Hounds, Virgilio expecting big things


by Peter Ruicci (Independent Media) | Photo by Bob Davies

There’s little doubt Matthew Virgilio has gone through an up-and-down rookie season.

He readily admits some of the turnovers and mistakes he’s made “can’t happen moving forward.”

But considering he’s a 16-year-old playing defence on a young, rebuilding Soo Greyhounds team that will miss the playoffs, general manager Kyle Raftis says he has no problem praising the Vaughan, Ont., native.

“There’ve been some frustrating nights, but it’s been like that for the entire team,” said Raftis, whose club has five regular season games remaining, including Wednesday’s 7:05 p.m. clash in Sudbury. “A young defenceman’s mistakes catch everyone’s eyes. They’re not easy to cover up. But I think overall, he’s taken some huge strides. For the most part, he’s had a really-strong year.”

Virgilio, a 2006 birth-year player, is also pleased with the way his developmental arc is trending.

There’s little doubt he’s displayed impressive offensive skills – his stretch passes to streaking teammates have been eye-openers. He’s also shown enough to be a regular on the club’s second power-play unit.

“I think I’ve had a good season,” said Virgilio, taken by the Soo in the fourth round (78th overall) of the 2022 OHL Priority Selections draft. “Obviously, there are things you can improve on. But as a 16-year-old, I was given a lot of responsibilities and a lot of minutes and I think I’ve done a good job.”

That’s not to say the five-foot-11, 190-pounder is oblivious to his missteps.

While a highly-confident player, he’s also shown an impressive degree of self-awareness.

“I do realize that mistakes were a bit of an issue that led to goals, and even some losses if I’m being completely honest,” said Virgilio, who has three goals, 11 assists and a plus-minus of minus-29 in 57 games. “Really, there isn’t an excuse for them and I have to find a way to limit those. But you have to put them aside. You can’t let a mistake effect the rest of your game.”

Raftis spoke of how, typically, with the majority of 16-year-old rearguards, a club is able to limit the player’s exposure to talented, veteran forwards. The rebuilding Greyhounds, who’ve lost defencemen Andrew Gibson and Connor Toms for lengthy stretches due to injury, haven’t had that luxury.

Youngsters are also normally paired with talented, experienced defensive partners. Such an option hasn’t always been available for the Hounds.

But Virgilio’s promise and potential also led to the Soo trusting him with plenty of ice time in different situations.

With 16-year-old rearguards “you try to really shelter their minutes,” Raftis said. “But the expectations we have for him is to not just go out there and play a couple of minutes and be a non-factor. I think it’s a tribute to where Matthew is at that we don’t shelter him most nights and that puts him into some tough matchups.”

However, by not protecting Virgilio, the Hounds believe dividends will be paid beginning next season.

“Not sheltering him will make him better in the long run,” the GM added. “We don’t treat him like a 16-year-old and we definitely think he’s put himself into a position where he’ll eventually be an elite defender in this league.”

That’s exactly the course Virgilio plans to take.

He spoke of how his focus this summer will be to work on his edges and first three steps. The goal is to become both a better and faster skater.

Virgilio will also look to hone his hands and shot, improve his defensive game and become bigger and stronger as he prepares for his upcoming NHL draft season.

“Especially as a five-foot-11 defenceman, you need to be able to produce points in order to be considered an NHL prospect and a draft pick,” he said. “I’m still young and I think it’s inevitable I’m going to make mistakes. But my confidence has helped me push through them.”

The fact Virgilio had previously made a commitment to play at the University of Michigan, Raftis believes, kept him from being a first-round draft choice.

Shortly after last April’s draft, Raftis spoke of how fortunate the Greyhounds were to nab the young man in Round 4.

Believing his path to the NHL would be smoother in the Sault, Virgilio decided to cast his lot in the OHL.

He says he has no regrets with his decision, and has enjoyed being coached hard by Hounds bench boss John Dean and his staff.

“That’s been very good,” Virgilio said. “The constructive criticism has helped me in games and off the ice, realizing where the mistakes are and moving forward from them.”

Following Saturday’s 3-1 loss in Saginaw, which ended the Hounds playoff hopes, Dean, while calling it a “really-tough pill to swallow,” also spoke of how “there are lots of reasons to keep playing and lots of reasons to be motivated. We’ll put our work boots back on and get ready for the next game.”

Virgilio said that’s his approach going into the final five games. Following the clash in Sudbury, the Hounds are home to Windsor Friday and Saturday, both at 7:07 p.m.

“It’s tough not being in the playoff picture, but you (still) want to win,” he added. “We want to stay focused as a team and, individually, I want to finish the season playing the right way.”

Which is exactly the approach the Greyhounds expect.

“When you look at his entire body of work, we’re very happy with him,” Raftis added. “He’s taken some huge strides.”

While no OHL team ever wants to miss the post-season, the Soo GM agreed when asked if this could be a good year to be a part of the league’s draft lottery. This will mark the first time the Hounds have missed the playoffs since the 2011-2012 campaign.

“The benefit is you get a chance (to draft) a really-great player. That part’s exciting,” Raftis told Independent Media. “There are definitely game-changing players, a group of four players for sure, at the top.”

The GM refused to identify the four players he believes are elite.

Going into the lottery, OHL teams will be ranked 1-4 based on points. The lowest-ranked team has a 40 per cent chance of gaining the first overall selection. The scale is 30-20-10 for the remaining teams.

If the season was over today, the Hounds, with the third-fewest points in the 20-team loop, would have a 20-per-cent chance at gaining the No. 1 pick.

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