Wolf Tracks: Investing in the rookies

Chase Stillman (16) of the Sudbury Wolves faces off with Alex Johnston (15) of the Soo Greyhounds during OHL pre-season action at Sudbury Community Arena in Sudbury, Ontario on Saturday, August 31, 2019. Ben Leeson/The Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network

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The commitment to development is noteworthy.

As they kicked off their season-opening three-game road trip, the Sudbury Wolves did so without veteran winger Blake McConville, who had recorded a hat trick in an exhibition win just days earlier.

It could be considered a bold move, shedding a punishing bodychecker who had two seasons in the OHL under his belt. And quite frankly, it probably hurt them a little, as they finished the weekend with a 1-2 record and could have used an extra, veteran presence to settle things down at times. Of course, hindsight is 20-20, and at the time the decision was made to release McConville to the waiver wire, the Wolves probably didn’t know that overage forward David Levin would spend the entire weekend under the weather.

The decision, or rather the timing of it, left the club a bit thin on experience up front and exposed the four rookies who were among just 11 forwards that dressed for the losses in Niagara and Erie on Thursday and Friday and the win in Mississauga on Sunday.

But that’s the point, right? Exposing the rookies also means developing the rookies.

This is what’s obvious. The trio of forwards chosen early in this spring’s OHL Priority Selection are an enormous part of the Wolves future. So why not make them a significant part of the present, as well?

Landon McCallum was taken 15th overall in the first round, while Chase Stillman and Ethan Larmand were selected very early in Round 2 — 25th and 26th overall, respectively. All three had some deer-in-the-headlights moments in those first three games, as you would expect. But as a group, they definitely look like they’re ready to play regular minutes this season and will benefit from the kind of structure that head coach Cory Stillman and his staff will eventually be able to implement.

The scrambled-egg approach to the Wolves’ game on Thursday, and parts of the game Friday, was looking more like a western by Sunday. It will surely become a neat and tidy omelette in the days ahead. It could not have been overly easy for the coaches to establish perfect structure with so much turnover on the roster — import Kalle Loponen missing all of training camp and arriving just prior to the start of the season, several veterans returning late from pro camps, Levin coming in sick and their most experienced defenceman, Peter Stratis, stuck on the injury shelf.

If Levin is able to play, as expected, in Friday’s home opener, it will help bring some balance back to the lineup, ensuring they have two legitimate scoring lines. Eventually, the rookies will need to settle into positions that provide them with the opportunity to succeed, but early ice time is the only way to figure out what they can handle.

For Sunday’s 3-1 win over the Steelheads, Stillman, McCallum and Larmand started the game as the second-, third- and fourth-line centres.  Now in his third year, coach Stillman has never been shy to give ice time to his kids, and clearly this season will be no different.

But it hasn’t always been that way in Wolves land. Remember that Levin, Shane Bulitka and Macauley Carson also came into the league as 16-year-olds at the same time. Only Levin saw regular ice time that season — Bulitka was sent back to junior B and Carson spent a lot of time as a healthy scratch or playing marginal minutes.

You can easily make an argument that those were the proper choices at the time. They were different players, it was a different time and the game continues to change rapidly.

In the more distant past, there were times where rookies and fourth-liners could count more splinters in their butts at the end of a game than times they put a skate on the ice or touched the puck. It seems highly unlikely that will be the case moving forward under the watchful eye of coach Stillman and general manager Rob Papineau.

Incidentally, the fourth rookie forward who suited up last weekend was Giordano Biondi, the Sudbury boy who worked extremely hard to get a commitment from his hometown team, after being selected in the 14th round, 261st overall, in 2018. He’ll be looking for every opportunity to get ice time and solidify himself as part of the team’s future.

For the other three, they simply are the future. McCallum was hurt for much of training camp, so we’ll get a better sense of what he brings as he gets 100 per cent into game shape, but Stillman and Larmand have already shown flashes of what they can become.

Here’s why their ice time and development is so crucial, beyond the normal reasons: Star centre Quinton Byfield was sensational in scoring five goals in the Wolves’ first three games and that only heightens speculation that Sudbury might need to think long and hard about building around him for a big playoff run this season. That’s because there’s a pretty good possibility he gets picked high enough in the NHL draft next summer that he never returns to the OHL.

If so, McCallum, Stillman and Larmand will be the players the Wolves start building around immediately. And if not — if Byfield doesn’t play pro next fall — that trio of rookies will be much better prepared to provide support and contribute significantly to a big 2020-21 season for the Wolves.

Those rookie mistakes might cost you a goal or two in the short term, but if you’re playing the long game, it’s probably all worth it in the end.

Wolf Tracks runs weekly during the hockey season.

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