Ottawa 67’s raise the bar as camp starts
Over the last couple weeks, Ottawa 67’s players have slowly returned to the city, a number of them getting an early chance to skate at TD Place before training camp officially got underway this week.
On Tuesday, the full team, including the 67’s crop of 2015 draft picks, hit the ice for an intra-squad scrimmage to kick off camp, four months removed from the club’s most successful season in three years.
With the regular season getting started Sept. 24, there will be plenty of familiar faces — at least up front — back in the fold as the 67’s look to improve on a 38-25-4-1 record and fourth-place finish in the OHL’s Eastern Conference. The season ended in a six-game, first-round playoff loss to the Niagara IceDogs.
Defensively, Ottawa figures to be a bit more of a work in progress as the 2015-16 OHL season moves along.
While high-scoring forwards like Dante Salituro (37 goals, 78 points last year) and captain and new Philadelphia Flyers prospect Travis Konecny (29 goals, 68 points) are back, the 67’s will be looking for defence prospects and those who saw limited action last year to step up and fill voids left behind by players like Alex Lintuniemi, who will suit up for the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs this year Zack Pittman and Taylor Davis.
Head coach Jeff Brown, who also moved into the role of general manager during the off-season, figures the blue line is the only significant question mark heading into the season.
“It is what it is, we have a lot of forwards back and we don’t have many defenceman back,” said Brown, who is entering his second year behind the 67’s bench. “We should be okay in goal, we should be okay up front.
“We need some younger guys to step up and assume a big role early in their OHL careers on the back end.”
Here’s a look at how the 67’s will stack up entering training camp, along with thoughts from 67’s assistant coach Mike Eastwood.
While there will be some competition for forward spots during camp, the 67’s will open the season with a top-six that is relatively set.
Assuming Nathan Todd — who entered the OHL as a 19-year-old rookie last season — can pick up where he left off, the Kemptville native should assume the role of No. 1 centre. It took Todd some time early in the season to get used to the speed of the league, but he became a key contributor in the second half, particularly down the stretch.
“There’s a learning curve in this league but (Todd) was our No. 1centre at the end of the year,” said Eastwood. “We’re expecting him to take a huge step forward this year.”
Jeremiah Addison and Konecny would be obviously early candidates to line up on Todd’s wings, at least to start.
Expect both Sam Studnicka and Salituro to get chances as Ottawa’s second-line centre. Artur Tyanulin, who rejoins the 67’s after returning home to Russia early last season, will play important minutes at right wing. Travis Barron, who proved to be a physical two-way presence in his rookie year last season, could play on the left side but could also figure in on one of the checking lines. More will be expected offensively from Barron in his sophomore year.
As for Austen Keating, Ottawa’s top pick in this summer’s OHL draft, he’ll be given a chance on one of the lower lines and will have to earn his minutes. He’s not expected to be a world-beater in his rookie season, but Ottawa like’s what it’s seen so far from the 16-year-old.
“He’s a real good prospect that’s going to come in a play for us and he’s going to get better as the year goes on,” said Eastwood. “As a 16-year-old, you can’t expect a guy to come in a be a Travis Konecny. It’s wide open in front of him though, what he does with it is up to him. He’s a smart hockey player and we love smart hockey players.”
Connor Graham, Ben Fanjoy, Dylan McDonald, David Peace and Adam Craievich round out the crop of returnees.
Also in camp: Kody Clark, Corey Andonovski, Christian Antoski, Marcel Berube, Ben Evans, Nolan Gardiner, Ty Power, Jake Robinson, Connor Warnholtz and Brandon Zullo.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Though five of six players pencilled into the three defensive pairings to start camp were on the roster to finish last season, several saw limited action and will be looking to win a regular role. With top d-man and Los Angeles Kings prospect Lintuniemi AHL-bound this year and players like Davis, Pittman and Mike Vlajkov not returning, there are plenty of vacancies.
The top pairing figures to be returning veteran and big-minutes defenceman Jake Middleton along with the more offensively-minded Evan de Haan — back as an overager and power-play quarterback. After that, spots are basically up for grabs, with returnees Nevin Guy, Ryan Orban and Brandon Lukezic likely to get first crack at the remaining spots. The 67’s also expect good things from 6-foot-9 defenceman Stepan Falkovsky, the Belarus native Ottawa selected this summer with the club’s lone pick in the CHL import draft.
“Once (Falkovsky) gets his feet under him and gets comfortable in the league, he’s a guy that’s going to help us,” Eastwood said, while pointing to Middleton, de Haan and Guy as vets that will be expected to lead on the back end.
Also in the mix: Will Brown, Noel Hoefenmayer, Hudson Wilson, Ryan Barbosa, Matt Mercer, Matt Prucha and Erik Ross.
No changes here. After leading the 67’s back to the playoffs, the starter’s job is Liam Herbst’s to lose, though second-year goalie Leo Lazarev will be expected to push for playing time. After injuries limited Herbst’s playing time when he first entered the league, the Etobicoke native had a career year last season, going 24-8-3-1 with a 2.76 goals-against average, .901 save percentage and three shutouts.
The 5-foot-10 Lazarev, who went 14-16-1-0 in his rookie year, is penciled into the backup role, but the 67’s will take a good looks at Olivier Lafreniere and Marcus Semiao, both of whom were called up last year when injuries struck Herbst and Lazarev at different times.
Also in camp: Jacob Smith.
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After taking such a significant step forward last season in Brown and Eastwood’s first years behind the bench, both shrug off the suggestion that pressure will be higher to go further this season.
“Listen, if you don’t like pressure, you’re in the wrong sport,” Brown said. “If you want to win, if you want to be a champion then you’ve got to be able to handle that. There’s pressure last year, there’s more pressure this year, but we want to take that next step.”
“We’re going to build off of last year, absolutely,” he said. “The pressure’s what you make of it. We want to be as good as we can be … as coaches (and) as players. In (hockey), if you tighten up and you’re feeling the heat, you’re in the wrong business.”
The 67’s will get down to business in trying to best last year’s finish when they open their regular-season schedule in Peterborough against the Petes on Sept. 24. Ottawa plays its first home game Sept. 27 against the Barrie Colts at TD Place.