By: Mitchell Fox
This is the first of two season wrap-up articles. A season takeaways - players edition is on the way
The Mississauga Steelheads saw their season come to an end in disappointing but promising fashion on April 9. With a 5-4 loss in game six of their first-round Ontario Hockey League (OHL) playoff series against the North Bay Battalion, their season ended earlier than they would have hoped, but not without a hint of surprise. The Steelheads took the Battalion to six games and made almost every win difficult, as they had to teams all season.
What’s next for the Steelheads is mostly to be determined, but there is a lot to look back on and forward to.
I have already done my takeaways from that game six loss (and touched on some season-ending takeaways) but here is a breakdown of how Steelheads’ fans can look back on the entire 2022-23 season, from a promising October to a trade deadline firesale to a grind to the finish line.
Trade deadline re-ignites fire from October
With a 7-1 record to start the 2022-23 OHL season, the Steelheads were off and running in as strong a fashion as anyone could have imagined. With Ethan Del Mastro, Owen Beck and Luca Del Bel Belluz leading the way, they filled the net with pucks while helping new goaltenders Alessio Beglieri and Ryerson Leenders keep the rubber in front of them.
When the trout went 0-3 in the final weekend of October, however, it turned out to be a sign of things to come through the second and third months of the season. A 7-15 record (some results were in overtime) through November and December put the Steelheads in a position where the top of the Eastern Conference was likely out of reach and the playoffs were more of a possibility than a given.
The first week of January, however, changed things. A trade for Adam Zidlicky from the Kitchener Rangers started things off, but the sale that followed made the biggest mark. The trades of Beck, Del Mastro and Del Bel Belluz brought in a whole new cast of characters who would have an immense impact on where the Steelheads would go for the rest of the season and how promising their future looks now.
When Zidlicky scored twice in a 5-1 victory over the Barrie Colts (a game in which the three aforementioned NHL prospects were healthy scratches), it was a sign for change in direction. But the direction that they went was not the expected one: the Steelheads went 7-3 in January. They found their knack for scoring and established a defensive scheme suited to a young and dynamic team, while Beglieri and Leenders each found their game after spending some time with various national teams (Beglieri came back strong from the World Juniors, while Leenders only went up from his appearance at the U17 worlds).
February started off similarly, then things settled in for a bumpy but hard-fought road to the playoffs through March. The Steelheads finish as the seventh seed in the East may have been underwhelming compared to October, but was a step-up from the trajectory the team found itself on in December.
A new core, a new season
The Steelheads’ busy and newsworthy trade deadline brought a change in the core of the team. With Del Mastro out of the picture, the captain’s C became available. And did James Hardie and Charlie Callaghan ever grab ahold of it.
Hardie, Callaghan and fellow overage player Kasper Larsen remained part of the team’s core, playing the roles they had played all season as goal-scorer, energy bug and undeniable defensive presence respectively but bringing out parts of their game that may have been overshadowed with the three NHL prospects stealing the show.
Hardie in particular became the star the Steelheads could count on, seemingly scoring in every game as he led a line with Luke Misa and Zander Veccia that could not stay off the scoreboard in January and February. Larsen and Callaghan, along with Chas Sharpe, filled in for Del Mastro not only as leaders but as the defensive stalwarts the Steelheads needed to push for the playoffs.
New players also claimed their spot in the spotlight right off the bat. Zidlicky scored twice in his Steelheads debut, while Angus MacDonell, Justin DeZoete and Jack Van Volsen each had their first goals in their first appearance in blue-and-white on Jan. 9. Porter Martone also had his first assist that night. MacDonell and Martone in particular would become key pieces for the Steelheads in the back half of the season, especially as the team’s scoring slowed down. MacDonell was probably their best player at times in March, and the Zidlicky-MacDonell-Martone line became coach James Richmond’s go-to in a few playoff games.
From there, the team continued its battle to the playoffs while each of the players, new and otherwise, found their roles within the team. Despite some bumps along the way, a young squad led by some established veterans found its place as the team that could make (almost) every game difficult for their opponents, right up to the final week of the regular season.
It all came down to six games
In the end, the Steelheads did get to the playoffs, and made their mark. That is about all most fans and media would have expected from such a young team with just one NHL prospect (Kai Schwindt, who is now with the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League for their playoff run) taking on a very strong Eastern Conference.
From the trade deadline up to the playoffs, there was a sense that the Steelheads could surprise teams if they found their best level and style of play when it was most crucial. When they got the North Bay Battalion as an opponent, that sense faltered a bit: the Steelheads had lost their last four games of the regular season, while the second-seed Battalion were riding an 11-game winning streak.
Though game one saw the Battalion assert their dominance with a 5-1 victory, the first and third periods of that game were nowhere near as lopsided as the second. When a 4-3 comeback victory in game two (on the road, nonetheless) saw the Steelheads rear their head as a more-than-worthy opponent, it became clear they intended to do much more than just compete.
Game three ended with a 5-2 Battalion victory, but the scoreline did not reflect the game. An empty-net goal and a couple of bad bounces sealed their fate, but the Steelheads were able to impose the game they wanted at times and had strong special teams play. That would lead into game four, where the Steelheads controlled the pace of play and puck possession for most of an impressive 4-1 victory in front of home fans.
Game five may have gone in the opposite direction and the result of game six reflected a rough start for the Steelheads, but games two and four and especially the third period of game six with their season on the line are undeniably the games the Steelheads will want to focus on and take away from in building a contender next year and into the future. They showed a real ability to keep opposing teams (and goaltenders) on their toes.
Overall, six games brought a new air of optimism to Mississauga. A fairly lopsided matchup on paper played out as a much more even series, and raises questions about what the Steelheads could have done if they did not hit the post in the final seconds of game six. We will never know if they could have gone further into the playoffs, but they showed they could compete with the best.
The potential is undeniable
One thing that was evident in the playoffs but also throughout the season was that the Steelheads have a young core to be heralded both now and in the future.
Porter Martone and Jack Van Volsen may be the obvious ones to talk about because of their pedigree from the OHL draft in 2022, being parts of the returns for key players like Del Mastro and Beck and their play through the playoffs, but there are a lot of young players to talk about.
Martone’s six points in the playoffs showed that he could be the next big goal-scorer for the Steelhe
ads, but Angus MacDonell’s performance since the trade deadline and in the playoffs was similarly impressive. The 2023 NHL Draft-eligible center had 24 points in 31 games with the Steelheads, including 17 goals (he had 17 points in 33 games with the Sarnia Sting) and five points in the playoffs, showing his knack for putting pucks in the net when given greater opportunity.
Zidlicky is the Steelheads’ other player ranked on NHL Central Scouting’s draft rankings. The 17-year-old son of former NHLer Marek Zidlicky’s 12 points in 32 games with the Steelheads (and 24 points for the season) may not be a lot, but the speed and skill that he showed at moments proved his worth this year and beyond.
On top of this, Luke Misa was already a centerpiece for the Steelheads and emerged as a possible first line center for the next couple of years, Lucas Karmiris’ consistent progression all season turned him into a reliable two-way forward near the top of the lineup and Parker von Richter found a role as possibly the next star defenceman to come through the Steelheads’ system. Filling out the 2005-born players are Mason Zebeski and Finn Harding, who were not always perfect, but each saw immense growth throughout the season, becoming not just locks in the lineup but difference-makers.
There is a lot for Steelheads faithful to look forward to with a young group that has shown its ability to fight hard to the end of a tough playoff matchup. There are certainly steps to be taken in filling out the games of each and every one of these players and shaping the team to play a more tidy, structured and reliable game every night, but that should come with growth and time as a team.
Three overagers made their mark in Mississauga
In closing out the Steelheads’ season, it cannot be understated how integral a part the team’s three overage players played all season long, but especially in the back half of the season.
James Hardie, Charlie Callaghan and Kasper Larsen each took on leadership roles from day one of the season, but that was boosted when Hardie and Callaghan were named co-captains after the trade deadline. Their play on the ice was just as important to the team’s results and ability to battle to the end.
Hardie really stole the show, breaking a number of records over the course of the season. He first broke the Steelheads’ franchise records for career goals and points on Jan. 13, then rode that to (according to the team) 10 franchise records over the course of the season, including setting the record for playoff powerplay goals by a Steelhead in game two.
Hardie’s season cemented his position as one of the best Steelheads ever, so it will be a point of interest for Steelheads’ fans to keep an eye on him as he takes his next step with the Cincinatti Cyclones of the ECHL (his signing there was announced on April 11).
While Callaghan and Larsen still have to find out exactly what is in store for them beyond the OHL, their experience, growth and legacy as Steelheads should help propel them through the future.
The friends we made along the way
I just put this here because it sounded cool…
Just kidding. I just wanted to say a huge thank you to anyone that has read any of my content this year. It is a privilege to get to cover this team and write all of these articles and tweet all the far-too-long game updates I do, so I am grateful for every bit of viewership I might get and every opportunity and piece of advice I have gotten from all of those around me in the press box, post-game interviews and more.
This is not the end of my coverage by any means, but it felt necessary to say thanks for the memories.