67's ready for season

AEDAN HELMER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:40 AM ET

OTTAWA - Seeing his troops succeed against NHL-calibre competition is something of a double-edged sword for 67’s coach and GM Chris Byrne.

Ryan Martindale is still in Edmonton, trying to crack the Oilers lineup, Tyler Toffoli scored his first goal as an L.A. King in a pre-season matchup Wednesday night, while Shane Prince suited up for the crosstown Senators, getting his first taste of NHL action against the Stanley Cup-champion Bruins.

Those three just happened to comprise the most potent offensive unit in the OHL last season — combining for 116 of Ottawa’s total 274 goals — and no doubt Byrne is counting on them to repeat the feat if they hope to hang on to the East Division crown they earned last season.

“Junior hockey is a development business, our job is to help these guys get better and ultimately to help these guys move on to the next level,” said Byrne on the eve of the 67’s home opener Friday against the Belleville Bulls at the Civic Centre (7:30 p.m.).

“If that happens, we wish them well, but if (they’re sent back to junior), we’ll welcome them back with open arms.”

Byrne did get one piece of good news, with Prince rejoining the 67’s ranks after impressing the Senators brass, and all indications are Toffoli will also be returning, but Martindale remains a big question mark.

'BIG OPPORTUNITY'

Fortunately, Byrne has an answer in Sean Monahan, who already has matching U17 and world U18 gold medals to go along with MVP honours from the 2010 OHL Cup championship, and may find himself centring the 67’s top line, despite still being a month shy of his 17th birthday.

“It’s a big opportunity for me and I just need to take advantage and do anything I can to help the team win,” said Monahan. “I want to be someone that the coach can count on in all areas of the game.”

Byrne will be looking to his veterans to fill the leadership gap left by the graduation of captain Thomas Nesbitt, defensive leader Travis Gibbons, and five-year vet Cody Lindsay.

The defensive pairing of Marc-Anthony Zanetti and Cody Ceci will anchor the blue line, and Ceci in particular will demand a lot of attention, entering his NHL draft year with some scouts already projecting the Orleans product as a potential first-rounder.

REVAMPED BLUE LINE

“Ceci had a really strong second half last year and if he can continue that, he’ll do well,” said Byrne. “He’s a real strong, big body presence.”

The revamped defence corps, with 6-foot-3, 218-lb. acquisition Michal Cajkovsky likely pairing with rock-solid Jake Cardwell on the team’s shutdown pairing, should make life easier for Petr Mrazek, already one of the OHL’s elite goaltenders.

“I think we’re going to improve from last season,” said the Czech-born Mrazek, who returned Tuesday from Red Wings camp. “I think we all learned something from last year.”

Last season, all the optimism generated from the regular season was erased in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Sudbury Wolves.

“Getting swept made me realize how different it is in the playoffs. You really have to become a different player,” said Monahan.

“We’re that much older, we’re a bigger, stronger team and we’re a little tougher to play against,” said Byrne. “We expect ourselves to be a pretty good team.”

aedan.helmer@sunmedia.ca


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