West Division champions in four of the past five years, the OHL’s defending Western Conference champion Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds are leading the West Division pack once again despite losing several big names to graduation following last year’s record-setting campaign.
The Hounds have some up-and-coming competition on their heels though. The Saginaw Spirit trail the first place Greyhounds by just three points following a 4-2 win in Sault Ste. Marie in Friday’s return from the holiday break. The Hounds bounced back with a win over Sudbury a night later to improve to 22-9-4-1.
“That might have been our best 40 minutes of the season,” quipped Hounds first-year head coach John Dean to the Sault Star’s Peter Ruicci following the win. The Greyhounds led 3-2 after two periods before tacking on two more goals in the third.
“We rose to the occasion. It’s not all about scoring goals. We had lots of chances and we played the right way.”
An honourable mention in this week’s Kia CHL Top 10, the Greyhounds certainly have their share of star power with Canadian National Junior Team forwards Morgan Frost (20-38–58) and Barrett Hayton (15-18–33) leading the way. Overage winger Keeghan Howdeshell (28-15–43) has also played a big factor in the team’s success, doubling his goal output from 16 over 61 games last season to 28 through 36 in 2018-19.
After the departure of star players Boris Katchouk, Taylor Raddysh, Conor Timmins, Rasmus Sandin and captain Tim Gettinger to the pro ranks, the Hounds have replenished their depth chart through the OHL Priority Selection, developing their next wave of talent. Former mid-round picks turned sophomore forwards Cole MacKay (13-21–34), Joe Carroll (5-10–15), Zack Trott (5-9–14) and former free agent signing Ryan Roth (10-12–22) have all taken strides while 2018 first round pick Ryan O’Rourke (4-7–11) has been a big addition to the back end.
“A lot of other people are, but I’m not surprised,” said hometown product MacKay of the Hounds’ solid first half of the season. “The culture that’s in place here is one of winning. Nothing has changed. Everyone expects to win here, and the young guys have contributed to a great degree.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have one of the league’s top goaltenders in the crease. Los Angeles Kings prospect Matthew Villalta won his 80th career contest on Saturday in just his third season. The 6-foot-4, 186Ib netminder had a tryout with Canada’s National Junior Team and though he didn’t make the cut, continues to find ways to win games. He sits third on the Hounds’ franchise wins list behind Kyle Gajewski (114) and John Vanbiesbrouck (84).
“It’s always tough getting cut from a team,” Villalta said after he received the disappointing news from Hockey Canada. “One game and one week doesn’t define who I am.”
As has been the case in each of the past two seasons, the Greyhounds continue to boast one of the OHL’s most successful penalty killing units. Their 84.5% penalty kill ranks second in the league and for the third straight year they lead all clubs in shorthanded goals with 13.
Howdeshell rides a 15-game point streak into a weekend road trip with stops in Sarnia, London and Flint while star defender Mac Hollowell sits second among OHL blueliners with 40 points (12-28–40). The Hounds have played to a 3-1 record since Frost and Hayton departed for World Junior duty, but will get a big shot in the arm upon their arrival when they return home for three straight on home ice against Sarnia, Windsor and Mississauga next week.
With a former OHL champion in Jordan Sambrook manning the blue line and a talented core of veterans in Frost, Hayton, Howdeshell, Hollowell and Villalta in the crease, the Greyhounds are a team to keep an eye on down the stretch in the OHL’s Western Conference.
The KIA CHL Top 10 Spotlight takes a closer look at one team from the weekly KIA CHL Top 10 Rankings.
Past KIA CHL Top 10 Spotlight editions:
Sept. 26, 2018 – Halifax Mooseheads
Oct. 4, 2018 – London Knights
Oct. 11, 2018 – Victoria Royals
Oct. 18, 2018 – Rouyn-Noranda Huskies
Oct. 25, 2018 – Prince Albert Raiders
Nov. 1, 2018 – Ottawa 67’s
Nov. 8, 2018 – Moncton Wildcats
Nov. 15, 2018 – Baie-Comeau Drakkar
Nov. 22, 2018 – Red Deer Rebels
Nov. 29, 2018 – Drummondville Voltigeurs
Dec. 6, 2018 – Vancouver Giants
Dec. 12, 2018 – Everett Silvertips
Dec. 20, 2018 – Niagara IceDogs