By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
The Oshawa Generals are back on the ice, with two preseason games out of the way and two more to go.
On Aug. 31, Oshawa climbed out to a 3-0 lead after 40 minutes before holding on to defeat the Mississauga Steelheads 4-1 on the road. On Sunday, September, Sept. 2, they travelled to Peterborough and fell to their rival Petes 6-5 in a shootout.
This coming weekend, The Gens will host their two home preseason games, but hometown fans will have to wait for just a bit longer to see their team at Tribute Communities Centre.
The team will travel to the Ajax Community Centre on Saturday, Sept. 15 at 6 p.m. to face the Steelheads and the Scugog Arena in Port Perry on Sunday, Sept. 16 to face the Petes.
Starting Sept. 21, the Gens will kick off the season with three straight road games against Kingston, North Bay, and Sudbury. This works into an odd schedule for Oshawa, as they will play five of their first six games on the road.
The team’s home opener is Sun, Sept. 30 against North Bay, but the team will not return to the Tribute Communities Centre for almost two weeks after that.
Regardless of this, it is obvious players, staff and fans are ready for the season to start.
A summer of change
After coming off of a quick elimination from the OHL playoffs at the hands of the Niagara IceDogs, the biggest question heading into the offseason was surrounding the Generals coaching situation.
Bob Jones had missed the entire 2017-18 season due to health issues, leaving assistants Greg Nemisz and Nathan McIver at the helm of the team, with general manager and vice-president Roger Hunt even stepping behind the bench at times.
Due to his personal situation, the fact Jones’ contract was up for renewal was not a widely discussed topic during the season, at least publicly.
The question was answered quickly as the organization announced it hadn’t been able to reach terms with Jones on a new contract.
And thus, the search for a new coach began.
On June 11, the team found its man in Greg Walters.
Walters is no stranger to the OHL having served as an assistant with the Sarnia Sting for eight years before spending another eight with the Georgetown Raiders of the Ontario Junior Hockey League.
During the Generals media availability day on Sept. 1, Walters says he was busy this summer getting acquainted with his players and staff.
He spoke highly of both Nemisz and McIver, calling them “great young hockey minds.”
Walters says once the team hits the ice, they will be all business.
“My biggest thing is we are going to work. We are going to compete every night,” he says. “Oshawa is a proud city with a work ethic. We understand that, and we will work hard as well.”
Although he believes “defense wins championships”, this does not mean that the offense will be sacrificed.
“There are two games. One when you have the puck and one when you don’t have the puck. And we are going to be explosive when we have the puck,” he says.
For Walters, every player on the roster is starting on a “fresh page” with him.
“I told them, I don’t care what they did last season or what they didn’t do.”
While his thoughts regarding the team’s on-ice play remain to be seen, Walters was full of praise of their character.
“They are very committed to being hockey players. They conduct themselves like pros,” he states. “Everyone has bought into the system and it was a very competitive training camp.”
Taking the next step
Several members of the Generals staff had an extremely busy offseason after being selected in this June’s NHL draft.
Right-winger Serron Noel pulled on the jersey of the Florida Panthers as the team’s second-round pick, 34th overall.
Noel, a Guelph-born Ottawa native, notched 28 goals and 25 assists during the 2017-18 season, more than doubling his point total from his rookie year.
Centreman Allan McShane was the fourth-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens, 97th overall.
McShane, a 5’11, 185 lbs Collingwood native, was second in scoring for the Gens last season with 20 goals and 45 assists while accumulating only 16 minutes in penalties.
Swiss defenseman Nico Gross was taken only four picks after McShane, 101st overall by the New York Rangers.
In 58 games during the 2017-18 season, he scored four goals and 10 assists.
Left-winger Renars Krastenbergs and defenseman William Ennis were both draft-eligible but were not selected.
Hunt said Gross, McShane, and Gross likely had one of the busiest summers of their lives.
“They had a tough summer. They had a lot of things going on,” he observed. “But I bet if they talk to their buddies back home, they wouldn’t trade this shot for anything.”
New faces (but also a familiar one)
With their first pick in the 2018 Priority Selection, the Generals selected Ty Tullio, the son of owner Rocco Tullio.
Speaking with the Oshawa Express in May, the younger Tullio admitted he heard some in the junior hockey world question the connection.
“I did hear that. I just try and shut that out, and prove them wrong. It wasn’t just my dad’s decision,” he said.
Hunt also shot down the questions about Tullio’s selection.
“We didn’t draft him because of his dad. He was a first round pick, and has been a top player for most of his whole life.”
It seems those initial rumblings have died down and the 16-year-old can focus on the upcoming season.
He says his focus was to be “bigger, faster, stronger” for this year, and he feels he’s accomplished that.
“It’s a very big step for me, and I think I’ve done well in preparing for this season.”
Walking into the dressing room, Tullio is surrounded by familiar faces, which has made the jump to the OHL a little easier.
“It definitely has. They treat me with respect and treat me like brothers,” he says.
Hunt was extremely impressed with how well Tullio, and second-round pick Dylan Robinson, have fit in with the team.
“It’s a credit to them, and a credit to our scouting staff who discovered them,” the general manager says.
The newest member of the Generals is defenseman Giovanni Vallati, who was acquired from Kitchener about a week before training camp started.
Vallati told The Express he was familiar with a number of his teammates already.
“I’ve played with a lot of them, it made the transition easy,” he says, adding he was happy to be traded to Oshawa.
“It’s been great so far. It’s a great organization.”
Hunt says Vallati will bring some much-needed offense to the team’s blueline.
“He’s a dynamic player. I don’t know if we got enough production from our back end over the past two years, so it’s definitely an opportunity to get him and have him showcase his skills. I’m hoping we’re going to have some big point production from our back end.”
Nando Eggenberger joined the club from Switzerland in July as an import player, joining Gross as the second Swiss player on the Generals.
Hunt says he believes Eggenberger has the potential to be a top player for Oshawa.
“He’s been real solid, and I think we knew we were going to get a good player,” he said.
Eggenberger’s speed has really impressed Hunt.
“I don’t know if he’s just a fast player, but he seems to chase people down so quickly.”
Familiar faces, for now
With the beginning of the season looming, the future isn’t totally clear for captain Jack Studnicka.
He will be attending camp with the Boston Bruins, heading to China to play against the Calgary Flames.
Studnicka is upfront that playing in the NHL this season is his ultimate goal.
“I think right my now my main focus is to play in the NHL, and if I fall short of that, my main focus is to win a Memorial Cup,” he says.
Should his path take him back to the OHL, Studnicka says he would like to play in the World Junior Championships this December.
“It’s been a goal of mine since I can remember. I know for my family, every single Christmas our eyes are glued to the TV, it’d be pretty special if I could be part of that,” he says.
Goalie Kyle Keyser is entering his second full season as the Generals starter.
He says his focus is the same no matter what.
“Obviously there is still a bit of weight on your shoulders, as you want to go out there and play well every single night,” Keyser says. “You can’t get complacent. That’s not the way you wanna go about in this league.”
Even though he is set to see the majority of action in net this year, Keyser says his colleagues are just as capable.
“I know they are great goalies so every time they play, they are going to give our team a chance to win and that’s all we care about at the end of the day. My motivation and their motivation is to win the Memorial Cup, and whatever we’ve got to do to achieve that, that’s what we’re going to do.”
In Keyser’s eyes, that motivation is within the Generals grasp.
“We don’t want to settle for fourth or fifth in the conference this year. We want to be at the top of the league and win the OHL. We feel we have the core to do it in this room, and it’s just about us putting the pieces together and doing it.”
This confidence is shared by Allan McShane.
“I’m really excited. I definitely think this team will have a long playoff run, if not win a championship. You can feel the excitement in the dressing room and we can’t wait to get started.”
McShane is looking to build on a breakout year in 2017-18, where he improved his point total by 21, and assists by 18.
“Every year I want to see personal improvement. I had a strong rookie year, and I wanted to make an even bigger step last year, and I think I did a good job of that,” he says. “I definitely have high standards for myself, and I think I’m primed to have a good year.”
As the team plays out its exhibition schedule, Hunt is facing a tough decision due to a glut of overage players.
“The unfortunate part is the numbers are and the facts are there, we can’t all six,” he says. “I think all six have done their job, which won’t make it easy.”
Whichever overage player doesn’t make the cut, Hunt is confident they will have a role somewhere.
“Whoever is not going to be here can definitely play in the league. There will be some tough decisions ahead, but I’d rather make a tough decision than forcing a decision just because that’s what you’ve got.”
Hunt believes the team’s depth is one of its greatest attributes.
“It creates internal competition. Everybody has to be on their toes,” he adds.