Burnell out to end free-agent drought
BULLDOGS TRAINING CAMP
Since the Bulldogs moved to Hamilton at the start of the 2015-16 season, no free agents have ever played their way onto the roster at training camp.
Owen Burnell wants to change that.
The 19-year-old forward from Caledonia is confident his experience with the Jr. B Ancaster Avalanche could help him end the drought. Burnell is among nine free agents — that is, players who are either undrafted or unsigned by the Bulldogs or another OHL club — fighting for a spot on the team this season.
The tryouts started at FirstOntario Centre Tuesday.
“The jump from minor hockey to junior — a lot of these guys haven’t done that and it’s definitely a big one,” he said. “So I’m just trying to use my experience from the past three years in Ancaster to my advantage.”
Unlike the other free agents at camp, Burnell was drafted to the OHL — in 2014 by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He didn’t play for them, though. After he failed to make the squad as a 16-year-old, the Soo cut ties.
At that point, it would have been easy for the soft-spoken seventh rounder to give up. But he didn’t.
“I want to play professional hockey and I just kind of kept that in the back of my mind,” he said.
“One thing might not work out, but that doesn’t mean it’s over,” he added. “So I just kept working hard.”
It paid off. Last season, the Avalanche captain notched 22 goals and 26 assists in 38 outings — and the Bulldogs took notice. They called him up for two games in February and then called him back with an invitation to camp, where he’s quickly making an impression.
Following his first scrimmage Wednesday, head coach John Gruden called the five-foot-10, 176pound Burnell “intriguing” and said he liked the way he played. He also said he looked comfortable and “like he’s been here for a while” — and that, he noted, is a good thing.
“He just wants an opportunity and he seems like he’s really taking advantage of that. I thought he looked outstanding this morning.”
On top of Burnell, six forwards (Spencer Lapointe, Ben Woodhouse, Luke Croucher, Brett Fisher, Adam Kozlowski and Jared Froese) and two defencemen (Calen McPhee and Orie Mainolfi) are attending camp as free agents. Steve Staios will be tracking them closely.
“It’s an opportunity for them,” said the Bulldogs president and general manager. “We want these players to jump out at us for positive plays and compete level and all that stuff.”
With 19 returning players at camp in addition to several signed prospects, the reality is that making it in the lineup as a free agent is unlikely. However, with the annual Black and Gold game still to play Thursday, Burnell and the others will have at least one more chance to impress.
Gruden isn’t counting anyone out. “There’s a first time for everything, right?” he said. “If a kid goes out there and we believe he’s going to help this organization win, Steve will sign him.”
The Black and Gold game gets underway at 10:30 a.m. at FirstOntario Centre and is open to the public. The Bulldogs are expected to announce their first round of cuts Thursday afternoon. NOTES: Jack Hanley didn’t skate Wednesday. The Bulldogs said the 19-year-old defenceman is sick. … Veteran forwards Will Bitten and Matt Strome each had four goals in two scrimmages — a camp high. Zack Jackson, Dylan D’Agostino, Arthur Kaliyev and Connor McMichael notched three apiece, while Evan McIntyre, Jake Murray, Derek Seguin and Isaac Nurse all scored twice.
Luke Croucher has his eyes set on making the Hamilton Bulldogs roster.