A strong training camp against your peers is one thing, but the Sudbury Wolves’ young guns backed it up against a real opponent on Sunday afternoon, doubling the Soo Greyhounds 8-4 at the GFL Memorial Centre in the exhibition opener for both teams.
It was the first hockey game for the Wolves in 536 days, dating back to an 8-0 victory over the Kingston Frontenacs on March 8, 2020, before the world changed. To say that Sunday in the Sault was merely an exhibition game would be a bit misleading, especially given that two drafts’ worth of rookies were finally getting to make their debut.
And they definitely made their mark.
The 2021 first-overall selection, Quentin Musty, followed up a strong training camp with a goal and an assist in his Wolves debut, as did 2020 second-rounder Kocha Delic, while David Goyette, Sudbury’s first pick, 11th overall, in 2020, scored the game-winning goal. The veteran star of the game was overage goalie Mitchell Weeks, who stopped 43 of 47 to allow the offence to do its thing.
Musty and Delic were among six Wolves players to record a goal and an assist, including returnees Jack Thompson, Gio Biondi and Ethan Larmand, along with rookie Ryan Smith. In all, 13 of Sudbury’s 18 skaters recorded at least one point.
Behind the bench for his first game as the Wolves’ new head coach, Craig Duncanson admitted it probably wasn’t the prettiest game, but it was nice to leave town with a victory.
“It was a little scrambly in the first period and it looked like guys had been playing 600 days of summer hockey,” joked Duncanson, the former Wolves captain, first-round NHL pick and longtime coach of the Laurentian Voyageurs men’s hockey team. “But the boys picked it up and it was really cool to get back into it.”
The new coach is feeling pretty lucky to have so much young talent at his disposal.
“It’s a real credit to Rob (Papineau, Wolves general manager) and his staff and the guys who are out watching these kids,” said Duncanson. “I know there’s two years worth of first year players that our guys had their first look at. It really is an impressive group of talent. It was fun to watch. It’s refreshing.”
Both teams sat a number of veterans, with the Soo not dressing three NHL draft picks and three overage candidates, while the Wolves scratched New Jersey first rounder Chase Stillman, their own 2019 first-rounder Landon McCallum, as well as veteran defenceman Liam Ross.
The last time Sudbury fans watched Mitchell Weeks between the pipes, he himself was a rookie, and suddenly now, due to the lost season of 2020-21, the Barrie native is kind of like a seasoned veteran, despite only having 34 OHL games under his belt. He kept the score tied 1-1 after the first period as the Greyhounds outshot the Wolves 13-5 and was rewarded with an offensive outburst from his team with three goals in the second and four in the third.
To keep a goalie as one of your three overagers, they have to be a difference-maker, and that’s exactly what coach Duncanson saw in his 20-year-old netminder on Sunday as his team was outshot 47-36 overall.
“We killed a lot of penalties and I think that’s how they racked up some shots,” said Duncanson, whose team was five for six on the penalty kill and one for two on the power play. “Mitchell Weeks was key in that penalty killing and played real big for us. You don’t win any game without real good goaltending and the guys responded for him.”
Weeks, who finished the 2019-20 season with a 12-12-0-1 record and 4.02 goals-against average, was excited to be back in the crease after such a long layoff.
“It feels good, just good to be playing five on five again,” said Weeks. “I got a couple of games in at camp, but yeah, the first game (against another team) was good. I was happy to get a lot of shots and a lot of action just to get the feel of a game again. A couple of mistakes on my end but it was pre-season so, get those things figured out for the regular season when it matters most.”
Weeks is pumped for the season and hopes to have a great view of all the future stars up front.
“The young guys look real good, all camp they were really flying out there,” boasted Weeks. “Really excited to see what they can do the rest of the regular season because they’ve been looking really good in practice and even in camp they were looking good.”
The Greyhounds got on the board first with a goal from 17-year-old rookie hopeful Landen Hookey at 16:14 of the first period, but the Wolves got one back when Delic scored unassisted at 18:34.
Just 52 seconds into the second period, Delic drew the only assist on the first-ever goal for Musty in a Wolves uniform. Sudbury then blew the game open with a pair of goals 17 seconds apart from Smith at 7:20 and Evan Konyen at 7:37 to make it 4-1. Kosta Manikis assisted on Smith’s goal, while Thompson and Musty had the helpers on Konyen’s marker.
To their credit, the Hounds didn’t go away, and got one late in the second from 2021 first-round pick Justin Cloutier and another early in the third from Jordan D’Intino to cut the lead to 4-3.
But 9:49 into the third period, Goyette scored what would eventually be the game winner to make it 5-3, seemingly forcing the wheels to come off a bit for the Hounds. The Goyette goal was the first of three for Sudbury in a 62-second span, with Larmand scoring at 10:11 and Thompson at 10:51 to increase the lead to 7-3. Gio Bondi scored on the power play at 15:24 to round it out for the Wolves.
Sudbury’s next exhibition action will be on Sept. 17, when they host the Peterborough Petes, the second of six pre-season games on the schedule.
Duncanson doesn’t expect any drastic adjustments based on the first game, but rather a focus on steady improvement in the weeks ahead.
“We’ve had a plan in place for a while,” noted the coach. “We’ll take it step by step. There’s a learning curve – both for the coaching staff and players, we’ll be learning every day together for the next three or four years, or however long these young guys stay here before they move on to the next level. We’ve got a bit of a plan to take advantage of the next month and do a little bit of team building and drill home how we want to play and what kind of character we take on and the systems will fall into that.
“It’ll just be a process we’ll pick away at. We’ll get a little more diligent.”