MiHockey Previews: Saginaw Spirit look to build on last year’s second half

The custom cover we designed for the Spirit during our "Pride of the Mitten" cover contest.

By Matt Mackinder -

A coaching change seemed to invigorate the Spirit in last year’s second half. Can the club continue to build with new bench boss Greg Gilbert?

Rewind

If only Greg Gilbert was Saginaw’s coach all season, who knows what might have been the result? After taking over for Todd Watson midway through the season, Saginaw went on to qualify for the postseason by finishing third in the West Division and then advanced to the second round after turning aside a pretty stacked Sarnia squad in the first round. Captain Brandon Saad began last year with Chicago and didn’t look out of place before getting sent back to Saginaw, where he proceeded to rattle off 34 goals in 44 games and another 17 points in 12 playoff games. Forward Vince Trocheck led the team in scoring with 85 points in 65 games, while over-age forward Josh Shalla popped 40 goals and Garrett Ross, who may be back as an overager in 2012-13, added another 25 goals for the Spirit. Brandon Archibald was a steady force on the blue line and Red Wings’ draft pick Jake Paterson had a team-best 18 wins between the pipes.

Bench boss

Gilbert replaced Watson during last season, quickly turned around the Spirit, and in the process was named OHL coach of the year. Gilbert played 15 years in the NHL and also coached in the NHL with Calgary and in the OHL with Mississauga. With a full off-season under his belt in Saginaw, Gilbert should have the Spirit players geared up for a markedly improved season in 2012-13. The fact he was named the OHL’s top coach in just a half-season’s worth of work speaks volumes about Gilbert’s coaching ability to get results.

Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images

Line change

Obviously, the biggest loss is Saad, who, barring a lengthy NHL lockout, should begin the season with Chicago and certainly has the ability to stay in the Windy City for the long haul. Shalla’s 40 goals will be missed, as will Michael Fine’s offense from a year ago (22 goals, 47 points). Defenseman Brad Walch, the first Saginaw native to suit up for the Spirit, has also graduated from junior hockey and signed with the Washington organization. New to Saginaw are forward Andrey Alexeev and goaltender Nikita Serebryakov, both taken in this past summer’s import draft. Forward Jeremiah Addison, defender Brandon Prophet and forward Dylan Sadowy were all drafted by Saginaw in the 2012 OHL Draft and should see playing time this year.

If the water bottle is half full…

Each year, Saginaw seems to have a decent-looking team on paper, but a slow start, injuries or whatever else seems to take the wind out of the Spirit’s sails and an early playoff exit is next up. If Trocheck can keep up his offense, Paterson shows why Detroit thinks so highly of him and Gilbert can continue his magic from a year ago, then there is no reason to think Saginaw won’t be a factor in the Western Conference. Forward Jimmy Lodge will play in the All-American Prospects Game later this month in Buffalo and if he can improve on his eight-goal season from a season ago, scouts will take notice. Defenseman Grant Webermin came over from Windsor at the trade deadline and didn’t miss a beat. He needs to continue his solid, safe play this year as a leader on the back end. Eric Locke, another trade-deadline acquisition from Windsor, scored 20 goals and 30-35 is not out of the question this year.

If the water bottle is half empty…

Injuries need to be kept to a minimum this year. If not, it will be a long season in mid-Michigan. If egos get in the way and players don’t buy into Gilbert’s systems, again, look for a long season and lots of notches in the loss column. Justin Kea, a Buffalo pick last summer and Saginaw’s top pick in the 2010 OHL Draft, needs to show why he is thought of as an NHL prospect – three goals in 65 games last year won’t cut it again. When the right chemistry is in place, Saginaw can be a dominant team. When it isn’t, well, the golf clubs come out in early spring in Saginaw.

Jake Paterson (Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

MVP

This has to be Paterson, doesn’t it? He’ll get lots of hype being a Red Wings’ prospect and with the stellar season he had a year ago, the Spirit will be counting on even more this season. Paterson is a humble person, but needs to play with a chip on his shoulder on the ice, something he has shown at times. Confidence for a team starts with its goalie and if Paterson can be a leader from the crease and post similar or better numbers to his 18 wins, 3.42 goals-against average and .904 save percentage, Saginaw will win many games and be a consistent team all season long.

Difference-maker

Trocheck isn’t the biggest player on the ice (5-foot-11,190 pounds), but there is no doubting his speed and his offense. He’s one of those players that grab your attention and you quickly say, “Wow.” It’s a wonder he lasted all the way until the third round of the 2011 draft before Florida snagged him. If his development doesn’t hit any ruts, Florida got itself a steal of a pick. From 43 points in 2009-10, to 62 in ’10-11 to 85 a year ago, it’s not wrong to think 110 points may be in the cards for the Pittsburgh native this season. It’s also not out of the realm of possibility to see Trocheck as Saginaw’s captain this year. He leads by example and plays whistle to whistle – sounds like captain material.