'If You Ain't First, You're Last': Erie Otters Take Step Back In OHL

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By Jacob Messing

A historic Erie Otters season ended suddenly in late May when host Windsor defeated the regular season champions 4-3 for the Memorial Cup, given to the winner of a four-team tournament played

The Otters were utterly dominant before the loss, going 50-15-2-1 on their way to a 103-point regular season before tallying a 16-6 record in the OHL playoffs. The high-octane team outscored opponents 95-59 over those 22 postseason games, sweeping the Sarnia Sting, eliminating the defending champion London Knights, and knocking out the 102-point Owen Sound Attack.

No wonder, then, that the loss to the Spitfires stung so sharply. Reminiscent of the 2016-17 Washington Capitals, Erie seemed to have all the pieces for a smooth ride to a championship. But, if modern movie culture has taught us anything, it’s this: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

Now, Erie’s front office is focused on the future -- a future without four of its seven leading scorers from last year. Those four scorers exclude Anthony Cirelli and Warren Foegele, both of whom were obtained at the trade deadline, but both of whom also finished fifth and seventh in overall points, respectively.

The Losses

The Otters waive goodbye to a number of key contributors. Some are headed to hockey’s highest league and expected to secure, or at least seriously contend for, roster spots, while others have been traded within the OHL, and still others are headed to Canada’s southern neighbor and the AHL. But it’s not only players who are leaving Erie -- there’s a coaching change, too.

Top line winger Alex DeBrincat paced the entire OHL with 65 goals and 127 points and is now eyeing a spot with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Darren Raddysh, the 2017 OHL defenseman of the year, scored 81 points in 62 games and signed with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs.

Center Dylan Strome potted 22 goals and 75 points in just 35 games -- let that sink in -- and is destined to earn a spot with the overhauled Arizona Coyotes.

Cirelli scored 30 points in 25 games after the Otters brought him in and earned a reputation for scoring big goals during the Erie’s playoff run.

Foegele scored 16 goals and 32 points in 33 games following his trade, and was named the 2017 OHL playoffs MVP.

Forward Kyle Pettit, who captained the team last season and scored a career high 26 goals and 54 points in 66 games, is heading to the University of Western Ontario after five seasons with the Otters.

Eric Cernak, an elite defenseman who dominates his own zone with his hockey IQ, long reach, and physically ruthless play, will join the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch this season.

Then there’s Kris Knoblauch, who coached the Otters for the past five seasons and established a winning pedigree in Erie. He is joining the Philadelphia Flyers as an assistant under Dave Hakstol.

Key Returning Players

The Otters will remain competitive, not only through the organization’s knowledge of winning and can-do attitude, but also because they have some key returning players who will help ease the newcomers into the league.

Forward Taylor Raddysh is entering his fourth year with the club and has steadily improved his goal, assist, and point total in each of his first three seasons. His 109 points saw him finish behind only DeBrincat last season and his 42 goals were good enough for sixth among the league leaders.

Left wing Kyle Maksimovich is also heading into his fourth year and will earn a bigger role this season, which will help him build on last year’s 16-goal, 64-point campaign. His production dipped from 2015-16 ( 27 goals, 71 points) due to the minutes entrusted to DeBrincat, Strome, and Raddysh.

Right wing Ivan Lodnia is entering his third season with Erie. While he’s still behind Raddysh on the right side of the depth chart, he’ll play a large role moving forward. The 18-year-old was drafted 85th overall by the Minnesota Wild in June after scoring 24 goals and 57 points in 66 games last season.

Patrick Fellows has been a depth forward for Erie since 2014, scoring 12, 13, and 17 points in each of his first three seasons. He did however, have a solid preseason for the Otters with a team-leading four goals and five points in as many games. The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder, could prove to be a late bloomer with a bigger role.

A solid rookie campaign in 2015-16 saw Jordan Sambrook get drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the fifth round in 2016. He built on his 67-game, 27-point season with 15 goals and 40 points in 61 games last year to help Erie in the postseason. He had the 10th-best plus/minus rating with a plus-38.

Troy Timpano backstopped Erie’s strong 2016-17 season with the third-best GAA in the league (2.37) and the seventh-best save percentage (.901) among all netminders to play 40 or more games. His four shutouts tied him for fourth-best behind Michael DiPietro, Michael McNiven, and Jeremy Helvig, each of whom had six. He’s returning for his fifth OHL season and second with the Otters.

New Faces And The Future

With such high turnover, the Otters will have a lot of fresh faces in the locker room. The team enters the new season with eight rookies and 14 players with a year or less of OHL experience.

Management brought in Chris Hartsburg to replace Knoblauch. Hartsburg spent the past three seasons with the USHL’s Lincoln Stars, going 83-83-14 with one playoff appearance.

They traded a 2023 third-round draft pick for Alex Gritz, “a hard-working player that makes the ice uncomfortable for his opponents,” general manager Dave Brown told GoErie.com. Gritz is entering his second year in the OHL and scored two goals and five points in 37 games last year with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.

Perhaps the most important addition to the team is Stephane Patry, the team’s first-round pick from the CHL Import Draft in June. The Swiss native scored 15 goals and 37 points over 63 games in Switzerland’s Elite Jr. A league.

Maxim Golod, Chad Yetman, Joseph Mack, and Emmett Sproule join Patry as rookie forwards while Aidan Timmermans, Jack Duff, and Kurtis Henry are newcomers to the blue line.

There are inevitable bumps in the road ahead for Erie, who after four years of high expectations followed by close losses lack the league’s go-to firepower and high-end names. Brown has a rebuild on his hands, one that lacks a second-round pick until 2025 and a third-round pick until 2024.

Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @JMessing23.

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