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EHM Experiments: Putting the Chicago Steel in the OHL

The Chicago Steel were arguably one of the best junior teams in North America in 2019-20. How would they have done if they were in the Ontario Hockey League? We will find out in this week’s Eastside Hockey Manager experiment.

USHL Fall Classic - Day 2
Imagine the Steel in the O instead of the U.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

When the Coronavirus pandemic shut down junior hockey across North America, it is arguable that the most dominant team was outside of Canada. The Chicago Steel of the United States Hockey League had their season end with an astonishing record of 41-7-1-0 for a point percentage of 84.7%. They were on a thirteen game winning streak when the USHL ended 2019-20. The team won 40 of their 41 wins in regulation or overtime. The Steel had a team goal differential of +106 and they scored 58 more goals the second highest scoring team in the league (the USNTDP squad). By far, they were the first team in the league to clinch a playoff spot - and no one in the league was close. Sure, there were teams head and shoulders above the rest in the other junior leagues such as the Ottawa ‘67s But even they were not as dominant as the Chicago Steel were within their own league in 2019-20.

This raised a question in my mind: What if the 2019-20 Steel played in the Ontario Hockey League? Thanks to Eastside Hockey Manager and the EHM Database Editor, we can answer that question.

The Experiment

Take the 2019-20 Chicago Steel roster and place them in the Ontario Hockey League Midwest Division, replacing the Erie Otters. Observe how they perform over the next few seasons.

The Approach

The original idea for this experiment was just to add Chicago as the 21st team in the 20-team Ontario Hockey League. It is entirely possible to do this with the EHM Database Editor. It is easy to change Chicago’s league, their division, and to go into the OHL league structure to allow 21 teams. The stumbling block is the schedule. The schedules are not automatically generated; they need to be manually modified to add or remove teams from a league. Rather than take the time to fumble through understanding how schedules are created for a database in EHM, I decided on Plan B.

Plan B was to take the least performing American-based team in the OHL, move them to the USHL where Chicago was, and have Chicago take their spot in the OHL. Based on the final standings of the cut-short 2019-20 season, that was the Erie Otters. They finished in a playoff position, which is not that impressive by itself as sixteen out of twenty teams make the playoffs. Erie finished eighth in the West by a single point. Had the 68-game season concluded normally, they could have been knocked out by Sault Ste. Marie - who finished just behind them. While this meant one fewer OHL opponent for the Steel to face, this also meant I did not have to modify and potentially ruin the schedule through adding a 21st team. As far as Plan B’s go, this was a pretty good one.

One thing I did not account for were the league rules with respect to the rosters. Erie’s roster was pretty much knocked out by being moved to the USHL. The AI GM of the Otters did not really put in a full effort to stock their roster to be somewhat competitive. They missed the playoffs in every simulated season I ran through Fortunately for this experiment, the Steel’s roster was good to go for the ‘O.’ To that end, this post will focus more on how the Steel did in the OHL and less about how the Otters did the USHL.

Lastly, I did use the latest database from xECK29x for the best representation of the Chicago Steel as possible.

The Experiment Results

The first season for the Steel was a struggle in the OHL. Despite the relatively low bar to make the playoffs, the Steel just missed out.

Chicago Steel’s first OHL season
Chicago Steel’s first OHL season

The team did well from a productive standpoint. They actually did well down the stretch with a 7-3-0 record in their final ten games. Sean Farrell, Sam Colangelo, and Brendan Brisson were certainly good producers. But all of those failures and dropped points from earlier in the season caught up to them. The big cause: goaltending. Alexander Tracy put up a poor 87.7% save percentage and Victor Ostman put up a heinous 85.5% save percentage. This tandem split the time in the season. This tandem was beaten many times. Only Owen Sound allowed more goals in the West. This kneecapped the Steel from what could have been a playoff appearance in their first OHL season. I firmly believe they would have done it with even slightly better goaltending. They finished not that far behind Sarnia, Windsor, and Kitchener.

Immediately, we can conclude that the Chicago Steel certainly competed in the OHL in their first campign. They were not doormats. But there were some serious issues that needed to be resolved. I decided to see if they would improve in the next season.

Chicago Steel’s second OHL season - a playoff berth
Chicago Steel’s second OHL season - a playoff berth

The Chicago Steel certainly improved in their second go-around in the OHL. It seems that the AI general manager and coach had a better understanding of how business is done in the OHL. It also seems some of the players improved with another season in the ‘O.’ And it does appear that there is some cycle in the OHL where the teams that barely made it in last season ruled the West. Sarnia took regular season lead in the West, Windsor finished third and ended up winning the OHL playoffs, and Kitchener also improved by fourteen points to finish in a more solid fifth place. The Steel themselves improved by ten points and edged The Soo thanks to ROW. Again, the goaltending was much better and while the loss of Farrell was notable, Colangelo was great, Brisson was great, Owen Power was great, and Ben Chen and Victor Jones stepped up among the skaters.

Chicago’s first playoff appearance in the OHL was a disappointment. While they faced the eventual champions in Windsor, they blew a big series lead in doing so:

Chicago’s first playoff appearance and disappointment in the OHL.
Chicago’s first playoff appearance and disappointment in the OHL.

The playoff series was very high-scoring and Chicago ended up leading the Spitfires 3-1 in the series. Then they lost Game 5, Game 6, and then decisively in Game 7 to blow it. Ouch. The Steel faithful were surely beside themselves as Windsor took the series. Sure, they went on to win the whole thing and become runners-up in the Memorial Cup. Still, blowing a 3-1 series lead hurts. Who knows what Colangelo, Power, Brisson, Chen and Jones would have done deeper in the postseason? I decided to simulate a third season to see if Chicago would move onward and upward.

The Steel absolutely did.

Chicago Steel’s third season in the OHL
Chicago Steel’s third season in the OHL

The Steel led the entire OHL in the regular season. They edged Windsor for the league’s best record. Chicago’s goaltending became much better. They were an asset to the point where the Steel had a goal differential of +73. Brisson was allowed to return for a third season and finished as a runner up to CHL Player of the Year. He was dominant. Jones was fantastic and led the entire OHL in points. By taking 75% of all of the possible points in the regular season, the Steel were definitely an elite team in 2021-22. If there were any concerns about the Steel handling the OHL, then this season totally erased any last concerns after their first playoff appearance in 2020-21.

Of course, how did the playoffs go? Unfortunately, they also ended in heartbreak:

A second heartbreak in the OHL playoffs for Chicago.
A second heartbreak in the OHL playoffs for Chicago.

Chicago survived a real upset situation from Sarnia in the first round. They swept the Greyhounds in round two. In a match-up of the two best teams in the regular season, Chicago got revenge for what Windsor did to them in 2021. However, the ‘67s had their number - until they did not in Game 4 and Chicago roared back to force a Game 7 which ended, well:

The OHL Finals. Oh, poor Chicago.
The OHL Finals. Oh, poor Chicago.

After being put on the brink by Ottawa in the first three games, Chicago won 5-4 in a gutsy Game 4 win. They edged the ‘67s again in Game 5. They won 6-0 in Ottawa’s building in Game 6 to even up the series. In theory, all of the momentum was on the Steel’s side. The series was returning to Chicago. They just needed win one more game to take the J. Ross Robertson Cup and head to the Memorial Cup. But the dominant Steel failed to score. One for the ‘67s. One ENG. A 0-2 loss and that was the Steel’s season. It was a great one by any measure and forcing a Game 7 at all is impressive. But without a championship, one could just wonder what could have been.

Still, for the purposes of this experiment, this is a fantastic result. Three seasons in and Chicago won the regular season and finished just short of an OHL championship. Clearly, management picked up on how the OHL worked, the Steel players that stayed with the team for three or four seasons really did well, and the new players they acquired did well. Since this is a league limited to 16 to 20 year olds, players eventually move on after three or four seasons. Just as in real life, teams that “go for it” heavily mortgage their future to a point where they fall back hard in the league in the following season. Would the same fate befall the Steel in their fourth season?

The Chicago Steel’s fourth season in the OHL.
The Chicago Steel’s fourth season in the OHL.

The answer: Not really. They did earn eighteen fewer points. Still, they finished third in the Western Conference in the OHL, they still earned at least 60% of all available points, and while they allowed more goals, they still outscored their opposition in general. This was a season without Brisson or Chen or Power. This season was the final one from a handful of real life Steel players like Ryan Ufko and Dawson Pastrnak. It was the last one by Steel star Victor Jones. It is a team in transition as the six 20 year olds are moving on and there are nine 16 and 17 year old players who have been or will take over the core soon. Still, the Steel finished third and did not have the massive drop-off to barely make it in.

Unfortunately, the playoffs were another disappointment. Remember how the very, very good 2021-22 team survived a scare from Sarnia in the first round? This team would not survive a scare from Saginaw in the first round:

The Chicago Steel were upset in the first round to Saginaw.
The Chicago Steel were upset in the first round to Saginaw.

The Spirit stunned the Steel in five games. Saginaw dropped them 5-2 and 4-2 in the first two games in the Steel’s house. Chicago took Game 3 on the road, 5-3, but the Spirit took the fourth game 3-2 to put the Steel on the brink. Once again, the home rink was the end of the playoff road as the Spirit prevailed 4-3 in Game 5. The Steel blew a 3-1 lead in the third, tied it up with less than six minutes in regulation, and then conceded a game winning power play goal with less than three minutes to go. To make matters worse, Saginaw did not go on to bigger and better things. Windsor put them down in five games in the second round.

Experiment Conclusions

At this point, I did not see the purpose of going any further than this fourth season. It did not take long at all for the Chicago Steel to be a very competitive team in the OHL. With three straight playoff appearances and two regular season finishes in the top three of the Western Conference, it is fair to say that they established themselves in the league. Sure, the fifth season would be almost entirely in the hands of entirely new players relative to the original team. However, that is the fate of every junior team. Short of completely whiffing on draft picks (import and domestic) and making terrible deals and players not developing, the Steel are not going to suddenly become doormats. The fourth season proves that there was life after Brisson, Colangelo, Power, and so forth.

This is just a video game so it is not necessarily a fair comparison to real life to conclude from this that the 2019-20 Chicago Steel in real life could hang in the real life OHL. However, I do not think it would be a massive issue. Provided the Steel management and coaches figure out how the OHL operates, make the appropriate adjustments and successfully scouts the youth to bring in, they could establish themselves in time. Especially if the players from the 2019-20 Steel stick around and adjust to the new league. I do not think they could do as well as they did in the simulation but I also do not think they would be doormats. If nothing else, EHM at least makes it seem like the whole thing is not entirely far-fetched.

Either way, this experiment was a success. The Chicago Steel barely missed the playoffs in the first season and shot up to the top by their third season and did not fall back by a lot in their fourth. From then on, it’s up to the AI as to whether they can keep the good times going - just like any other junior team.

What’s Next & Your Take

I hope you enjoyed this experiment. This was something I wanted to do for a while just to see how it would go. For next week, I’m going back to you, the People Who Matter, and take one of your suggestions. From acasser, who helpfully detailed out the suggestion:

The Premise: It’s been an occasional argument here in these spaces about team construction. Is it better to pay a superstar some arbitrarily huge number and fill in a second spot with a minimal-salaried player, or is it better to pay two guys roughly half of that arbitrarily high number?

My Opinion: You’ll almost always do better with the former. So we’ll test it…. by putting together a team that does the latter.

The Team Construction Rule: The Upper Limit is $81.5 million. Maximum roster size is 23 players. Divide the one by the other and you get ~$3.54 million/player. So that’s what we’ll do, put together a team (14F/7D/2G) where every individual player’s cap hit is as close as possible to that $3.54 million while remaining underneath the Upper Limit.

My Hypothesis: It’s going to be a very bad team. Because what do you get for that sort of cap hit these days? You won’t get anybody on an ELC. You won’t get the really good players — either they’re on ELCs or they almost always graduate straight to big money — e.g., Nico Hischier. What you will get a lot of are a bunch of veteran UFA-equivalents who are Bottom Six forwards and Bottom Four defensemen. Or RFA-equivalents on bridge deals or second/third contracts who weren’t good enough for their team to lock them up really long-term. You’ll find the occasional bargain when one of the second group breaks out, but you probably aren’t getting much “bang for your buck” in that price bracket.

Forwards: Tanner PearsonSam ReinhartCal Clutterbuck / Ryan DzingelLars EllerBrett Connolly / Andreas JohnssonAlexander KerfootBryan Rust / Michael Ferland – Vladimir SobotkaJ.T. Compher / Paul ByronBrandon Tanev

Defense: Mattias EkholmTravis Sanheim / Ben ChiarotBrandon Montour / Will ButcherRon Hainsey / Radko Gudas

Goalies: Andrei VasilevskiyJacob Markstrom

My Thoughts: The goaltending is better than I would have thought, because Vasilevskiy fell into that “signed contract, then broke out” category. And you’ve got a couple of young players (Sanheim, Montour, Johnsson) who fall into the bridge deal category while Ryan Dzingel fell into the price bracket by virtue of not having a robust UFA market when he signed.

But it’s probably a bad team, full of too many depth players and passengers and not enough guys who would drive play and carry the others along for the ride. The goaltending might pull this team to respectability, but I wouldn’t wager very much on it.

I dub this the Midrange Money Roster. Acasser thinks this team is going to suck. I will agree goals are going to be hard to come by, but they might surprise. All the same, I will run this team in EHM over the next week and let you all know of the results next Sunday.

In the meantime, I want to know what you think of the Chicago Steel being in the OHL. Does it seem reasonable that they could at least be competitive? Did you expect them to have the league’s best record in just their third season? Do you want to see more experiments outside of the NHL? Please let me know your answers in the comments as well as any additional suggestions for future EHM experiments. Thank you for reading.