Sports

Things looking up for Colts

GENE PEREIRA, In the Game

As the Barrie Colts opened their Ontario Hockey League season a year ago in Plymouth, they hit the ice with 14 rookies in the lineup.

A 1-10 start and the loss of star forwards Alexander Burmistrov and Kyle Clifford to the National Hockey League quickly made it pretty clear a rebuilding Barrie team was in for a long season.

And that it was.

The Colts finished last in the OHL with a franchise-worst 15-49-2-2 record and missed the playoffs for the first time in the team's 15-year history.

It was almost like watching Mike Tyson floored by Buster Douglas in the boxing ring. This one was over before the opening bell stopped ringing.

"It was a gruelling year," said the Colts recently named general manager, Jason Ford. "I think there was a stretch that we didn't win a road game for two months, or something like that."

A year after the Colts had loaded up in a run to the OHL finals - you're very welcome Niagara for that kid named Ryan Strome - Ford and rookie head coach Dale Hawerchuk were left holding the bag.

"Last year, at this time, we were struggling to find guys with OHL experience," Ford said. "We had to make a couple of trades to fill some holes and we had to take our lumps with some of those younger guys and at the time we didn't know what was going to happen with Burmistrov and Clifford."

The Colts just didn't take their lumps, they were speed-bagged. But, with apologies to author S.E. Hinton, that was then and this is now. (Sorry, the book title and fits perfect here.)

And right now, Hawerchuk, Ford and the Colts have plenty of reason to smile now that the puck has dropped on the 2011-12 OHL season.

The Colts not only appear to be a team ready to pick themselves off the mat, but one that appears ready to do a little damage in the Eastern Conference standings.

This year's version of the Colts includes only six players making their OHL debuts.

"We kind of realized there's light at the end of the tunnel," said Ford of the rebuilding effort. "The process was a bit of a gruelling one last year, but we feel pretty good about where we're going, the character we have in the room and some of the additions we made over the summer."

One of them was in goal, where the Colts brought in German import Mathias Niederberger to compete with second-year returnee Clint Windsor. Both had outstanding camps and the No. 1 role has yet to be determined.

"It could turn out to be a good situation where the two of them work off of each other," Ford said. "They bring different qualities, but together they make a good goaltending tandem.

"It's kind of like a 1A and 1B kind of thing between the two of them."

Both were clearly more focused than John Chartrand was and the Barrie native was dealt to the Belleville Bulls in the offseason.

When Josh Malecki decided to stay south of the border, that clearly opened the door for second-round pick Alex Fotinos. While the young goalie will ply his trade in Jr. A this season, he left a clear impression in camp that he's the future between the pipes for Barrie.

"He's an athletic kid and he's waiting in the wings. He's waiting for his chance," Ford said of Fotinos. "He's going to work hard and put in some good development games wherever he ends up."

While the Colts had their share of struggles at times in goal last season with Windsor finding his way, the clear true Achilles heel of the team was on the blue-line.

The Colts opened last season with captain Dalton Prout still away at NHL camp and five rookies on defence.

It showed. Boy, did it ever. Barrie would end up giving up a league-high 348 goals. Only Sarnia had its lamp lit more than 300 times last year.

The Colts have been busy restocking the defence. They brought in some high-end young talent in the draft, using their first overall pick to grab young phenom Aaron Ekblad, the first player since John Tavares in 2005 to be granted "exceptional player status," and the 22nd overall selection on smooth-skating, ultra smart puck mover Alex Yuill.

They added size and experience with the acquisitions of Reid McNeill (London) and Derek Hartwick (Sault Ste. Marie), while a year of experience should do a world of good for returnees Brandon Devlin and Chris Buonomo.

"Top to bottom, we feel pretty good about what we got back there," Ford said. "There's some good size back there, some defencemen with good smarts, good puck movers , good skaters. We have a little bit of everything, so we're pretty happy."

Ekblad has been compared to NHL stalwart Chris Pronger and even hockey great Bobby Orr. While it's a bit much to put on a 15-year-old's shoulders, the six-foot-three, 207-pound stud has already drawn rave reviews, showing the smarts of a veteran beyond his years despite being the youngest player out there.

"Several scouts who have come to our games, not necessarily to get a look at him but just to get early looks at teams, look at him and if you didn't know he appeared as though he was 18- or 19-years-old out there," Ford said.

Ekblad and Yuill should quarterback the power play for years to come.

Despite a smaller five-foot-eight, 160-pound frame, Yuill can dominate at times and is off to a quick start, finding the net three times in preseason action.

"He's a world-class skater and he's got a world-class hockey brain - we're expecting good things out of him," Ford said of Yuill.

The Colts also convinced former 2010 ninth-round selection Jonathan Laser to not go the school route and signed the talented youngster, an excellent skater and smart defenceman who keeps things simple.

Big things are expected of towering six-foot-four, 204-pound Buffalo Sabres prospect Alex Lepkowski, who could be paired with Ekblad. McNeill, who missed training camp, is finally back on the ice and the Pittsburgh Penguins prospect should require another two weeks before returning to the lineup, providing more time for returnee Kyler Nixon to state his case that he should stay.

Last year's third-round pick, Brandon Devlin, is bigger and stronger and showing confidence in that howitzer blast of his from the point, while Buonomo made the most of his second chance after the Petes gave up on him and has turned into a solid, top-four, shutdown man for the Colts.

"Some of them are still young and a little bit raw in terms of OHL experience, but there's tons of upside back there," Ford said.

Filling the net shouldn't be a problem for this year's Colts. With the exception of perhaps Niagara, the Colts believe they are as deep up front as any team in the Eastern Conference.

The Colts should be able to roll three lines that can find the net, let by the talented trio of centre Mark Scheifele, between overage sniper and newly minted captain Colin Behenna and second-year winger Tanner Pearson, who was arguably the club's best player in camp.

Scheifele is coming off a dream offseason, one that saw him drafted seventh overall by the Winnipeg Jets and earn an invite to Canada's world junior team camp in August.

With an added 10 pounds of muscle and his skating much improved, Scheifele dazzled in Colts camp and he's continued the eye-popping play in NHL camp with the Jets, scoring twice and adding another pair of assists in his NHL exhibition debut Tuesday night in Winnipeg's 6-1 pounding of Columbus.

Whether Scheifele returns to Barrie is another question.

"The way he's playing now in Winnipeg, it's like he's in a world of his own right now, and he's getting better each day," Ford said. "If we get him back, he's going to add a huge offensive firepower to the lineup."

Import sniper Ivan Telegin, acquired in the offseason from Saginaw, is also at Jets camp, but his return is expected and the Colts believe the Russian will easily top the 20 goals and 41 assists he had last season with the Spirit.

Veteran winger Gregg Sutch, just back from Sabres camp, was acquired from the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors in August to add size and grit and is also expected to easily surpass his career high of 28 points after playing in Dave Cameron's heavily defensive system the past two seasons.

After a slow start to his OHL career, thanks in part to injuries, Zach Hall worked his butt off over the summer and appears ready to finally tap into that high skill and could fill in the top line between Behenna and Pearson at least until Scheifele possibly comes back.

Steven Beyers has no problem on the offensive side of his game (65 points in 66 games), but the club expects him to improve on his league-worst minus-50 posted last year, while speedy, two-way forward Eric Locke will look to build on an impressive 26-goal rookie season between Windsor and Barrie.

Another rookie posting impressive offensive numbers was third-line centre Dylan Smoskowitz, whose 21 goals last year and rapid maturation would make him a second-line centre on most teams this year.

"We've got some good two-way scorers that can be responsible," Ford said.

Youth should serve the Colts well up front this season with the addition of rookies Erik Bradford, Brendan Bell and Joshua MacDonald.

Bradford got into a handful of games last season, but an impressive camp helped him beat out Ray Huether, who was acquired from Saginaw in the offseason, at the centre position.

"He worked diligently all year to make sure when he came this year he was going to stay," Ford said of Bradford. "He hasn't stopped working since Day 1 of training camp. He'll do whatever it takes. He's a hardworking, character player and those our the type of kids we want to have around here."

Bell, a fifth-round pick, also impressed at camp from the get-go. The gritty winger has matured in leaps and bounds, finishing Jr. A last season in a point-per-game pace with Aurora.

MacDonald has had a somewhat slow start, but the Colts remain high on last year's third-round selection who led Elmira to a Jr. C provincial title.

Overage veterans Norm Ezekiel and Victor Terreri, acquired from Niagara this offseason, are two physical forwards who should provide room up front for their teammates.

"We love the depth we have up front, from top to bottom," Ford said.

It was only some six months ago the Colts were coming off a butt whipping, one you can bet all 15 returning players on the roster have not forgotten.

It's a whole new fight now and an undefeated 4-0-2 preseason has Barrie believing its a contender, and why not?

They're bigger, stronger, deeper and, perhaps most importantly, more experienced. Time will tell, but the Colts believe a finish in the top half of the conference standings is well within reason

"We definitely think we're a team that can contend for home-ice advantage in the first round. Absolutely," Ford said.



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