2017-18 Season Preview: Spirit lean on youngsters to soar

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SAGINAW, MI — Hockey season is here!

In roughly 24 hours, it all begins when the Saginaw Spirit hit the road for a division match-up with defending Memorial Cup champion and fierce rival Windsor at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 21.

With the drop of a puck, all the preseason battles and pep talks about potential are over as the Spirit look to rebound from last year and take a big step towards a special future.

“I think everyone’s excited to play some meaningful games here,” said new Spirit coach Troy Smith.

Fans are going to be treated to a wealth of new talent this season in Saginaw, including Smith behind the bench.

The Hamilton, Ont. native brings a steadying hand to a Spirit franchise that has been in search of the right bench boss, and the former Whalers defenseman appears to be the right guy. With more than a decade of Ontario Hockey League experience, he brings a very strong familiarity with the league. He also brings a pedigree of shiny hardware with him having won a championship with the Kitchener Rangers.

“He’s a really good coach,” said Detroit Red Wings prospect and returning third-year player Brady Gilmour. “He’s been in the league for a while, so he definitely knows what he’s doing.”

While the roster has seen a large overhaul since last year, the return of faces such as Gilmour’s bode well for Saginaw.

The Spirit struggle-filled start last year — when five players were away at NHL camps — ended up being the difference between making the playoffs and seeing their streak of 11 straight seasons come to an end.

Gilmour — who was second on the team last season with 26 goals — joins defenseman Marcus Crawford back from Red Wings camp, while forward Cole Coskey returns after competing in camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Keaton Middleton is still with Toronto having parlayed a strong summer into an extended look by the Leafs.

“The experience guys like Brady bring back from Red Wings camp is going to be very valuable,” Smith said. “Hopefully they’re a notch above the OHL pace, having been at NHL camp.”

Overage goalie Evan Cormier’s return from camp with the New Jersey Devils, however, is among the best news for the Spirit.

Saginaw struggled mightily last season until Cormier returned from New Jersey and set career best marks in goals-against average, save percentage and wins, while seeing his losses drop significantly.

“It’s crucial to have all those (NHL prospects) back, especially (Cormier) in net,” Gilmour said. “He’s our best player; he’s crucial.”

While the old hands bring the experience and calming influence, a significant amount of excitement rides with newcomers such as 2016 first round pick Blade Jenkins and 2017 first rounder Nicholas Porco. While players like Damien Giroux look to build on strong rookie campaigns going into their draft year.

“I think Nick Porco has adjusted extremely well,” Smith said. “Now it’s going to be another test as the level rises. We’re going to need a team effort here front to back, and we’re going to need a lot more than one or two guys.”

One guy who could upgrade Saginaw from division contender to conference contender though is Czech Republic native Martin Necas, who was selected by the Carolina Hurricanes with the No. 12 overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. The incredibly skilled forward with elite speed is still in camp with the Hurricanes, but if he is sent to Saginaw, Necas would become the highest NHL draft pick to ever suit up for the Spirit.

If they all come together as a group under Smith’s direction, it could be the beginning of big things for the Spirit. And it all starts Thursday against the Spitfires.

“Obviously, you don’t want to have the start they went through last year,” Smith said. “Are we going to come out perfect? Probably not, but you want to make sure you do get off to a good start.

“We’ve got to think about Windsor. They’re going to be raising a Memorial Cup banner, which is going to be a great experience for our guys to see what that’s like.”

And hopefully one day emulate.

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