Entering his eighth season as the General Manager of the Owen Sound Attack, Dale DeGray knows the ins and outs of the tough Western Conference and recognizes the difficulties that come along with playing in it.
But it’s also what keeps him coming back hungrier for more year after year.
“That’s what makes it a great challenge,” says DeGray, who helped the Attack to their first OHL Championship in 2011, the same season he earned Executive of the Year honours. “Every year, you know that even though a team [Guelph] got to the finals last year and London hosted the Memorial Cup. You can’t count those teams out the following season because they’re too deep, are run too well and have great coaching. You can be embarrassed in the West any weekend.”
Together with returning head coach Greg Ireland, the Attack are poised to improve on their standing from the 2013-14 season, where they finished 7th in the West and lost in the Conference Quarter-Finals.
“We want to be better than we were the year before,” said DeGray. “We have a great group of returning kids, and a strong contingent of 16-year-olds coming up. We’ve got two possible returning goaltenders, so it bodes well for us on paper as we’re sitting here moving forward.”
Those returning goaltenders include both Brandon Hope, a veteran 20-year-old who they acquired in a trade with the Sarnia Sting in 2012-13 who played alongside the OHL’s Goaltender of the Year Jordan Binnington that season. The other netminder is Jack Flinn, an 18-year old who came over to the Attack from the Sherbrooke Phoenix of the QMJHL last season.
“We expect that they’ll both be back,” said a confident DeGray. “Brandon was a goalie that we liked in minor midget. He came over and his progression has been steady and constant and he keeps bettering himself in wins, GAA and SV%.”
As for Flinn, DeGray feels as though he was in a tough spot last season playing behind Hope, but slowly got better as the season went on, carrying that momentum into this year.
“Through training camp, he’s been consistent and confident,” DeGray said. “Being 6’7”, he covers a lot of net and he gained a lot of experience going to the [Toronto] Maple Leafs summer camp where he performed very well. “
And if only one, or neither, return to the Attack, DeGray believes that they have a talented goalie waiting in the wings and a capable option if given the call.
“Michael McNiven played Tier 2 Junior A with the Georgetown Raiders last year and put up a 21-10 record as a 16-year-old which is a great accomplishment. He gained some valuable experience moving into this season.”
Like McNiven, many of the younger Attack will be looking to the veterans for leadership. And there’s no better place to look than fourth year forward, and Detroit Red Wings 2013 second round pick Zach Nastasiuk who posted a career-high 24 goals and 51 points last season.
“He is a true leader; on and off the ice it doesn’t matter,” DeGray said. “His development from 16 to where is now as a 19-year-old has been remarkable. None of it can take place unless players put the time in and he’s definitely doing that every day on the ice.”
And on the ice is where DeGray recalls one of his favourite moments with Nastasiuk as the captain of this Attack team.
“One time last year in the playoffs, we were down by a few goals and he came by the bench and said ‘guys we’re not getting down, we’re not giving up,’ and the next shift he went out and scored. That just sends that message home so loudly. The rest of the team can’t do anything but pick themselves up and get going.”
The players Nastasiuk will be leading this year include some familiar faces to Attack fans including last year’s leading scorer Holden Cook who’s back for a fifth and final season in Owen Sound, fellow overager Daniel Milne, Edmonton Oilers prospect Kyle Platzer, Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Jaden Lindo, and Nastasiuk’s long-time running mate in Colorado Avalanche prospect Chris Bigras.
Bigras, who scored 26 points for the Attack and represented Canada at the World Junior Championship last year, will be entering his fourth season with the club since both he and Nastasiuk were drafted together from the Barrie Jr. Colts program, and will undoubtedly be the go to guy on the backend.
“We really put a lot of time into people who are going to be our leaders,” DeGray said of Bigras. “He was here at 16 with Zach and they’ve come along as kind of a tandem. They’re wonderful kids, great leaders, and very well respected on and off the ice. It’s those guys that are going to teach our 16 and 17-year-olds that are coming in now.”
Those younger players DeGray alludes to consist of newcomers Jonah Gadjovich (39th overall in the 2014 OHL Priority Selection), Keenan Reynolds (67th overall in 2014) and Petrus Palmu (22nd overall in the 2014 CHL Import Draft).
DeGray believes if the growth they saw at the end of last season continues and the young kids develop the way they should, the team should be able to push higher in the standings come year end.
“There’s so many intangibles that could happen and take place that could turn things around in an instant, but as of right now, we’re hoping to have a very good season and push to be in the top part of Midwest Division and Western Conference.”
ontariohockeyleague.com will feature one team each day in advance of the 2014-15 season which begins Wednesday September 24.
Read more OHL 20 in 20 previews:
West Division: Saginaw Spirit, Sarnia Sting, Windsor Spitfires
East Division: Kingston Frontenacs, Oshawa Generals, Ottawa 67’s,
Central Division: Mississauga Steelheads, Niagara IceDogs, Sudbury Wolves
Midwest Division: Kitchener Rangers, London Knights,