While the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) is fully into their 2023-24 playoffs, the Windsor Spitfires are focused firmly on the future. After a chaotic, frustrating season that saw them go from near the mountain top in 2022-23 to the valley a season later, there are questions to be asked over the next six months.

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After winning back-to-back OHL Western Conference regular season titles, the team knew they would see a bit of a drop in the standings. They had heavy roster turnover and a new coaching staff which were going to take time to mesh together. Unfortunately, a horrible start combined with a tricky January trade deadline saw them dig an impossible hole, finishing 10th in the conference. Now, the offseason begins and we’ve got six questions that need to be answered before training camp hits in late August.

1. Will Casey Torres Return?

The Spitfires’ coaching situation this season was pure chaos. General manager Bill Bowler promoted long-time assistant coach Jerrod Smith in July after now-former head coach Marc Savard joined the Calgary Flames’ bench in June. Soon after, long-time hockey scout/coach Casey Torres was brought in to be an assistant.

Unfortunately, four wins in their first 21 games meant Smith was fired in November, assistant coach Andy Delmore and goaltending coach Michael Leighton both resigned, and Torres was promoted to interim head coach. While Bowler joined the bench briefly, he hired long-time pro Kris Newbury as an assistant in late December. That worked for about a month; Newbury was suspended by Hockey Canada in January for an incident in the Fall of 2023 with his previous Junior A team and Bowler re-joined the bench.

Casey Torres Windsor Spitfires
Windsor Spitfires’ interim head coach Casey Torres. (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

While this has created instability behind the bench, there’s been one constant in Torres. It hasn’t been an easy process but he’s shown patience. The question is – does he return for 2024-25? After their last home game, on Thursday, March 21, he said he loves being in Windsor.

“I absolutely loved it here,” Torres said. “I haven’t had that conversation yet (with Bowler)… We’ll have the discussion at the end of the season. I absolutely really thoroughly enjoyed my time here; I really enjoy the players, the staff, and you guys (media) have been terrific with me here … I’ve really enjoyed coming in here and trying to help everybody understand how the group is feeling and what we’re looking to try to accomplish…”

The connection between Torres and the players, the staff, and the community is unquestioned. If he returns, regardless of the role, it’s stability that the club needs. If Bowler goes another route, then it needs to be a long-term solution because the coaching carousel can’t continue.

2. Can Bill Bowler Capitalize on Top Draft Slots?

When Bowler went all-in at the 2023 Trade Deadline, it meant he didn’t have picks in Rounds 2 through 4 at the 2023 OHL Draft. His first-round pick, forward Jack Nesbitt, has done well but is taking time to find his scoring touch. The next two picks – defencemen Adrian Manzo (fifth round) and Michael Lavigne (sixth round) – have seen full-time Junior B action but limited with the Spitfires. Nobody else from the draft has even sniffed the OHL.

Windsor Spitfires' GM Bill Bowler
Windsor Spitfires’ GM Bill Bowler. (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

This brings us to the 2024 OHL Draft and Canadian Hockey League (CHL) Import Draft. While Bowler “re-shuffled the deck”, becoming more inexperienced than anyone anticipated, he was able to bring in several high picks. The club has the first overall pick thanks to the OHL Draft Lottery on Wednesday, March 27 along with the second-round picks of the Niagara IceDogs and Peterborough Petes, which are both near the top of the round. They also have the third overall pick in the Import Draft on Wednesday, July 3. Altogether, that should land Bowler potentially multiple high-end young talents.

The question is – can he capitalize on this golden opportunity to potentially turn this franchise around? This is a moment that could define his legacy with the club.

Bowler made the choice to go all-in over two seasons (2021-23) and now it’s catching up to him. The fans are getting restless and the players are tired of losing. He needs to not only swing for the fences in the two drafts but connect. It’s unlikely that he will ever get this chance again.

3. Who Will Be Taken at the NHL Draft?

The 2022 OHL Draft was one of Bowler’s shining moments. So far, five players from the draft – forwards Liam Greentree, A.J. Spellacy, and Cole Davis, along with defencemen Anthony Cristoforo and Carson Woodall – have become regulars in the lineup. They also have forward Nathan Gaymes (15th round) and goaltender Carter Froggett (sixth round) who got a taste of the OHL during the season. Their 2023 CHL Import selection, 18-year-old Czech defenceman Josef Eichler, also got regular ice time and his confidence has grown as the season pushed forward.

Liam Greentree Windsor Spitfires
Windsor Spitfires’ captain Liam Greentree. (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

All season, we’ve been focused on the NHL Central Scouting lists for the 2024 NHL Draft. While Greentree has been mentioned in the first round, Spellacy, Davis, Cristoforo, Woodall, and Eichler could all hear their names called at the Sphere in Las Vegas in late June. The question is – who goes and where do they land?

Greentree led the club with 90 points in 64 games, was named captain, and has become Mr. Everything for the team. Davis (41 points in 63 games) and Spellacy (38 points in 67 games) were right behind him both on the ice and in the room. Cristoforo led all team defencemen with 38 points in 67 games and wore an alternate “A” for much of the second half. Woodall had a strong season with 29 in 57 games and Eichler added 12 points in 64 games while playing a scrappy, defensive style.

Related: OHL: Windsor Spitfires Name Liam Greentree as New Captain

The Spitfires had five players chosen in 2009 including defenceman Ryan Ellis going 11th overall to the Nashville Predators. A season later, four more went including Taylor Hall going first overall to the Edmonton Oilers. Is this season going to match either one? It’s going to be tough but they could come close.

4. How Will They Overhaul the Defence?

In 2023-24, the Spitfires allowed the most goals in the league – 360 in 68 games – for an average of 5.29 per game. Not only was it the most goals allowed in the entire CHL this season but also the most they’ve allowed since 1983-84 when they let in 370 in 70 games. While the entire team is a part of the defensive side of the game, their defensive core needs an overhaul.

They came into this season with four rookie defencemen – Eichler, Woodall, Tanner Winegard, and Connor Walton – who had combined for just seven OHL games played. Bowler traded away potential overage (20-year-old) veterans Jacob Holmes and Daniil Sobolev, leaving James Jodoin (107 games) and Cristoforo (63 games) as their lone veterans. Jodoin, 20, became the odd man out for the overagers as a team can only dress three, so he was released. Instead, they brought in Connor Toms, 19, from the Soo Greyhounds, but the former second-round pick became more of a seventh defenceman. They also brought in Roberto Mancini, 20, briefly (late November until early January), and Djibril Toure (Ottawa Senators), 20, post-deadline, but he was injured to finish the season.

Carson Woodall Windsor Spitfires
Windsor Spitfires’ defenceman Carson Woodall (24). (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

Bowler tried to fix the defence mid-season but it didn’t work. The question is – where do they go from here? How do they overhaul the group? It’s not a challenge that Bowler can take lightly or skip by. It has to be addressed if the team has any chance of competing in the 2024-25 OHL Playoffs.

Part of it will be solved by bringing in high-end OHL prospects from the draft. However, finding a way to acquire a tough, experienced 19-or-20-year-old veteran is essential. They need confidence, they need grit, and they need to get their swagger back. This is a chore but a necessary one.

5. Will Prospects Benefit From Taste of the OHL?

The Spitfires had their share of adversity this season with suspensions and injuries. Unfortunately, when they all pile up, you’re forced to call up reinforcements. At various points, prospects were called up including Gaymes, Manzo, Lavigne, Froggett, and defenceman Evan Hjelholt (first round – 2023 OHL Under-18 Draft).

While Torres did his best to put them into situations that could help them and the team, that wasn’t always easy and, as expected, they struggled at times. However, they got to experience life in the OHL and that’s beneficial long-term. After their St. Patrick’s Day home game, Torres said you can practice all you want but real game experience can’t be replicated.

“It’s great and beneficial from an organizational point of view to get some of these signed young guys into games,” he said. “You can practice or play Junior A or Junior B, but there’s no substitute for experience in anything in life. For these guys to get real live fire reps in OHL action is only positive for their development. Especially for Evan tonight, you’re playing one of the best teams in Canada (London Knights). You have the Summer to feel that out and hopefully come out to camp in the Fall, ready to try to make a real push to make the club.”

When these prospects come into camp next season, they’re going to have that experience that other rookies don’t. While they have to take advantage of that, it’s still a big positive for them and, hopefully, the Spitfires.

6. Can Pride From Season Carry Into 2024-25?

For all the struggles and frustrations in 2023-24, one thing never wavered – the Spitfires’ pride. On March 14, when asked what he was most proud of, Torres said their fight to never quit.

“Taking over when we were a 4-16-1 team, down looking up at this mountain of a hole and, up until the trade deadline, to be a .580 winning percentage team, and getting back into the fight, that’s something I’m personally very proud of,” he said. “I’m proud of how the kids responded and didn’t waver on the season … Just our ability of a group and as a team to still be as tight and close knit as they are, given how uphill the climb has been most of the season, those are certainly some things that I’m very proud of.”

That was echoed later by multiple players. On Thursday, March 21, Greentree said that, despite the adversity, the group stayed on course.

“We went through a lot of adversity with the coaching change and we haven’t won a lot of games,” he said. “I’m proud of the guys just sticking with it. At the end of the day, it’s been tough for everyone, so it’s really important that the guys stayed with it…”

The question is – can they carry that pride into next season? Losing is unacceptable and it’s going to be a tough summer that could define the franchise. If they can use the pride from this season as motivation, that will go a long way.

This season was one of the tougher ones that the team and its fans have endured. They were at the top, now they’re at the bottom. However, to quote the famous Canadian (and Windsor-born) musician Shania Twain – “Up, up, up, can only go up from here.”


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