STORM HEALTH PEAKING AT RIGHT TIME; FIGHT FOR ROSTER SPOTS INTENSIFIES

The major storyline for the Guelph Storm over the last week of the season, aside from their continual pursuit of home-ice advantage in the first round of playoffs, is the return and reintegration of some of the team’s best players.

For months, we’ve all dreamt of the day all Storm starters would find themselves sharing the same sheet of ice. Through 63 games, it hasn’t happened.

World Juniors/NHL Training Camp assignments and various injuries have limited Robby Fabbri, Jason Dickinson, Chris Marchese, Pius Suter, C.J. Garcia, Phil Baltisberger, Luke Cairns, James McEwan, Tyler Boston, Ryan Foss, Noah Carroll Garrett McFadden and Austin Hall in one way or another. Even early on, key players like Zac Leslie and Ben Harpur were sidelined at various points.

All of this has consistently resulted in a less-than-optimal lineup for Storm coaches to work with each and every day.

And just when it seemed like the Storm might lace up their full arsenal of weapons a couple of weeks ago, when Robby Fabbri returned from an 8-week long ankle injury, C.J. Garcia became sidelined.

Regardless of whether or not Garcia returns this weekend, all signs are pointing to the Guelph Storm having all their pieces ready to go when the playoffs start in the week following their final game on March 22nd. Barring injury, Mike Kelly’s team will finally get a bolster their most powerful lineup, at least on paper.

While players such as rookies Matthew Hotchkiss and Luke Burghardt, to name a couple, have strapped on their skates all season long, a longjam of sorts is developing on the lineup card.

I’ve been meaning to write this article for several weeks now. Doodling out mock lineups for weeks trying to figure out how best to piece this lineup together. So how will the lineup look come playoff time?

Despite their recent struggles I, and assumedly the coaching staff given what I’ve seen ever since Fabbri returned, are liking the combination of team-leading-scorer Tyler Bertuzzi, talented overager Chris Marchese and the aforementioned phenom Robby Fabbri. The mix of skills on this line fit, and the trio seems to have chemistry. It’s not a foregone conclusion, but Fabbri and Bertuzzi seems like a deadly combination you just wouldn’t want to break up.

The second line, obviously, is anchored by captain Jason Dickinson. And given his play this season, Pius Suter gets a wing spot. That part is easy. The duo have had unbelievable chemistry all season, and Dickinson’s playmaking combined with Suter’s goal-scoring knack is dangerous.

The struggle I see the coaching staff having is who to slot next to the two of them. The case could be made for 17-year-old Tyler Boston. Despite his inexperience and defensive ineptitudes, the speedy Boston has had strokes of being a good fit on this line.

One could also make the case for 19-year old Tyler Hill. The line as it sits is rather small, and adding Hill to the mix would match up well against some of the bigger wingers the second line will surely face. Hill’s play as of recent however, has been less than ideal. He was a healthy scratch against Sarnia last weekend and it’s unclear just how far into the doghouse Hill is sitting.

The other realistic option is giving the third spot on the second line to Luke Cairns. The overage forward has been sidelined practically all of 2015 at the hands of mononucleosis. It’s so hard to know with ‘mono’. Cairns is back playing in games, but has been relegated to the fourth line – a spot I find odd for a player who showed incredible offensive tendencies (15 PTS in 18 GP with the Storm) after he was acquired this season.

For me, Cairns is the fit here. The top two lines are going to get the bulk of the action in the playoffs, and having two dangerous offensive lines is optimal. Cairns also brings age and experience, and I’d much rather give more ice time to he than Boston.

I can also see them giving the spot to Boston though. Shifting Cairns and Hill down to the third/fourth lines gives the team more depth and helps balance out the relatively young and inexperienced lower lines.

However they divvy up the top two lines, expect Fabbri, Dickinson, Bertuzzi, Marchese, Suter and I’ll bet it’s Cairns, that get the top-6 minutes. The combinations we’ve seen over the last few weeks have been promising, and while it’s relatively safe to assume they’ll all be in that group of 6, a little line tinkering may be in store within the bunch.

The bottom two lines are a complete mystery. It’s been tough to see any sort of consistency in the lines put out there every game, but a few things are certain.

Marc Stevens, Givani Smith, James McEwan and two of Boston-Hill-Cairns get five of the six spots. That leaves one spot to be filled by either utility forward Ryan Foss, rookie Matthew Hotchkiss, or gifted-minded Luke Burghardt.

I can see either of the three winning the last spot. Foss’ experience over the two plays to his favour. If might also make sense to choose Hotchkiss and give the young talent a taste of the playoffs. Burghardt is also a wise option given his defensive ability. I’ll throw my guess at Matthew Hotchkiss being the 12th forward, however I have been much more impressed with Burghardt if I’m being totally honest.

The blueline is a little easier, given that chemistry between defencemen is usually less integral than a group of forwards.

Baltisberger is the best defensive defenceman the Storm have, and he’s going to get a ton of minutes. So will powerplay quaterback C.J. Garcia. Out of necessity, McFadden will demand high minutes now that Leslie is done.

Noah Carroll has grown this season, and I see him as a big player moving forward over the next few years.

Kyle Rhodes will also get a nod on the backend. As a result of injuries, his role has been forced to grow where it otherwise might not have and he has leapt forward on the depth chart. And rightly so.

It’s looking more and more like Austin Hall is a perma-healthy scratch moving forward. He’s got lots of potential, but injuries have really slowed him down this year and it might be too late for him to regain a legitimate spot on the roster this season.

To fill out the sixth defence slot, it looks like 6’5″ Brock Phillips is the guy. Hell why not? He’s 6’5″ and could be one of those who improves exponentially over the next few years. He won’t get much ice time, but his sheer monstrous presence is enough for me.

The Storm will have their work cut out for them this postseason. I like their odds of advancing past the first round, but after that the team will have to come together – however the lineup is drawn up – to take down the very deep and balanced Western Conference powerhouse teams.

Oh, and Justin Nichols will start every game. In case you were wondering.

 

Joe Krizman

In 2013, Joe graduated from Queen’s University with a degree in Physical and Health Education. During his years in school, he spent his summers off working with kids at a summer camp; an experience he credits as being highly influential in shaping who he is today.

Joe followed up his university degree by moving out to Calgary for the 2013/14 hockey season, where he served as the Coordinator of Player Development & Recruitment for the Western Hockey League (WHL) in their head office. Having developed a love for major junior hockey with the WHL, he is excited to be getting involved with it again this season back in his hometown of Guelph.

A self-proclaimed “sports enthusiast”, Joe is thrilled about getting the opportunity to share his thoughts and sports insights in a new way.