By: Mitchell Fox
With the Ontario Hockey League’s regular season only a few days away, the Mississauga Steelheads are preparing to improve upon their 37-23-2-6 record (82 points) from 2021-22. The 2022 version of the team is bringing in more rookies, including players from the 2021 and 2022 OHL drafts, to join the ranks of a team seeking their first deep playoff run since 2017.
The Trout finished last season on a sour note, falling in a sweep at the hands of the Hamilton Bulldogs in the second round of the playoffs. While their first playoff round win since 2016-17 may have been a sign of a positive trajectory and while the Bulldogs OHL Championship victory would prove them to be a more-than-worthy adversary, the Steelheads could only have hoped for a better result.
Coach and general manager, James Richmond, will be hoping his team of versatile returning players and a number of promising new faces can get back to the top of the league in 2022-23.
A 22-player roster has reportedly been leaked, though it has not been confirmed by the team or on the official roster on the team website yet. However the roster shakes out, the storylines are bound to be plentiful as the Steelheads look to swim to the top of the challenging Western Conference.
A dominant top-six forward core can go a long way in the OHL, where player ages range from 15 to 20 and teams typically only have a handful of players with NHL (or NHL training camp) experience. Fortunately for the Steelheads, their forward group, with a strong mix of goal scoring, playmaking and grit, fits the bill.
The Steelheads forward core has some familiar names, including NHL prospects and some high OHL draft picks. Leading the way will be assistant captain James Hardie, who will seek to raise his pedigree even more in his last eligible OHL season. After earning a chanceat the Toronto Maple Leafs development camp in 2021, Hardie returned to Mississauga and led the team with 77 points in 68 games last year.
Alongside Hardie at the top of the roster are two players selected in the second round of the most recent NHL draft, Owen Beck (Montreal) and Luca Del Bel Belluz (Columbus). Del Bel Belluz, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ prospect, was second in scoring for the Trout last season, coming in just one point behind Hardie. The likely first-line center, who had two points, at the Traverse City Prospect Tournament, will bring a coveted mix of scoring (he had 30 goals last season) and playmaking. As for Beck, the Montreal Canadiens prospect known for his hockey IQ, will likely improve on a respectable 51 points in 62 games last season. The only concern for the Steelheads might be that Beck is making something of a name for himself with a Canadiens team that will be missing a few key centers to start the season.
The rest of the top-six is likely to be filled in by Jake Uberti, who the Steelheads acquired from the Niagara Ice Dogs near last season’s trade deadline, and two former first-round OHL draft selections in Zakary Lavoie and Luke Misa. Uberti, one of only three 2002-born players on the team, will bring an important veteran presence as he builds on a chance at the Detroit Red Wings prospect camp. Meanwhile, Lavoie, the Steelheads’ first-round selection from 2020, will seek to draw on a solid 44-point rookie season (paired with eight points in 10 playoff games) and become the team’s go-to right winger. As for Misa, the 16-year-old will look to improve on a 26-point rookie season and perhaps get some time as a top-six center, especially if either Beck or Del Bel Belluz get NHL opportunities.
The rest of the Steelheads lineup up front is filled in by a mix of fresh faces and strong two-way types. Kai Schwindt will bring his mix of size and speed to a third- or fourth-line role while fellow 2nd-year players Zander Vecchia and Ryan Struthers, who the Steelheads acquired from the Ice Dogs over the offseason, bring tenacity and depth scoring. Quinn Binnie, who split time between the Steelheads and the Pickering Panthers of the OJHL last season, will offer another depth option.
Meanwhile, Mason Zebeski, Lucas Karmiris and Valdemar William Hull will supply intriguing new options for the Steelheads. Karmiris, the Steelheads’ selection with the 13th overall pick in the most recent OHL draft, may be the most interesting name, but Zebeski and Hull come with similar intrigue. Zebeski may be one of the more fascinating players on the roster as he attempts to make a significant leap from 11th-round OHL draft pick just two drafts ago to difference-maker on the Steelheads. As for Hull, fans can hope the Swiss center selected in the 2022 OHL import draft can make an impact in his move to North America for his NHL draft eligible season.
Other rookie options for the Steelheads include 2022 OHL draft picks William Eggleton (fourth round) and MacGregor Richmond (sixth round). To contribute at the OHL level at their age and as players drafted outside of the first three rounds of the draft would be a significant feat.
Overall, the Steelheads stack up as having one of the league’s strongest groups down the middle of the ice, with some exciting young wingers and depth pieces filling out a capable forward group. With the forwards leading the way, it may be the defence and goaltending that determine just how much of a contender the Trout will be.
The Steelheads defence may be one of the more intriguing parts of the team, given the potential for some new faces to make a mark. There are players of all sizes and play-styles as well as a mix of rookies and returning players to offer Richmond a variety of options when it comes to pairings.
The D-corps will be led by captain Ethan Del Mastro. The Chicago Blackhawks prospect has made quite a name for himself with the Steelheads and with Canada’s world juniors team back in August. Along with likely making a return to the world juniors, the defensively-sound Del Mastro will hope to contribute even more than his 48 points and +34 rating (a rare noteworthy +/- given it was well above any of his teammates) from 2021-22.
Returning alongside Del Mastro will be Chas Sharpe, his likely partner to start the season, Charlie Callaghan, who will be playing in his fourth season with the team, and Dylan Gordon, who can be expected to compete for more opportunity than the 31 games he played in his first OHL season last year. Isaac Enright, acquired from Niagara alongside Struthers, will bring a new face but also some experience as he looks ahead to a full season with a Steelheads team likely to be much stronger than last year’s last-place Ice Dogs.
The new faces on the blue line will be the focus of many scouts’ attention, as 2005-born Finn Harding (drafted in the eighth round of the 2021 OHL draft) and 2006-born hometown kid Parker von Richter (drafted in the third round in 2022) enter the scene on the right side of the ice. Liam Spencer, drafted in the fourth round in 2022, may also get a shot to offer his 6-foot-3 frame to a dynamic defence group this season.
Filling the gaps of the departed Ole Bjorvik-Holm and Kasper Larsen may not be an easy feat for the Steelheads and their young group of defencemen, but there will undoubtedly be opportunities for at least one or two players to make their mark.
By far the most significant potential for a storyline comes between the pipes for the Steelheads, as June’s trade of Joe Ranger to the Sudbury Wolves meant the 2022-23 version of the team would feature an entirely new group of goalies.
The battle for the crease will likely come down to two relatively small goaltenders for the modern game as Alessio Beglieri (listed at 5-foot-11, 170 lbs) and Ryerson Leenders (listed at 6-foot, 155 lbs) enter the scene. Beglieri, the Steelheads selection with the 38th pick in the CHL import draft this summer, is making the move from Biel-Bienne of Switzerland’s U20-Elit league, where he posted a 13-5-2 record and one shutout last season. Meanwhile, Leenders, the 32nd pick from the 2022 OHL draft, is expected to earn a spot as a 16-year-old. Beglieri will likely be the team’s go-to goalie to start the season but Leenders is likely to get his own opportunities to make a name for himself and become an important piece of the future in Mississauga. Also potentially in the fold will be Chazz Nixon, the former Flint Firebirds draft pick who played with the Toronto Jr. Canadiens of the OJHL last year.
While a brand new set of goaltenders will be the most evident example of a very different-looking Steelheads team from last year, the team’s core of returning players will likely be the biggest factor if they are going to contend. Even in a tough Western conference, the Steelheads, led by the likes of Del Mastro, Hardie, Del Bel Belluz and Beck, can realistically expect to be one of the eight (out of 10) teams to make the playoffs. What happens then will come down to what the team is able to build over the course of 68 games.
The Steelheads kick off their regular season on the first night of the OHL season Thursday in Niagara. Their first home game will be Oct. 2 when the Sudbury Wolves make the trip down to the GTA.