The future is blindingly bright in Flint, Michigan, as the Firebirds stand poised to evolve into a true contender in the 2019-20 season. Sure, the past in Flint has been rough and tumultuous, however, a slew of wildly talented young players stand destined to change the Firebirds’ fate in the coming campaigns.
Long led by Dallas Stars prospect Ty Dellandrea in a single-handed fashion, the Firebirds will feature a much broader and deep roster when they take to the ice this coming season. Boasting a number of young players poised to breakout as well as incoming prospects sure to leave a lasting impression, a once remarkably thin Firebirds roster is suddenly beaming with high-end talent eager to do damage on a game-by game basis.
Led by head coach Eric Wellwood, the Firebirds will look to quickly cast aside the negative energy which has — at times — consumed Flint’s direction as a team in years past. The key to achieving this positive state will be to receive consistent contributions from throughout the entire Firebirds roster. Sure, the team’s returning players will be looked upon to carry the majority of the load, however, the time has come for a number of the organization’s younger player to take significant steps in the right direction.
Ultimately, if the Firebirds can receive consistent goaltending alongside contributions from their defence core and bottom-six forwards, Flint could quickly evolve into a legitimate contender with justified aspirations of postseason glory.
5 Storylines to Follow
As follows are our five storylines to watch as the Flint Firebirds embark upon their fifth OHL season in franchise history. Having only reached the postseason on one occasion thus far, positive outcomes in the areas below will prove crucial to Flint’s playoff hopes. If the Firebirds can receive optimal outcomes in all of the situations below, the team could become a true contender rather than simply a competitor.
1. Can Ethan Keppen Continue to Ascend?
As the Firebirds’ first round choice in the 2017 OHL Priority Selection, greatness has long been expected from Ethan Keppen. Now, following a solid rookie season in the OHL and a breakout campaign in 2018-19, it appears as though Keppen is poised the achieve the greatness which his specific skill-set commands. An imposing physical force given his 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame, Keppen has quickly developed into an overwhelming force at both ends of the ice — all at the age of just 18-years.
The key to Keppen’s breakout this past season were improvements to his shot, an increase in overall confidence, and a sense of authority once in possession of the puck. Although long in possession of a deadly shot, Keppen has refined his rocket and now features a quick release, remarkable accuracy, and ample velocity. These improvements resulted in a 30-goal campaign for Keppen in his first season of NHL Draft-eligibility — a major reason why he stands as a highly valuable prospect and one who should continue to improve and lift the Firebirds in the coming seasons.
2. Will Cody Morgan Reach his Potential?
Despite having completed just two seasons of play in the OHL, Cody Morgan has already skated for three different franchises. Initially drafted by the Kingston Frontenacs in the first round of the 2017 OHL Priority Selection, Morgan was dealt to the Windsor Spitfires on New Year’s day of 2018 before being shipped to the Firebirds exactly one year later. Needless to say, Morgan’s on-going movement throughout the OHL has had a direct impact on his development and his ability to find a sense of calm and belonging at the major-junior level.
However, it appears as though Morgan’s latest stop has him poised for significant success. In his 30 games played for Flint in 2018-19, Morgan recorded 13 goals and 30 total points — two marks which stood as career-highs in only half a season of play. Taking to the ice as a more confident player sure of his abilities, Morgan could be set to explode in a major way come the 2019-20 campaign given the current trajectory of his on-ice productivity. Eligible for the 2019 NHL Draft, a surprisingly high-selection in the upcoming event could be all the motivation Morgan needs to lead the Firebirds’ offensive attack this coming season.
3. Is Evan Vierling Primed to Explode?
After battling through a somewhat slow start in his rookie season in the OHL, Evan Vierling rounded out the 2018-19 campaign in fine form — posting six goals and 27 points in his 60 games played. The second overall choice in the 2018 OHL Priority Selection, Vierling has the skill set of an elite prospect and the drive necessary to formulate a long and successful career in the professional ranks.
As we head into the 2019-20 season, expect Vierling to improve significantly upon the play which he displayed as a rookie. Alongside a steadily developing Firebirds squad, Vierling should come to play an impactful role at both ends of the ice and one which will see him rewarded with valuable playing time as a direct result. Further, with the breakout play of Keppen, the potential return of Ty Dellandrea, and the arrival of Brennan Othmann, Vierling will skate within what will arguably be the greatest Firebirds roster in franchise history.
4. Can Luke Cavallin Command the Crease?
Luke Cavallin was the first goaltender chosen in the 2017 OHL Priority Selection for a reason — the young netminder is incredibly athletic, technical, and intense. Blessed with great size to boot, Cavallin has all the makings of a star goaltender at the OHL-level and beyond. However, owing to the Firebirds’ lack of team success in recent years, Cavallin’s perception in the eyes of NHL scouts has been significantly hampered — so much so, in fact, that Cavallin is ranked as the 23rd-best North American goaltender according to NHL Central scouting.
With this being said, the team which selects Cavallin in the 2019 NHL Draft will be extremely fortunate. Of immense potential, Cavallin boasts the skill set necessary to become a consistent and effective netminder at the OHL-level and beyond. If Cavallin can seize and dominate Flint’s crease this upcoming season, his presence would not only make the Firebirds an instant contender but increase his stock as an NHL prospect as well. With overage goaltender Emanuel Vella at the end of his OHL career, the door is wide open for Cavallin to assert his presence.
5. Will Eric Wellwood Awaken the Firebirds?
Despite a disastrous 0-16-1 start to the 2018-19 campaign, the Flint Firebirds closed out their most recent season in strong form. In their final 11 games played, the Firebirds recorded five wins and — in doing so — they were able to leapfrog the Kingston Frontenacs who had previously sat in 19th overall in the league standings.
Although they missed out on the opportunity to draft Shane Wright in the process, it has become clear that Wellwood and the Firebirds are determined to build a winning culture in Flint. Now boasting a wealth of incredibly talented young players, Wellwood will be able to use his breadth of playing experience to drive his team into a successful and potentially dominant future in the OHL. As an individual who has both played and coached in the OHL for a number of years, Wellwood’s familiarity with the league and its requirements for success should bode well for his young core of players steadily growing both on and off of the ice.