In a move that did not shock people who follow the Kingston Frontenacs, Doug Gilmour announced last week that he was stepping down from his role as team President to take a job with the Toronto Maple Leafs as a community ambassador. The Gilmour era ends much as it started, with the team struggling in last place in the Ontario Hockey League’s eastern conference.
In the fall of 2008, the Kingston Frontenacs were in last place in the eastern conference with GM and Head Coach Larry Mavety knowing that he had to shake things up. Mavety knew that the kids on the team needed to hear a different voice, but not just any new face. So, he reached out to a former player of his from his days when the Belleville Bulls were a Tier II team. That player was the legendary Doug Gilmour, who would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame a few years later in 2011.
At the time, Gilmour was an Assistant Coach with the Leafs farm team, the Toronto Marlies, under Greg Gilbert. Gilmour had accepted the role a month before the 2008 season after spending two years in the Leafs player development department. The deal with Kingston was completed very quickly after Mavety asked the Leafs for permission to speak with Gilmour.
Gilmour was introduced as the Fronts new Head Coach at a media conference at the K-Rock Centre on November 20, 2008. Immediately, the expectations went through the roof. The Frontenacs new voice would be someone who played 1,474 games in the NHL (393 with the Leafs) and he would surely get immediate results. However, Gilmour, like his good friend Wayne Gretzky, learned that success on the ice doesn’t always translate to success behind the bench. The Frontenacs would finish that season in tenth place and out of the playoffs for a second straight season.
Gilmour in partnership with Mavety started to rebuild the team and the results did show during the 2009-10 season with the team finishing in fourth place, which assured them home ice advantage for the opening round of the playoffs. But it wasn’t meant to be, as the Fronts lost game seven of that series at home to a veteran-laden Brampton Battalion team lead by Head Coach Stan Butler.
The Frontenacs would finish in fifth place at the end of the 2010-11 regular season, 21 points behind their round one opponent, the Oshawa Generals. It was a season that had off-ice drama, the least of which had import goalie Phillipp Grubauer going home to Germany at Christmas and not returning for the second half of the season. Back-up goaltender Frankie Palazzese was thrust into the starter’s role, however, he was injured late in the season. Gilmour and the Fronts turned to Nathan Perry, whose highest level of competition prior to joining the Fronts was Jr. C. The Generals disposed of the Fronts in 5 games.
The following season had the team finishing in tenth place and out of the playoffs for the fourth time in six seasons, however there was optimism. Gilmour had assumed the role of General Manager, replacing Larry Mavety, and he had hired his former Toronto teammate Todd Gill as Head Coach. With the team lacking depth, they were forced to look beyond the 2011-12 season and traded away their two top players in Ryan Kujawinsky and Ryan Spooner.
Gill instituted a defense-first, hard work ethic system. The following season, the team was led by two exciting rookies in Spencer Watson and Sam Bennett. Gill had the pair assume major on-ice roles from game one of the regular season. The team would finish seventh and loose to heavily favored Barrie Colts in the first round. Bennett had been drafted by the Fronts with a pick that the team acquired from the London Knights in exchange for Max Domi, who had refused to report to the team following the draft. It was a shrewd move by Gilmour, as he knew that Domi would not report. He levered the Domi selection into a pick for Bennett. Bennett was their second pick in the first round (ninth overall) in 2012 behind Roland McKeown, who they selected with the second overall pick.
In 2013-14, the Fronts would finish third in the east and face Peterborough in the opening round. The Fronts took a commanding 3-0 lead in the series, only to see the Petes crawl back to force a game seven at the K-Rock Centre after three straight wins. Petes veteran Nick Ritchie scored the overtime winner to send Peterborough onto the second round. It was a gut punch to the franchise.
Gilmour made a true push to help get the team deep into the playoffs during the 2015-16 season. In a pair of separate deals with the Oshawa Generals, the team acquired defenseman Stephen Desrocher and forward Michael Dal Colle. The Generals had won the Memorial Cup the previous season and needing to rebuild. Dal Colle made a significant impact on the Fronts with 27 goals for 55 points in only 30 regular season games. Desrocher chipped in with 35 points in 52 games.
The Frontencs were able to get by the Generals in the first round of the 2016 playoffs. It was the first time in 18 seasons that the team had advanced past the first round. The Fronts were almost listless in losing in the second round to the Niagara Icedogs in five games.
In 2016-17 the team finished the regular season in fourth and Gilmour stepped down as GM, handing the duties to his assistant Darren Keily. Gilmour became President of Hockey Operations.
In their first year (2017-18) in the new roles, Gilmour and Keily rolled the dice on another series of trades in the hopes of competing for an OHL title. The team acquired four impact players in Gabe Vilardi from the Windsor Spitfires, Cliff Pu and Max Jones from the London Knights. The fourth player was former exceptional status player Sean Day, who had started with Mississauga, however, was acquired by the Fronts from Windsor.
Kingston got by Niagara and Barrie in the first two rounds before losing the Eastern Conference Final in five games to the eventual OHL Champion Hamilton Bulldogs. Like two years prior, it was a gut punch to the franchise. The only player of the four who truly lived up to his potential was Vilardi, who was the best player in the OHL at the time. He was virtually unstoppable. Jones had on-ice discipline issues that saw him miss time due to suspensions. Day and Pu, while showing great potential, never became the impact players the Fronts had hoped for. In the end it was a very heavy price to pay since, in order to acquire these players, the Frontenacs mortgaged the future in terms of draft picks in the priority selection draft.
There were many positives during the Gilmour era. Players like Bennett, Watson, Lawson Crouse, Jason Robertson, Warren Foegele, Brett Neuman, and Shane Wright were exciting elite-level talent. Good coaches like Todd Gill, Paul McFarland and Kurtis Foster have been strong leaders. But the era ends just as it started, with the team mired in last place in a conference that is as competitive as it has been in years.
Many questions persist regarding this team’s ability to be competitive. Yes, picking Shane Wright is a significant improvement, however, a pick like that is low-hanging fruit. It’s the inability to find talent in the later rounds that has hampered and continues to challenge the franchise. The inability to have the team prepared to compete at a consistent level without significant risk to the future will be one of the many stories from this era.
Tim “The Coach” Cunningham has played every sport ever. His inside knowledge can be heard and seen on radio, television and in print across Canada. Follow him on twitter at @TheCoachTC.