This year’s AJHL campaign will undoubtedly be as competitive as ever in one of the strongest Junior A loops in the country, but this year might be even more enigmatic and wrapped in a riddle than it has been for several years – a season chock-full of questions:
Can the Spruce Grove Saints three-peat?
Is this the year the Fort McMurray Oil Barons get over the hump and return to the league apex?
Is this finally the year one of the rising stars of the South breaks the trend?
Could Bonnyville finally earn its first title?
There are a million of them.
One thing that isn’t of question is that we are about to embark on yet another year of top-class hockey across the province.
Here’s a glimpse of the clubs as they line up heading into the regular season which starts this weekend.
2010-11 Record: 36-16-9
Chad Mercier’s crew has been building to a crescendo, as the Pontiacs continue to assault the summit of the AJHL North. Mercier and crew have been rewarded for consistent success. GM/ Coach Mercier and newly appointed assistant general manager/associate coach, Ryan Pollock, have both agreed to five year contracts taking them through 2015-2016.
Mercier was last season’s Coach of the Year. While the Pontiacs still search for the club’s first AJ title, Mercier and crew will have to deal with the departure of key personnel this season.
Key grads from last year include all-star netminder Julien Laplante, Donnie Harris, Michael Westfall, Tyler Henry, Devon Kalinksi, Matt Montesano and Marc Juneau.
Offseason acquisitions include Tanner Dusyk, Tommy Barszcz, Mackenzie McAvoy, Jackson Dudley, and Max Collins.
Connor Creech will be asked to pick up the goaltending chores, while the D-unit will be led by Blake Leask, Jordan Krankowsky and Chad Crawford.
Up front, Dante Borrelli, Kevin Carthy, Ty Carey, Ryan Kearns and Tanner Dusy will be asked to pick up the scoring slack.
Mercier says the key is to be competitive in every contest and give the club a chance for two points.
“Contribution from every member of our team is key. We will need to score by committee and play a strong team game.”
Drayton Valley Thunder
2010-11 Record: 12-40-8
Fran Gow’s crew is young, lean, mean and hoping to turn around a long stretch of losing for this club. Building from the ground up seems to be key.
The club graduated no 20- year-olds. Having said that, the team really didn’t make any big waves in the acquisition pool, choosing rather to develop the talent.
Gow says goalies worked hard at camp competing for the spots, rookie Rocky Mountain House product Cody Nicolay looks to have an inside track.
On the back end, Reid Johnson, Luke Madill, Trammell Lynes, Michael Claffey, and rookie Austin Yadlowski will be key.
Up front, Eric Seiben, Nathan Smith, Tyler Helton, Justin Faux, and Jarid Hauptman expect to carry the mail.
What are the Thunder goals for the season? “Continue to improve and develop the young group we had last year with an eye on a playoff spot,” says Gow.
“The AJHL North appears that it will be once again a tough and competitive division with parity, therefore the consistency in our team play is key.”
“Goaltending will be a big factor for us to have success.”
Fort McMurray Oil Barons
2010-11 Record: 43-16-1
The Oil Barons, at the time of this preview, were in Omsk, Russia, taking part in the very first World Junior Club Cup, and while the team had a hard go – a 1-4 overall record – the club was facing the very best junior prospects from countries such as the host country, Sweden, Belarus and Czech Republic.
Gord Thibodeau’s crew was chosen to represent the league at the event, and having completed their overseas “training camp”, the MOB are clearly the favoured team in the AJHL North according to a poll of coaches, GMs, and media.
Getting by the Spruce Grove Saints has been the challenge in front of the Barons the past few seasons – could this be the year they finally do it?
Gone are star netminder Jesse Kallechy, defenders Shane Oatway and Josh Lee, and forwards Adam Johnson, Ben Lake and Michael Small.
Returning up front, Markus Gerbrandt will be key as will Carson Cooper and Matt Koebel. On the back end, Brock Maschmeyer and Colton Parayko will be key.
With multi-coach of the year winner Thibodeau at the helm, it’s business as usual and all business. Look for a workmanlike season from the MOB, the team many have pegged to hoist the Enerflex Cup at the end of the campaign. It will be interesting to see what, if any, effect the Russian adventure will have on the club.
Grande Prairie Storm
2010-11 Record: 32-24-4
It’s a year of big changes for the Swan City crew, the biggest being behind the bench where coach/GM Mike Vandekamp has departed for Nanaimo of the BCHL. Taking over is assistant Blaine Bablitz, a Peace Country product himself starring for the club in the middle ’90s. Shawn Martin has been added as assistant coach and GM
Key grads from last year include league MVP Tanner Fritz, John Girman, RJ Berra, Mitch Fillman, and goalie Andy Williams.
Key offseason acquisitions vets include Hugo Turcotte, Yannick Laflamme, Tanner Labbe, Spencer Mault and Scott Milnthorp, the latter pair return to the Storm for a second loop.
In goal, the team will look to returnee Colin Dzijacky, but look for a push from rookie Curtis Skip who was the AMHL MVP last year on a team that had but just one win. He’s looked good in exhibition, but the team itself struggled.
Defensively Caylen Walls, Matt Cumming, and Ryan Hamberg will log plenty of ice, while up front, Mitch Neumeier, Hugo Turcotte, Gus Correale, and Dan Correale will be key, the latter out until December with an injury.
Bablitz knows the GP fans are passionate and demand success, which leaves him little wiggle room.
“In Grande Prairie, we do not have the option to have rebuilding years. With the acquisitions I have been able to make over the summer we have a solid nucleus to build upon in hope of competing for a championship again,” he says.
“The key to our success will be centred around work ethic and team work. We will need to play as a team and for the team every night.”
2010-11 Record: 32-24-4
Head coach and GM Brian Curran’s Bobcats made great strides last year amid a sea of rumours that the club could be on the move to Whitecourt. Perhaps that was a rallying cry that led the Border City crew to a huge come-from-behind upset of the Grande Prairie Storm in the first round of last year’s playoffs. That’s one hump that has taken years for the Bobcats to hurdle. That being done, with the team rooted in Lloydminster, it’s back to the rink and improving on last year’s success.
Departing are forwards Kevin Deagle and Cooper Limb, defenders Jeremie Perron, Cory Hodgins and Michael Heffer, and netminder Kraymer Barnstable.
Returning vets include forwards Kory Chisolm, Topher Flanagan, and Nate Rempel, while in goal look for young tender Tyler Briggs to be big.
The club’s motto is “Whatever it Takes.” Curran has charted a tangible course for the club since departing Brooks and has the league’s easternmost franchise hoping for bigger and better things in the coming campaign.
Sherwood Park Crusaders
2010-11 Record: 28-26-6
Tim Fragle’s Cru struggled at times last season, but confidence for the current campaign remains high for the club.
Gone are Adam Burns, Bryan Frost, Chris Kallal (NAIT), Lindsay Leblanc (Liberty University), Dan Starosta (Grant MacEwan).
In addition to developing talent through the hockey-rich suburban Edmonton system, the club also acquired vet Brett Rock from the SJHL’s Estevan Bruins.
Fragle says this will be year two in a development course charted last season, and the goal is to improve upon the club’s sixth-place finish in the north loop for the 2010-11 season.
“We are in the second year of a new direction and are expecting to improve from last season,” he says.
“The keys to success for our team for this upcoming season are returning goaltending (Patrick Terriss), our improved mobile defence and scoring depth spread over four lines,” says Fragle.
“We also believe in the end, the team who has the most depth gives you the best chance to win on a nightly basis”
Spruce Grove Saints
2010-11 Record: 50-6-4
Third time lucky for the Saints in the upcoming season? Well, despite losing a big crop of vets, the Grovers always seem to be able to rebound quickly without missing a beat.
Those key grads include Scott Allen, league top goalie Vince Marozzi, Felix Poulin, Mat Knoll, Jesse Slobodian, Bryce Vanbrabant, Josh Keizer, Brett Switzer, Josh Koper. That sounds like an AJHL north all-star team.
Nevertheless, head coach and GM Jason McKee remains confident. The club added Austin Sevalrud via trade from the Calgary Mustangs, in addition to developing within the Saints’ system.
In goal, Joel Miller has big skates to fill in Marozzi’s. Other key returnees include Corey Chorneyko, Nic Bourgeois, Tim Nolte, Dylan Richard, and Sammy Spurrell
The goals for the club are perhaps a little more modest than in the past few campaigns – simply to achieve home-ice advantage in the playoffs, McKee says.
“Having a young team to figure out what it takes to win at his level quickly,” will be the key to success for the Saints, says McKee.
Staff-wise, Ryan Marsh has been added as associate coach. He has coached in Spruce Grove before and returns after a year with NAIT as an assistant coach.
St. Albert Steel
2010-11 Record: 26-31-3
Head coach and GM Greg Parks will aim to improve on last year’s campaign. The good news for Steel is that the club has one of the lowest attrition rates in the league.
Gone are forwards Spencer Pommells, Branden Fragerheim and Shawn Proulx, but outside of that group, the Steel return a large contingent of ’91 and ’92-born talent.
Netminding should be strong with Rhys Hadfield and Ty Swabb (via Sherwood Park) in the house. On the blueline, Thomas Ward-Cardinal and Dane Olsen return, while up front, Reid Linaker, Tyler Parks and Bryce Sauers will be key.
The Steel has hovered at the middle-to-lower pack in a very tough AJHL north division over the past several years since the move from Fort Saskatchewan, but with a strong returning crew of vets, perhaps this is the year the St. Albert club can make a deep playoff run.
2010-11 Record: 35-18-7
Could this be the year of the Bandits? Many around the AJHL believe that Ryan Papaioannou’s club will improve on its second place finish a year ago and might be the team to beat in the AJHL South.
The club loses DJ McDougall to the University of Lethbridge after playing four seasons for the Bandits. Riley Simpson is moving on to THE Ohio State University as an 18 year old player.
In the off-season, Brooks added Dakota Mason from the Dawson Creek Rage of the NAHL, Taylor Elliott from the Olds Grizzlys and Ryan Luiten from the Trail Smoke Eaters of the BCHL.
In goal, Jan Obernesser will carry the load, while rearguards David Watt, Cory Kloss, Colton Semenok, and Chris Muscoby will be key.
Up front, Matt Wilkins, Cam Maclise, Dakota Mason, and RJ Reed will be heavily depended upon.
“Our regular season goal is to improve on last season, for us that means we need to win the South Division to improve,” says Papaioannou.
“We feel like this is the year for us to play deep into the post season, with that said it’s only the start of the season, but things look good on paper at present.”
Papaioannou says the play of Obernesser, effectiveness of special teams and defensive strength will be important for the club.
2010-11 Record: 18-37-5
Ryan Barrett has some very big shoes to fill. Well, actually, the biggest shoes to fill as the AJHL’s all-time winningest coach Don Phelps steps away from the storied Canucks after putting up as impressive a coaching record as seen in the history of Canadian Junior A hockey.
The Canucks have struggled in recent seasons, last year missing the playoffs – in Canuck-land, essentially unheard of. Barrett is hoping to recapture some of the glory-years’ feel in the AJHL South which promises to be wide open in this campaign.
The Canucks are another team which – in relative terms – have lost little to graduation.
Key departees include forwards Jared Wynia, Spencer Copp and Josh Primeau.
The good news is the returnee roster.
Goalie Michael Matyas, forwards Matt Heseltine, Clayton Petrie and Cory Kapeller, and defenders John Petras and Matt Hanger are all back, and the roster is supported by a strong group of young recruits which makes the Canucks one of two Calgary clubs many are picking to be most improved in the coming season.
2010-11 Record: 28-31-1
GM Jeff Richards and head coach David Haas are hoping that the renaissance of the the former Royals-come-Mustangs continues in the upcoming season. Picked by many around the league to show more marked improvement, the team, which had found an annual home in the lower levels of the AJHL south for many seasons, approached a respectable .500 record last campaign and a middle of the pack placing.
The Mustangs hope to better that and make a long playoff run this season.
Again, the club has the luxury of a small graduating class, and many returnees, but the club was busy retooling as well in the off-season.
The Mustangs’s key losses were forwards Ty Eskesen and Alex MacMillan.
Corey Scott, Steven Fernie, Damien Kallynych and Chase McMurphy make up a strong forward core. McMurphy lit it up as a ’94 last season, and big things will be expected from him this year.
Jay Deo looks like the go-to-goalie for the ‘Stangs, while defenders Ryan Wilkinson and Zach Beisel will be key.
Look for the club to continue its upward assault on the AJHL South division title this season.
2010-11 Record: 32-22-6
Boris Rybalka’s bears will hope to avoid the RBC hangover in the 2011-12 campaign. Hosting the big event last year meant a heavy build of veteran players, and routinely, the year after hosting has traditionally become rebuilding time. But the fans in Camrose are used to winning, so re-tooling might be a better adjective.
The Kodiaks lose Dalyn Flette (Mount Royal), Tanner Dion to Wisconsin- Superior and Clayton Jardine to Merrimack.
The club returns several key players including Braden Hopfe between the pipes, defenders Craig Bokenfohr, Jonathan Lashyn, Sam Jardine, and Nate Enger.
Up front, Keiran O’Neil, Landon Kadatz, Rylan Wiest, and Luc Vandale are back.
D-men Nate Engert, Ross McMullan and Keiran O’Neil have been added, while up front, Midget AAA grads look strong, says Rybalka.
Speed, work ethic and discipline, are keys for this year’s Kodiaks, says Rybalka, who adds ” we like to take a run at a championship every season.”
2010-11 Record: 20-36-4
Andrew Milne’s Rocky Mountain crew will look to better what was a disappointing season. Having said that, the club has lost some key players from last year’s clutch – Kory Roy, Cody Cartier and Brian Doust, specifically.
But the team has added two veteran defencemen in 20-year-old Justin Krabben and 19-year-old Alex Barns.
Brady Rouleau will be counted on to keep the pucks out of the net, while a big defender unit returns with Mitch Kaufmann, Justin Krabben, Cam Barnes and Driscoll.
Up front 20-year-old Riley Reinbolt, and a trio of 19-year-olds Steven Phee, Zack Rassell, and Riley Point will be key players.
“Our goals for the season are just like every team in the league and that’s to win a championship,” says Milne.
“We want to put an entertaining competitive, exciting team on the ice every night.”
Canmore wants to improve on goals against.
“We have struggled with that in the past and also know that we are going to score by committee this season,” he adds.
The club has also added marketing sales director John Ross.
2010-11 Record: 21-31-8
Last year was certainly a disappointing campaign for the Dragons, but the good news is, here is another club with many returnees, especially at key positions.
Forwards Robert Geddes and Cass Mappin are among key departees, but the Dragons will be buoyed by the return of forwards Evan Warner and Doug Jones.
Defensively, Justin Tateson and Kenton Levesque bring back key experience.
Drumheller has a solid fan base itching for the club to get over that next hurdle, and with the returning regimen of key veteran talent, the crew looks a strong contender.
2010-11 Record: 43-12-5
James Poole hopes to lead the Oilers to a South division title, and a poll of league GMs, coaches and media likes the chances.
The Oilers did lose some strong talent, most notably Kyle Reynolds, who many thought was the MVP last season, certainly he was in the South. Also gone are forwards Michael Brown and Jeff Barrett and defenders Colten Hayes and Brad Ryan.
Returnees up front are strong in Ben Gameche, Jonathan Turk Houston Hazelaar and Alex Kromm.
On defence, the crew is a young one which will be led by Sasha Laroque and Matt Maleschuk.
In goal, expect Michael Tadjdeh to play the bulk of the minutes.
South division clubs have had a dry spell as far as league championships go, but many around the league feel the Oilers are certainly in a position to take a run at it in the 2011-12 campaign.
2010-11 Record: 23-30-7
Kevin Willison starts his second campaign behind the bench in Olds. He’ll look to improve on last year’s record when the team finished middle of the pack in the south after being pegged as a team to watch.
The good news for Grizzly fans is the team graduated very few players from last season’s roster so expect the club to be stronger this season.
The biggest loss was arguably d-man Corbin Karl. Chad Berglund up front will also be missed.
Key returnees include forwards Taylor Bourne and Brandon Clowes, defenders Craig Gans, and Clay Howe, and netminder Brandon Thiessen who should be the got-to goalie.
Willison started a cycle last year, hoping to return the former national champs to old glory. What will help the central Alberta club most will be a strong returning core and some key additions. The team should depend heavily on goaltending and defence by committee to keep the pucks out and allow the up-front talent to do the scoring.