On Thursday night an energized Saginaw Spirit team, captained by Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Keaton Middleton, came to the Meridan Centre in Niagara to take on the Niagara IceDogs who had yet to record a win in the month of February.
It’s a once a season trip for the Spirit, and my only chance to see Middleton in action for myself, so I got to the arena nice and early to score a good seat and check out one of the prospects from the 2015 draft, the first of the ‘new era’ Leafs. After the game I had the chance to speak with Saginaw head coach Troy Smith about Middleton as well as Middleton himself, and we spoke of being a Maple Leafs prospect and what comes with that territory - on the ice and online - as well as moving a few hours away from home but into an entirely new culture. First, the game.
Keaton Middleton is a very odd player to watch in this game. I don’t mean that in any kind of negative way. Watching Middleton on the ice is like watching a sheepdog heard his sheep. He’s constantly directing players to positions and pointing at coverage. He’s watching to make sure no opposing players stray past the Spirit defence. As the play heads into the IceDogs zone, Middleton hangs back, watching the action unfold and moves in to position slowly and methodically.
One example: While Saginaw was on the penalty kill, Niagara’s Ben Jones was cherry-picking at the Spirit’s blue line. Middleton looked back and saw him, called out to his defence partner and one of the forwards and the three formed a wall, blocking any chance at the IceDogs getting a pass to their far off forward.
In a faceoff in the defensive zone, Middleton just points to the blue line and the winger nods. The puck goes back to Middleton who rings it around the boards to the winger. A simple hockey play, but there’s an aura of calmness over the Spirit when Middleton is calling the shots. Even while down 2-1 in the final minute of the period, he easily has his team get into position for one last chance. No urgency, no panic. Middleton comes across on the ice as the OHL’s Uatu the Watcher, observing everything, taking the game in, somehow separate from everything else. This isn’t to say he’s not involved. When the puck starts coming out he has the speed to get to the blue line and keep it in, and get into the middle of a play. He’s there, on the perimeter until needed, and then he’s all over and in charge.
I’m happy I got to finally see him play in person. In the OHL he’s the young adult in the room, making sure everyone’s having a good time at the party, but also using coasters. While tracking the prospects there’s always one player who I’ll pick as a favourite for no reason - Martins Dzierkals, I hope you’re enjoying Orlando - and there are always players I sit looking at gifs or highlights or box scores and think, “What will they be like?” This season Keaton Middleton is that player for me. I want to see what he brings to the AHL, to a higher level. I was more surprised with him when we spoke, Middleton came out of the Spirit dressing room announcing, “Who’s here to see me?” and was excited to be getting some attention at an away game. Here are his answers to your questions.
Q: You were drafted in 2015, in what was seen as the first of the ‘new era’ for the Maple Leafs. How has it been working with the team on your development?
A: They’re always coming to games, Stephane Robidas and Scott Powers, watching video and giving me tips and ways to make my game better. The development staff is great, they’re the best I’ve ever worked with.
Q: At rookie camp you made a name for yourself with Leafs fans who don’t watch the prospects closely, getting into a fight with Canadiens prospect Michael Pezzetta. Was that something in your mind that you should make a statement in camp?
A: No, no, it was heat of the moment. It just happened.
Q: Watching you from up high tonight, you seemed to be in control of everything that’s going on. Directing people from the blue line. Was that your place as captain, or just the way you play the game?
A: No, that’s just what I try to do, to help the team. Communication is the best part that helps everyone, and I just want to help everyone.
Q: Were you a Leafs fan growing up? Your bio says you’re from Stratford, but you grew up out west, right?
A: I was born in Alberta, so I grew up an Oilers fan. I didn’t hate [the Leafs], but they were never in the playoffs, you know.
Q: Poking around online, you have social media accounts, but they’re locked up, private. Is that something you’ve always done, or have you seen other prospects have their accounts picked apart after being drafted and didn’t want any part of that? Like with Charlie McAvoy in Boston...
A: [laughing at the McAvoy tweet] I get it, but no, it’s always been like that. I’m not a big social media guy, I just like to keep in touch with friends.
Q: How was being named captain after Mitchell Stephens left last season, was it the team’s decision or the players’?
A: It was brought down by management, just such an honour with Stephens and Connor Brown (not that one).
Q: Are there any qualities there? It seems like it’s a common theme for the Leafs to draft OHL captains; Matt Finn, Carter Verheaghe, Stuart Percy, Connor Brown.
A: Uh, I hope so. I don’t know of anything that stands out.
Q: Do you read up on yourself at all? Or stay away from that stuff?
A: Not at all, I’m not going to do that.
Q:[whew] Okay, if you were in the Olympics, what sport would you pick that wasn’t hockey?
A: Alpine skiing. That’s the one where they’re going 90 miles an hour down the hills, that’s the one for me.
Q: Moving from Canada to the US, are you bothered that the Salt & Vinegar chip bags are blue there and not green?
A: [Laughing] No, not really, I mean it’s still Salt & Vinegar chips, right? It bothers me more that there’s no All-Dressed.
Q: As a follow up, what about the blue bags of Fritos being ranch there and regular here?
A: Wow, he really likes chips eh? I never noticed that.
And on that note, he had to hop on the bus. Talking of Middleton it’s clear he’s living the life he’s wanted to and if anyone was the epitome of ‘Nice guy, tries hard, loves the game’ in the CHL, it’s Keaton.
Ontario Hockey League
#77 - Eemeli Räsänen (D) - 1G, 1A, -5
x - Kingston Frontenacs - 33-20-6-3
3rd seed in OHL Eastern Conference, 14 points out of first.
Feb. 19th: vs Barrie Colts
W 5-2 - No Points
Feb. 22nd: @ Peterborough Petes
L 3-1 - 0G, 0A, -1
Feb. 23rd: vs Hamilton Bulldogs
L 2-1 OT - 1G, 0A, +1
March 2nd: vs London Knights
L 3-0 - 0G, 0A, -1
March 3rd: @ Barrie Colts
L 8-3 - 0G, 1A, -2
March 4th: @ North Bay Battalion
W 4-3 SO - 0G, 0A, -2
The Frontenacs had a little losing streak which put more distance between themselves and the Hamilton Bulldogs for first in the Eastern Conference.
#55 - Keaton Middleton (D)
x - Saginaw Spirit - 28-26-8-0
7th in Western Conference, 2 points out of 6th.
Feb. 19th: @ Sarnia Sting
L 6-1 - 0G, 0A, -4
Feb. 22nd: @ Niagara IceDogs
L 4-1 - 0G, 0A, +1
Feb. 23rd: @ Erie Otters
L 4-1 - 0G, 1A, -1
Feb. 25th: vs Oshawa Generals
L 2-0 - 0G, 0A, -2
Feb. 28th: vs Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
L 4-1 - 0G, 1A, -1
March 3rd: vs Windsor Spitfires
L 4-0 - No Points
March 4th: vs Sudbury Wolves
W 5-2 - 0G, 0A, +2
The Spirit’s losing skid was broken by facing off against the worst team in the OHL.
#15 - Fedor Gordeev (D)
Flint Firebirds - 18-39-3-2
10th in Western Conference, 23 points out of playoffs.
Feb. 19th: @ Mississauga Steelheads
L 4-0 - 0G, 0A, -2
Feb. 23rd: vs Sarnia Sting
L 6-2 - 0G, 0A, -1
Feb. 24th: vs Oshawa Generals
L 5-2 - 0G, 0A, -1
Feb. 25th: @ Sarnia Sting
L 9-0 - 0G, 0A, -2
March 2nd: @ Guelph Storm
W 6-5 OT - 0G, 0A, +1
March 3rd: vs Sudbury Wolves
W 3-2 OT - 1G, 0A, -1
Despite being eliminated from the playoffs, the Firebirds pulled out a couple wins to end the week.
#19 - Ryan McGregor (F)
x - Sarnia Sting - 43-15-4-1
3rd seed in OHL Western Conference, 18 points out of 1st.
Feb. 19th: vs Saginaw Spirit
W 6-1 - 0G, 1A, +1
McGregor played a game but sat out the rest after his injury flared up again.
#52 - Nicolas Mattinen (D)
yx - Hamilton Bulldogs - 41-16-3-3
1st in Eastern Conference, 9 points ahead of 2nd.
Feb. 19th: vs Owen Sound Attack
L 4-3 - 0G, 1A, +1
Feb. 23rd: @ Kingston Frontenacs
W 2-1 OT - No Points
Feb. 24th: vs Sudbury Wolves
W 5-3 - Did Not Play
Feb. 25th: vs North Bay Battalion
W 4-1 - Did Not Play
March 1st: @ Niagara IceDogs
W 5-4 OT - No Points
March 2nd: vs Ottawa 67’s
W 3-1 - No Points
March 3rd: vs Oshawa Generals
W 4-1 - No Points
The Bulldogs are on the verge of clinching first in the Eastern Conference, and have clinched the Eastern Division.
Western Hockey League
#33 - Ian Scott (G) - 166sv, 182sh, .912sv%
Prince Albert Raiders - 29-25-9-2
2nd Eastern Wild Card - 4 points ahead of 1st out of playoffs.
Feb. 19th: vs Regina Pats
L 3-1 - 21sv, 23sh, .913sv%
Feb. 21st: @ Lethbridge Hurricanes
W 8-2 - 35sv, 37sh, .946sv%
Feb. 23rd: @ Red Deer Rebels
W 3-2 - 29sv, 31sh, .936sv%
Feb. 24th: @ Edmonton Oil Kings
W 5-4 - 25sv, 29sh, .862sv%
Feb. 27th: vs Brandon Wheat Kings
W 6-2 - 21sv, 23sh, .913sv%
March 2nd: @ Swift Current Broncos
W 5-4 SO - 10sv, 13sh, .769sv% (played 25:38)
March 3rd: vs Lethbridge Hurricanes
W 4-1 - 25sv, 26sh, .962sv%
The Raiders spent the past two weeks winning games, and now find themselves in a playoff position. Scott played well over that time, aside from the game in Swift Current, which saw him pulled five minutes into the second period, after the Broncos third goal of the game.
#24 - Ryan O'Connell (D) - Injured
Penticton Vees, BCHL
Leading Coquitlam Express 2-0 in first round.
O’Connell is injured and may miss the remainder of the year.
The Vees finished the season first overall in the league, and on top of the Interior Division. They’re now leading the Coquitlam Express 2-0 in the first round of the playoffs.
#13 - Nolan Vesey (F) - 1G, 1A
Maine Black Bears
Defeated New Hampshire in first round of Hockey East Playoffs
Feb. 23rd: @ Boston College
L 6-3 - 0G, 1A
Feb. 24th: @ Boston College
L 2-1 - No Points
March 2nd: vs New Hampshire
W 4-1 - No Points
March 3rd: vs New Hampshire
W 3-2 - 1G, 0A
The Black Bears easily eliminated the Wildcats from the Hockey East playoffs in two games, and are now preparing to head to Providence for the quarter-finals. If you want to watch the games you can do so at Hockey East TV.
#14 - JD Greenway (D) - 0G, 1A, +1
The Badgers lost to Michigan in the first round of the Big10 playoffs.
Feb. 23rd: @ Ohio State|
L 6-2 - 0G, 0A, -1
Feb. 24th: @ Ohio State
L 4-0 - No Points
March 2nd: @ Michigan
L 6-5 - No Points
March 3rd: @ Michigan
L 7-4 - 0G, 1A, +1
Greenway is the first prospect to end his season, as the Badgers were eliminated by Michigan. After a rough season, Greenway will be turning back to his studies and looking towards next season and his junior year.
#31 - Joseph Woll (G) - 52sv, 56sh, .929sv%
Boston College Eagles
The Eagles received a bye to the Hockey East quarter-finals.
Feb. 23rd: vs Maine
W 6-3 - 29sv, 32sh, .906sv%
Feb. 24th: vs Maine
W 2-1 - 23sv, 24sh, .958sv%
Woll and the Eagles won their final weekend of regular season play against Nolan Vesey and the Black Bears. They had the weekend off as they waited for Merrimack to win their round.
#8 - Dakota Joshua (F) - 2G, 0A, +2
Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes will face Michigan in the Big10 Hockey semi-finals.
Feb. 23rd: vs Wisconsin
W 6-2 - 2G, 0A, +4
Feb. 24th: vs Wisconsin
W 4-0 - No Points
March 2nd: vs Michigan State
W 6-2 - 0G, 0A, -1
March 3rd: vs Michigan State
W 4-3 OT - 0G, 0A, -1
Joshua played big against Maine, but came up short in round one of the playoffs. With the Buckeyes favourites to meet Notre Dame in the finals, Joshua will need to step up his game in both zones to make it to the Frozen Four.
Prospects points tracker
|Dakota Joshua (F)||Big 10||24||30||0.80||22.96|
|Nolan Vesey (F)||Hockey East||25||37||0.68||20.50|
|Ryan McGregor (F)||OHL||29||47||0.62||16.19|
|Ryan O’Connell (D)||BCHL||12||23||0.52||9.84|
|Eemeli Räsänen (D)||OHL||30||59||0.51||13.34|
|Nicolas Mattinen (D)||OHL||29||62||0.47||12.27|
|Keaton Middleton (D)||OHL||23||61||0.38||9.89|
|Fedor Gordeev (D)||OHL||23||64||0.36||9.43|
|JD Greenway (F)||Big 10||3||12||0.25||7.18|