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Buzzing The Net

Ottawa 67′s miss OHL playoffs back-to-back; owner Jeff Hunt faces tough sell keeping status quo

Neate Sager
Buzzing The Net

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Ottawa 67's coach-GM Chris Byrne (OHL Images)

While Ottawa sports entrepreneur Jeff Hunt was getting ready for his CFL team to kick off, his hockey club went two-and-out.

Horrible football pun, granted, but hopefully it sums up the situation in the nation's capital with the Ottawa 67's, owner Hunt, and coach-GM Chris Byrne. The '68 road games for the 67's' era — playing an irregular home schedule out of the Ottawa Senators' cavernous suburban arena during construction of the TD Place football stadium that adjoins their downtown home arena — ended with a thud Sunday. Ottawa went up to North Bay mathematically alive for a playoff spot but rolled over in a 12-1 road loss to the host Battalion, who were sitting several regulars. The way the 67's went out as missing the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time in their 46-season history became official is only going to intensify speculation about how maintaining the status quo could possibly be a viable option.

The club has two top-shelf 2015 NHL draft prospects with everybody's rookie of the year, Travis Konecny, and 17-year-old centre Dante Salituro. Potential ticket buyers tend to look at team performance, though. The reality is Ottawa couldn't get over the low threshold for the last playoff spot, where earning just seven of 16 possible points this month would have been enough to get the last berth.

Small wonder that one could swing a sock full of the metaphorical nickels they have for every time they have heard someone ask how Byrne can keep both jobs. Only five other OHL teams, each of whom operates on a much smaller scope than the 67's, has a dual coach-GM.

No one associated with the club, least of all Byrne, 39, who's faced impossible comparisons to his Hall of Fame predecessor Brian Kilrea, ever made excuses about being the only OHL team that practised and played in different arenas. It could not have helped, though. Ottawa earned only 38 points in 68 games at the Canadian Tire Centre and 52 on the road across these past two seasons.

Lost Monahan, Vlajkov

Ottawa's best-case scenario last summer was that it would have franchise centre Sean Monahan until Dec. 10, when he would leave for the national junior camp and then be traded to a contender — during a Memorial Cup year, when prices for veteran talent might be through the roof. The defence corps would be young, but 18-year-old Mike Vlajkov would provide a decent anchor.

You know the rest of the story. The Calgary Flames, with their own challenges with selling hope, kept Monahan. Ottawa had six one-goal losses during the span when the 19-year-old pivot conceivably would have been available. Vlajkov also suffered a torn labrum and played in only two games.

Last season, though, the OHL trade deadline coinciding with the end of the NHL lockout meant the Niagara IceDogs did not trade Team Canada forwards Brett Ritchie and Ryan Strome, who returned to the OHL. Niagara managed to scratch out a playoff spot while having more underage players (16) on its roster than Ottawa (12). Niagara also saw 17-year-old Brent Moran morph from goalie of the future to goalie of the present during the middle and latter stages of the regular season.

Ottawa might have a goalie of the future with 6-foot-3 southpaw Liam Herbst, a former London Knights high pick whose arrival in the OHL was pushed back by hip and knee problems. It's just tougher for observers to discern that since overage Philippe Trudeau took the net time after time, playing 63 of 68 games.

Some of that is extenuating circumstances, and some of that was self-made. It all built up to a disastrous denouement. Ottawa was in a half-decent position to make the playoffs entering a four-game final week. On Tuesday, it lost two-thirds of its top line during a loss to Kingston, with centre Erik Bradford breaking his femur and overage left wing Ryan Van Stralen getting a game misconduct and two-game suspension for instigating a fight.

Two nights later, Ottawa had a two-man advantage against the Barrie Colts in a tie game early in the third period. Colts captain Aaron Ekblad got away with flipping a dropped stick away from a 67's attacker, which by rule should have been an automatic penalty that would have extended the 5-on-3. Instead, Barrie survived the extended PK, got the next goal and won.

The following night, Ottawa could only cadge one point in Kingston despite leading 4-2 with five minutes to play and getting a power play in overtime. Salituro hit the post with a wide-open net during the sequence that ended with Kingston's winning goal. Meantime, Mississauga and Niagara each got 3-of-4 points from a home-and-home series.

So essentially, Ottawa was unlucky but it also wasn't very good. The 67's have a challenge with selling hope as they return to the Civic Centre as they try to rebuild their season-ticket base and appeal to the walk-up crowd to pre-renovation levels.

Where that leaves Byrne, a great guy who followed The Guy, is difficult to say. Despite the struggles of the last two years, he never took the easy way out and criticized particular players after losses.

Replacing Brian Kilrea was a monumental task. It became all the more daunting since the legend's last two priority selection draft classes in 2010 and '11 (the current cohort of 18- and 19-year-olds) were not overly strong. Then the 67's were punted out of its home rink for two seasons. That's the personal side of it.

The business side of it is that a sports property that competes for a slice of a tough entertainment dollar in Ottawa probably has to do something big. Hunt and the Ottawa RedBlacks have done so ahead of their first CFL season. The OSEG group might have to do the same in junior hockey.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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