New team has “next-level” players

Suffice to say that Denny Lambert should know a good hockey player when he sees one.

Afterall, not only did the 44-year old Lambert play in more than 500 National Hockey League games as a journeyman left winger, he coached in the Ontario Hockey League with the Soo Greyhounds for eight seasons — five as a top assistant and three more as the headmaster.

Thus, when Lambert — who now coaches the Batchewana Attack of the Canadian International Hockey League in addition to working full-time as an emergency response officer at Essar Steel — says a certain player can play at a higher level, we should take his word for it.

The Attack, which sits atop the standing of the new, four-team CIHL, features a number of younger players with 1998 and 1997 birth dates.

One of the 1998s, big defenceman Adam Baggs, has already been drafted into the OHL as a 10th-round pick of the Niagara Ice Dogs in 2014.

Lambert is of the notion that not only does Baggs have what it takes to play in the OHL but that he would be a good prospect should he decide to pursue a Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association commitment.

Two other 16-year olds on the Attack who were born in 1998 are twin-brother forwards Darian Pilon and Drake Pilon.

Lambert had startling words to say when asked about the high-scoring, high-energy Pilon brothers.

“They could play in the OHL right now as 16-year olds,” Lambert said evenly. “They would be fourth-line, in-and-out-of-the-lineup guys but there is no doubt in my mind that they can play in the OHL right now — and a couple of years down the road as 18-or-19-year olds they would be top three-line players in the O.”

The Pilon brothers played at the AA midget level in Sault Ste. Marie last season and were not rated or selected at the 2014 OHL draft.

“I would like to know how the OHL scouts missed the Pilon boys,” added Lambert. “I guess the scouts don’t bother checking out kids who don’t play AAA.”

Lambert himself knows what it’s like to not be drafted. He was never drafted into the OHL but played three full seasons with the Greyhounds and he was never drafted into the NHL but played 500-plus games at hockey’s highest level.

Another member of the Attack who Lambert refers to as a “next-level player” is 1997 birth-year forward Jacob Palmerio.

Like the Pilons, Palmerio is on the smaller side though all three players are good, strong skaters with skill who are — in the words of Lambert — “hard to play against.”

Palmerio, according to Lambert, has the skill set and ability to play at the Division 1, NCAA level.

“I would like to see Jake have the opportunity to move up and play for a higher-level junior team like the Soo Eagles (of the North American Hockey League),” Lambert said of Palmerio. “This is a kid that the (Lake Superior State University) Lakers should be taking a very-close look at, in my opinion.

“Looking ahead, I hope to see someone from the Lakers coaching staff at our games,” said Lambert. “I really believe they would like what they see.”

As for the level of play in the first-year CIHL, Lambert opined that “it is a lot better now that some of the weaker teams have decided to leave and play on their own.

“You look at our games now, especially against Espanola and Kalkaska. The level of play has really improved. As a coach, it’s made me have to do more in-game coaching and with better competition on a nightly basis, the players have had to elevate their game,” Lambert opined. “Our practices have become even-more intense than they were before.”

Interestingly, like Batchewana, Espanola and Kalkaska are also coached by long-time former NHL players.

Tommy McCarthy coaches the Rivermen and Krzysztof Oliwa is the Rhinos bench boss.

Between Lambert, McCarthy and Oliwa, the trio played in close to 1,500 NHL games.

Thunderbirds boast top rookies

It is a team that has a lot going for it.

It has the veteran players who know their way around the junior hockey rinks.

There are forwards Nic Tassone, Anthony Miller, Joey Miller, Matt Pinder, Nathan Hebert, Jaren Bellini et al.

There are defencemen David Radke, Brandon Grandinetti, the injured Owen Headrick, among others.

But the Soo Thunderbirds have been getting major contributions from a number of rookie players as well.

For starters, the first-place Thunderbirds — who took a record of 18-2-2 into Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League play this week — feature 1998 birth-year forward Nic Sicoly, who is third on the team in scoring with 12 goals, 13 assists, 25 points.

Sicoly, who was a fourth-round pick of the Guelph Storm at the 2014 Ontario Hockey League draft, is one of the youngest two players on the Thunderbirds.

“He sure doesn’t play like a 16-year old rookie,” Thunderbirds general manager Kevin Cain has said of Sicoly, who is ticketed to play in the OHL for Guelph next season.

Then there are two 1997 birth-year players on the Thunderbirds who were bypassed at the OHL draft when first eligible for selection in 2013.

Pint-sized forward Matt Caruso has played in only 16 of the Thunderbirds 22 games heading into play this week. But Caruso has made good use of his ice time with 5 goals, 8 assists, 13 points in the 16 games.

“Love the kid,” Cain said of Caruso. “Don’t let his size fool you. Matty is a tough kid and he plays way bigger than he is.”

Over to an up-and-coming goalie, that would be Mario Culina of the Thunderbirds.

The rookie puckstopper is playing like a true no. 1 goalie for the Thunderbirds with a 10-2 record, 2.01 goals against average and .925 save percentage.

Culina’s 10 wins are tops among OHL goalies.

“He’s going places,” Cain said of the slender 6-foot-2, 170 pound Culina. “There are scouts calling me about Mario every day.”

Indeed, said Cain, he finds it hard to believe how advanced Culina is for a 17-year old goalie just a season out of midget hockey.

“First of all, he has nerves of steel,” praised Cain. “Nothing seems to rattle the kid. He’s a big-game goalie and he’s destined to play the game at a much-higher level, if you ask me.”

Baggs are packed

He has the size at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds.

He has the smarts that he uses on the ice and in the classroom.

Adam Baggs, a 1998 birth-year defenceman with the Batchewana Attack of the new Canadian International Hockey League, also has options.

Baggs was selected by the Niagara IceDogs in the 10th round of the 2014 Ontario Hockey League draft.

But being an academic standout who has future aspirations of being an engineer, Baggs is also thinking of pursuing the National Collegiate Athletic Association route.

“It is nice to have options,” said the well-spoken, mild-mannered youngster, who was born in Victoria, B.C. and also lived with his parents and three younger siblings in New Liskeard and Kingston before moving to Sault Ste. Marie about five years ago.

As he is serious about school, so too is the big, right-handed shooting defender serious about hockey.

After being drafted into the OHL by Niagara, Baggs was invited to try out for the Soo Eagles of the North American Hockey League, where he impressed coach-general manager Bruno Bragagnolo.

“He had a great camp with us,” said Bragagnolo. “If our four import spots weren’t spoken for, Adam would have made our team as a 16-year old.”

With opportunities and invitations to play for teams in other Ontario junior leagues, Baggs instead opted to sign with Batchewana and play for coach Denny Lambert.

“He’s a great coach and a great person,” Baggs said of Lambert, who played and coached in the OHL with the Soo Greyhounds and in between, skated in more than 500 National Hockey League games as a journeyman left winger. “He’s the best coach I have ever had. He has taught me so much in such a short period of time.”

Baggs said he has no regrets in choosing Batchewana and the new CIHL over other more-established leagues.

“I can’t think of a better coach to be playing for than Denny,” Baggs said evenly. “He is so passionate about the game and he really cares about his players. The knowledge that Denny has is amazing.”

Lambert likes the way Baggs plays the game, using his size and his intelligence.

“He doesn’t try to do too much and he’s a very coachable kid,” Lambert said of Baggs. “He’s got a very good future ahead of him.”

Soo Eagles d-man returning to form

He is close — very close, he says — to being at full strength.

Just a summer removed from shoulder surgery, 1995 birth-year defenceman Michael Caruso returned to the lineup of the Soo Eagles of the North American Hockey League in mid-October, several weeks ahead of schedule.

He said the shoulder feels good and strong, although he has noted that his range of motion is not quite where it was.

Still, the 6-foot, 190 pound defender said he is shooting the puck with the same force that he was before the injury and subsequent surgery.

“I feel good, really good,” said Caruso, who has now played seven games for the Eagles thus far this 2014-2015 and is taking a regular shift along with power play and penalty kill duty.

Eagles coach-general manager Bruno Bragagnolo said Caruso “looks every bit as good as he did before the surgery, probably even better as he continues to develop and improve his overall game.”

Both Bragagnolo and Caruso say the rugged defenceman is taking a smarter approach to the way he plays.

“He had a tendency of trying to do too much and play recklessly,” offered Bragagnolo. “It’s like he was being too aggressive for his own good.”

Caruso agrees with his coach.

“I think by being a bit too reckless out there is what caused me to hurt my shoulder in the first place,” noted Caruso. “Bruno told me to still play my game by being tough and aggressive but to play with more control.”

Caruso, a former Ontario Hockey League draft pick of the Peterborough Petes, has future aspirations of playing at the Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association level.

“There is no question in my mind that he is a D1 player,” Bragagnolo said of Caruso. “No question at all. None.”

Best of the NOJHL

Here they are again.

They are perched atop the four-team West Division and have the best record in the nine-member Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

That notation aside, Soo Thunderbirds are not alone as elite members of the NOJHL.

Sudbury Nickel Barons and the surprising Elliot Lake Wildcats are within close range of the Thunderbirds on the West side while the defending NOJHL champion Kirkland Lake Gold Miners are beasts of the East.

Still, with a record of 14-2 that they took into play this week, the Thunderbirds are taking another run at an NOJHL championship that barely eluded them in 2013-2014 following a 99-point regular season.

Offensively, the Thunderbirds have nine forwards who are averaging close-to or more-than a point-per-game.

Seasoned front-liners Nic Tassone, Jaren Bellini, Anthony Miller, Joey Miller, Matt Pinder, Nathan Hebert and Eric Hillock have putting the points on the scoreboard as have rave rookies Nic Sicoly and Matt Caruso.

Among the veterans, Tassone is tapping it all together as a last-year junior and has become more of a go-to-guy in the offensive scheme of the Thunderbirds this season.

Then there is Bellini, a 1996 birth-year and erstwhile Ontario Hockey League draft pick of the Soo Greyhounds, who seems to be settling in as a productive NOJHLer and could — if he chooses — play up to two more seasons at the junior level after this one.

On the blueline, last-year junior David Radke has returned from a stint in the North American Hockey League with the Janesville Jets and is considered to be one of the top defencemen in the NOJHL.

Radke pilots the Thunderbird power play and along with fellow defenceman Brandon Grandinetti, adds experience and character to a Soo squad that has been playing without Owen Headrick on the blueline.

Just 17-years old but already in his second season with the Thunderbirds, Headrick recently underwent shoulder surgery. A plum prospect, to be sure, Headrick has a full-ride scholarship commitment to play at the Division 1 level for the Lake Superior State University Lakers of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, likely beginning in 2015-2016.

As part of a Thunderbirds program that has a good history of producing top goalies who have moved on to the Canadian and American university levels — Frank Novello, Ryan Dube and Michael Doan, to name three — the Soo is once again above-average between the pipes in 2014-2015.

Second-year backstop Brian Kment and rookie Mario Culina have shared the twine-tending duties for the Thunderbirds thus far this season and have not disappointed with their performances.

Chicago to Sault Ste. Marie

Kendall Huckins may be from Chicago but he is feeling at home in Sault Ste. Marie.

Huckins, a 1996 birth-year forward, is taking to living away from home and playing for the Batchewana Attack of the new Canadian International Hockey League.

“I love it here. I love living here and playing for the Attack and for a great coach in Denny Lambert,” said the effervescent Huckins. “Coming from Chicago, I did not know what to expect playing for a new team in a new league but it has been great.”

Huckins joined the Batchewana team on the recommendation of Attack president-director of hockey operations David Maciuk, a Sault Ste. Marie native who has player-related business interests in the Chicago area.

“I was looking to play at the junior level and Dave pointed me this way,” said Huckins, who skated for the Chicago Young Americans major midget team in 2013-2014.

“We have a very-good team and like I said, Denny is a great coach who I have learned so much from in such a short period of time,” Huckins continued.

Huckins added that he is impressed with the level of play in the eight-team CIHL.

“We haven’t seen all the teams yet but we have had some really good games with Espanola and St. Charles so far,” said Huckins. “It’s a good league.”

Huckins said the Attack is a close-knit team and being far away from family and friends in Chicago has been made easier by the bonds he has made with his Batchewana teammates.

“The guys on the team all get along, whether they are the local players, the Americans or the guys from Europe,” Huckins noted.

The slender-albeit-hard-edged forward aspires to play at the National Collegiate Athletic Association “at some point” but with considerable eligibility remaining at the junior level, his focus is on the Attack.

“I came here to play junior and to develop as a hockey player and so far it’s all working out,” Huckins concluded. “I am pretty happy with how things are going so far, that’s for sure.”

Otters loom as Erie foes

The team that eliminated the Soo Greyhounds in the second round of the 2013-2014 playoffs looms as a formidable foe again in 2014-2015.

A high-powered, hard-skating, well-coached outfit in 2013-2014, the Erie Otters have more of the same in 2014-2015.

The Otters put up 106 points to finish second overall in the 20-team OHL in 2013-2014 and they are once again a top contender in 2014-2015.

As good as the Greyhounds are again this season — they managed 95 points of their own last season — the Otters also have their sights set on the big OHL prize.

Well-coached by Kris Knoblauch, Erie is a team that has been well-constructed by director of hockey operations Dave Brown and director of scouting Scott Halpenny, who both report to owner-general manager Sherry Bassin.

After years as an OHL cellar-dweller, Erie returned to prominence in 2013-2014, thanks in a large part to the re-construction efforts of Brown and Halpenny and the move by Bassin to bring aboard Knoblauch as bench boss.

And it’s not as though the Otters are a one-or-two-year wonder.

One look at the Otters and their high-scoring threesome of Connor McDavid, Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat tells a story of how well Brown and Halpenny have done their jobs.

As players who were all born in 1997, McDavid, Strome and DeBrincat are very young by OHL standards — and are having big-time, point-producing seasons thus far.

Compare the rosters of the Otters and Greyhounds and both are deep in talent up front and back of the blueline. Both teams also have better-than-average goaltenders in the starting position with Devin Williams the no. 1 guy in Erie and Brandon Halverson as the Soo’s first-stringer.

Point is, as the Greyhounds evolved as a Western Conference powerhouse in 2013-2014, so too have the Otters.

Let’s not forget that the Greyhounds not only lost to the Otters in the second round of last spring’s playoffs, they were swept right out of the post-season.

Yes, the Greyhounds are a very-good team again this season.

But so too are the Otters.

Who will be the ultimate winners in all of this?

Fans from both teams, that is for sure.

Top Dogs of the OHL

A National Hockey League scout who has seen what the Soo Greyhounds have likes what he sees.

The scout in question — who asked not to be named, citing confidentiality of the NHL team that he represents — opined that the 2014-2015 Greyhounds have the makings of an Ontario Hockey League championship team.

In fact, the NHL scouts lists — in order — the Greyhounds, Erie Otters, Guelph Storm, North Bay Battalion and Kingston Frontenacs as the top five OHL teams, in his opinion.

To be sure, it is hard not to like this Greyhound team, which got stronger last week with the return of late-developing overage forward Jean Dupuy from an American Hockey League tryout.

Without question, graduated general manager Kyle Dubas has left the Greyhounds in tip-top shape for head coach Sheldon Keefe to build on the 95 points that the team piled up in 2013-2014.

Goalie Brandon Halverson, an NHL prospect of the New York Rangers, has shrugged off the concerns about his sometimes-jittery ways as a 2013-2014 rookie to look cool, calm, collected and confident through the early going of 2014-2015.

In the minds of many, as Halverson goes, so will the Greyhounds go in 2014-2015.

“We were ready to take him in the third round but the Rangers beat us to him,” according to the NHL scout. “Halverson is a pro in the making.”

The blueline is OHL-game ready and the forward lines that feature Sergey Tolchinsky, Jared McCann, Blake Speers, David Miller, Dupuy et al are deep and experienced.

It is mid October and the grit and grind of five more months of games remains to be played.

But coach Keefe is not one to rest on a winning streak and his approach to the game and his own personal goals make this talented lot of Greyhounds even more dogged, determined and dangerous.

What does the NHL scout like most about the Greyhounds?

“They have bona-fide OHLers playing on the fourth line and in an instance or two, healthy scratches who should be in the lineup.”

Well noted.

Soo GM to lead Team NOJHL

Three members of the Soo Thunderbirds will lead the staff which will oversee the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League squad that will compete at the Central Canada Cup Challenge, to be be held November 14-16 at the MasterCard Centre in Toronto.

The 2014 Central Canada Cup Challenge will feature nine competing all-star teams, including one from the NOJHL, two apiece from the Central Canada Hockey League and Quebec Jr. Hockey League and four from the host Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

Heading up the NOJHL staff as director of operations is Thunderbirds general manager Kevin Cain and head coach Jordan Smith, who will serve in a similar capacity for Team NOJHL.

Joining Smith behind the bench as assistant coaches will be Ryan Maunu of the Thunderbirds and Sault Ste. Marie resident Don Gagnon, who is the head coach of the Blind River Beavers.

Rounding out the staff as athletic trainers are Lisa Parise of the Sudbury Nickel Barons and Carla Vine of the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners.

All of the nine participating teams at the Central Canada Cup Challenge will play two round-robin games.

After round-robin competition, the teams will be rated on their overall performance and be re-seeded for the playoff round with each team vying for the CCCC championship.

“The NOJHL is pleased to once again be competing in this high-profile event that will feature some of the premier players from our league going up against some of the elite talent from the CCHL, QJHL and OJHL,” noted NOJHL commissioner Rob Mazzuca.

The players who will comprise the NOJHL roster for the CCCC will be selected by Cain, Smith, Maunu and Gagnon.

The Team NOJHL roster is expected to be finalized by the end of October.

NOJHL Eskimos to CIHL Spirit

St. Charles Spirit of the new Canadian International Hockey League has signed four new players, including three former members of the Abitibi Eskimos of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

St. Charles coach-general manager Scott Ginson told that the Spirit has added a trio of 1995 birth-year veterans who previously played in the NOJHL with Abitibi — centre Marc Dube, defenceman Bryce Robert and goalie Sylvain Miron.

Notably, all three players are from Iroquois Falls, which is home to the NOJHL Eskimos.

Ginson has also confirmed that the Spirit has signed 1994 birth-year forward Brady Constant from the Melville Millionaires of the Saskatchewan Jr. Hockey League.

Constant hails from The Pas, Manitoba.

In explaining the addition of the four new players, Ginson noted that “we needed to add depth in some areas and we feel that these four signings do exactly that.”

St. Charles opens the inaugural, 2014-2015 CIHL regular season this weekend with a home game against the nearby Sudbury Royals.