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Kia CHL Top-10 Spotlight: Spirit eyeing return to the top

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The Saginaw Spirit are set to soar.

With the OHL planning to return to play in February, the Spirit will look to build on a successful 2019-20 campaign that saw the club finish with a .702-point percentage through 62 appearances and marked the second-best showing in franchise history plus a second consecutive West Division crown.

The Spirit, who enter the new year sitting seventh in the preseason edition of the Kia CHL Top-10 Rankings, begin with offensively gifted left-wing Cole Perfetti, whose franchise-record 111-point sophomore campaign counting 37 goals and 74 assists made him one of just six players from across the circuit to reach triple-digit point production.

That performance undoubtedly helps build the portfolio of the Whiby, Ont., native as the coming campaign will also see him aim for a spot with Team Canada at the upcoming World Juniors in Edmonton after being a late cut from the 2020 edition.

“I remember being in the hotel room and I got a knock on the door and my stomach immediately dropped,” Perfetti told Sportsnet contributor Ken Wiebe. “It’s a tough feeling going to the room knowing that you’re about to get released from the team. It was the worst minute of my life.

“There are so many lessons you can learn in being cut from a team. That being my first time ever being cut, it was definitely a wakeup call. Being cut is tough, especially from a team like that. But I learned a lot about how to use that as motivation and how to fuel me for the rest of the season and up to this point.”

After a luckless start to his second season with the Spirit, Perfetti found his scoring touch in the campaign’s latter half, a stretch that included at least one point in each of his final 12 appearances to total eight goals and 18 assists for 26 points. In the end, Perfetti was ultimately rewarded in being chosen 10th overall by the Winnipeg Jets in the 2020 NHL Draft – the highest NHL draft choice in Spirit history.

One of 14 CHL talents selected in the 2020 NHL Draft to have since inked an entry-level contract, Perfetti is preparing for another dominant season with the Spirit where he will he once again be expected to lead the way offensively particularly following the graduations of fellow forwards and NHL drafted prospects like captain Damien Giroux and Cole Coskey.

Of course, Perfetti will not be alone in providing the scoring punch as the Spirit also boast other tantalizing producers up front like 19-year-old centre Ryan Suzuki, a 2019 first-round selection of the Carolina Hurricanes whose late-season acquisition from the Barrie Colts proved to be an early success as he notched 13 goals and 22 assists over his 23-game showing in Saginaw.

The first-overall pick from the 2017 OHL Priority Selection, Suzuki enjoyed his early going in Saginaw and is excited about the new season’s possibilities.

“I hadn’t really had a chance to go at a championship, so when I got to Saginaw, it was building up to be special,” Suzuki told Ryan Pyette of the London Free Press. “It was disappointing not to finish that out.”

Despite last season coming to an early close, a silver lining was that it allowed Suzuki to be a part of the Hurricanes’ abbreviated training camp prior to the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, an opportunity that afforded him to learn at the pro level and gain valuable insight from seasoned veterans as well as familiar faces like former Colts teammate Andrei Svechnikov that he will surely bring with him into the new season.

Alongside Perfetti, Suzuki is one of four Spirit skaters headed to Canada’s World Juniors selection camp next week, a group that also includes key defensive zone players like blue-liner and Philadelphia Flyers prospect Mason Millman as well as 2021 NHL Draft eligible netminder Tristan Lennox.

While the Spirit will have a new-look defensive core this season particularly following the noted departures of veterans Bode Wilde and Reilly Webb, plus Calgary Flames prospect Ilya Solovyov who returned to his native Belarus following an impressive first season in Saginaw, the club will turn to its next wave of talent like soon-to-be sophomore Mitchell Smith to provide invaluable support to Millman on the back end.

For Millman, the added opportunity not only allows him to further build his game but to continue to impress the Hockey Canada brass after being a late addition to its selection camp roster.

“It’s every kid’s dream to play for the World Juniors with Team Canada so what could be better than doing it with your own friends, your own teammates, right?” Millman told the OHL. “I’ve always kind of been the underdog throughout my hockey career, so to get invited late is kind of typical me. I look at it as there is definitely someone who wanted me there for a reason and someone who pushed for me to attend.”

Beyond Millman, Saginaw’s last line of defence is Lennox, who assumed the starter’s duties last season after previously serving as the understudy. Despite a limited 33-game showing, Lennox was among the top netminders in the OHL in 2019-20 with his 20 victories ranking inside the top-10. It’s that type of potential that intrigues the scouting community and earned the up-and-coming goaltender a ‘B’ grade in Central Scouting’s preliminary report ahead of the 2021 NHL Draft, and maybe even a shot at the national stage at the 2021 World Juniors.

While the Spirit will enter the new season with a new-look back end, the club’s burgeoning offensive group makes it a key threat to fill the net on any night and the Spirit a fitting choice to reach new heights when the puck drops for the 2020-21 season.

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