A little more than a week ago, the Barrie Colts were far from front-and-centre for Warren Rychel.
Now as he looks to take over the reigns behind the bench for Dale Hawerchuck, who had to take a leave of absence for the season for health reasons, the new head coach says he’s excited to get going as the Colts get set to kick off their 25th anniversary season.
“I really am excited,” said the former Windsor Spitfires owner and general manager, who will begin his OHL coaching career Friday night on the road against the North Bay Battalion. “Sometimes life takes you in a different direction and I embraced it. Obviously, it’s not under the best circumstances here with Dale (sick).
“We’re all thinking about him. The players, the community. Not just people in Barrie, but the hockey world too.”
Rychel, who sold his ownership stake in the Spitfires this summer, says the move to a new team and from off-ice management to behind the bench has been smooth thanks to the support of owner Howie Campbell, general manager Jason Ford and assistant coach Todd Miller.
“I felt like it’d be an easy transition,” he said because of that support. “Just come in here and do the right things, and carry on what Dale has already done.”
Barrie has 18 players returning from a rebuilding club that finished second-last in the Eastern Conference last season and with Carolina Hurricanes first-round pick Ryan Suzuki and fellow NHL prospects Matej Pekar (Buffalo), Tyler Tucker (St. Louis) and Matthew Hill (Anaheim) leading the way, Rychel believes the Colts are ready to take a big step forward this year.
“Everybody talks about Ottawa, Sudbury and Oshawa, but we’re a good team,” said Rychel, who will make his home coaching debut Saturday night when the Colts host the London Knights at the Colts Centre. “We’re fast. I was really impressed by the speed. We got a big back end and we got guys that play a pretty tough game and can pass the puck a little bit.
“(Ford) did an outstanding job with the draft, so we have outstanding (rookies). There’s a good mix here and we got to come together on the ice. Clean up a little in our own end and I really think we can make some noise.”
Here’s a look at Barrie’s 2019-20 roster by position:
GOALTENDING: Jet Greaves had a solid rookie campaign and returns for his second season with the likely edge in crease time after Kai Edmonds was moved to Mississauga. The Colts took Vancouver Canucks prospect Arturs Silovs with their first pick in this year’s CHL Import Draft and the big six-foot-four, 203-pound Latvian native is expected to push Greaves for playing time after recently arriving from NHL camp.
“Jet has been impressive and he’s worked his way up into being a pretty good goalie in this league,” Rychel said. “It’s a luxury to have two (good goalies), so we’ll just have to see how it goes. We’re going to watch and evaluate. There’s not a lot of elite goalies in the OHL right now if you look around and we have two, so that’s a bonus.”
DEFENCE: Rychel loves the depth on his back end led by the rugged Tucker, who is among the league’s top blue liners and open-ice hitters, Hill and fourth-overall pick Brandt Clarke, who served notice with five goals and 10 points to finish tied for the league-lead in exhibition scoring.
Nathan Allensen, Jack York, Matthew Sredl, overager Chris Cameron and Vinny Prospal, son of former NHLer Vinny Prospal, round out a deep group that should be a strength this season.
“I like our mobility back there, I like our toughness, I like our size,” Rychel said. “Allensen has a high compete level and so does Sredl. Hill is big and you need those guys to shut down plays in your own end. Tucker has a pretty good all-around game. He shoots hard.”
Colts fans should be excited about Clarke. The former Don Mills Flyer standout racked up 113 points for the OHL Cup champs and Rychel believes the tools are there for the six-foot-one, 181-pound to have an immediate impact and be a force over his junior career much the way current Nashville Predators blue liner Ryan Ellis was for him in Windsor.
“He’s elite. He’s really good,” the head coach said of Clarke. “Coming in here, I was really impressed with him in games. The points are a bonus, but regardless of that he was outstanding. You get a guy like that, it did remind me of Ellis. He’s better in some areas, Ellis is better in other areas, but from what I’ve seen this kid can play.
“He’s a gamer and he’s won everywhere he goes. He’s a nice kid to be around and he’s going to play a lot here. On ice smarts and puck placement, it’s just unbelievable.”
FORWARDS: The Colts are expected to get Suzuki back in the next few days, but were thrilled their star centre was signed to NHL contract earlier this week. The highly-skilled centre had 25 goals and 75 points last season, but expectations are higher this season and there’s no doubt that if Barrie is to move up the standings that the former first OHL overall pick will have to lead the way heading into his third season.
Pekar got into just 33 games last season and his season-ending injury at the trade deadline was a huge blow to the Colts playoff hopes. He’ll play a leading role this season and the pesky forward will be heavily counted on for offence, as will overager Jake Tortora. The highly-skilled sniper had 16 goals in just 33 games last year after Barrie acquired his rights from Kitchener last season.
Overage captain Jason Willms, who has 47 goals over the last two seasons, will centre the second-unit. Rookie Tyson Foerster had a strong rookie campaign and is expected to take a big step forward, as is last year’s first-round pick, Riley Piercey.
Returning veterans Dalton Duhart, Luke Bignell, Sam Rhodes and Vic Hadfield give Rychel plenty of options with the lineup.
“We’re deep and we have some heaviness,” Rychel said of his group up front. “I’m trying to put a little bit of heavy on every line. (Overager Aidan) Brown, Piercey, Pekar is pretty good and we have skill. Obviously Suzuki is a real good player and Foerster has been impressive for me. He’s a really sure-handed and has a great stick.”
The club could look to add another top-six forward, but they’re hoping that role will be filled by someone on the club. Rychel is hoping to balance his lines and as for scoring, a little hard work and sweat can go a long way he says.
“It’s important to have three lines, especially when you play on the road,” he explained. “I think we can manufacture more goals. Every time we score a goal, it doesn’t have to be a skill goal. Rebounds, tips, we’ve got to get some greasy goals too. We’ll take some inventory after about eight games with the goal scoring.”
Rychel also boasted about the work Ford did in the draft and the rookie group they have in the lineup. Third-round pick Jacob Frasca had a strong camp and the centre was impressive in both ends of the ice, while second-round selection Ryan Del Monte has shown flashes of his offensive upside. Sixth-rounder Trey Zagrzebski will also push to get into the lineup.
“If a guy is struggling up in the lineup, I won’t be afraid to throw a (rookie) up onto a good line,” he said. “There’s the skill of Frasca and Del Monte and Z is a hard-working guy, it’s just going to take a little bit of time. He’s got a lot of good traits.
“For young guys, it’s just as important that they’re going off the ice too. The future is exciting for Barrie fans.”
The Colts still have one overager over the limit of three. With Wilms and Tortora taking two of those spots, the club will have to make a tough decision between Brown and Cameron.
“I’m happy we don’t have to make a decision now,” said Rychel, who says he will let the decision play itself out.
Game time in North Bay tonight is 7 p.m., with puck drop on the home opener Saturday against the Knights set for 7:30 p.m.
ICE CHIPS: Also making his debut behind the bench in North Bay will be assistant coach Taylor Carnevale. The former Colt played three seasons in Barrie from 2008 to 2011. . . Colts fans will have a chance to cash in at the home opener. Those in attendance will automatically have the chance to win a $1025 gift card to the Colts Store. Fans also have a chance to win a signed St. Patrick Day’s game-used jersey. All you have to do is subscribe to the team’s YouTube channel at youtube.com/TheBarrieColts and retweet the Twitter post @OHLBarrieColts.
PHOTO: The Barrie Colts will be looking for big things from Buffalo Sabres prospect Matej Pekar when they kick off their 25th anniversary season Friday night in North Bay. TERRY WILSON/OHL IMAGES.