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Saginaw goes all-in as hosts of the Memorial Cup

Saginaw Spirit Celebrate Saginaw Spirit Celebrate - Saginaw Spirit (@SpiritHockey)

The 104th Memorial Cup is set to begin in Saginaw, Mich. on Friday with the entirety of the tournament available on TSN.

The Ontario Hockey League champion London Knights, Quebec Maritimes Junior Hockey League champion Drummondville Voltigeurs, Western Hockey League champion Moose Jaw Warriors, and the host team Saginaw Spirit will compete for the right to be named the champion of the Canadian Hockey League.

With analysis from TSN Director of Scouting Craig Button, we will profile each team leading up to the tournament opener on Friday.

The Saginaw Spirit were presented as hosts of the 2024 Memorial Cup last March, the first time the tournament will be contested in an American OHL market.

Knowing that they would be in the tournament, the Spirit went all out to make sure they were ready for the competition. Saginaw was the busiest team around the trade deadline, acquiring veteran pieces like forwards Owen Beck and Josh Bloom, defencemen Rodwin Dionicio and Jorian Donovan, and goaltender Nolan Lalonde  to go along with a strong core already in place to prepare for this tournament.

The moves set the team up well as they finished with a 50-16-2 record, the second-best mark during the OHL’s regular season. In the playoffs, they swept the Owen Sound Attack in the first round before going up against some stiffer competition.

Saginaw barely escaped the second round of the playoffs by defeating a very strong Soo Greyhounds team in seven games, but then fell to the eventual J. Ross Robertson Cup champion London Knights in six games in the Western Conference Championship Series.

With the ultimate prize still within reach, the Spirit seek redemption in the Memorial Cup and begin play against the Moose Jaw Warriors on Friday.

Veteran Presence

The Spirit went above and beyond to surround young stars like forward Michael Misa and defenceman Zayne Parekh with a lot of veteran leadership who have been in similar situations.

Their biggest move was acquiring Montreal Canadiens prospect Owen Beck from Peterborough after he helped the Petes to an OHL championship last year. The 6-foot centre registered 17 goals and 51 points in 32 regular season games after joining Saginaw and added four goals and 14 points in the playoffs.

“Beck has always been able to do what is the hallmark of success and it has translated to higher levels,” said Button. “When the games get harder, the competition is more difficult, and the challenges become bigger, he beats them with his overall determined smart play.”

The team also re-acquired Bloom, who had spent time in the Saginaw organizations earlier in his career.

Bloom began the 2022-23 season as the captain of the Spirit before he was dealt to the North Bay Battalion in November. The Vancouver Canucks prospect opened the season playing games in the American Hockey League and the ECHL before the Spirit signed him back in January.

Upon his return, Bloom recorded 17 goals and 40 points in 34 regular season games and contributed four goals and 11 points in the playoffs.

Centre Matyas Sapovaliv is another key piece to the Saginaw puzzle who provides support for both the offence and defence. The Vegas Golden Knights draft pick is a smart, strong, assertive player that creates many advantages for the Spirit.

“He’s going to be a strong third-line centre at the NHL level like Adam Lowry [of the Winnipeg Jets]”, said Button. “He takes pressure off the defencemen in the defensive zone because he plays a big, strong, heavy game. Like Beck, he plays the game the right way.”

Deep Defence

Led by captain Braden Hache, Saginaw’s defence is one of the deepest in the tournament.

Hache, a Florida Panthers draft pick, was acquired by the Spirit prior to the season from the Barrie Colts and was named team captain. The 6-foot-3 left-shot defenceman isn’t known for his offence, but plays very hard defensively.

“He may not be sexy, but he is incredibly important [to the Spirit]” said Button. “He gives you every single thing he has and he’s a high-level competitor. When you have that type of leadership on the backend, it’s a key to success.”

To get the puck up the ice, the Spirit are led by a duo of Dionicio and Parekh, who won the Max Kaminsky Trophy as the league’s best defenceman.

Dionicio was acquired from the Windsor Spitfires in November and went on to record 20 goals and 53 points in 44 regular season games in Saginaw. The Anaheim Ducks prospect added five goals and 17 points in the playoffs before they were eliminated.

“The Ducks have a heck of a player coming [in Dionicio], I love the way he plays,” said Button. “He might have been a diamond in the rough, but he’s been polished up nicely.”

The Spirit solidified their defence even more in January when they acquired Jorian Donovan from the Brantford Bulldogs. Donovan, an Ottawa Senators prospect, helped the Bulldogs win an OHL Championship in 2022 and finished second at the Memorial Cup.

The 6-foot-2 left-shot defenceman recorded four goals and 18 points in 32 regular season games with Saginaw and contributed three goals and nine points in the playoffs.

“With Parekh, Dionicio, Hache, and Donovan, that’s a really good top-four,” said Button. “When you have those top for defenders, they can ply a lot of minutes, play heavy, and you can put them in a lot of situations.

“Saginaw does a really good job of utilizing the depth of their defence to carry play.”

Tandem Goaltending

The Spirit rely on a pair of goalies in Andrew Oke and Nolan Lalonde.

Oke started the majority of games for Saginaw, registering a 29-10-1 record with a 2.89 goals-against average and .890 save percentage in the regular season. The 6-foot-2 netminder was in net to begin the playoffs and swept the Attack in the first round, but was injured during Game 1 of their series against the Greyhounds in Round 2 and never returned.

Lalonde was acquired by the Spirit as part of a three-team trade involving the Erie Otters and Sarnia Sting in October in order to solidify Saginaw’s goaltending situation. Lalonde started 36 games in the regular season for Saginaw, going 21-8-2 with a 3.31 GAA and .869 save percentage.

After taking over for Oke in the second round of the playoffs, Lalonde went 5-7 the rest of the way with a 2.79 GAA and .893 save percentage.

“It was outstanding foresight by general manager Dave Drinkill [to acquire Lalonde], “said Button, “Saginaw knew they were going to the Memorial Cup and wanted to give themselves strength and balance in the net and that’s what Lalonde has provided.”

Button believes that the Spirit could turn to either goaltender if Oke is healthy for the start of the tournament, but each of them have their own strengths.

“Oke is a very talented goaltender,” said Button. “He’s got size, athletic and technical ability and he’s got presence. Lalonde doesn’t have the same stature in net as Oke, but he’s a competitor. He digs in and tries to find a way to keep the puck out of the net in some way, some how.”

Players to Watch: Zayne Parekh and Michael Misa

Zayne Parekh is the most dynamic player on the Spirit’s roster.

The 6-foot right-shot defenceman led all CHL defencemen with 33 goals and 96 points, just ahead of Kitchener Rangers defenceman Hunter Brzustewicz and Portland Winterhawks defenceman Luca Cagnoni.

Parekh has the ability to control play at a high skill level from the backend without sacrificing anything on defence.

“He’s Erik Karlsson-like,” said Button. “Parekh is a dynamic player who can make something out of seemingly nothing. He has all the things you’re looking for in a defenceman.”

The spotlight will be a little bit brighter on Parekh on the Memorial Cup stage as he also prepares for the 2024 NHL Draft in Las Vegas. The Nobleton, Ont., native is projected to be a high lottery pick and Button ranks him at No. 5 on his most recent draft list.

Fans of the 2025 NHL Draft class will be interested to watch Michael Misa on junior hockey’s biggest stage.

Misa became the sixth player in OHL history to receive exceptional player status in April of 2022, joining John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, Connor McDavid, Sean Day, and Shane Wright.

The 6-foot winger finished third on the team in scoring this season with 29 goals and 75 points and added four goals and 11 points in the playoffs.

“The skills that stand out for him are that he’s slippery quick and he recognizes where to be open and where the opportunities are going to be,” said Button. “He’s smart, gifted, opportunistic, and he’s and excellent prospect for the 2025 draft.”

Button points out the biggest contribution to Misa’s success so far in the OHL has been that Saginaw surrounded him with veteran leadership to not feel as much of a burden of his status.

“The most beautiful thing for him is that he doesn’t have to feel all the weight on his shoulders alone,” said Button. “He has so many veterans around him and that allows the offence to be spread out, which is really important.

“Being around a veteran group is only going to help him later in his career because he will benefit by learning the leadership qualities that the veterans are now showing.”