2014 Surge Energy AJHL Showcase Preview

Die-hard fans of the Alberta Junior Hockey League and hockey scouts from around North America will be treated to the best the league has to offer this weekend as all 16 teams converge on the Transalta Tri Leisure Centre for the 2014 AJHL Showcase.

The eighth annual showcase, which will look to add to the 16 players drafted directly to the National Hockey League since the first showcase, didn’t skimp on the match-ups as teams jockey for positioning while also putting their best foot forward to the scouts in attendance.

Fresh off of a come-from-behind victory over the Bonnyville Pontiacs (3-2-1) Wednesday night, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (6-2-0) roll into Spruce Grove for games against the Okotoks Oilers (1-4-2) and Calgary Canucks (2-4-0).

The MOB have been on the opposite ends of 6-3 decisions and one-goal games in their past four contests. New acquisition Trent Lofthouse impressed by scoring four goals in his third game with the team last weekend.

The Pontiacs saw their shutout streak end against the Oil Barons Wednesday night at home but will get a chance to start a new one against the Dragons and Canmore Eagles (3-2-0) this weekend. Bonnyville’s road game is a strength for the team as they hold down a 2-1 record on the road early in the season, and can lay claim to the league’s best road power play and fourth-best road penalty kill.

The Eagles will try to make the leap into the top tier of the South Division when they take on the Lloydminster Bobcats (2-4-1) and Pontiacs. Winners of two straight, the Eagles will rely upon forward Conner Wilson, who posted back-to-back three point games last weekend.

With their last goal coming a week ago and last win coming two weeks ago, the Bobcats are losing ground fast after dropping four-straight regulation losses to North Division opponents. The one positive going for the team in the first month is the strength of their road penalty kill, which is ranked third in the league.

After losing to the Eagles on Tuesday, the Oilers will try their luck against the Oil Barons and Grande Prairie Storm (3-3-0) on the weekend. The Oilers lost their last game before last year’s showcase before reeling off six straight victories, including two at the Tri Leisure Centre.

Forward Rhett Gardner, who has already committed to the University of North Dakota, sits tied for the team points lead with four through seven games.

Coming off of a 3-0 shutout at the hands of the Pontiacs last weekend, the Storm will be itching to reignite their offence against the Canucks and Oilers.

Leading the South Division standings by the mere stat of goal differential, the Drumheller Dragons (5-1-0) kick-off the first day of the three-day event with a AJHL Gas Drive Cup FinalS rematch against the Spruce Grove Saints (5-1-1).

The last time the Dragons came to Spruce Grove, they left after two defeats en route to being swept in the championship series. The Dragons will face another stiff challenge, playing an early game on Friday against the Pontiacs.

Dragons net minder Curtis Skip suffered his first loss of the season last weekend, allowing six goals on 39 shots. Forward Mitchell Cook leads the team with six goals and nine points through six games.

The quasi-hosts of this weekend’s tournament, the Saints, tackle the Camrose Kodiaks (5-1-0) Saturday evening to complete a weekend of play against the top two South Division teams.

Since losing in Whitecourt on opening night, the Saints have earned a point in six straight games, winning their last three by a 14-4 score. Forward Jaird Hauptman is leading a young Saints squad and the entire league with two goals and 11 points as of Wednesday evening.

The Kodiaks have relied upon an offence by committee approach in the early goings with 19 players registering at least a single point in the team’s first six games. Sitting neck-and-neck with the Dragons in the South Division race, the Kodiaks have a perfect 3-0 record on the road, the only team in the league to be able to make that claim.

In a battle of ferocious animals, the Kodiaks will open play at the Showcase Thursday evening against the Whitecourt Wolverines (2-4-0) before taking on the Saints later in the weekend.

Eager to distance themselves from the basement-dwelling Drayton Valley Thunder (1-3-1), the Wolverines will take on the Kodiaks before meeting the Thunder in a pivotal matchup Saturday. To cap off a stretch of three games in four days, the Wolverines will meet the Cru on Sunday afternoon.

Second-year forward Brandon Switzer has picked up four points in his last four contests to lead his team.

With just one victory to their credit through five games, Drayton Valley will look to strike down the Grizzlys and Wolverines in their quest to escape the North Division basement. The Thunder have scored only five goals this season, though they’ve come from different scorers.

Stuck in the middle of a competitive division, the Brooks Bandits (3-2-0) will play their first inter-divisional games of the season when they take on the Sherwood Park Crusaders (3-2-1) and Bobcats.

The Crusaders, will add a matchup against the Calgary Mustangs (2-4-0) to round out their weekend. Backed by the strong goaltending of Tommy Nixon, the Cru are treading water in the middle of the North Division, sitting tied with the Pontiacs for third place.

Calgary’s pair of teams will have their hands full this weekend as both look to climb out of the South Division basement. The Mustangs will face the Crusaders Friday before clashing with the Olds Grizzlys (4-3-1) Saturday.

In search of their first win against the North Division this year, the Grizzlys will be dealt a favourable opponent Thursday in the Thunder before facing off with the Mustangs. The Grizzlys are embracing the competition in their division this year, winning four straight intra-divisional games dating back to Sept. 12.

Three members of the Grizzlys sit within the top 10 in points for the league. Forward Landon Kletke is  leading the team with ten points.

The Mustangs took the last meeting against the Cru on Feb. 2 and gained the upper-hand on the Griz in last season’s series finale between the two clubs. Mason Mitchell has scored in all but one of the team’s games this year, carrying a two-game goal scoring streak into the weekend.

There’s company in misery with the Mustangs as their cross-town rivals the Canucks sit in the basement with them. They’ll face two northern Alberta teams in the Storm and Oil Barons.

The Canucks will look to kickstart their offence, which has scored at a rate of two goals per game through the first six games. Two of those goals have come from the stick of assistant captain Hayden Dawes, who will face his former teammates from the Oil Barons Saturday afternoon.

Robert Murray