by Trevor Stewart, O Doctor
When Warren Rychel and Bob Boughner (pictured) seized control of Windsor Spitfires as part of the new ownership group little more than two years ago, a certain amount of skepticism was fair.
Boughner went straight from playing in the NHL to coaching in the OHL, which is almost unheard of since the age of career coaches began a generation ago. Rychel, as GM, wasn’t far from his playing days. Did the pair have the foresight and experience to right the ship, or were they looking for a toy?
You are your record in hockey and it's looking more like the Windsor guys have a handle on new OHL realties as much as anyone else. The Spitfires are 12-1-0, ranked No. 1 in the Canadian Hockey League. Almost everyone else was slower getting to the same point.
“We went young two years ago ... we made those young kids play,” Rychel says of his current leaders.
Rychel didn’t wait until the 2006-07 trade deadline to start making deals, so the young players started getting ice early on. It may have led to a 43-loss, 43-point plod through the 68-game season, but it was like jumping the green light on a rebuild. Last season was a case of a still young Spitfires team being labelled as "surprising" as it climbed to No. 4 in Canada at one point.
The Spits began the season as league favourites. They’ve responded by rolling through the OHL despite the league’s most brutal early-season schedule -– 10-of-13 games on the road, including the team’s longest road trip of the season -– Windsor to Ottawa, Kingston and Belleville.
Two things that the Windsor architects have figured out, making a rapid-fire turnaround from the limping team, wounded by the airing of Akim Aliu-Steve Downie, hazing ritual incident before Boughner and Rychel took over:
The old stardard still stands – shrewd talent evaluation.
Rychel, who was a scout for the Phoenix Coyotes and knew the OHL well before he bought into the Spitfires, has proven to be an adept evaluator of talent. He traded for Josh Bailey and drafted Greg Nemisz, who were first-round 2008 NHL draft picks in his first year. He drafted Kingston's Taylor Hall, who had only moved into Ontario from Western Canada with his family a couple years earlier. Hall might end up being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NHL draft. In the same draft year, he nabbed potential 2009 NHL first-rounder Ryan Ellis after 19 of the 20 other OHL teams bypassed the smallish defenceman.
The new reality is that building an OHL powerhouse has to happen fast in today’s league. It can mean playing more young players more often in their rookie and sophomore seasons. It means biting the bullet for a truly woeful season in order to have a top-flight season within the next two. Point being, there's an art to bottoming out.
Middle-of-the-pack seasons only beget more middle-of-the-pack seasons.
"We cleaned out a lot that first year and we’re starting to develop pros," Rychel says, inadvertently pointing out a brutal reality for today’s OHL teams. In the what the hockey media has been calling "the NHL's new salary-cap era" for the past few years, the better junior clubs evaluate and develop the right talent, the more likely the NHL is to snap them up prematurely.
There are currently six of the OHL’s brightest lights from the 2008 NHL draft class with their National League teams, including Windsor’s Bailey (who is currently being held out of the N.Y. Islanders lineup with an undisclosed injury). That’s six major building blocks OHL teams would love have to work with. (Seven if you include the fact the Sudbury Wolves could have Nikita Filatov on their midst.) And that’s just the 2008 draft class.
To think Windsor is this good now after reeling off three weekend wins in three days on their longest road trip of the season –- which included a return to Ottawa where Rychel once captained the 67’s –- and the Spits could be even better with Bailey back in the lineup.
"It's a catch-22 for us," Rychel told a Newsday reporter a couple of weeks ago. "We want to see guys graduate to the NHL. That means we're doing our jobs. But selfishly, on the other hand … he would be huge for us, especially as our No. 1 center and captain, on and off the ice.”
The league-leading Spitfires begin another three-game weekend Thursday with a good matchup against the Western Conference’s third-place team, the Guelph Storm – speaking of teams that have lost their leader to the NHL. How much would Guelph fans love having Drew Doughty anchoring that team, instead of being in Los Angeles? Those days are disappearing fast, though, and the Windsor guys are riding the wave instead of getting crushed by it.