Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Plymouth training camp has much intrigue


Plymouth Goaltending – The three Plymouth Whalers goaltenders are in different stages of their respective careers. Jeremy Smith – already signed by the NHL’s Nashville Predators – comes back as one of the best goaltenders in the OHL. Eighteen-year-old Matt Hackett – acquired by the Whalers from Windsor last November in the Michal Neuvirth deal – came to the Whalers as an unknown quantity, but established himself as a capable OHL goaltender. Rookie Scott Wedgewood comes in highly touted and will see playing time with the Whalers when Smith is away at Nashville’s camp at the start of the season and at the World Junior Championship.

We’re An American Band, Part I – Smith is in a battle with Guelph’s Thomas McCollum and Kitchener’s Josh Unice (Chicago) to represent the United States in the upcoming World Junior Championship in Ottawa. How each plays over the first half of the OHL season will go a long way to determining their chance to play for Team USA. Smith was the number one man last year for Team USA, but some observers as saying now that McCollum (the first round pick of the Red Wings this summer) has moved ahead. Smith will definitely have something to say about that.

The Whalers open the season September 19 in Kitchener, host Guelph on September 27 and then play in Guelph on November 7.

We’re An American Band, Part 2 – The Whalers start the season with a lot of local talent on the roster. Plymouth’s training camp roster includes Smith (Brownstown), Josh Bemis (Clarkston), Christian Steingraber (Oregon, OH – just outside of Toledo), RJ Mahalak (Monroe), Beau Schmitz (Howell), AJ Jenks (Wolverine Lake), Tyler J. Brown (Westland), Mike Yovanic (Highland), Austin Levi (Farmington Hills), DJ Hastings (Grosse Ile), Brendan McLeskey (Pinckney), Myles McCauley (Sterling Heights) and Ali Dakroub (Dearborn).

Like the goaltenders, all the local players are in different parts of their careers. Smith, Bemis, Jenks, Steingraber, Mahalak, Brown and Yovanic return from last season. Schmitz – the Whalers’ first round pick from 2007 – comes over from the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor with promising reviews. Levi, Hastings and McLeskey are Whaler draft picks who may play with Plymouth or skate with the Compuware Midget Majors. McCauley is an older 14th round draft pick from 2007 with good skill. Free agent Dakroub earned an invitation to training camp after playing for the Whalers at the rookie orientation last May.

Chris Terry – With 195 points (75 goals and 120 assists) in 200 career games with the Whalers, Terry comes into the season 124 points shy of Pat Peake’s all-time franchise record of 319 points. 2008-09 is an important year for Terry for a couple of reasons:

It’s his signing year and the Carolina Hurricanes will be watching Terry with great interest.

Terry played well enough at Canada’s National Junior Evaluation Camp over the summer to rate a chance to play for Team Canada in the upcoming World Junior Championship.

Terry will finish his Whaler career somewhere in the top ten in all franchise scoring categories.

More importantly, Terry is a young man who has grown up literally before our eyes in Plymouth. The maturity he has exhibited in befriending the late Bobby Suvoy is something we can all be proud of.

Third Year Charm – Do a little research and you’ll find a lot of OHL forwards in their third year break out offensively. Terry is a case in point, going from 28 points as a rookie in 2005-06, to 66 points during the Whalers championship year in 2006-07, to 101 points last season. Other examples include former Whalers James Neal (6-44-53), Dan Collins (22-46-49), Tom Sestito (4-20-64), John Mitchell (18-55-82) and Chad LaRose (25-59-117).

To be fair, the three year progression doesn’t happen with every forward on every team, but it does happen somewhat regularly. Jenks, Kaine Geldart and Vern Cooper all have a chance to develop in the same manner.

Schmitz and Michal Jordan – Schmitz is a smooth skater and an offensive-minded defenseman who plays with grit. It’s no accident that he led the NTDP last season with 108 penalty minutes with no fighting majors. To paraphrase a baseball expression, Schmitz definitely plays to contact. He will be fun to watch this season.

Some will say that Jordan was over-hyped last season, but he was one of the youngest players to skate in the 2008 World Junior Championship last season and by all accounts played well. And like him or not, he played well for the Plymouth, even though he probably had to play too much at times.

Schmitz and Jordan are a year older and stronger this year and will be integral members of the Plymouth blue line.

The Overage Question – Plymouth head coach Greg Stefan has said he’s satisfied with one overage player on the roster (right wing Patrick Lee) and that he wants to play as many young players as he can. Most championship teams in the OHL are a little older than the Whalers are now, so Plymouth general manager Mike Vellucci will be watching OHL rosters closely. If he adds two OAs, they’ll be done with care.

Watch trades around the OHL and overages (this season, 1988 birthdays) are moved frequently around as the teams sort their respective rosters. A good overage player usually doesn’t cost much in terms of trade, because GMs know they’re receiving a player for one season only.

Free Agents – Two free agents made the Whalers training camp roster. Dakroub (Hampton Roads Jr. Whalers) and David Morden (Sarnia, Chatham Maroons) played well enough at Plymouth’s rookie orientation last May.

Two other potential Whalers on the training camp roster – Chad Rutkowski and Buddy Wightman – were inactive last season due to injuries and are trying to make it back on the roster.

Steingraber photo by Walt Dmoch/Plymouth Whalers

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