Giffen: Plenty of talent around rising star Byfield

Wolves should have plenty of depth

Owen Robinson, left, of the Sudbury Wolves, and Jacob Tortora, of the Barrie Colts, battle for position during OHL action at the Sudbury Community Arena in Sudbury, Ont. on Friday December 7, 2018. Robinson didn't get drafted into the OHL in his minor midget year and was clearly a late bloomer, getting selected as an eyebrow-raising 10th rounder by the Wolves in 2018. But he made the team, had 41 points as an 18-year-old rookie and is now preparing to make his way to an NHL rookie camp as an invite this fall. John Lappa/Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network John Lappa / John Lappa/Sudbury Star

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Don’t apologize Wolves faithful, but let’s be honest, you know how lucky you are.

Superstars don’t grow on trees, so last winter was special for Sudbury hockey fans, who were treated to arguably the best season ever by a goaltender in this city.

Barring a miracle, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen was one and done in the Nickel City — meaning last season was his only one in the Ontario Hockey League. It’s highly unlikely he’ll be back between the pipes for the 2019-20 season.

Instead, we’ll have to settle for watching reigning CHL rookie of the year Quinton Byfield as he takes aim at being a very early pick at next June’s NHL draft.
Wow.  Poor us.  So hard done by.

Seriously though, the good fortune looks good on Sudbury, and it’s a nice treat that fans here get to roll from one successful season into another promising one — not to mention from one star to another.

With training camp set to launch next Wednesday, the final camp roster has not been made official just yet, but there will be a large number of players returning from the team that made it to the second round of the playoffs last spring, along with some intriguing Wolves draft picks who will be looking to embark on their rookie seasons.

Byfield is fresh off an excellent showing for Team Canada at the international tournament known as the Gretzky-Hlinka Cup and has all but solidified the fact that he’ll be a Friday night pick at next year’s NHL draft — now it’s just a matter of seeing how high he can go.

And quite frankly, that’s good for everyone.

The attention on the just-turned 17-year-old former first overall selection means a lot of eyes will be on the Sudbury Wolves every time they enter an opposing rink and more scouts filling the media room at the Sudbury Community Arena.  It means teammates like defencemen Isaak Phillips and Jack Thompson, also draft eligible in 2020, have the opportunity to market themselves as legitimate pro prospects. I mean, they would anyway, but extra attention can’t hurt, right?

The Byfield factor may also have had something to do with a player like Kosta Manikis, the Wolves fifth rounder from the 2017 OHL Priority Selection, recently choosing to de-commit from Clarkson University in the NCAA and try his luck in major junior.  Manikis is a 6-foot-2 right shot centre who was on the radar of NHL scouts throughout last season, sitting 170th among North American skaters in the Central Scouting mid-term rankings in January.

Ultimately, Manikis’ dream wasn’t realized. Well, at least not yet, and that’s kind of the point here. His decision to turn away from the plan to go to school in the United States in 2020 means he’ll be looking to make the Wolves out of training camp and have a big season in the OHL to put himself back on the radar.

Just because a 17 year old doesn’t get picked in his NHL draft year, there’s no rule that says it’s game over at that point. The same holds true for all of the youngsters who will come in as wide-eyed 16 year olds at their first Wolves training camp. Getting passed over the first time does not spell the end. The dream lives as long as you’re willing to put in the work to achieve it.

You need only look at one of the seasoned veterans coming to camp to understand that. Shane Bulitka is entering his fourth season with the Wolves and despite that he got cut in his first training camp, while fellow 2015 picks David Levin and Macauley Carson made the team, an extra year of development in Junior B certainly didn’t hurt. In fact, Bulitka was quietly one of the Wolves’ best players last season, with 19 goals, 54 points and a team-leading plus 37 rating. He will be a dependable leader in the 2019-20 campaign.

By the same token, Owen Robinson didn’t get drafted into the OHL in his minor midget year and was clearly a late bloomer, getting selected as an eyebrow-raising 10th rounder by the Wolves in 2018. But he made the team, had 41 points as an 18-year-old rookie and is now preparing to make his way to an NHL rookie camp as an invite this fall. The speedy Robinson will suit up for the Detroit Red Wings at the NHL Prospect Tournament, held in Traverse City. Mich.

Development happens on a different path for each player.

With Byfield and Carolina Hurricanes prospect Blake Murray steering the ship offensively, the Wolves should be in good shape up front this season. On the back end, their blueline is a bit on the young side, at least for now, but they showed a ton of promise down the stretch and into the playoffs last year. And they’ll all come back heavier, more experienced and most likely more mature and confident, too.

Not having Luukkonen in the crease is clearly the most difficult area to address, especially if Sudbury’s CHL import pick, Montreal Canadiens’ prospect Frederik Dichow, decides to stay overseas. But it’s possible one of the team’s goaltending prospects steps up and shows they’re ready. That’s what training camps are for.

If not, general manager Rob Papineau will surely be willing to scour the market and find an experienced goalie to give his goalie prospects a little more time to marinate. And that, too, would not be the end of the world.

There is excellent depth within the organization, which should make for an exciting, competitive training camp. Byfield put on a show as a 16 year old last year, so you can only imagine how good he’ll look this time around.

More importantly though, there’s an awful lot of talent around him.


Jeff Giffen’s column runs weekly during the hockey season.