By: Cory Butzin, Digital Content Provider
It was a busy off-season full of change for the Saginaw Spirit, but now as the start of the 2017-18 Ontario Hockey League season is around the corner reasons for optimism abound.
Likely at the top of the list is the addition of Troy Smith as head coach.
“It’s great; it really is like home,” Smith said. “That’s what is great about junior hockey. The kids become acclimated with the community. I stopped at my billet’s house when I came down for the interview.”
A Hamilton, Ont. native, Smith cut his hockey teeth in the state of Michigan with the former Detroit and Plymouth Whalers — current Flint Firebirds — organization before playing for university and a two-year stint in the pros.
He found his calling, however, in 2006 when Smith joined the Kitchener Rangers as an assistant. Smith helped lead Kitchener to an OHL championship and Memorial Cup appearance in seven seasons as an assistant before taking over as bench boss for two seasons from 2013-15. He spent the last two seasons as an assistant coach and assistant general manager with his hometown Hamilton Bulldogs.
“I was very fortunate because I played and coached under Peter DeBoer and Steve Spott that have tremendous track records,” Smith said. “The big thing they always instilled in me is to be true to yourself.”
DeBoer and Spott are now head coach and assistant of the San Jose Sharks, which adds another NHL connection to the Spirit.
With the Spirit, Smith inherits yet another team that will be among the youngest in the league, however, his OHL pedigree adds the stability and experience that Saginaw is looking for with this group.
General manager Dave Drinkill went to great depths adding high-end skill to Saginaw this season signing 2016 first round pick Blade Jenkins, as well as top 2017 selection Nicholas Porco and second round picks Aidan Prueter and defenseman Duncan Penman.
Porco scored 22 goals and had 19 assists in just 33 games last season, while Prueter had 51 points in 33 games with the London Jr. Knights. Before joining the United States junior national team, Jenkins scored 56 goals and had 75 assists in 65 games with Detroit Compuware.
Along with veterans such as Detroit Red Wings prospect Brady Gilmour and Cole Coskey, who has attended camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the youngsters bring proven goal-scoring ability and speed to the Spirit.
Saginaw has a chance to add more speed and skill in the form of Martin Necas who was chosen 12th overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft by the Carolina Hurricanes.
“I think we’ve got a good amount of skill,” Smith said. “Obviously, we still have some organizing to do getting our systems in place and things like that. As a coach at this time of the year, the most important thing is to see a lot of effort, and I think we saw that.”
Smith said his philosophy is to employ an attacking, puck-possession approach that’s sure to excite fans, and he also places a premium on developing the entire roster.
“Whether it’s a young team or an old team, I want to play with four lines and six defense,” he said. “We’re going to rely on our older guys playing on lines with our younger guys. You’re probably not going to see a lot of lines loaded with older guys. If we do that, hopefully we build balance and help the young guys grow over the long term.”
“For us, it’s going to be about keeping the puck when we have it and working our tails off to make sure we do everything in our power to get it back as quick as we can. … I think it’s setting the standard, and the standard is that we don’t ever want to be outworked. You seem to get more bounces that way.
“And guys will either fall in line, or they’ll fall out.”