The Mississauga Steelheads are a team in transition, as the club has taken a significant step backwards since it reached the OHL Final during the 2016-17 season.
However, this step backwards is simply cyclical, as the vast majority of the Steelheads’ former top players have now moved on to professional careers or other organizations in the OHL — a reality which has placed considerable emphasis on Mississauga’s top young prospects. Fortunately for the Steelheads, a number of these young prospects have quickly begun to leave lasting impressions at the major-junior level — with Thomas Harley, Keean Washkurak, and Cole Schwindt being the latest of which.
As a result, it should come as little surprise to learn that the Steelheads will likely fit into the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference this coming season. However, if able to receive stellar goaltending, substantial contributions from their incoming prospects, and consistency from their veteran players, the Steelheads could rather easily give an opponent a run for their money in the opening round of the 2020 OHL Playoffs.
Five Storylines to Follow in 2019-20
If Mississauga wishes to surpass the first round of the playoffs for just the second time in their eight year history, they’ll need to receive overwhelming contributions from a handful of very particular players. If able to draw stellar season’s from the likes of Washkurak, Schwindt, Harley and Ranger, the Steelheads could prove to be somewhat of a surprise in the Eastern Conference in 2019-20.
Let’s dive into more detail.
1. Can Keean Washkurak Take Charge of the Steelheads?
A second round choice of the Steelheads in the 2017 OHL Draft, Keean Washkurak has become a staple within Mississauga’s lineup over the past two OHL seasons. Known for his blistering speed and unrelenting work ethic, Washkurak is the definition of a team player who will do whatever it takes to ensure success for his team on a nightly basis. Whether it is dropping the gloves to stand up for a teammate or scoring a timely goal to seal a win, Washkurak is more than capable.
It is this broad skill set and wide range of capabilities which led directly to Washkurak’s selection in the 2019 NHL Draft. Nabbed by the St. Louis Blues in the fifth-round of the event, Washkurak’s speed, adaptability, and hard-working nature proved far too valuable for the reigning Stanley Cup champions to pass upon. Now, as Washkurak prepares to skate in his third OHL campaign for the Steelheads, Head Coach James Richmond will be looking for the youngster to take the next step as an offensive player as well as as a leader. With premium ice time up for grabs in Mississauga, Washkurak has earned the opportunity to seize the role of first line centre-ice man.
Now, can Washkaruk succeed in the role and overcome his opposition’s top talent on a nightly basis? Only time will tell.
2. Can Cole Schwindt the Next Step?
Although widely projected to be chosen in the later rounds of the 2019 NHL Draft, Cole Schwindt heard his name called in the third round — 81st overall — by the Florida Panthers. While this came as somewhat of a surprise to many, the Panthers were clearly smitten with the package which Schwindt brings to the ice on a nightly basis. Standing 6-foot-2 and tipping the scale at 185-pounds, Schwindt is a sturdy winger who can protect the puck with ease and drive possession for his team.
What’s more is that in addition to his physicality, Schwindt features soft hands, a deceptive shot, and a high level of on-ice intelligence. These abilities led directly to a 31 point improvement for Schwindt in his sophomore season of play with Mississauga, a trend which proved far to valuable for the Panthers to ignore. However, Schwindt’s selection in the third round of the NHL Draft has also created an air of expectation, as the native Kitchener, Ontario will surely return to the Steelheads in 2019-20 with a great deal to prove. If able to continue his upward offensive trend while strengthening his impressive two-way play, Mississauga could very well feature one of the OHL’s most well-rounded players.
3. Will James Hardie Evolve into an Elite Goal Scorer?
James Hardie has long been regarded as a goal-scoring machine, as the youngster scored 40 goals in his Bantam season and 41 goals in his Minor Midget campaign prior to his selection in the first round of the 2018 OHL Draft by the Steelheads. And, not surprisingly, Hardie’s ability to bulge the twine was on full display in his rookie season, as the native of Innisfil, Ontario netted 15 goals in 62 regular season contests despite being provided with sheltered playing time on his team’s fourth-line.
Which other Steelheads player scored 15 goals in his rookie season? Owen Tippett.
Now, this is not to say that Hardie and Tippett are similar players — both play different styles — however, Hardie could certainly become as potent as Tippett given his heavy shot and innate nose for the net. What’s more is that given the lack of depth present within Mississauga’s roster this upcoming season, Hardie could very well earn ample playing time in a variety of different on-ice situations — a reality which could lead to a sharp increase in his offensive productivity ahead of the 2020 NHL Draft.
4. Can Mississauga’s 2019 OHL Draft Class Contribute?
Despite not holding a second round pick in the 2019 OHL Draft, the Steelheads were still able to select a number of promising young prospects — a handful of which could play impactful roles at the OHL-level this coming campaign. The most intriguing of which is none other than Ethan Del Mastro, an intimidating young defender who was the team’s first round selection and the 12th overall choice. Of great size and a smooth skater, Del Mastro plays a quiet yet effective two-way game defined by his poise and composure while in possession of the puck.
In addition to Del Mastro are Luca Del Bel Belluz and Chas Sharpe — two third-round selections who both hold promising futures in Mississauga. Del Bel Belluz — a native of Woodbridge, Ontario — boasts tantalizing one-on-one skill and the smooth hands necessary to dangle defenders and create highlight-reel offensive opportunities. Sharpe — a towering young defender — plays the game with a sense of purpose and has the ability to contribute offence from the blue line when the situation demands. If able to receive somewhat consistent contributions from the likes of Del Mastro, Del Bel Belluz, and Sharpe, Mississauga’s roster could be much deeper than initially thought.
5. Will Joe Ranger Battle for the Starting Role in Goal?
When the Steelheads traded Jacob Ingham to the Kitchener Rangers this offseason, it opened up a significant void in the team’s crease. As a result, General Manager Richmond nabbed Kai Edmonds from the Barrie Colts — a towering goaltender who had battled for playing time in Barrie over his last two seasons in the OHL. Born in 2000 and with over 50 OHL games played under his belt, Edmonds will surely be handed the reigns to begin the 2019-20 campaign.
However, Edmonds’ status as the starting goaltender is far from set in stone, as the Steelheads boast other young netminders ready to battle for playing time like Ingham did upon his arrival. One of which is Joe Ranger, a fourth-round choice of the Steelheads in the 2018 OHL Draft who played surprisingly well in his 15 appearances with the team last season. A natural athlete whose passion for the game is unmatched, Ranger could very well push Edmonds for the starting role if able to attain consistency early in his sophomore campaign — he, and Justin Dilauro, stand as the future of the team’s crease.