Saginaw Spirit General Manager Dave Drinkill has been one of the busiest GM's in the Ontario Hockey League this past off-season, signing some highly touted draft picks while bringing in a well-respected coach on very short notice.
When former head coach Spencer Carbery announced he'd be leaving the Spirit for an assistant coaching job in the AHL on July, 25, Drinkill had very little time to find a new head coach before the start of the Aug. 28, Spirit training camp for the 2017-18 season.
Just 13 days after Carbery's abrupt departure, Drinkill announced in an Aug. 7, press conference that he had hired new head coach Troy Smith, a native of Hamilton, ON who comes to Saginaw after his most recent OHL job as an associate coach/assistant GM for his hometown Hamilton Bulldogs in the 2015-16 season and part of the 2016-17 season. Prior to his time in Hamilton, Smith had been a longtime assistant with the Kitchener Rangers, eventually becoming head coach for two seasons.
“We are very pleased to announce that Troy Smith will be taking over as the next head coach of the Saginaw Spirit,” Drinkill said after hiring Smith. “When looking for a new coach, we had criteria we wanted our new coach to meet and Troy checked off all the boxes. He is a person of high character, an excellent communicator, and is extremely detailed, prepared, and hardworking. The players and the city of Saginaw will benefit with the addition of him as the head coach of the Spirit on and off the ice.”
Shortly after hiring Smith, the Spirit announced Ryan Kuwabara would be joining Smith and second year Spirit assistant Chris Lazary as an assistant coach behind the Spirit bench this year.
The 45-year old Kuwabara joins the Spirit coaching staff after 4-years (2013-17) as head coach/GM of the Ancaster Avalanche of the Ontario Junior Hockey League, where he had 111 wins, 83 losses, and 4 ties in 198 games.
Kuwabara, also from Hamilton, ON has dual citizenship in both Canada and Japan, and was drafted by the Ottawa 67's in the first round of the 1989 OHL priority selection draft. He won the 1989-90 Bobby Smith award for scholastic achievement while playing for the 67's, where he was eventually drafted in the second round (39 overall) of the 1990 NHL draft by the Montreal Canadiens, before a successful pro career in Japan as well as playing hockey for the Japanese national team at the 1998 Winter Olympic games in Nagano, Japan.
The 2017-18 Spirit team is considered a very talented, but very young team, however, there is also a talented group of veterans returning this year who will help solidify this group as a cohesive unit.
Veteran goal tender Evan Cormier (a fourth-round pick of the New Jersey Devils in the 2016 NHL draft) has the possibility of starting his pro career in the New Jersey Devils' system, however, the Spirit are hoping the Bowmanville, ON native will get to spend his fifth OHL season as an overage goal tender in Saginaw, which is the more likely scenario.
Third year forward Brady Gilmour (a seventh-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings in the 2017 NHL draft) will be one of the leaders for the Spirit this year, playing just 90 minutes north of the NHL team that drafted him following a productive sophomore campaign where he had 47-points (26-goals, 21-assists) in 65-games last year.
Fourth year defenseman Keaton Middleton (a fourth-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2016 NHL draft) returns after spending the latter half of the 2016-17 season as the Spirit captain after Mitchell Stephens was traded. The Spirit will lean on Middleton to lead a depleted back end after the departure of Filip Hronek (Detroit Red Wings draft pick), Markus Niemelainen (Edmonton Oilers draft pick), and C.J. Garcia last season.
Forward Cole Coskey is set for a breakout year in his third OHL season after a 32-point (10-goals, 21-assists) in 66-games last year.
Defenseman Marcus Crawford returns for his fourth OHL season after a breakout third year where he had 39-points (6-goals, 33-assists) in 60-games last year. The Spirit will look to the puck-moving defenseman to take over for Hronek and run the power play from the point.
Matthew Kreis will return as one of the overage veterans on the Spirit roster as the 20-year old forward returns for his fifth OHL season, coming off a 35-point (11-goals, 24-assists) campaign in 65-games last year, following a 41-point (17-goals, 24-assists) year in 65-games two years ago.
Drinkill had an incredibly productive draft for the Spirit, having 4 of the first 27 overall picks in the 2017 OHL priority selection draft, and signing 3 of those 4 picks, along with signing the top pick from the previous draft, Blade Jenkins in the first week of May.
Jenkins, who was Saginaw's first round pick (4th overall) in the 2016 OHL priority selection draft had originally committed to play collegiate hockey at the University of Michigan, choosing to not sign with the Spirit last year, while joining the United States National Development Program team in the USHL last season.
However, the talented Jackson, MI native felt Drinkill and the Saginaw Spirit organization would give him the best opportunity of living out his lifelong dream of playing in the NHL, so he made the tough decision to sign with the Spirit in May, forgoing an NCAA career with the Wolverines in Ann Arbor.
“I thought It came down to (how much) I really liked the managerial staff and the owners here,” Jenkins said after signing. “They're second to none, just great guys and they make you feel like you're part of the family. Planning for next year, they're making it that much easier to step up to play here in the OHL, I couldn't be happier. It's going to be a great year.”
The cagey Spirit GM planted the seeds to lure Jenkins a year ago, when he signed Jenkins' best friend and former Compuware teammate, Dexter, MI native D.J. Busdeker (who became an instant fan favorite with his gritty play, goal scoring ability, and willingness to go to the dirty areas of the ice) as a free agent from the Topeka Roadrunners of the NAHL last year. Jenkins relied heavily on his buddies input when deciding on Saginaw.
“It was good to get a little insight from him,” Jenkins said of consulting with Busdeker. “He told me how great the managerial staff is with GM Dave Drinkill and the owners, and the coaches that are here as well. (He) said they're going to be great for your development. He had nothing but good things to say, so it made the decision that much easier.”
Drinkill kicked off a very successful 2017 OHL priority selection draft by selecting the 2016-17 Greater Toronto Hockey League player of the year award winner, forward Nicholas Porco with the No. 4 overall pick this past April.
Porco, a Sault Ste. Marie, ON native was Saginaw's top pick following a successful year with the Vaughn Kings' minor midget Triple-A team in the GTHL where he had 41-points (22-goals, 19-assists) in 33-games last year. Porco signed very shortly after being drafted and made it clear he was eager to get his OHL career started in Saginaw.
“I am very excited right now to sign with the Saginaw Spirit, a great organization” Porco said after signing. “I could not be happier. I look forward to the bright future ahead for this team. (Damien) Giroux and a couple players reached out to congratulate me and it just made me feel a part of the team right away. It was very comforting.”
Drinkill followed the Porco pick by taking forward Aidan Prueter in the second round (24 overall), defenseman Duncan Penman in the second round (25 overall), and forward Alex Turcotte in the second round (27 overall) to round out the top four picks.
With the exception of Turcotte, 3 of the 4 top picks signed to play in Saginaw this year. Turcotte (like Jenkins last year) committed to play NCAA hockey for the University of Wisconsin. Drinkill will work on luring Turrcotte, who was ranked as the second best American skater in this years OHL priority selection draft, to Saginaw in the future.
Another pleasant surprise in the draft was the selection of forward Ryan Stepien in the third round (41 overall) and signing him to an OHL standard player agreement. Stepien, a Stoney Creek, ON native was very productive in the Spirit prospects camp, Spirit training camp, and has produced in his first two exhibition games this year. He had 44-points (27-goals, 17-assists) in 34-games for the Hamilton Jr. Bulldogs minor midget triple-A team last year.
With the departures of Hronek and Niemelainen, the Spirit were able to make two picks in the 2017 CHL Import selection draft, taking a forward from Nove Mesto na Morave, Czech Republic, Martin Necas (who was a first round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes, 12 overall, in the 2017 NHL draft) with the first pick. The Spirit are currently in talks with Necas, trying to get him to Saginaw.
With the second CHL Import pick, the Spirit selected Menden, Germany defenseman Tom Bappert, who captained the German U18 national team last year. Bappert signed with the Spirit in the early part of August, and will be a nice addition to a depleted back end this season.
If you were to break the 2017-18 Spirit team into 3 groups of players; you'd have the veterans, the rookies, and the group which makes up the biggest portion of the roster, the second-year players. Spirit second year forward Damien Giroux led all Spirit rookies in scoring last year and will be looking to improve on his 25-point (7-goals, 18-assists) rookie season.
Another second-year guy who has stood out in camp this year, along with Busdeker and Giroux, is second year forward Max Grondin, who really came on strong in the second half of the season with 11-points (6-goals, 5-assists) in 52-games last year.
Third year OHL defenseman Hayden Davis, and second year defensemen, Chet Phillips, and Brock Hill will be called on heavily to help along the Spirit blue line this year; while second year forwards Kyle Bollers, Danny Katic, and Gianluca Fuoco will be key offensive weapons.
Second year goal tender's Brendan Bonello (who spent most of last season as Cormier's backup) and Cameron LaMour will be crucial to the Saginaw Spirit future between the pipes, especially if Cormier is asked to start his pro career with New Jersey this season.
The Spirit open the 2017-18 OHL season on the road with a visit to the defending Memorial Cup Champion Windsor Spitfires at 7:05 pm on Thursday Sep. 21, at the WFCU Centre in Windsor, ON, before returning home two nights later for the home opener at 7:05 pm on Sat. Sep. 23, against the London Knights at the Dow Event Center in downtown Saginaw.
The Spirit will look to chip away at the Flint Firebirds' advantage in the annual I-75 Divide Cup Series opener at 7:05 pm on Wed. Nov. 1, at the Dow Event Center in Saginaw for the first of 8 meetings this year.