Thursday, September 18, 2008

Plymouth ready for start of '08-09 season

Courtesy Plymouth Whalers

Some will say the Plymouth Whalers had a down year in 2007-08.

At 34-28-2-4, 74 points and a .544 winning percentage, the Whalers weren’t bad, but finished eighth overall in the tough Western Conference.

This year, most observers feel the Windsor Spitfires are the top team in the league and the Western Conference remains strong. The Whalers? Flying a little below the radar as the 2008-09 season starts.

Expect that to change as the season wears on.

“We have a lot of returning players this year and we’ve added a couple of good players (2007 first-round choice Beau Schmitz and 2008 first-round choice Tyler Seguin) at key positions,” said Plymouth head coach Greg Stefan. “I’m really excited from the first day of training camp to see how our younger players from last year develop. Hopefully, they’ll continue to improve this year.

“We’re excited about getting the talent and skill-level of Schmitz and Seguin into our lineup. Having said that, they are only 16 and 17-years-old in a 19-year-old league and you have to be patient with them. But with their skill-level and skating ability, they should be able to contribute to our team right away.”

GOALTENDING: The three Whalers goaltenders are in different stages of their respective careers. Jeremy Smith (Brownstown) – 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 last year as an unknown quantity, but established himself as a capable OHL goaltender. Hackett is a steady goaltender who seems to flourish in shootouts. Rookie Scott Wedgewood comes in highly touted, played well in preseason and will see playing time when Smith is away at Nashville’s camp and then if Smith makes Team USA for the World Junior Championship.

“I think this year’s going to be a big year for Jeremy,” said Stefan. “He got last season as the number one guy under his belt and we expect big things from him. He’s one of the key players for our success this year. With Matt, I had never seen him until last year, but I thought he played well. Saying that, I think Matt has to come in from the start of this year and play well. I think he’s capable of doing just that.”

Hackett played well to close out the preseason, stopping 45-of-48 shots in London in a 4-3 victory over the Knights on September 12 as the game’s first star and then went 38-of-42 in a 4-1 loss to London the next evening.

BLUE LINE: The Whalers expected veteran Brett Bellemore to return as an overager, but Bellemore played so well for Albany of the American Hockey League last spring that he was signed by the Carolina Hurricanes. Bellemore isn’t expected back in Plymouth.

Schmitz, a Howell native, is in from the National Team Development Program and he will add offense, skating and a certain amount of grit. Steady second-year defenseman Josh Bemis (Clarkston) is back healthy after missing 41 games last year with a broken wrist. Plymouth will benefit with returnees Michal Jordan (Carolina draft pick), Christian Steingraber, Jordon O’Neill and Leo Jenner. The Whalers' coaching staff likes the potential of rookie blueliners Austin Levi (Farmington Hills) and Anthony Donati. Import selection Jan L├ítal has played well in preseason and lends a steady presence.

OFFENSE: With 195 points (75 goals and 120 assists) in 200 career games with the Whalers, veteran Chris Terry comes into the season 124 points shy of Pat Peake’s all-time franchise record of 319 points.

Terry – who had three goals during the preseason – will finish his Whalers career somewhere in the top 10 in all franchise scoring categories. He was named team captain for 2008-09 on Monday.

Veteran Vern Cooper got off to a sizzling start in training camp and led the Whalers with five goals during the preseason. He expects to continue to put up the points during his NHL Draft season.

Third-year forward AJ Jenks (Wolverine Lake) made the Whalers as a rookie in 2006-07 as a penalty killer and depth player, then blossomed offensively last year with 26 goals and 29 assists for 55 points. Drafted by the Florida Panthers in the fourth round (100th overall) in last summer’s NHL Entry Draft, Jenks is making a positive impression with Florida in his NHL Training Camp and will go to the Panthers’ main camp later this month. Stefan awarded Jenks an “A” as an alternate captain for the second straight season.

If you like a blue collar grinder with plays with grit, third-year-forward Kaine Geldart is your man. Quiet off the ice, Geldart gets chirped and chirps with the opposition as much as anyone in the OHL. He was voted the Whalers Labatt Blue Collar Player of the Year last season and will continue in that role this year. Stefan awarded Geldart an “A” as alternate captain on Monday.

SECOND YEAR FORWARDS: Expect second year forwards RJ Mahalak (Monroe), Tyler J. Brown (Westland), Tyler G. Brown and Ryan Hayes to improve offensively in 2008-09. Hayes – who joined the Whalers at mid-season last year after leaving Boston College – played well in training camp and in the preseason and appears to be primed to have a big year. In addition, Mahalak and TG Brown both played well in the preseason.

FORWARD PUPS: There’s a reason Seguin was selected by the Whalers ninth overall in the last spring’s OHL draft. Skilled offensively, Seguin appears to be a good faceoff man and is improving defensively. Jamie Devane is tall and lanky with a good reach. Devane’s offensive numbers will come with experience. Myles McCauley (Sterling Heights) is a skilled centerman who appears to be able to kill penalties.

UNSUNG, BUT EFFECTIVE: It’s taken a little time, but Joe Gaynor appears to be ready to have an excellent year. Always good defensively, Gaynor used his size effectively during the preseason.

DARK HORSE?: Sportsnet.ca writer Patrick King rates the Whalers as a darkhorse in his Ontario Hockey League preview.

King writes: “It wasn't necessarily a rebuilding season for the Plymouth Whalers who entered last season as defending league champions. However, with a core of returning players which include American world junior goaltender Jeremy Smith, the Whalers could quietly put together another strong season."I don't know if a lot of people are talking about Plymouth but I like their team an awful lot," a coach said. "I think they're a bit of a sleeper with Jeremy Smith in net. (Forward) Chris Terry could be an MVP this year. They've just got some real nice weapons. They're also very rugged, they always play that way. They're going to be a tough opponent."

"I like to say that Plymouth team because nobody really has them picked as being one of the leaders but I think they're really strong," another coach said.

Geldart photo courtesy Walt Dmoch/Plymouth Whalers

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