Development ‘huge at this stage’ for young Colts, coach says
Graig Abel/Getty Images Jason Smith, left, is pictured during his time with the Mississauga Steelheads. He has been acquired by the Barrie Colts.
It’s all about the youth for the Barrie Colts.
For the OHL’s youngest team, which got even younger at the OHL trade deadline earlier this week, the remainder of this season will be about development.
Realistically, this whole season has been all about development for a Colts team that came in with only a handful of veterans returning.
Sure, there was hope a young group might find its way earlier than expected and would perhaps surprise in what is clearly a weaker Eastern Conference.
Instead Barrie finds itself at the bottom of the OHL standings. So, when the trade deadline arrived Monday (for overagers) and Tuesday, there was really no question Colts would have to be a seller.
Moving popular veterans like captain Cordell James (Owen Sound) and defenceman Cam Lizotte (Erie) wasn’t easy, but the truth is the moves earlier this week were what’s best for the future, and that’s what matters now.
The Colts also had discussions involving overage forwards Roy Radke and Anthony Stefano, but in a year when there seemed to be more quality overagers available than there were contenders shopping for them, both will now finish their junior careers in Barrie.
Which is just fine with a club that has two excellent veterans to provide leadership for a young group.
Heading into Friday night’s OHL action, and just past the halfway point, Barrie sits seven points behind a playoff spot, and while the push to get in remains a focus for everyone in that dressing room, Colts head coach Dale Hawerchuk knows the development of his young players must not take a back seat.
“For sure, development is huge at this stage,” Hawerchuk said ahead of a busy weekend, which includes a stop in Kitchener Friday night to take on the Rangers before hosting the Niagara IceDogs Saturday at the Barrie Molson Centre.
“(Development is) always huge in junior hockey,” he added. “But when you’re at a stage where we’re at, it’s quite large, for sure, about developing these guys and making sure they’re getting better every day.
“As a group, we’re going to get better each and every week. Right now, the majority of these guys have an opportunity to come back. It’ll bode well for the future, for sure, but not all of them are going to cut the mustard.”
Opportunity has been there for this young group since the drop of the puck this season and now even more so over the remaining 30 regular-season games.
Hawerchuk and his staff want to see improvement from his young players. They have half a year of experience now. They’ve got their feet wet.
“Now it’s it up to them to start taking it to another level,” he said. “We’ll see who does that through the course of the season.”
Fortunately for the Colts and their fans, these years of needing to undergo a major rebuild have been rare.
Barrie has missed the playoffs just once in its previous 21 seasons, that in 2010-11, when their roster was decimated following a run to the OHL finals the year before. Even then, after finishing last overall, it didn’t take them long to get off the mat. Barrie finished second in the Central Division the following year, then went on to win its division three of the next four seasons.
The opportunity for the organization to get back on track is there again, but a lot of that will depend on the work done this offseason.
Barrie is likely to get a high pick and that could mean a crack at top OHL draft prospects like Toronto Marlboros centre Jack Hughes, ranked No. 1 on most lists, Chicago Missions 16-and-under forward Alex Turcotte or Mississauga Reps centre Jamieson Rees.
The No. 1 CHL Import pick belongs to the OHL this season and that means a shot at a top European star who could step in and be an impact player almost immediately.
If Colts general manager Jason Ford and Hawerchuk can convince former first-rounder Jack McBain to report, along with Russian centre and import pick Alexey Lipanov, and add a big offseason of moves to the likes of Kirill Nizhnikov, Tyler Tucker and draft prospects Luke Bignell and Matthew MacDougall, the future should be more than fine in Barrie.
“I can remember going through these times with the likes of Mark Scheifele and Tanner Pearson and, as they got better, we had to start surrounding them with better players,” Hawerchuk said. “They all started taking it to another level and, each year, that level just kept rising. Then it became infectious to everybody that came here and we ended up having a pretty good five-year run.
“That’s what you hope for when you have years like this. You’re building so you can go on a good, long run again.”
For now, Hawerchuk wants to see who from this group of Colts will be part of that future.
“You’re always assessing them as they go along,” he said. “Some guys start separating themselves from the others and you hope there’s a good group of them that do that.
“And that’s the guys you move on with.”
The future is now for this young Colts team, and sometimes you need to take a step back to move ahead.
Barrie also acquired Jason Smith from Mississauga and Robert Proner from Saginaw at the trade deadline. Smith had 11 goals and 25 points over two-and-a-half seasons with the Steelheads, but the Colts are hoping a change of scenery will do the five-foot-eight, 168-pound forward good.
“He’s got pretty good wheels. He’s a pretty tenacious guy,” Hawerchuk said of Smith, who he said put up good point totals in minor midget. “We’re a good fit for him, I think, at this stage.
“He’s going to have an opportunity to play a little more of an offensive role here that he didn’t see (in Mississauga), so I think it’s good for him.”
Proner, a second-round pick of the Spirit in 2015, will also get a fresh start in Barrie. The six-foot-two, 210-pound defenceman got into just 32 games over the past two seasons.
“I guess things didn’t go great for him in Saginaw,” Hawerchuk said of Proner. “I remember watching him as a minor midget with the (GTHL’S Toronto Titans). He has a big body and moves well, and is kind of a good puck mover. He has a good physical side to him and a good shot.
“With all their veteran defencemen in Saginaw, he’s probably going to get more of an opportunity here.”
ICE CHIPS: The Colts round out their weekend schedule Sunday afternoon in North Bay. Heading into Friday night’s action, the struggling Battalion had won just once in its past 10 games. Barrie has a grilling second-half schedule ahead. Including last weekend, eight times they will face a weekend of three games in three nights before the end of the regular season.
Gene Pereira covers the Barrie Colts for the Barrie Examiner.