Defenseman Vili Saarijarvi helps make the Flint Firebirds click

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By Adam Biggers/@AdamBiggers81

Through eight games, the Flint Firebirds are 4-3-0-1—just two points away from first-place tie in the Ontario Hockey League’s West Division--and, most importantly, they’re growing more comfortable each time they take the ice.

Or, in other words: Things are going as planned for the OHL newcomers.

The climb is all part of the process, says Firebirds defenseman Vili Saarijarvi, a third-round 2015 draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings. He’s the OHL’s sixth-leading scorer, in terms of points, and has been a vital part to establishing team chemistry and identity.

“We are getting a lot better, but there’s work that we still have to do,” Saarijarvi said during Wednesday’s availability at the Dort Federal Event Center in Flint. “I’m excited to be here and to be a part of this organization.”

Roughly six weeks ago, the Firebirds were figuring out how to fit existing pieces from the Plymouth Whalers with their new components. It took some time to get things even, but the Firebirds have shown steady progression, giving reason to expect even more growth in the coming weeks.

Getting better is always the name of the game.

“I think what we did in training camp, we are (getting more) together and things like that. We’re a lot better team now (as compared to six weeks ago) and we are becoming more like one team—one big family,” said Saarijarvi, who leads the OHL with 11 assists.

“It’s very exciting, of course. It’s like the hard work, it’s not always fun, but it’s going to pay off some day if you just keep working. You just sometimes have to do not-the fun things, and it’s just something that you have to do if you want to be at the level that you want.”

Having a defenseman who’s among the top scorers in Saarijarvi, a goaltender with a top-10 2.89 GAA in Zack Bowman, and a returning star netminder in Alex Nedeljkovic, affords a certain level of comfort and freedom for everyone involved.

Teams are only as strong as goaltending and defense—and Sarrijarvi likes his surroundings.

“I think it’s a very important thing for all teams—and we have good goaltending and then good defense,” he said. “And then we have good forwards, too. It helps a lot… it’s a huge thing for us to have.”

Firebirds coach John Gruden has long praised his stable of Nedeljkovic, who will start Friday versus the Ottawa 67’s; Bowman, who recently earned a point for the team after a 3-2 shootout loss to the Erie Otters; and Kyle Keyser, who’s seen limited action in Flint but could start for most teams in the league.

Goaltending aside, the defensemen deserve a lot of credit, too. Gruden mentioned the upsides of Zack Pittman and Mathieu Henderson, two of the division’s top blue-liners, as reason for team stability. But again, that’s due in part to Saarijarvi, who is always looking for ways to put his teammates in advantageous positions.

He kind of makes things work, from front to back.

“Vili’s a dynamic player—he brings an element to the game that’s… he’s a threat,” Gruden said. “He doesn’t, and I tell people, he doesn’t cheat the game to get his points. He plays the game the right way. He’s got a very high hockey IQ, and that’s probably why the Red Wings drafted him when they did.”

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