By: Mitchell Fox
Friday, Jan. 5 – 4-0 W @ Kingston Frontenacs
Saturday, Jan. 6 – 5-3 L VS London Knights
Sunday, Jan. 7 – 4-2 L @ Brantford Bulldogs
The Mississauga Steelheads kicked off 2024 with a win but were unable to close out the weekend positively against two strong opponents.
On Friday, the Steelheads took down the Kingston Frontenacs 4-0. With many of their usual players back in the lineup, they came out flying, getting contributions from multiple lines and Ryerson Leenders’ third shutout of the season.
On Saturday, they lost a dramatic battle with the London Knights as Denver Barkey put on a show and multiple bad bounces made Mississauga’s solid offensive output obsolete.
The next day, the Steelheads engaged the Brantford Bulldogs in a tough battle, falling in the last ten minutes thanks to a bad bounce and an empty net goal.
Here are five takeaways from a few Steelheads games over the last week before the OHL Trade Deadline.
Full lineup shows how dynamic the Steelheads’ offence can be
A key theme for the Steelheads in recent weeks has been their short lineup, with injuries and other absences keeping as many as six players out of the lineup at once. This week, though, three of those players returned to the lineup: Angus MacDonell, Lucas Karmiris and Marc Boudreau.
MacDonell’s return from concussion protocol provides a big boost. He is the Steelheads’ number one center and provides offensive flare – namely on the powerplay – while being one of their better penalty-killers and faceoff-takers. He had one assist on Sunday.
The return of Karmiris and Boudreau emphasized how dynamic and deep the Steelheads’ offence can be. The first two goals on Friday came off of rush chances generated by Boudreau and Karmiris, as they used their speed along the wing to get the puck to the front of the net for Jack Van Volsen and Mason Zebeski respectively. Both players continued to do that on Saturday, with Boudreau showing some surprising puck skills and Karmiris filling out a solid two-way line with Zebeski and Zander Veccia. Karmiris also scored on Sunday.
The Steelheads looked considerably faster, more skilled and cohesive with their lineup back together and should look even better with Adam Zidlicky back from the World Juniors and Dean Loukus getting more comfortable after being acquired on Friday. When Zidlicky returns (with a bronze medal in hand), he will likely push Boudreau down to the fourth line and provide even more speed along the wall.
Adding Jakub Fibigr back to the blue line will also provide a consistent offensive presence from the back end and allow Parker von Richter, Finn Harding and Reed Gee to focus on what they do best.
Whether he is done making trades or not, Steelheads head coach and general manager James Richmond is looking forward to getting his two Czechs back.
“Those are pretty good pickups at the trade deadline,” he said after the game on Saturday.
Injuries and suspensions are almost sure to happen as the season goes on but for them to come around as frequently as they did in December for the Steelheads feels unlikely. If they can keep this lineup intact, they could continue as a serious contender in the Eastern Conference.
New Steelhead Dean Loukus provides steady presence
On Friday, the Steelheads acquired Dean Loukus from the Saginaw Spirit in exchange for a sixth-round OHL Draft pick in 2024 and a ninth-round pick in 2027. Loukus is an overage player, meaning the move filled the Steelheads’ remaining overage slot and cleared one for the Spirit, who are getting Josh Bloom back from the Vancouver Canucks organization.
Loukus, a Michigan product, played four seasons in Saginaw. After quick travel and likely still getting acclimated, he made his Steelheads debut on Saturday on home ice against the Knights, a tough first test.
Richmond said Loukus had a strong game on Saturday and is going to be a big acquisition for the Steelheads.
“He does some detailed things that are really smart,” he said of the 20-year-old. “An older guy in our room, it'll help us.”
Richmond said the Steelheads were tempted to make moves with all of the players out for the last few games, but he waited and got lucky when Saginaw had to move an overage player to bring in Bloom.
“There were a bunch of guys being offered to us but I tried to stay patient,” he said. “We lost some games there because we were shorthanded but I wanted to add the right piece.”
The Loukus acquisition was a testament to how the young Steelheads have fared this season.
“I'm really happy with the way our guys have played this year,” Richmond said on Saturday. “We are the youngest team in the league and we should be at the bottom four. That's where all the experts picked us. So we're doing alright.”
Loukus did get an assist on Saturday, as Jack Van Volsen picked up the puck after Loukus’ shot was blocked and fired it into the back of the Knights’ net.
He may not have taken people’s breath away but Loukus was sound on both sides of the puck and created a few high-danger chances with his smart positioning and decisions with the puck.
Steelheads need to avoid costly mistakes
The Steelheads shut out the Frontenacs on Friday – with help from Ryerson Leenders – and were able to hold off the Knights’ offence for portions of Saturday’s game but their own mistakes and some bad bounces ultimately led to the loss.
Two of the Knights’ goals were strange bounces. Jacob Julien scored with a dump-in off the end-boards that ricocheted, hit Leenders in the back and found its way into the net and later, Sam Dickinson’s point shot hit one or two bodies in front before getting by the Steelheads’ netminder. The game-winning goal on Sunday also came on a bad bounce, with Calvin Crombie’s pass to the front hitting Angus MacDonell’s stick.
The nature of those goals shows just how costly other mistakes in the game can be – you never know when a bad bounce might put you behind in the game.
The biggest issue for the Steelheads on Saturday was dealing with the puck in front of their own net. The first Knights goal involved a loose puck in the slot, while the third involved Parker von Richter misplaying the puck onto the stick of Easton Cowan. Dickinson’s goal came after he knocked down Stevie Leskovar’s attempt to flip the puck out of the zone from the slot.
The Bulldogs’ goals on Sunday, meanwhile, were all scored tight to the net, though one was off the rush.
Richmond said discipline, a recurring theme this season, was an issue on Saturday, as reflected in five first-period penalties.
“When we are on the PK that much, it drains your legs and you make mistakes because your brain’s not working,” he said.
“We weren't awful today, but we weren't as good as we were last night,” Richmond added, noting London is a high-end team.
Perhaps as a result of facing two of the league’s top teams with strong forechecks, the Steelheads were just too frantic in their own zone, both with and without the puck. Richmond talks often about how young his team is and their need to be disciplined with the puck, so it is fair to guess dealing with pucks in the slot could be a focus in the coming weeks.
Mississauga gets a sense of where they stand against London, Brantford
In many ways, the London Knights were a perfect opponent for the Steelheads to play a handful of days before the OHL Trade Deadline.
Mississauga is a young team, featuring just a handful of 2003 and 2004-born players alongside seven NHL draft-eligible players and a few players not eligible for one or two more years. The Knights, on the other hand, have several highly-touted NHL-drafted prospects – including Oliver Bonk, Easton Cowan and Denver Barkey – and have the experience and skill to be an unquestionable contender in the Western Conference.
The Knights have a formidable offence – with Barkey’s exceptional game on the second line as proof – and their powerplay is lethal, while they also have defencemen of all varieties to provide a strong base. The Steelheads kept up with them and bad bounces were a factor in Saturday’s result, but the differences were noticeable at times.
The difference between the two teams accentuates the direction the Steelheads likely have to take through the trade deadline. Many teams are adding high-end players for a championship run but the Steelheads are in a position where they should not jeopardize their future for short-term gains. They are succeeding so far this year but will be better next year and possibly even better the year after that if they keep things intact.
“We're not as old as them, so we don't have the draft guys,” Richmond said of the Knights. “We will when we get of age. Our guys are pretty good, they're just younger.”
The other two games of the weekend were also important for showing where Mississauga stands. The Steelheads engaged in a close battle with the Bulldogs, who also sit near the top of the Eastern Conference, while they made fairly easy work of the Frontenacs, whose acquisition of Jax Dubois on Sunday showed a need to add to truly contend. The Knights are surely to add at the deadline, while the Bulldogs, like the Steelheads, might be more likely to be conservative buyers.
This Week’s Three Standouts
1. Jack Van Volsen
Jack Van Volsen continued to stay hot this week after making it into my takeaways and standouts the last two weeks.
He scored twice on Friday, once on the powerplay and once on the rush at five-on-five, and followed it up with the Steelheads’ first goal on Saturday.
Van Volsen is not only finding the back of the net but playing better all over the ice. He seems more engaged and involved, as he is going to high-danger areas more often and taking a lot more shots. He set a season-high with five shots on goal on Friday, which was his fifth straight game with multiple shots.
Richmond said Van Volsen was “deferring all the time” before and is now shooting more and getting to the middle of the ice, as well as putting in strong effort defensively.
“Harder defending, you have the puck more. The more you have the puck, the more chances you get to score,” he explained. “He's starting to turn it around, yeah.”
2. Luke Misa
After two quieter – but still good – weeks, Misa showed some game-breaking ability in all three games this week, getting on the scoresheet in all three.
He scored and had an assist on Friday, becoming the first NHL Draft-eligible OHLer to reach 50 points this season. He added an assist with a smart stop-up play on Porter Martone’s snipe on Saturday and scored again on Sunday, finishing off a three-on-one rush.
Along with his obvious speed, Misa’s hockey IQ and playmaking ability were clear all weekend, making a first line with MacDonell and Martone look like a top-tier line in the league. With the addition of Loukus and the return of a refreshed Kamiris, the Steelheads will be happy to keep Miss on the first-line wing where he can be his best.
3. Lucas Karmiris
I have to mention Ryerson Leenders because he was given a big task this week with Jack Ivankovic out of the lineup due to injury, playing all three games in the three-game weekend. He had an exceptional 29-save shutout on Friday and made several highlight-reel saves. That said, Karmiris gets the nod here.
Karmiris made his return from an injury and looked almost like a new player. He was moving up the ice with speed and pulling off dekes through the neutral zone, while also continuing to be a hard worker on the backcheck, in the defensive zone and on the penalty kill.
Karmiris had a point in each game this weekend, including a goal in his hometown of Brantford. His best play, though, was a saucer pass to Zander Veccia for the Steelheads’ third goal on Saturday. It was a flashier play than typical for Karmiris but shows the tricks he has up his sleeve.
“[Karmiris] had a great game last night, he was really good again today,” Richmond said simply of the 17-year-old on Saturday.
The Steelheads will be glad if Van Volsen and Karmiris continue to improve and provide the third-line scoring depth they might have otherwise added through the trade deadline. They can still add in the next couple of days, but they have to be glad to have in-house options.