2016-17 Season Preview: Viterra AJHL North Division

By Robert Murray

Bonnyville Pontiacs
Record last year: 40-11-9 (Fourth in the North Division, Lost in the first round to Sherwood Park)
Quick stats: With 89 points last season, the Pontiacs surpassed the 80-point plateau for just the second time in franchise history and the first time since the 2004-05 season. Their 245 goals was the first time since the 2008-09 season they’ve surpassed the 200-goal plateau.
What’s new: Consistency behind the bench may be the one new trait that helps provide a competitive edge to the Pontiacs. As it stands, Rick Swan is the longest-serving head coach in the AJHL Viterra North Division entering this season, and the familiarity may help to absorb some of the blow the team will face after losing a strong part of their core last season.
Team’s outlook: It has been a case of feast or famine for the Pontiacs. Two years ago, they went to the North Division final and last year were overcome in four games. A team heavy on veteran talent will look to create their own legacy this year in the wake of the departures of Bobby McMann and the duo of Brinson and Steenn Pasichnuk. While the team may suffer a drop-off from the offensive production of that trio, the team is still returning players like Aiden Dupuis, Ryan Piche and Chad Hurtubise up front with Erik Donald the longest serving Pontiacs defenceman back on the blue line.

Drayton Valley Thunder
Record last year: 23-33-4 (Sixth in the North Division, Lost in first round to Lloydminster)
Quick stats: The Thunder will need to be road warriors to start the 2016-17 campaign. Eight of their first 10 games — the most of any AJHL North Division team — will be played away from their home rink. While it will ultimately balanced out with home stands during the rest of the season, an early test on the road could set the tone for the Thunder’s season one way or another. 
What’s new: Head coach Jesse Dorrans will have his hands full this year in his first season as the head coach and general manager of the Thunder. The former Castlegar Rebels head coach wasted no time in trading some of the club’s top returning scorers from last year. Out is 20-goal scorer Matt McNeil and overages defenceman Joseph Tambasco. This may all be part of Dorrans’ wish to build the roster he wants, but unless some rookies surprise, it could be a lean year for offence with the Thunder.
Team’s outlook: The Thunder have been a consistently okay, but not good or great team in the AJHL North Division. They’ve had their up and down moments, finishing as high as sixth four times in the past five years following a four-year period when they didn’t qualify for the playoffs at all. There is bound to be an adjustment period for Dorrans to find a roster he likes, which may mean the Thunder take a step back this year, but the change in leadership could also be what the team needs for future years.

Fort McMurray Oil Barons
Record last year: 10-40-10 (Seventh in the North Division, Lost in first round to Whitecourt)
Quick stats: While the MOB kept their playoff streak alive last season, they failed to win a playoff game. For the first time since the 1988-89 season, the MOB finished with the fewest victories in the entire AJHL.
What’s new: A lot. Head coach Tom Keca took the best he could from last year’s rebuild to acquire a trio of players from the Brooks Bandits and Spruce Grove. Add in local talent in players like Brandon Ralph and the Barons may be poised to surprise those expecting the team to have minimal success again this year. The team went 4-1 in the preseason, which isn’t a telltale sign of regular season success, but there is some room for optimism.
Team’s outlook: The new acquisitions for the MOB are talented. They bring skill and speed that were sorely lacking in last year’s lineup. If anything, that should make the MOB a competitive squad. The one big question for the team comes between the pipes. The team is returning the tandem of Eric Szudor and Forbes Ploszaj this year. Neither goaltender can be blamed for the hardships of last season, though not one of them stepped into the starting goaltender void left by Ravi Dattani at the trade deadline. The MOB’s success could largely hinge on the pair’s performance.

Grande Prairie Storm
Record last year: 11-45-4 (Eighth in the North Division, Did not qualify for playoffs)
Quick stats: Since the 2000-01 season, the Storm have had 35-plus wins in 10 seasons, yet have cracked the 20-win plateau once in the past three seasons.
What’s new: Zach McNeill will make his return to the AJHL this year, joining the Storm as his fifth Junior A team as he begins his final season of junior hockey. McNeill had a productive second season in the Junior A ranks split between the AJHL and SJHL, racking up 16 goals, 41 points and 241 penalty minutes in 54 games. Similarly, 1997-born defenceman Nathan Bizeau, who was sent to the Maritimes last September by the Wolverines was brought back to the AJHL by Kevin Higo in June. Bissau will get a shot with his third AJHL team.
Team’s outlook: The Storm have missed the playoffs in the last three seasons and it’s a streak they’d like to break, but may still be in tough to do so. The Storm traded Josh Zablocki, their highest-returning goalscorer, to the SJHL in mid-August, only to have him head to Camrose.

Lloydminster Bobcats
Record last year: 44-14-2 (Third in the North Division, Lost in North Division Final to Spruce Grove)
Quick stats: Last year’s total of 90 points was the most in the history of Lloydminster teams in the AJHL, barely eclipsing the 88 points by the 1999-00 Blazers. Barring a major change, it would be reasonable to expect the Bobcats’ streak of three straight years in the top three of the AJHL’s North Division to end.
What’s new: After making it to the championship game of the Royal Bank Cup in May, the Bobcats underwent a massive overhaul to their roster and coaching staff. Travis Clayton assumed the head coaching duties of the team while the lone returning player in Connor Odelein was named captain of the team Monday.
Team’s outlook: Facing a new head coach and a huge roster turnover, a new era of Bobcats hockey is beginning in the border city. There will undoubtedly be some growing pains associated with this new era. The team wasn’t stripped to the core, as the team was able to add veterans like Nolan Carothers, Cory Santoro and Jamieson Ree but there will be a heavier rookie presence on this year’s squad.

Sherwood Park Crusaders
Record last year: 39-19-2 (Fifth in the North Division, Lost in second round to Spruce Grove)
Quick stats: Led by Tyler Malty’s league-leading 41 goals last season, the Cru finished the year with 240 goals, the most since the 2002-03 season when the team racked up 259 in 64 games.
What’s new:  In the newly formed offseason tradition of the North Division, the Crusaders also made a change at head coach, naming Adam Manah as the team’s newest bench boss. A rookie to watch on the Cru this year is Arjun Atwal, who led the Alberta Midget AAA Hockey League last year with 22 goals and 53 points in 34 games. The additions of overagers Tanner Younghans and Graydon Smith should provide help to the team’s offensive punch.
Team’s outlook: The Cru have always been the good, but not great team in the division. Their last sub-25 win season came in the 2006-07 campaign, yet they haven’t been to a league final since 1990. Despite some strong individuals, the team has come up against their cross-town rivals in Spruce Grove the past four years, falling to them each time.

Spruce Grove Saints
Record last year: 49-7-4 (First in the North Division, Lost Gas Drive Cup Final to Brooks)
Quick stats: Right winger Nicolas Correale is 37 games shy of reaching 200 for his junior hockey career, the entirety of which has been spent with the Saints. Overager Brett Smythe is 41 games shy of reaching the 200-game plateau in his junior hockey career as he rejoins the team he began his AJHL career with as an affiliate in November 2012.
What’s new: For the first time in 10 years, Jason McKee won’t occupy a spot on the Saints’ bench. Leaving to join the Vancouver Giants of the WHL, Mike Ringrose has stepped into his place. That in itself is the biggest news that could come the way of the Saints. On the ice, the team’s biggest addition, besides a plethora of rookies, is that of Kindersley Klippers forward Cody Young, who will join the Saints for his final year of junior hockey. Last year, he had 15 goals and 48 points in 50 games in the SJHL.
Team’s outlook: If there was ever a year for the seven other teams in the AJHL North Division to try and unseat the Saints’ clutches on the top spot, this would be it. The Saints won’t be terrible, but without the likes of Brandon Biro and Matt Murray, who both could have stayed with the Saints, there are certainly major holes to fill. Players like defenceman Ian Mitchell will look to fill that void in some form, but given the amount of turnover, the Saints may no longer be a sure thing to make it back to the North Division Final.

Whitecourt Wolverines
Record last year: 42-12-6 (Second in North Division, Lost in second round to Lloydminster)
Quick stats:
What’s new: The Wolverines made the biggest coaching addition of the offseason, bringing in Gord Thibodeau to head up the team. Joining his third different AJHL team in four years. His experience should be beneficial to a team that has seemingly always been on the cusp of success. The captaincy of the team will be on Joseph Nardi’s jersey for good reason. The Northern Michigan University commit produced 17 goals and 50 points last year, topping his 12 goals and 33 points in 59 games from the year before.
Team’s outlook: What little space the Saints creaked open the door for other teams in the AJHL North to steal the division crown this year, will likely be occupied by the Wolverines. Returning strong players like Nardi, Justin Young, Eric Krienke and Kellan Cornelis will give the team a strong core that has experienced the disappointments of previous playoff exits and are eager to turn the script around this season. What may be a question mark for the team is who Thibodeau turns to in net. Thibodeau sought to acquire Pierce Diamond from Lloydminster shortly after taking his new role in Whitecourt. The 18 year-old was primarily a backup last season with the Bobcats, so he could be looking to win the starting role and follow up a positive rookie season. The 1997-born Aaron Mackay, who was acquired from the NOJHL this offseason, will likely want to remain a starter and could prove to be the biggest asset acquired this summer. MacKay ranked third in the NOJHL for wins, first in goals against average and second in save percentage last season.