Scouts Find Quality for the Whalers in Late Rounds of the Draft

May 03, 2011 - 10:59 EDT

The Ontario Hockey League’s annual draft, known formally at the Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection – happens this Saturday starting at 9am. 

The draft can be followed online at

It’s interesting that Kyle Dubas – the new general manager of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds – pointed towards the Whalers as an organization to emulate.

“I look at some of the best junior programs across Canada — Kelowna, Brandon, Plymouth, Guelph, those are pretty similar-sized markets to ours,” Dubas recently told the Toronto Star. “And those teams have been good all the time, and that’s because they have a culture of sustained success.”

Several OHL teams have a history of doing well in the draft, especially late in the process. It’s a day for the scouts, who spend a season evaluating talent in their assigned areas. 

Part of the sustained success for the Whalers – who have made the OHL playoffs 20 straight years – has been the ability to find talent late in any particular draft. You may never recognize Plymouth scouts Don Harkins, Rick Boyle, Randy Fitzgerald, Gary Kay, Dave McParlan, Mike Oliverio, Pat Peake Sr., Gino Pisellini, Rob Watson and Tom Watson – as well as their predecessors - but they do have an influence, especially in the later rounds.

Here are a few examples:

DAN PAWLACZYK: Taken in the 11th round (273rd overall) of the 1993 Draft, Pawlaczyk (from Troy) was a big-time scorer for the Little Caesars midget program. The Whalers – then known as the Detroit Jr. Red Wings – were primed to take a run at the OHL title at the time and had plenty of offense.

Pawlaczyk turned out to be the kind of player who could do a little bit of everything – score, kill penalties, play a defensive role and in general blend in to a winning program. He scored 24 goals with 28 assists for 52 points in 58 games during the Jr. Wings run to the OHL Championship in 1995 and continued to play consistently throughout his OHL career. 

Pawlaczyk finished his OHL career as an overage in Sarnia in 1996-97 and played two seasons of professional hockey before retiring.

ROBERT ESCHE: Selected in the 10th round (169th overall) of the 1995 Draft, Esche started the 1995-96 season as a rookie behind veteran Darryl Foster, but when the Whalers got off to a slow 2-6-0 start, then Head Coach Pete DeBoer decided to give Esche a start in Kitchener, which resulted in a 6-3 Plymouth victory and the start of a run of 15-1-1 over 17 games. 

Veteran Mike Minard was acquired from Barrie to help Esche and the Whalers went on to a 40-22-4 record in 1995-96.

Esche established himself as one of the better goaltenders in the OHL at the time, played for Team USA in the World Junior Championships in 1997 and 1998 and went on to have a productive career in the National Hockey League. After playing for Phoenix and Philadelphia in the NHL, Esche has played the last three seasons in Russia in the Kontinental Hockey League.

SHAUN FISHER: Selected in the 21st round (290th overall) of the 1996 Draft, Fisher (Southgate) made his Whalers debut during the 1997-98 and quickly established himself as a smart, puck-rushing defenseman. Fisher enjoyed his best season with the Whalers as an overage in 1999-00 when he scored 17 goals with 49 assists for 66 points in 59 games and helped Plymouth to the OHL regular season title. Fisher led all OHL defenseman in scoring in the 2000 Playoffs with four goals and 21 assists for 25 points in 23 games.

Fisher has played in minor pro since leaving the Whalers.

JUSTIN WILLIAMS, ANDRE ROBICHAUD, and DAMIAN SURMA: All three players were taken in the 1998 Draft. Williams was selected in the seventh round (125th overall), Robichaud in the tenth round (191st overall), and Surma was taken three picks after Robichaud.

All three helped contribute to the Whalers’ success. Williams led the 2000 playoffs in scoring with 14 goals and 16 assists for 30 points as Plymouth went to the OHL Championship series before losing in seven games to the Barrie Colts. On a team filled with shut down defensemen like Libor Ustrnul and Jared Newman, Robichaud played a steady, intelligent game. Surma (Lincoln Park) started with the Whalers as a rookie in 1998-99 as a utility player without an assigned role and played very well. In 1999-00, Surma finished second behind Williams in team scoring with 34 goals with 44 assists for 78 points in 66 games.

Williams was supposed to return to Plymouth in 2000-01, but made the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers and has been in the NHL ever since. Surma played through the 2001-02 season and is tenth overall on the Whalers all-time scoring list with 105 goals and 120 assists for 225 points over 241 games.

Robichaud was traded to Sarnia as an overage in 2001-02 and played five seasons of Canadian Collegiate hockey with Dalhousie and the University of Toronto.

Surma was drafted by Carolina in the sixth round (174th overall) in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft and scored a goal in his NHL debut. He played one other NHL game (and added an assist), but he’s played most of his professional career in minor pro and split this season between Evansville and Dayton of the Central Hockey League.

JASON BACASHIHUA: Originally set to go the University of Michigan, Bacashihua (Garden City) was taken by Plymouth in the 18th round (364th overall) of the 2000 OHL Draft. Bacashihua changed his mind about Michigan and played in 2001-02 for the Whalers, posting a 2.34 goals against average and .921 save percentage over 46 games. 

Originally taken in the first round (26th overall) by Dallas in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, Bacashihua has played in 38 games in the NHL and has moved between the NHL, American Hockey League and East Coast Hockey over his pro career.

DAVID LIFFITON: Considered a project when he was selected by the Whalers in the 16th round (326th overall) of the 2000 OHL Draft, Liffiton (pictured) improved every season in Plymouth, posting a career-high five goals with 11 assists for 16 points and 139 PIM’s in 64 games in 2002-03. Selected by Colorado in the second round (63rd overall) of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Liffiton was acquired by the New York Rangers and played one game in New York in 2005-06.

Liffiton was re-signed by Colorado last summer and played four games with the Avalanche in 2010-11.

JOHN VIGILANTE: Taken by the Whalers in the 11th round (209th overall) of the 2001 OHL Draft, Vigilante didn’t take the college route that his brother, Mike, did. Vigilante (Dearborn) became a well-rounded player who is one of the most popular players in recent memory to wear a Plymouth uniform. He finished his career with the Whalers as captain in 2005-06 with 77 points in 55 games. Vigilante is seventh on the Whalers all-time scoring list with 246 points in 254 games.

After leaving the Whalers, Vigilante played five seasons in the American Hockey League before playing in Italy in 2010-11.

RYAN NIE: Selected by Plymouth in the ninth round (179th overall) of the 2001 OHL Draft, Nie had to wait for an opportunity with Paul Drew and Jeff Weber getting the bulk of the minutes in goal. Nie played 20 games in 2003-04 before becoming the lead goaltender in 2004-05. He continued the following season in Plymouth before being traded to Toronto for Justin Peters. Nie played in exactly 100 games for the Whalers – not bad for a ninth round draft choice.

Nie has enjoyed a productive career is minor pro and is currently playing with Kalamazoo of the ECHL.

ZACK SHEPLEY: Taken in the 10th round (199th overall) of the 2003 Draft, Shepley turned into a stay-at-home, shutdown defenseman for the Whalers during their Championship season of 2006-07. 

Shepley played briefly this season with the Kalamazoo Wings of the ECHL before moving to Wilfrid Laurier University in Canadian Collegiate hockey.

ANDREW FOURNIER: Like others in this list, it took Fournier a while to get going in Plymouth after he was selected in the 11th round (219th overall) in 2003. Fournier scored just 20 goals and 38 points during the Whalers Championship season in 2006-07, but nobody scored bigger goals to help win games. Fournier completed his Plymouth career in 2007-08 as Whalers captain and finished 19th overall in franchise scoring with 168 points.

Fournier is playing this season with the Kalamazoo Wings of the ECHL.

BRETT BELLEMORE: Selected by the Whalers is the 12th round (233rd overall) of the 2004 OHL Draft, Bellemore was a project who improved every season in Plymouth. Bellemore led the Canadian Hockey League in plus/minus during the Whalers championship year in 2006-07 with +48.

Bellemore was drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes in the 6th round of the 2007 NHL Draft. He’s currently playing with the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL.

KAINE GELDART: Selected by the Whalers in the 12th round (229th overall) of the 2005 OHL Draft, nobody forechecked harder than Geldart, who played far bigger than his size would normally indicate. At the time, Plymouth head coach Greg Stefan called Geldart (as a compliment), “My little pro….nobody plays harder…..” 

Geldart was traded to Kingston in 2009-10 as an overage and played in 2010-11 at Brock University.

TYLER G. BROWN: Taken by the Whalers in the 11th round (219th overall) in the 2007 OHL Draft, Brown always plays the game with speed. Voted the Western Conference’s Best Penalty Killer by coaches in the 2010-11 OHL Coaches Poll, Brown slowly added offense to his game. Brown capped an excellent Whalers career by being named the team’s Playoff MVP this spring, while signing with the Philadelphia Flyers.

COLIN MacDONALD: Selected by Plymouth in the 14th round (270th overall) of the 2007 Draft, MacDonald may be the most improved player in the OHL over the last two seasons. He logged major minutes for Plymouth this season as a stay-at-home defenseman and will be expected to continue to mature in 2011-12. Intelligent and responsible off the ice, MacDonald carries the same demeanor on the ice.

Who’s next for the Whalers?  We’ll find out on Saturday.