Each summer, depending on their age, players prepare themselves for the off-season. In today’s hockey landscape, it’s a year-round commitment to play at the highest level. The goal that each player who suits up for the Saginaw Spirit is hoping to achieve is one day playing in the NHL. For a select number of players who have heard their name called at an NHL Draft, they have already checked off an important goal in their march to the National Hockey League.
In this article, we will catch up with the Saginaw Spirit who participated in NHL Development Camps this summer. For some it was their first. For others, they were returning. The guys the new crop of prospects were looking up to. We’ll get their perspective on what transpired in various NHL camps across the country.
Third-year captain Keaton Middleton has dealt with his fair share of critics since the moment he was selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the fourth round of the 2016 NHL Draft. The hulking six-foot-six, 240-pound defenseman enjoyed a career-high in Points (24) and a career-low in Penalty Minutes (45) during the 2017-18 regular season. Despite his on-ice success with the Spirit, Middleton was informed by the Leafs in late May that they would not be signing him, and Middleton entered into free agency.
Though not selected in the 2018 NHL Draft, Middleton was granted a camp invitation by the San Jose Sharks, the same organization in which his older brother Jacob plays.
“It was actually kind of weird being there with Jake,” said Middleton chuckling. “Most of the time at these camps, you branch out and go eat with other guys. I found myself spending most of my time with my brother. “
“But he’s like my cheat code,” continued Middleton. “He’s been through all this before at the professional level.”
In Middleton’s first camp with the Sharks he found similarities and differences with what he experienced in Toronto.
“There’s a different aspect to every camp. You think going in that they might try to teach you how to play exactly like (former Norris Trophy Winner) Brent Burns, but you learn Justin Braun’s style and Joakim Ryan’s style and you just try to soak up as much as you can.”
For this year’s team, Middleton is as excited as he’s been in his four-year OHL career to get to Saginaw and lead the surging Spirit.
“I’m pumped to lead this team. It looks like the guys we have coming in are exciting young players with character. You can be a heck of a hockey player, but if you don’t have character, you won’t go anywhere.”
Another leader on this year’s Spirit outfit with something to prove is 2016 first round pick Brady Gilmour. The seventh round pick of the Detroit Red Wings in 2017 sustained a season-ending elbow injury in January, and watched as the team was dispatched by the eventual Western Conference champion Soo Greyhounds in the playoffs.
“That was tough,” said Gilmour. “It took until a couple weeks after the season ended until I was fully recovered. I was really looking forward to getting to camp with Detroit so I could prove the injury was fully healed and I am 100 percent.”
Gilmour had been skating in the Carnevale Hockey Group Summer League tournament previous to his camp with Detroit, but that was the first competitive hockey he had played since the injury.
“As the camp went on, I felt better and better. We had a really good scrimmage and I was feeling confident in my game.”
Gilmour netted a goal in the Red vs. White scrimmage game that was set up by former Spirit teammate Marcus Crawford. Crawford, now a graduate of the OHL, signed a two-year deal with the Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL affiliate of Detroit Red Wings) just days after the Spirit season ended.
Gilmour is also optimistic about this year’s Spirit team that will return to Saginaw for Training Camp in late August.
“It’s exciting from a player’s perspective when you see all the signings and positive buzz around the team. With last year’s injury, I can’t wait to get going. We have a young, skilled group here.”
Spirit defenseman Reilly Webb was selected by the Detroit Red Wings in the sixth round of the 2017 NHL Draft while still a member of the Hamilton Bulldogs. Webb was acquired in January, and immediately was paired with Captain Keaton Middleton, forming one of the most formidable defensive tandems in the OHL.
For Webb, his second camp with Detroit was about refining some areas of his game and pushing himself to improve in others.
“We did a lot of skills training with (Spirit Skills & Development Coach) Brandon Naurato. He had us joining the rush and doing a lot of things that make me uncomfortable. It’s good though because that is how you learn and become a better hockey player.”
Brandon Naurato of TPH Hockey was invited to coach at the Detroit Red Wings Development Camp, a welcomed addition for camp attendees with Spirit ties.
“His video sessions are incredible,” said Webb. “He has a way of simplifying the game that players just understand and can take back on the ice with them. He breaks down the game really well.”
Webb was also able to rekindle some old friendships when he was able to room with former Spirit defenseman Marcus Crawford during his stay in Detroit.
“Yeah, Marcus and I roomed together while we were in Detroit and it was good to spend some time with him. We ate together and shared some laughs.”
Webb also ran into a former roommate of his during his time in Detroit.
“I actually lived with Kaden Fulcher in Hamilton so it was really good to see Fulchy, too. There are so many OHL guys with Detroit right now that it was really a familiar environment for us.”
With Webb entering his fourth year in the OHL, he knows he is shifting roles as one of the leaders on a relatively young batch of rearguards.
“It’s a little different going into this season knowing I am going to be leaned on a little more by the younger guys, but I am looking forward to it. We have a pretty good group coming in.”
The six-foot-four, 194-pound defenseman worked on becoming a little more nimble in the offseason. He’s down six pounds, and says his focus has been skating and puck skills.
“I’m just working on becoming stronger in all parts of my game. Speed and puck skills have been a big focus. In the gym, I’m not really bulking, but trying to work on my agility.”
Shifting gears to the 2018 Draft, the Spirit had two integral pieces of their future taken in the fifth round. The New York Islanders, led by newly minted President of Hockey Operations Lou Lamoriello, selected Jackson, Michigan native Blade Jenkins 134th overall. Jenkins had an impressive rookie campaign with the Spirit in 2017-18. After scoring just four goals for the USNTDP Under-17 team two seasons ago, Jenkins netted 20 goals in his rookie campaign with Saginaw and finished tied for fifth in rookie scoring in the entire Ontario Hockey League.
“One thing that I really liked about the Islanders camp is that you are able to compare yourself to high-end players and AHL talent,” said Jenkins. “The style there was high tempo with a lot of skill and a lot of speed. The speed is what stands out as a couple steps ahead of the OHL.”
Jenkins spent most of his time at Islanders camp rekindling some old Michigan-based relationships and trying to ingest as much information as possible.
“I think you learn exactly what it takes to get to the next level (when you come to camp). They give you the book, they give you the tools, and you take that back with you and hope to apply to your team’s success.”
Jenkins is certainly hoping to capitalize on the momentum of last year’s successes when it comes to helping the hockey club this season.
“For me, individual success comes from team success. We have a good group right now. It’s on us to take advantage of what we have. We really want to win a championship for this organization and all the players are on board.”
Damien Giroux more than doubled his goal output from his rookie season last year, leading him to his most successful season in his OHL career. Giroux also appeared in all 68 games for the Spirit, playing most nights head-to-head with the opposing team’s top line.
Giroux’s dream of being drafted into the NHL came true when the Minnesota Wild selected him 155th overall in the 2018 Draft. A familiar voice called to tell him the news.
“I met Andrew Brunette as a very young child skating in one of his local hockey schools in Sudbury,” said Giroux. “He lives about five minutes away from me in Sudbury and knows my father very well. He’s a hometown hero.”
Minnesota Wild Assistant General Manager and Sudbury native Andrew Brunette enjoyed a 16-year NHL career appearing in 1,110 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta (Winnipeg), Minnesota, Colorado, and Chicago. Before his decorated NHL career, Brunette played three seasons with the Owen Sound Platers in the OHL, scoring a league-high 162 points during the 1992-93 season.
“I grew up playing with his nephew so I would always see Andy at the rink. We would talk here and there, but knowing he was an NHL player, he was always someone I looked up to. It was surreal to get the call from him.”
Giroux’s first NHL camp experience was limited due to a procedure at the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, but that didn’t put a damper on his week with the Wild.
“Every day you are learning something new. And it’s the little things. Like how you glide. I was taught a way to get more distance out of a glide by (skating coach) Andy Ness. Those little things start to add up and by the end of the week, they make a big difference.”
In addition to Jenkins and Giroux, the Spirit selected Arizona Coyotes goaltending prospect Ivan Prosvetov in the CHL Import Draft. Prosvetov committed to the Spirit in July after being selected by the Coyotes in the fourth round, 114th overall in the 2018 NHL Draft.
The six-foot-five, 175-pound native of Moscow, Russia was taken by the Spirit in the first round, 15th overall, in the 2018 CHL Import Draft. Prosvetov played the 2017-18 season with the Youngstown Phantoms, posting a 19 wins in 36 appearances during the regular season, and backstopped the Phantoms to the Clark Cup Finals in the USHL Playoffs.
Prosvetov’s efforts during the regular season granted him the opportunity to participate in the 2018 USHL/NHL Top Prospects game in Kearney, Nebraska and also earned him USHL Goaltender of the Week for the week of February 19, 2018. Prosvetov was ranked 14th among North American goaltenders by NHL Central Scouting heading into this past 2018 NHL Draft.
For these players, the hope is to take all that they’ve learned at NHL Camps and apply it to pushing the Spirit to heights the team has not experienced in its 16-year existence. Though each player may have a different role, together they hope to provide the formula needed to capture that elusive first J. Ross Robertson Cup and a birth in the Memorial Cup.