IceDogs primed to take next step
Ben Jones is expected to be an important cog for the Niagara IceDogs this season. PHOTO BY: TERRY WILSON/OHL IMAGES
|The Niagara IceDogs have set their sights high this season.
Try 40 wins.
Coming off a respectable first season of rebuilding that saw the team finish third in the Central Division with 23 wins and a berth in the playoffs, the IceDogs are determined to take it up a notch this season.
“Right from Day 1, we’ve talked that we want to win 40 games and if we do that we think that will put us right in the conversation for the division,” said new head coach Billy Burke, who takes over from the departed Dave Bell. “It’s definitely a lofty goal but with the guys coming back and the maturity of the team we definitely think it’s realistic.”
Burke, who will be joined behind the bench by associate coach Ted Dent and assistant coach Kris Sparre, feel the IceDogs are primed to take a step forward this season.
“We had a lot young guys, a lot of first-year guys who got the opportunity to play a lot that they wouldn’t have got if the team was older and a little bit deeper,” he said. “We had some rough patches last year but as a team we learnt a lot and built a lot.
“We definitely want to build on what we started last year. If we’re in that same place, eighth position by the end off the season, then I think everyone would feel that’s a disappointing year.”
Burke loves the makeup of his club, which features four rookies (forwards Ian Martin, Philip Tomasino, Andrew Bruder and Billy Constantinou) along with over-agers Johnny Corneil and new defenceman Zach Shankar.
It’s a good mix of youth and experience to go along with several returning veterans.
“I think I have an idea,” Burke said when asked about his team’s identity. “I think we’re going to be a team with good team speed. On the whole I think we’re a smart team and a pretty skilled team.
“Right off the top, I think our identity is right where you want to be in the modern OHL. A mobile back end, our forwards can fly, and we have a great goalie. I definitely feel confident in where we are at and hopefully the way we play builds that identity.”
The IceDogs have suffered from slow starts the past few seasons, a situation Burke and the staff would love to rectify.
“You can’t win a division in the first two months but you can certainly lose it,” he said. “We’ve had some rough starts the last couple of years and that’s something we definitely want to avoid. Getting off to a good start is extremely important but if for whatever reason things don’t go well, you just try and fix it and get back on track, but I’m very confident we will hopefully get off to a good start.”
The IceDogs will begin the season Saturday in Hamilton at full strength with all players back from NHL camps.
“It will be good to get everyone in practice and on the same page,” Burke said. “I think we’re lucky to get a couple days to practice as a group and get the kinks out. I’m excited. I feel pretty confident going into Saturday and Hamilton is a good team so it will be a good test right off the hop.”
The following is a position-by-position look at the 2017/18 IceDogs.
Dhillon was workhorse last season playing 59 games and seeing more rubber than another other OHL goaltender.
“Obviously Stevie is one of the top goalies in the league so it’s his net,” Burke said. “Incze has made an obvious step over the summer and he is a capable goalie. I don’t think we want Stevie to play quite as much as he did last year so he’s a little more fresh. Being an older team and Colton being in his second year, I think is going to be great for everybody.”
Zach Shankar (OA)
Billy Constantinou (R)
Daniel Nardi (R)
The IceDogs have two gaping holes to fill with the departures of Aaron Haydon and Ryan Mantha.
“Between Mantha and Haydon, one of them was on the ice almost the whole game last year,” Burke said. “It’s a huge hole to fill but everyone has made a step. We don’t need one guy to play 30 minutes this year.”
General manager Joey Burke added some experience with the addition of overage defenceman Zach Shankar from North Bay and mobile Elijah Roberts from Kitchener.
“Bringing in Shankar and Roberts helps out a ton,” Billy Burke said. “All the returning D have taken a step forward so they will be ready to play more meaningful minutes. It definitely hurts losing those guys but as a defensive unit we’ll be deeper and better and won’t need to have the one guy or two guys on the ice the whole time.”
Billy Burke is encouraged by the IceDogs depth on the blueline, even if they lack a bona fide stud rearguard.
“We have a very mobile back end. From the returning guys, I think we can have a lot of offence by committee and Billy Constantinou is a young guy who has a very high offensive ceiling,” he said. “We’re really trying to build well-rounded defencemen. We don’t have that one strictly high octane, offensive guy and then again we really don’t have that stay-at-home, throwback tough guy defenceman.”
Ian Martin (R)
Johnny Corneil (OA) (C)
Philip Tomasino (R)
Andrew Bruder (R)
The IceDogs should be able to increase their offensive output from last season. Niagara scored just 207 goals, tied for 14th.
Akil Thomas had a memorable rookie season while Ben Jones should improve on his 13 goals. Leading scorer Johnny Corneil (31-31-62) is back as captain while Kirill Maksimov will have a full season in Niagara and will also be a go-to piece on offence. Toss in the likes of Oliver Castleman (18-22-40), Danial Singer (13-14-27), Kyle Langdon (12-14-26), Ondrej Machala (8-17-25) and impressive rookie Philip Tomasino, and the IceDogs should score enough.
“We have a top nine, I should even say top 12,” Billy Burke said. “Our forward depth is our strength. We have a veteran group of forwards and Tomasino has fit right in so far. Their commitment to defence is great and they can score. They have big time speed and skill but they are also commitment to defence and hopefully that balance is what will make us a strong team.”