From the onset of the 2019-2020 season, there was a feeling that the year was going to be a little bit different than what North Bay Battalion fans had witnessed in previous seasons. A youth movement was impending and there was a desire for the team to really grow their young core.
“We knew that we were going to have the majority of the team that was on the younger end of the spectrum,” says Battalion General Manager Adam Dennis.
“But I wouldn’t say that we went in giving out free ice to the young players, I think in fairness to some of those guys, they earned it.”
Ten players skated in their first Ontario Hockey League game with the Troops during the abbreviated 62 game season while another, Kyle Jackson, was still technically a rookie despite playing in 12 games as an affiliated call-up in 2018-19.
These 11 players combined for 37 goals and 108 points, which is the second-best mark of any group of first-year players throughout the seven-year history of the North Bay Battalion franchise.
Those totals fall a little shy of the 38 goals and 122 points the nine players in 2015-16 produced. That was largely led by Cam Dineen's superb stat line of 13-46-59 which are all still Battalion records to this point for a first-year player.
But this past years’ group also showed a lot of promise as Dennis said. Maybe not so much for one individual accolade, but for what the team was able to do together and it allowed the front office to make some of the moves they did including trading older players such as Matthew Struthers and the player who was wearing the Captains “C” on opening night, Brad Chenier.
“I think as they started to get more comfortable in the league, they really started to earn the ice time in the second half,” says Dennis.
“They became guys that you just couldn’t take out of those spots. It created competition and it forced us to make tough decisions, but quality decisions that really help the competitiveness of the team. I think each one of them had their own ups and downs and personal battles that go along with being in a new environment, but each of them handled it well and I think that’s a big part of why our team finished on the stronger side of things.”
In the final 11 games of the season, the Battalion went 6-3-2-0 picking up 14 points in that stretch, as those young players were adjusting more and more to their competition.
In terms of getting the ice time, it is typical for OHL clubs to load their power-play units with the stronger, older players. But for the North Bay Battalion, some of the first years were fixtures on the PP for most of the season.
And when Paul Christopoulos scored at 10:02 of the first period on October 14th, 2019 against the Soo Greyhounds, it marked the first time in over two years since a first-year player had tallied a power-play goal for the North Bay Battalion.
Andy Baker was the last one to do so, his goal coming on February 12th, 2017. That’s a span of 166 regular-season games in which a rookie didn’t get a power-play goal for the Battalion.
In fact, the six power-play goals that this past year’s group combined for (Kyle Jackson with one goal, Alex and Paul Christopoulos with two each and James Mayotte with the other) ties all other first-year players in the six-year history of the North Bay Battalion combined.
That’s six seasons in which 41 players only managed six power-play goals, and the majority of those were defenceman; Kyle Wood had two in 2013-14, Cam Dineen and Brady Lyle had one each in 2015-16 and Adam McMaster and the aforementioned Baker had one each in 2016-17.
This past season, Alex Christopoulos led the youngsters with 12 goals, the most by a Battalion first-year forward since Max Kislingers’ 12 in 2015-16, and the second-most in team history by a forward since Brett McKenzie’s 13 during the inaugural 2013-14 season. Half of Christopoulos’ goals came within the last month of the season.
“I think towards the end of the season I was really getting better,” says Christopoulos.
“I was working harder in practices and workouts, and getting bag skated after practices with Assistant Coach Scott Wray in the hopes of getting better and a few other players started doing that as well.”
His brother Paul says, “Coming into North Bay and getting through those first few games, it was a little anxious for me. But that confidence started growing and knowing that we had almost half the team were rookies; we knew we needed to build chemistry and start being able to rely on each other and feed off each other more. So, as the season went on, we started working harder in practices and even though the wins weren’t there, I felt that we came together and made that playoff push towards the end. We really felt the team develop and change.”
The Battalion ended up just four points back of both the Kingston Frontenacs and the Niagara IceDogs who were tied for the final playoff spot when the season came to a halt. Dennis says, “Our goal was to try and make the playoffs. I know from an outsider's perspective that’s not what everyone believes in, they want that first overall pick, but we see a lot of value in experience.”
Speaking with the perspective as both a former player and assistant coach, Dennis says it wasn’t too long ago in which this Battalion team saw the consequences of having a team not get that playoff experience.
“The one thing I saw in not making the playoffs in my second year in North Bay was that those young players suffered in not making the playoffs that year and not getting that experience. When it's your first time at the dance that’s a new experience in itself. So, we were trending in the right direction and we felt we had a good shot at making the playoffs and obviously we were cut short.”
And while the team was looking like it was heading in that direction and there were some positives to see, some of those young players felt there was a little bit more left to be desired.
Jackson ended up with 22 points, the highest total for the first-year group.
“For myself individually I would say I didn’t reach my expectations,” he says.
“I know the kind of hockey player that I am, and I know I can be way better and more consistent. The OHL is one of the toughest leagues in the world and considering it was my first year, it was a pretty good year, but I know I am capable of doing more.”
2019 first-round draft pick Liam Arnsby finished with 4-16-20 in his first season, and he says he fell shy of a personal goal he set for himself.
“I wanted to get to 30 points and I guess 20 is a stepping stone because I’ve felt I’ve learned a lot over this year and I’m looking to use my knowledge for what I’ve learned and put it into next year.”
Not many players will come out and put a specific number on any expectations they have for themselves, but this is the type of leadership and excellence General Manager Adam Dennis was hoping they could bring to the table when he started piecing together this team in his role as an Assistant GM to Stan Butler.
“Those are exactly the kind of mindset were looking for,” says Dennis. “You can take all the positives you want but the bottom line is we were dead last in the league. So, there’s one way to go but it takes a big appetite and that’s something that we have been trying to echo through all of these drafts.”
With the first overall picks in the priority selection, CHL Import Draft and the U18 draft, the Battalion have added several intriguing pieces that are expected to make an impact on the success of the team as early as next season and its something that has this past year's first-year class pretty excited for.
Jackson says, “I’m excited for next year. Even in the last 10 games, you saw the team was already getting better. Every single day we were going into that locker room saying there’s a chance we could make the playoffs, there was a lot of positivity happening before everything got shut down.”
But he adds, “I think we are all excited for the pieces they have added. These are all guys that I think can help us win games right away and that’s what we need.”
Arnsby says, “Towards the end of the season we were trending upwards, and now that we’re adding these top guys for next year, I think we’re looking pretty good.”