|Former NHL defenseman Craig Hartsburg has the OHL's Sault St. Marie Greyhounds off to a flying 5-0 start.
The greyhound is the second-fastest accelerating land mammal, trailing only the cheetah. An aerodynamic build and powerful legs allow the greyhound to reach speeds of 45 mph in less than 1.5 seconds – or fewer than three strides.
The Sault St. Marie Greyhounds took a page from their namesake for the start of the 2007-08 season, running the table on their first five opponents to the tune of a 5-0 record and a second-place ranking in the CHL’s Mosaik MasterCard Top-10 rankings.
And coach Craig Hartsburg believes the best is yet to come.
“So far, we’ve got some bounces,” Hartsburg said. “But we don’t think we’ve played our best hockey so far.”
Predicting success in junior hockey can be difficult. With so much turnover, so much roster movement and the nature of the game -- dealing with players who are young and have so much to learn in order to reach their potential -- the early weeks of every new season are full of surprises.
For coaches, some of those surprises can be quite pleasant; such as the development of certain players, or the chemistry that develops between teammates. For Hartsburg and the rest of the Greyhounds’ managerial staff, count defenseman Josh Godfrey and James Livingston as two pleasant surprises.
Each of these players has added another dimension to his game since last season. Godfrey, who played on Team Canada in the 2007 Super Series, has begun to look more at home in his own zone as of late. This new development should please the Washington Capitals, who took him with the 34th-overall selection in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, mostly due to his significant offensive upside.
“He’s a player in the last year (who) has made huge strides,” Hartsburg said. “He has a huge shot. He shoots the puck as well as any junior hockey player in Canada. And lately, he’s become more responsible 5-on-5.”
Livingston, too, has a more well-rounded game this season. After scoring only two goals and seven points in 60 games last season, Livingston already has six goals and nine points through his first five contests this time around. He has impressed his head coach with some gritty play and a nose for the net in the early going.
“He’s a young player and he struggled offensively last year. Although, last season, he was pretty good all-around,” Hartsburg said. “He’s a guy that goes to the net; he’s scored most of his goals so far around the net. He gets his nose dirty, he has good hands, (he) knows how to score and he’s strong. If he continues to improve, he’ll be a very good player in this league.”
But Livingston and Godfrey, who sit eighth and 13th, respectively, in the OHL scoring race, are just two pieces of the puzzle. The Greyhounds have had players stepping up all over the ice, and it has shown on the stats sheet. Players like Jake Lalonde, Michael Fine and Matthew Lyall
have all been far better than expected this early in the season.
Due to the collective effort, the Greyhounds lead the OHL in goals scored, another pleasant surprise for Hartsburg.
“That is something,” he said. “We don’t look at ourselves as a real offensive juggernaut, but we’ve had some bounces and we’ve gotten some goals from different people, which is important. We’re not relying on only one line. Instead, we’ve got goals throughout our lineup, and that has been a big plus.”
What Hartsburg also knows, however, is that early season surprises can sometimes turn into mid-season disappointments. It is imperative that the Greyhounds continue to improve in all areas of the game if they hope to continue this hot start.
”In junior hockey, it’s a long process,” he said. “As a coach, you’re teaching, building your team. Every year you have new kids, returning guys that are still learning and trying to get their games together. So, every week, you just try to improve.”
For a team that leads the League in goals for, boasts a perfect 3-0 road record and 5-0 overall record and has enjoyed solid goaltending, the last thing the rest of the OHL wants to see from the Greyhounds is weekly improvement.
“Different areas of your team can always be better, so we don’t worry about the record,” Hartsburg said. “We just want to continue to get better.”
Around the OHL -- The Kitchener Rangers have bought into the old adage of “offense wins games, defense wins championships.” Their top scorer, Justin Azevedo, sits 25th in points, but they have gone 3-0, allowing only four goals along the way. OHL rookie Josh Unice, a third-round selection of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007, has held the fort down with a 2-0 record, 0.98 GAA and .955 save percentage. He also has one shutout. … Oshawa Generals center John Tavares sits atop the OHL scoring lead with seven goals and six assists in only four games. The Generals, on the strength of Tavares’ early play, sit at 3-0-0-1. Their only setback was a shootout loss to the Peterborough Petes on Sunday. … Bobby Sanguinetti has taken his NHL training camp experience along with him to Brampton, and he has been absolutely dominant thus far with the Battalion. He has six goals and 10 points in four games and has helped his team get off to a 2-1-0-1 start. But he hasn’t been doing it all on his own. Matt Duchene has rewarded the Battalion for taking him fifth overall in the CHL Priority Draft by scoring four goals and five points in his first four games with the team.
Western Hockey League -- Carolina Hurricanes prospect Brandon Sutter might have been disappointed to get returned to his junior team, the Red Deer Rebels, this past weekend. It’s a safe bet, though, that his teammates were thrilled to have him back.
Having the gritty Sutter back in the mix means the Rebels have re-acquired a valuable piece of their puzzle. And he wasted no time making an impact, scoring a goal and adding an assist in his first game back from the big club, which was a 7-2 victory over the Regina Pats on Friday night.
Red Deer followed that win with a 2-1 victory over the Prince Albert Raiders in a shootout, keeping the Rebels undefeated with their alternate captain in the lineup.
Around the WHL -- The Calgary Hitmen, who currently sit atop the CHL Mosaik MasterCard Rankings, improved an already dominant defensive corps when they acquired Paul Postma in a three-way, five-player deal with the Tri-City Americans and the Swift Current Broncos. The Hitmen acquired Postma and winger Kyle Bortis in exchange for winger Keegan Dansereau and defenseman Brett Plouffe. In return, the Broncos sent Plouffe to the Americans for winger Erik Felde. The Hitmen added Postma to a group that already boasts the likes of 2007 fifth-overall selection Karl Alzner (Washington) and 2007 15th-overall selection Alex Plante (Edmonton). Postma was a seventh-round selection himself and may have a little to do with the Hitmen’s No. 1 ranking. … Another Carolina Hurricanes prospect has been making the most of the young 2007-08 season. Drayson Bowman, who was selected with the Canes’ third-round selection (No. 72 overall), in the 2007 Entry Draft, is leading the League in points with five goals and nine points in only three games. … The Vancouver Giants have picked up right where they left off from last season. With a 4-0-0-1 start, they are sitting atop the B.C. Division of the Western Conference. In addition, they boast a top-five goals-against average and have scored the second most goals in the WHL. One could chalk that up to the fine play of forwards Michal Repik (nine points in five games), Spencer Machacek (four goals in five games) and goaltender Tyson Sexsmith (four wins, 1.38 GAA in five games). … The Everett Silvertips, despite returning 23 of 29 skaters to their 2007-08 roster, have yet to win a game this season. They will rely heavily on veterans Dan Gendur, Kyle Beach and goaltender Leland Irving to return to the top of the WHL heap.
Quebec Major Junior Hockey League -- The Minnesota Wild’s gain is the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles’ loss, as James Sheppard signed his first NHL contract this week and will start the 2007-08 season with the big club.
But you’d be hard-pressed to find a coach, teammate, or even a fan of the Eagles who would stand in the way of Sheppard. After all, it is the goal of every player who ever laces up the skates to put on an NHL jersey.
Sheppard, a 6-foot-1, 204-pound center taken with the ninth-overall selection in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, is arguably the Wild’s top prospect. He had 30 and 33 goals in 2005-06 and 2006-07, respectively, and had a career-high 96 points and a plus-39 rating in only 56 games last season.
Much like the decision the Pittsburgh Penguins faced regarding Jordan Staal, the Wild will have nine games to decide whether or not to keep Sheppard before a year is credited to his contract. If he plays 10 or more, he will be with Minnesota for the remainder of the season.
The Screaming Eagles will now have to rely more on veterans Jon Laberge and Robert Slaney to carry the offensive hole left by Sheppard’s absence.
Around the QMJHL -- Gatineau Olympiques forward Claude Giroux was the TELUS Offensive Player of the Week, while Moncton Wildcats goaltender Nicola Riopel earned the defensive honors for Sept. 24-30. Giroux, back from the Flyers’ training camp, scored two game-winning goals and added five assists in his first three games. The Olympiques went 2-1 over that same stretch. Riopel, for his part, went 3-0 with a 1.00 GAA and .969 save percentage with one shutout, defeating the Drummondville Voltigeurs, the P.E.I. Rocket and the Acadie-Bathurst Titans -- all on the road. Riopel earned a star in each of his three starts.
Around the Horn -- The CHL has released the latest CHL Mosaik MasterCard Top 10 Rankings for week 2 of the 2007-08 season. The weekly rankings, selected by a panel of NHL scouts, are as follows:
Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds (5-0-0-0);
Calgary Hitmen (5-1-0-0);
Ottawa 67's (4-0-0-1);
Royn-Noranda Huskies (5-1-1-0);
Acadie-Bathurst Titans (4-1-1-0);
Tri-City Americans (4-0-0-0);
Windsor Spitfires (4-0-0-0);
Moncton Wildcats (5-1-1-1);
Oshawa Generals (3-0-0-1);
Vancouver Giants (4-0-0-1).