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Saginaw Spirit didn’t stand Pat in off-season: OHL Burning Questions

Saginaw Spirit's Nick Moutrey, Eric Locke & Jake Paterson (OHL Images)

The Ontario Hockey League regular season begins this week. They play one of these every winter? Man, it never ends. With the days getting shorter and the season getting nearer, BTN is taking an early look at each team in reverse order of last season's standings.

Saginaw Spirit

In 2012-13 — 32-29-4-3, .522 point pct., 247 GF/261 GA. Eighth, Western Conference. Lost 4-0 to eventual OHL champion London in first round.

Final Dynamic Dozen ranking — 12th OHL, 33rd CHL.

On the pro-or-junior bubble — Would-be overage C Eric Locke remains in training camp with the Buffalo Sabres.

Drafted — C Justin Kea (Buffalo Sabres, third round), G Jake Paterson (Detroit Red Wings, third), C Jimmy Lodge (Winnipeg Jets, third), LW Nick Moutrey (Columbus Blue Jackets, fourth), LW Cody Payne (Dallas Stars, originally a Boston Bruins fifth), Locke (Buffalo, seventh).

2014 NHL draft watch — D Brandon Prophet showed good two-way potential as a 16-year-old, while W Zach Bratina is a former Plymouth Whalers first-rounder coming off a rookie year that was curtailed by a brain injury.

1. How much can Paterson and an older, presumably wiser penultimate line of defence pare off that goals-against record?

Just like Jerry Seinfeld didn't intend for Kramer's girlfriend to have her pinky toe severed by a street sweeper, the Spirit probably didn't plan on getting into a trade-goals type of games. Yet it happened, as a function of being a relatively young team which often found itself needing to open it up. Over the off-season, Saginaw GM Jim Paliafito, the most interesting man in junior hockey, focused on being stronger defensively. The Spirit's incoming overages consist of two-way forward Kristoff Kontos and defenceman Justin Sefton, a former San Jose Sharks third-rounder, along with 19-year-old stay-at-homer Sean Callaghan.

Up front, Kea, Kontos, Moutrey and Payne each tip the Toledos at more than two bills, so Saginaw coach Greg Gilbert has the horses to wear down opponents and spend more time in the offensive zone. The potential is there for Saginaw to bring its goals-against total down into the more manageable 215-225 range. After all, on his best nights, Jake Paterson is Batman.

2. To what extent do Saginaw's chances rest on getting the overage Locke back from Buffalo?

The centre merely stands to be the OHL's leading returning scorer after his 97-point campaign in '12-13, so yes, it's pretty important. Typically, when a team spends a seventh-round lottery ticket on a 20-year-old with an eye on stocking their AHL team, since he's closer to his full development than an 18-year-old. Locke needed three seasons and two changes of scenery to get NHL teams to look past his smallish stature and show that he belongs at the next level by virtue of having a cannonading shot, among other qualities. (As Rob Pettapiece once said, sometimes it's like size-obsessed NHL teams forget the net is on the ice.)

Should Locke stick with the Rochester Americans, then Saginaw will be more offence by committee. Kea and Moutrey have the mien of team leaders and Lodge, who was a point-a-game player at age 17, should also be prominent. Saginaw also has a passel of 18-year-olds who learned on the job quite a bit over the last two years. First-rounder Mitchell Stephens could also be an excellent complementary scorer in his rookie year.

Locke is quite a centrepiece, though.

3. How tough could Gilbert's gang be by April?

The OHL is ultimately about what happens after the first 68 games. Saginaw has given a honest accounting of itself during the playoffs in Gilbert's two seasons — it made a vastly superior London team work early on in last spring's first-rounder and also stretched the Knights to six games in the second round in 2012. Paterson, who by April will be likely wearing the braid of having been involved in two world junior tourneys, will be a huge building block. Add in the ingredients of a seasoned D corps and some toughness up front, and this could be a very good team.

Perhaps it's imperative for the Spirit to claim one of the top three Western playoff seeds, which would put off facing London until the third round if the form holds. It's not that they coiuldn't pull it off, but someone else deserves the honour of facing the Knights early on in the post-season.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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