?

Last year's edition combined to put 185 pucks into opposing nets, the second-lowest goals total in the 20-team leauge next to the Sudbury Wolves.

Alex Hutchings led Barrie with 29 goals last season, but he had big import centre Tomas Marcinko setting him up. Marcinko and his 45 points in 2007-08 appear to be a non-factor this season, as he's signed a pro contract and isn't likely to return.

Hutchings will be the Colts go-to guy in the scoring department, but will he get help? Overage forwards Cory McGillis and Daniel Michalsky, Washington Capitals draft pick Stefan Della Rovere, third-round pick Michael Sgarbossa, and second-year forwards Colton Kennedy and Mitch Lebar will be counted on to help out.

2. Is two better than one?

Boston Bruins draft pick Michael Hutchinson and fellow 18-year-old Peter Di Salvo should give the Colts one of the best goaltending tandems in the league. What it also gives the squad is options. Last year, starter Andrew Perugini was dealt to Sarnia mid-season. With two experienced goalies in the fold once again, shipping a goalie sooner or later remains a possibility.

3. It's a tough league. How tough are the Colts? The Colts have a pair of resident pugilists on the property. Kyle Clifford showed he's not afraid to put up the dukes as a 16-year-old, and he doesn't look any smaller a year later. Andrew Clouthier can lay the body and throw a punch or two, as well. Della Rovere has been known to throw his weight around and you can expect more of the same from him this season.

4. Feeling boxed-in?

The Colts aren't. Last season, the boys with the horseshoe on their chest spent spent less time in the penalty box than 17 other teams. The 1,102 PIMs the team sat out through 68 games may have been due, at least in part, to the fact the team was young and didn't want to put themselves at a further disadvantage. It could have also been part of a discipline plan preached by head coach Marty Williamson. You can't score from the box (see question No. 1), so this up-and-coming group of players would be wise to stay away from it.

5. Will they manage without one?

Gregg Carrigan has stepped down from the general manager's post and will stay with the team as a consultant. The Colts haven't brought in a replacement. The team's ownership and hockey operations staff plans to make the business and hockey-related decisions collectively. Will it work? They think so. Time will tell.

6. Just say no to drugs, or face the consequences. What will they choose?

The Canadian Hockey League -- which includes the OHL and the Colts -- is bringing in an anti-doping program starting Nov. 1. Players will be subject to random postgame urine tests for performance-enhancing, banned substances. Players who test positive face an eight-game suspension for the first offence, 25 games for the second and two years for the third time. Uncool substances are listed on the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned substances list.

7. Playoffs? Playoffs?

The Colts shocked the OHL hockey world when they upset the Brampton Battalion in the first round of the playoffs last year. In Round 2, Barrie faced the Belleville Bulls. The Eastern Conference's top team proved why it finished at the top when it showed the Colts the door in four. Barrie wasn't expected to come out of that first series. They gained some confidence. That they didn't win the next series likely keeps this team grounded entering this season. The experience of it all should serve as an excellent building block this time around.

8. Feeling trapped?

For a team known for its defensive responsibility, another defensively-minded coach being added to the mix could spell the Dallas Stars or New Jersey Devils a la a few years ago. The Colts hired Drake Berehowsky as an assistant coach last season. He's a former NHL defenceman. This season, they added Jeff Beukeboom as an assistant coach. He's a former NHL defenceman. Entering the season, the Colts boasted nine defenceman (one is injured). Williamson has called defence "the identity of the team." Look for the puck to stop in Barrie.

9. Shhh. Can you quiet it down over there, please? The Barrie Molson Centre is a great place to watch a hockey game, but it's also been widely recognized as a relatively quiet place to watch a hockey game. Dubbed 'The Library' by some, fans here have shown signs of life, but also signs of fatigue. Gotta love a bedroom community. This much is a given: if the Colts win, the fans cheer.

10. Memorial Cup, anyone?

They're young, they're full of promise, the leadership is in place, they've gained some valuable experience, and they're playing in the Eastern Conference. Like they say in those Pro-Line commercials: anything can happen.

* IAN SHANTZ


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