By Alex Quevillon
While the Ottawa 67’s may find themselves atop the Eastern Conference standings, they face a considerable problem at the center position. It isn’t a lack of talent that’s troubling the Barberpoles, it’s the fact that they don’t have enough natural centers. And it’s a problem that could have been easily solved by a familiar face.
Two weekends ago, Ottawa did not have a single player in the lineup that was listed as a center to start the season. Tyler Graovac has missed a considerable amount of this early season with flu-like symptoms and hasn’t returned from his second such ailment since November 18th. Sean Monahan recently returned from a concussion after missing a couple of weeks. Nicholas Foglia has played the center position this year despite being listed as a right winger at the beginning of the year.
Over the past two months, Ottawa has used an excess of natural wingers and played them as centers. Remy Giftoupolous spent a lot of time last weekend centering Shane Prince and Tyler Toffoli. Brett Gustavsen and Ben Dubois seem to have found a spot down the middle. Even Dalton Smith played a couple of games centering Steven Janes and Ryan Van Stralen.
The 67's roster still includes one more center. Ryan Martindale.
Now, looking back, fans of the 67’s had large expectations for their team this campaign. A first-round sweep at the hands of the Sudbury Wolves was hard to swallow, but supporters could find solace in the hope that 2012 would be Ottawa’s year.
Martindale himself even believed this, telling CTV News on the first day of training camp that he was happy with this year’s group and excited for what was, and still is, predicted to be a long playoff run. The key is that Martindale always used the word “we” when talking about the 67’s. It was a hint that he had planned to spend the year in Ottawa.
Now, it’s nearly the halfway mark of the season and any hope that Martindale will return seems to have completely dwindled away. Even if he was sent back, the 67’s would have to trade away one of their three overagers to comply with OHL restrictions. Of their overagers, none of them would likely be trade-bait. Dubois has been very impressive as of late, Daniel Broussard was acquired less than a month ago and Marc-Anthony Zanetti, named captain at the start of the season, is irreplaceable on this year’s squad.
Martindale was drafted 61st overall in 2010 by the Edmonton Oilers. He spent almost all of last season playing between Prince and Toffoli, forming what was arguably the most dangerous unit in the Ontario Hockey League. Toffoli was drafted just before Martindale by Los Angeles in 2010 while Prince was a 2011 second-rounder to the Ottawa Senators, but neither of the two was eligible to play in the AHL and as such, were almost guaranteed to return.
But Martindale was AHL-eligible. He signed a contract with the Oilers, believing that he would get ice time with Edmonton’s AHL farm team, the Oklahoma Barons. You would be hard pressed to find any 67’s fan that wasn’t proud of him for getting such a great opportunity. It’s always great to see 67’s doing well at the professional level, and the native of Brooklin, Ontario would surely be playing in front of NHL scouts every night in Oklahoma City, maybe even getting a couple of NHL games in this season, right?
Wrong. The day after being signed by Edmonton and assigned to the AHL, Martindale was not in the Barons lineup. Eventually, he wound up with the Stockton Thunder of the East Coast Hockey League. At least he would still be playing professionally and in the Oilers’ system. The problem there is that on some nights, he is not playing at all. After registering four points in 12 games with the Thunder, Martindale started becoming a healthy scratch. Even on October 29th, when Stockton dressed only 15 skaters against the Idaho Steelheads, Martindale was left out of the lineup.
As much as it’s in everyone’s interest to help him further progress at a professional player, you have to wonder whether his current situation is aiding him or if it will prove to be a detriment to his development. What would get Martindale better recognized by scouts and assorted pro ranks? Playing in the ECHL, or playing for a top OHL team? Would Martindale be better off playing in a city where he’s almost guaranteed top-line minutes? Or a city where he isn’t immune to being scratched?
With that being said, perhaps this is the best move for everyone involved. Martindale is learning how to deal with the issues, on- and off-ice, that all professional players have to face. It may not be so glorified, but he is playing at a higher level of hockey than the OHL.
Furthermore, in the past two years, a pair of top prospects returned to junior from the minor leagues and didn’t seem to help their team in the long run. Last season, Brayden Schenn joined his hometown Saskatoon Blades in January. They were swept in the second round of the WHL finals. The previous season, Alex Pietrangelo joined the Barrie Colts at the OHL trade deadline. The Colts went to the finals that year but they, too, were swept, despite being ranked #1 in the country almost all year. Perhaps a Martindale return wouldn’t be best for Ottawa.
Of course, it didn’t appear as though there was any chance of a return from last year’s star center and assistant captain. The 67’s went out and acquired Broussard from the Sarnia Sting to shore up their defence and used up their final overage spot in the process. While the 67’s have still iced a very talented team, finding themselves in the CHL’s top 10 rankings a couple of times as well, you can’t help but think how this season would be different had Martindale been in the lineup, even if he wasn’t sent back until a few games in.
Monahan, who started the season as a 16-year old, is the player benefitting most from Martindale’s departure. The second-year center has made a seamless transition to Ottawa’s top line with Prince and Toffoli. In fact, before his injury, Monahan was considered in the discussion to possibly be a top-3 draft choice in the 2013 NHL draft as he had more points-per-game than Nathan MacKinnon of the Halifax Mooseheads and Max Domi of the London Knights, both expected to be top-5 picks along with the Ottawa center (however MacKinnon is generally ranked #1 by scouting systems).
What if Martindale had made a return, though. Sure, Monahan would have been demoted to the second line, but if the 67’s ended up being an elite team with the addition of Martindale, the sophomore center Monahan would be playing more games on national television, as well as receiving more exposure to scouts. After all, the fact that a player can play on the second line in the OHL while still being a year-and-a-half away from their draft year is still extremely impressive. At worst, Monahan would be playing on the second line, probably alongside Van Stralen, who he had great chemistry with in the pre-season. Perhaps Graovac could join his wing again when all of Ottawa’s centers were healthy.
Last season, the 67’s had a good problem. Although Monahan spent a lot of time on Ottawa’s second unit, he usually had to play beside either Graovac or overaged center Cody Lindsay. They never had a depth issue, but in a three-week span towards the end of the season, Ottawa lost Captain Thomas Nesbitt, goaltender Petr Mrazek, defencemen Julian Luciani and Travis Gibbons, along with Lindsay and Prince to injury. This season, it looks as though the injury bug is hitting Ottawa earlier rather than later. However, what happens if the 67’s are swamped by another late-season slew of injuries? Suddenly, having another center would be very convenient.
As it stands right now, Ryan Martindale is playing professional hockey and the Ottawa 67’s are first place in the Eastern Conference, albeit a conference full of parity. It’s hard to complain about this current position. But at the same time, it’s hard for fans not to imagine how this season may have been different had the 20-year old playmaker returned. Would Ottawa be running away with the Eastern Conference? Could they be a top-10 ranked team in the CHL every week? Tyler Toffoli leads the league with 26 goals, could he have 30 if Martindale was back on his line? Technically, Martindale could still be sent back, but I’m not holding my breath. At this point, all we can do is wonder how different this team may have been with number 77.