Bur­nell out to end free-agent drought

BULL­DOGS TRAIN­ING CAMP

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - TERI PECOSKIE

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.

GARY YOKOYAMA, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

Luke Croucher has his eyes set on mak­ing the Hamil­ton Bull­dogs ros­ter.

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