Tuesday Morning Skate: August 8th, 2017

Top Stories:

1. Two weeks ago on Tuesday afternoon, an 18 year run behind the bench of the Brock Badgers came to an end for Murray Nystrom. Over that time, Nystrom amassed a record of 222-312-19 making him the 25th winningest coach in Canadian university hockey history. One of Nystrom’s biggest accomplishments while at Brock was leading the Badgers to a University Cup appearance in 2008 after falling just short of the McGill Redmen in Brock’s only Queen’s Cup final appearance. One of the most prominent and respected figures in the Niagara-region hockey scene, Nystrom has been a mainstay within the community for decades. Nystrom also spent three seasons, between 1989 and 1992 as a member of the UNB Varsity Reds. There, Nystrom was coached by future NHL bench boss Mike Johnston.

Although many in the community are sad to see Nystrom go, and some surprised to see the announcement, it’s a reminder than even in a market as stable as university hockey, every coach has an expiry date. The last few seasons for the Brock Badgers haven’t been their best, most notably the 2015-16 season which saw them finish dead last in the OUA West while barely scoring at a 1.00 GPG rate in the second semester. It was during that time that rumblings of potential change from the Brock program began to ripple through the university hockey community. But back for another season, 2016-17 was much kinder to Nystrom and the Badgers, as they finished fifth in the OUA West with a 14-13-1 record. They were dashed away in a two game sweep at the hands of Guelph in the first round, but it was still a marked improvement from their dismal 2015-16 campaign. Although the Brock media release claims Nystrom ‘resigned’ as head coach, it is entirely possible there is more to the picture in this decision. After 18 years behind the same bench, it’s hard to imagine things don’t become stale after awhile. From Brock’s perspective, a new voice behind the bench could serve them well. Recently, the Ryerson Rams, York Lions, UOIT Ridgebacks, and Concordia Stingers have all seen notable improvement with their new coaches. In fact, those four teams are a combined 64-29-15 in their first season under new leadership. No guarantees it’ll work for Brock in the same way, but it’s an interesting thought nonetheless.

Moving forward, I have been informed that Nystrom still has a job within Brock athletics. Presumably somewhat similar to the case of Darren Lowe at U of T and Craig Fisher at UOIT. I reached out to Nystrom last week, but have yet to receive a reply. As far as the new coach is concerned, with roughly a month until training camps get underway, you’d have to imagine there’s something imminent coming from Brock. I’ve received multiple tips from outside of Brock that the plan to have a new coach behind the Brock bench for 2017-18 was known within the athletics department back in April, and that the announcement was originally intended for a May release, with the notion that former Niagara Ice Dogs coach Marty Williamson would take over. But reportedly, Williamson looked into the head coaching job with the Ottawa 67’s, thus delaying the announcement. Whatever has happened between now and then has left Brock in a tough spot. Some still adamantly believe that Williamson will be the new head coach, but he did in fact also talk with the Saginaw Spirit about their head coaching job (which has since been occupied). Most believe that if Williamson doesn’t have the job, it will belong to Nick Vitucci. A long-time mainstay in the ECHL, Vitucci is a veteran hockey mind who’s a Welland native. Last season he was announced as part of the Brock coaching staff, but wound up in the Minnesota Wild organization. But the prospect of a head coaching position with Brock could be enough to lure him back. Whatever the case may be, expect to hear something from Brock very soon.

2. One of the few teams to not officially confirm any recruits out of their own program yet, the Western Mustangs are quietly putting together what could turn out to be a fantastic offseason. Last year’s struggles were well documented after going from nationals to missing the OUA West playoffs. This came after an offseason where they added just one body directly out of a major junior organization. Uncharacteristic by Western standards. This year, it has been imminent for some time that Saginaw defenceman C.J. Garcia, Guelph Storm netminder Liam Herbst, Barrie Colts forward Anthony Stefano, and Prince Albert Raiders forward Kolten Olynek are all headed to Western. The Raiders confirmed on their website that Olynek has indeed committed there, and Garcia, Stefano, and Herbst are all safe bets too. In addition to that, we also know defenceman Matthew Watson is headed to Western via the Burlington Cougars with OHL experience in tow, and potentially Caledonia Corvairs blueliner Zach Core too. Collectively, that’s already a better recruit class than last season. But wait…. there’s more.

One of Western’s most glaring downfalls last year was their defence. Whether it was immaturity to the level of hockey, a lack of talent, shallow depth, or a combination of all three elements, the Mustangs clearly suffered having lost David Corrente, Stephen Gaskin, and Alex Micallef. Garcia adds a nice top-four defensive piece should he land there, and recently I was tipped off that ex-Dallas Stars draft pick Aaron Haydon could also be a part of Western’s 2017 recruit class. Neither Haydon nor Garcia are particularly ‘spectacular’ recruits, but both go a ways in satisfying one of Western’s biggest needs. Suddenly on a defensive group with Jonathan Laser and Sean Callaghan, you have very respectable top two pairings.

The other name floating around with Western is Matt Schmalz. Having previously appeared in TMS in my top five section as one of the best OHL overage forwards available, Schmalz brings a very complete package to the table. Bring in a sizeable power forward who’s strong, can skate, and has been known to score, Western’s forward unit takes a serious leap forward. Put him together with Stefano and Olynek as your two other major junior forward recruits, and the Mustangs could be right back in OUA contention. We’ll find out shortly if the dominoes fall the way Clarke Singer and the Western Mustangs hope they do.

Other Notes:

• The Lethbridge Pronghorns cap off their 2017 recruit class by adding Tyler MaltbyJonny HogueJeff Rayman, and Taylor Fisher into the picture for 2017-18. Hogue will round out Lethbridge’s crease with three goalies, while Rayman and Fisher complete a fairly ordinary defensive group. The one that interests me most is Maltby. At one point, Maltby was slated to head the NCAA route with Arizona State, but things have since changed. Maltby is coming off back-to-back seasons of over a point per game where he also lead the AJHL in goals. But Maltby also comes with a wild side, which is reflected by his three consecutive 100+ PIM seasons in the AJHL. Maltby has the sleeper potential to be one of the best tier II recruits in the country, but isn’t a given to be a slam dunk recruit by any means.

• Two weeks ago the circumstances surrounding Medric Mercier‘s potential commitment to the Ottawa Gee-Gees seemed a little murky. But I’m told that Ottawa is set to make the recruit announcement official within the next two weeks. Big catch for the Gee-Gees should this news break as anticipated.

• With the additions of both Hunter Zandee and Austin Adamson from the Vernon Vipers of the BCHL, the Mount Royal Cougars are noticeably putting their recruiting efforts towards targeted tier II talent. It’s an interesting strategy considering how well their four WHL recruits from a year ago turned out, but with coach Bert Gilling having a lengthy NCAA background, he’s very accustomed to seeking out effective tier II players.

• I was told last week that the Guelph Gryphons are close to dropping their recruit class, with an announcement coming as early as this week. Mathieu Henderson is rumoured to headline the class, which is anticipated to be primarily comprised of tier II recruits. The big question mark is who shows up as their goalie for 2017-18. Both Scott Stajcer and Keith Hamilton have moved on, leaving Matthew Camilleri as the only goaltender, who hasn’t played since 2015-16. Matt Mancina and Liam Herbst are not expected to go to Guelph, leaving few junior hockey options left to speculate about. It looks like the Gryphons will need to be creative to find a starting netminder for next season.

• This week saw a collection of pro signings out of university hockey programs. Windsor’s Dylan Denomme is off to Cincinnati (ECHL) while teammate Scott Prier will join Briancon in France. UBC’s Joe Antilla is off to Hungary, while Canada West counterpart Shaq Merasty (Manitoba) signs with Wichita in the ECHL. Dylan Anderson is off to join Edinburgh in the EIHL via Queen’s, and UNB U Cup hero Cam Braes will play for Thurgau in Switzerland for the upcoming year.

• Two weeks ago Hockey Canada named Sean Burke and Martin Brodeur to the management team for team Canada at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Both currently have sons serving as university hockey goaltenders (Brendan Burke, Alberta + Anthony Brodeur, UOttawa). But the university hockey connection in South Korea will run much further than that, with former Calgary Dinos head coach Willie Desjardins serving as the bench boss, and legendary University of Saskatchewan coach Dave King also featuring on the bench. As for whether or not we see a university hockey player actually take to the ice, it’s unlikely with none being invited to any showcase events this summer, but it’s not as if someone like Jordon Cooke is completely off their radar.

Tuesday Morning Skate Top 5:

Last season provided one of the most shallow defensive classes from the OHL in recent memory. Nevin Guy and Evan De Haan were to only two overage defenders to actually commit to university programs last season, and only two others in Graeme Brown and Josh Carrick forewent their overage seasons for university hockey. This year a plethora of options exist from blueline bruisers to puck-moving prowlers.

Top 5 Overage Defencemen Available from the OHL:

1. Santino Centorame, D | Owen Sound Attack

By the end of the season, it was pretty clear that among all the OHL overage defencemen, Stephen Desrocher, Darren Raddysh, and Santino Centorame were in a class of their own. Of those defencemen, Raddysh will play in the AHL next season, Desrocher is expected to attend camp and eventually sign with the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Centorame will join the StFX X-Men in their pursuit of three-peating as AUS champions. Putting up 66 assists as a defenceman in your overage season, let alone any season, is a remarkable feat. In fact, no defencemen has had more single season OHL assists since Ryan Ellis in 2010-11 (76). Centorame also becomes the first defenceman to go directly to university hockey a season after leading the OHL in assists by a defenceman. A sign of changing times as university hockey continues to become a more popular choice? Perhaps. If so, it’s a great trend for the future of university hockey. Centorame was the best puck-moving defenceman available in not just the OHL, but the best overage puck-moving defenceman available out of junior hockey collectively. He played a huge factor in the success of Owen Sound’s offence this year, and spent the last two seasons as Owen Sound’s captain, missing just three games total in the last three seasons combined.

2. Dylan DiPerna, D | Kitchener Rangers

A former second round pick in the OHL priority selection with experience at the U17 national level, Dylan DiPerna ends his OHL career with an impressive five seasons of service between the Kingston Frontenacs and the Kitchener Rangers. Not the most offensively gifted defender on this list by any stretch, DiPerna still ranks as high as he does on this list because of his ability to defend and neutralize anybody in the OHL when he was at his best. DiPerna is coming off a season in Kitchener where the bar was set high, and was relied upon to be a top-pairing defender in an ultra-competitive OHL western conference. DiPerna has solid size at 6-foot-2, 203 lbs, and when he uses it to his advantage, he has one of the most complete defensive skill-sets of any overage defender in junior hockey. Consistency has been somewhat of an enigma for DiPerna, but that may prove to be less of an issue in a 30 game AUS schedule. Committed to Saint Mary’s for 2017-18, the Huskies will need great defence to overcome teams like UNB and StFX. Without question, DiPerna makes their back-end marginally better.

3. Alex Peters, D | Flint Firebirds

The margin of difference between the talent levels of Dylan DiPerna and Alex Peters is so small, that they might as well be tied on this top five list. Once upon a time, there was a hope and serious belief that Peters could one day turn into a bottom-pairing shutdown NHL defender. That’s why the Dallas Stars took him 75th overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. Years later, he’s now committed to the Saint Mary’s Huskies after being looked at by both Dallas and the Carolina Hurricanes in offseason rookie camps. Although it’s not the NHL, Peters’ decision to choose university hockey is likely going to be reflected on as one of the best he’s made. An OHL captain of three seasons, a leader in the community, and an academically oriented athlete, Peters has university hockey success story written all over him. He’ll be a great fit into the SMU community, but also a valuable acquisition to a defensive corps that was down to two healthy d-men at one point last year. Peters provides strength, responsibility, and great defensive instincts to a Saint Mary’s blueline that needs to be one of the best in the conference in order to be a championship contender.

4. Mathieu Henderson, D | Flint Firebirds

For those wanting a defenceman with serious offensive capabilities, gifted enough to be the primary puck distributer from the blueline, Mathieu Henderson is among those fitting the job description. Henderson posted an impressive 44 assists in his overage season, and although it’s not as many as Santino Centorame, he managed to do it on a Flint team that scored noticeably less than Owen Sound. Not only that, but Henderson had +25 assist season in three of his four years as an OHLer. Complete with back-to-back 10 goal seasons, Henderson brings enough offensive acumen to lead the way for most programs at the OUA level. There were rumours early in the offseason that he was destined for UNB, but the popular opinion has since shifted to the belief that he’ll wind up a Guelph Gryphon for next season. Should he land there, he’ll immediately be one of the best puck moving defencemen in the OUA West along with Alex Basso and Derek Sheppard, but not quite on their level just yet.

5. Medric Mercier, D | Oshawa Generals

After being traded nine games into the 2016-17 season from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds to the Oshawa Generals, Medric Mercier had one of the biggest breakout seasons of any overager in the CHL. Mericer took his previous career-high of four goals in a single season, and nearly score six times as many this year. Mericier chalked up 27 assists to go along with the 22 twine ticklers to post a total of 48 points, well clear of any previous career numbers. Clearly finding the right fit on an Oshawa team where he was almost immediately relied on to be a primary puck-mover and offensive weapon, Mercier did enough to warrant the respect of every team in the OHL. At the university level, it’s not difficult to see him putting up numbers at a similar rate, but to do it over the course of four to five seasons will be difficult. Mercier has a big shot which played a large part in his 22 goals this season, but his penchant for scoring won’t necessarily translate. Take former 20 goal OHL defenceman Brandon Devlin, who found himself with a goose-egg in the goal column by season’s end, despite having an NHL-calibre shot. But regardless of whether or not Mercier continues to score goals, his simplistic approach to moving the play forward, and his ability to control the pace of play will make him an asset on a nightly basis for almost any program.

The Week Ahead:

Apart from the Murray Nystrom announcement, it’s been another slow news week. Sure, it’s been nice to kick my feet up for the last few weeks since escaping the grim confines of summer school. But all it really does it make this feel more and more like the calm before the storm. There’s still some very big names afloat, and with programs such as UNB, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and UPEI yet to disclose the majority of their recruit announcements, there will inevitably be more for me to talk about in the near future.