TORONTO - A year ago the Oshawa Generals were the poster boys for underachievement in the Ontario Hockey League.
Blessed with more talent than most teams, including Canucks first-rounder Nicklas Jensen and a handful of other high NHL draft picks, the Gens sleep-walked through the season to grab the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. The forgettable season — the Gens finished 31-30-4-3 despite high expectations — cost general manager/coach Chris DiPiero and replacement coach Gary Agnew their jobs and soured a lot of fans.
With new GM Jeff Twohey, who spent 30 years with Oshawa’s most heated rivals, the Peterborough Petes, and first-year coach D.J. Smith steering the ship now, the Generals appeared determined not to founder again this season.
So far, so good.
“I think the people here before us were good people, it’s just a different approach (this year),” Twohey said. “It may be more suitable to this group (but) doesn’t make it better or worse. Right from Day 1 we made it really clear who the boss was and what was expected. I’m sure the previous group did that as well but I think we approached it a little differently.
“I don’t want to come across that everything that was done before us was done wrong. It’s just a different approach that we’ve taken. In fairness, there was some good pieces left here by the people before us.”
The core of the Generals is largely the same as last year, although top forwards Jensen and Christian Thomas have moved on. Big Leafs first-rounder Tyler Biggs, who previously played at Miami (Ohio) University, has made the loss of Jensen negligible up front and fit in nicely with veteran Boone Jenner, Flyers first-rounder Scott Laughton and Lucas Lessio, before he was hurt.
Overage d-men Matt Petgrave and Geoffrey Schemitsch, both acquired from Owen Sound last January, have been solid at both ends of the ice — Petgrave has 17 points and is plus-eight while Schemitsch has 12 points and is plus-3 — and third-year goalie Daniel Altshuller is developing into a solid No. 1.
I’d like to think Twohey and Smith have been a big reason the Generals are pointed in the right direction after a year wandering the wilderness — the GM certainly credits his coach while deflecting his own praise — but the players deserve a pat on the back, too.
After all, the dressing room is filled with pretty much the same faces but the results have been night-and-day different.
“The kids take some responsibility, too, for what went on here before,” Twohey said. “I think they recognize, with the change, that there is some more responsibility on them. They want to do well. I don’t think they were happy with how it went last year. They have to accept some responsibility for what went wrong last year and they deserve credit for what’s going right so far this year.
“The players have responded well. A lot of credit goes to D.J. and his staff for making the players accountable. Their attention to detail and commitment has been really good. A lot of credit goes to the players because they have responded well to the direction they have been given by the coaches.”
The Generals are in the midst of a critical period, though.
They’ve lost Lessio and 6-foot-7 forward Hunter Smith until after Christmas — both were slashed in the hand by skate blades in the same game — and Laughton is serving a 10-game suspension for a head check against the Ottawa 67’s last month. Oshawa’s depth, already a little on the thin side, is being severely tested.
“The challenge there is to keep them playing the way they’re playing even though they’re not getting rewarded (with wins),” Twohey said. “I think the character is there, yeah. I think the kids care and they’re finding themselves a little bit. We’re asking some players to step into roles they weren’t in earlier in the year. Some of them are trying to find themselves and show that they can fit in.
“There is some good character here and the work ethic from these kids has been really good. We’ve got some challenges here but at the end of the day it will make us better.”
Character. Commitment. Responsibility.
Those are three words you didn’t hear associated with the Generals last year. So maybe more has changed than the results.
TEARING IT DOWN
Has the full rebuild started with the Niagara IceDogs? Overage defenceman Brock Beukeboom was dealt to the Guelph Storm for three draft picks on Wednesday, sparking speculation that veterans Ryan Strome, Brett Ritchie and Dougie Hamilton will soon by on the move as well.
If the For Sale sign has been hung by the IceDogs, GM/coach Marty Williamson could fetch a high price for all three of those players. Especially if the NHL lockout drags on into the new year, as expected.
HALL OF FAMER
Just wanted to offer a personal note to congratulate Guelph Storm equipment manager Russ (Rusty) Hammond, a faithful follower of my work and a man I consider a friend, on his induction into the Guelph Sports Hall of Fame on Tuesday. The honour was well deserved, proving his 20-year commitment to the Storm (and Hockey Canada for that matter) hasn’t gone unrecognized.