With the puck ready to drop on their OHL training camp on Tuesday morning, the Barrie Colts can finally put a disappointing last season behind them.
A fresh start is much welcome after a host of issues ran the Colts off the track in 2021-22 and into an early playoff exit in a first-round loss to the Mississauga Steelheads.
Injuries, long suspensions, and of course COVID-19 added up to a long list of scratches.
As if having to play something like 26 games in 33 days in one stretch wasn’t crazy enough, captain Brandt Clarke missed the final two weeks and all of the playoffs when a linesman fell on his knee.
Florida Panthers prospect and star goalie Mack Guzda tried to play through a nagging condition in the playoffs, but missed two games and was never really healthy.
“It just seems like we couldn’t get our feet under us very well and make a push,” said Colts general manager and head coach Marty Williamson. “We had hopes of going against Hamilton and seeing what we could do against them and it didn’t happen, so it was frustrating and disappointing.”
Williamson has talked to many of his returning players this summer, and he can see they’re anxious to get things going and put last year’s disappointing season behind them.
“We’ve had a lot of communication with them and they’re excited seeing us getting Anson Thornton (in a trade with Sarnia). Getting a goalie because there was obviously a question mark about that going into this year,” said Williamson.
“We know we’ve got a good overage group. They’re saying all the right things, but we got to do it. Talking is one thing, but having that hunger for every game, every shift on the ice is another thing that we’re going to demand from this group.”
The Colts arrive at Sadlon Arena with different expectations this season compared to last year, when many of the pundits had them winning it all.
Williamson says the club will set their own and get to work on them beginning on Tuesday morning.
“I think as a group we’re going to have a lot of expectation just in our own group,” he said. “We had them last year and it didn’t work out and there was a lot of things you can’t control and that’s the message to these guys.”
“We’re just going to come in and put our head down and do our work.”
There’ll be some new faces on the ice at camp and a good deal of those will be helping Williamson this season behind the bench.
Associate coach Chris Dennis is now head coach of the Kitchener Rangers, while assistant coach Taylor Carnevale and assistant general manager and head scout Rob Stewart have moved on.
Joining the staff with Williamson and goalie coach David Belitski are new assistant coaches Phillip Barski, Dennis Martindale, and former Colts forward Dylan Smoskowitz.
“Actually I came over (to the rink) Saturday and one of them was over here watching video,” said Williamson.
“I’ve really enjoyed the interactions with them. It’s a little different than when your whole staff is back, but the fresh infusion of blood there has everything pretty exciting.”
The Colts could have as many as 19 players returning from last season, but it’s the return of their captain that could go a long way in determining how the club approaches this season.
“Realistically, (Clarke) could be the best player in the league next year,” said Williamson of the L.A. Kings first-rounder who is expected to get a long look in sunny California to start this season. “Getting him back would be huge. We’ve had some talks with L.A. and, again, these are always hard situations because you wish Brandt the best and you want the best for him, but if I put on my Barrie Colts hat we would love to have him back.
“It’s an impacting influence having our captain back, so we’ll just kind of let that play out. If he goes and earns it, you tip your hat to him. If he comes back, we know we got ourselves a heck of a player.”
The biggest change in camp will be in the crease. Gone is Guzda who was everything and more when Barrie acquired him from Owen Sound.
After struggling with two inexperienced goalies to start last season, Williamson addressed the crease this summer by acquiring Thornton and more recently Ben West from Erie.
A prospect of the Arizona Coyotes, Thornton will get every chance to grab the reigns to the No. 1 role in Barrie after facing what could have been another season of backing up San Jose prospect Ben Gaudreau with the Sting.
The six-foot-four, 174-pound 19-year-old appears ready to lead a team of his own.
“I think Thornton is very excited,” said Williamson. “I’ve had conversations with Anson and again the reports on him from Belitski and from Arizona is that Thornton is really ready to take the next step. That’s what we’re so excited about.
“We think we got him at the right time and we got ourselves another real good guy.”
West was picked up later in the summer from the Otters. Once committed to joining the NCAA Division 1 hockey program at Union, the former Erie 10th Rd. pick in 2019 is set to join the Colts.
“His numbers were phenomenal in the Ottawa league until he got hit with COVID and then his second half he really struggled,” said Williamson.
“We’ve got two real good 19-year-olds. They’re both massive kids. We’re pretty excited about our goaltending.”
With Clarke returning, Williamson believes the strength of his hockey club lies on the blue line.
The return of Artur Cholach will also be huge. The shutdown defenceman finished strong last season and Williamson says the Ukrainian import and Vegas Knights prospect is set to play a big role.
I think we’re just going to love Cholach,” said Williamson. “He’s just gone to a different level, too. He spent the whole summer in Barrie working out.
“When he went to Las Vegas’ development camp they just couldn’t say enough good things about where he’s taken his game.”
Beau Akey certainly lived up to his first-round status and with Nathan Allensen gone will play an even bigger role this season.
“Akey had a little bit of a shoulder injury, but everything looks good OK with him,” said Williamson.
Grayson Tiller also comes into camp with more expected.
“Tiller is ready to play and has had a great summer,” he said.
Veteran stalwarts Connor Punnett and Ian Lemieux are also back. Josh Kavanagh was acquired from Peterborough.
“We’ve got a lot of depth back there,” said Williamson. “Between Punnett and Lemieux and how steady those guys were for us last year, we got some great options.”
Up front, all eyes on camp will be on 10th overall selection Cole Beaudoin. The six-foot-two, 190-pound centre from Kanata could make an impact early.
“I’m really excited to see him,” said Williamson. “(Colts owner Howie Campbell) and I talked and kind of the last guy in that mold, different position, was (Aaron) Ekblad. A guy that was physically ready from the beginning. Obviously, he played defence and Cole’s a centre, but physically, imposing guys right at the start of camp as a 16-year-old and that’s a great start.”
Along with new Minnesota Wild prospect Hunter Haight and standout rookie Beau Jelsma, the Colts will be led up front by a trio of returning overagers in Evan Vierling, Declan McDonnell, and Ethan Cardwell.
If all three return from NHL camps, the Colts will have a tough decision to make with only three overage spots and four overagers.
“We’re going to let it play out,” said Williamson. “We’ve had a lot of teams phoning me, but we’re going to make sure. We’ve been burned in the past with Jet Greaves and Zach Magwood, guys that have gone to camp.
Vierling is going to Columbus, MacDonald to Buffalo, and Cardwell to San Jose.
“We’ll wait before we move anything to make sure we get everybody back,” said the Colts head coach. “Obviously Lemieux is with us and when we get the four back we got to make a tough decision. If we only get three back, well our decision is made for us. We like all four of them, so we’ll just see how that all plays out.”
Second-year forwards Cooper Matthews, Tai York, Chris Grisolia, and Roenick Jodoin will enter camp ready to take that next step.
Along with Beaudoin, the club has already signed second-round pick and winger Carter Lowe and third-round defenceman Kashawn Aitcheson and is getting closer to having centre Lucas Ellinas put pen to paper.
“We really like the makeup of this group,” said Williamson. “This is a team we’re kind of really excited about. We can still be a young team if we don’t get Brandt back. Then we can be a little bit younger than anticipated, but again that could be a good thing.
“If we get Brandt back, it kind of dictates a little bit that you only get so many chances at a player like that. It might be more of a go time at that point.”
The addition of grit and toughness continues and that should be evident when Barrie hits the ice at camp this week.
“We’re kind of morphing this team into just a little bit tougher mental group that will be difficult to play against,” said Williamson.
Things get underway Tuesday when all players report to Mind and Muscle to register and do their medical reviews and fitness testing.
A pair of scrimmages begin at 5 p.m. later the same day and run to 8:15 p.m. at Sadlon Arena.
Scrimmages continue Wednesday. They run all day from 9:30 a.m. to 7:15 p.m. with some cuts to follow.
The Colts will play their annual Blue/White game on Thursday night at 7 p.m. with more cuts to be made following the game.
After a practice on Friday, Barrie will open its preseason schedule Saturday night at home versus Oshawa. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
After almost three years of dealing with COVID, Williamson is happy to see that there’s a sense of normalcy returning to the game.
“I look at the schedule and I see that we’re going to Kitchener, going to Sarnia and the schedule is just a little more enticing to look at rather than 10 times to Sudbury, 10 times to North Bay,” he said with a chuckle. “I just think it’s more of a regular type season and that’s exciting.
“The summer has been long enough. I’m energized and excited for (this) week.”
PLAYERS TO KEEP A CLOSE ON EYE ON IN CAMP
TAI YORK – The second winger got a good taste of the OHL with eight goals in 43 games as a rookie, but he’s one Williamson believes can take a huge step forward this season.
He’s just one of these guys that is just a real hockey player,” the head coach said. “He just needs to get a little stronger and I know he put in an unbelievable summer, so he’s one guy I’m really looking at.”
KASHAWN AITCHESON – Williamson says fans are going to love the blue liner and third-round pick from the North York Rangers ‘AAA’ minor midgets.
“Whether he sticks with us this year or he plays Jr. A it’s going to be interesting,” the Colts head coach said. “He’s another guy early to keep your eye on because he’s just an infectious player.
“He plays hard.”
COOPER MATTHEWS – Matthews only began to tap into his game last year, recording seven goals and 18 points in 60 games. It took a bit for the winger to find his footing, but he took some big steps in the second half and appears ready after a big summer to be one of Barrie’s bigger offensive producers.
“He’s another one to look for,” said Williamson.
images of Brandt Clarke (banner) and Artur Cholach via Terry Wilson/OHL Images