By Robert Murray
Record last year: 49-9-2 (First in the South Division, Won AJHL Title, Lost in RBC Cup Semi-final)
Quick stats: Any team encountering the Bandits should be ready for an offensive battle. The Bandits scored a league-leading 306 goals last year after accomplishing the same feat in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 season. They led the South Division in scoring for the 2014-15 season, finishing second to the Drumheller Dragons in the 2013-14 season. A 6-1 win over the Okotoks Oilers in their lone exhibition game this season indicates South Division teams may be in for another long year.
What’s new: The downside to success is that eventually parts of your core will move onto the next level. Three of the team’s top four scorers in Dylan McCrory, Jared Cockrell, and Derek Lodermeier aged out, but players like Ty Mappin, Cale Makar and Nick Pruksic seem poised to carry the torch. Import forward Tyler Levine could become the next American-born player brought in by the Bandits to have success in the AJHL on the way to earning a NCAA Division I scholarship. Prkusic will take over the captaincy of the team.
Team’s outlook: After coming within one game of the Royal Bank Cup final last year, the Bandits want to taste that sort of success again. Not being able to have a preseason exhibition series with the Penticton Vees of the BCHL, the Bandits seem more than capable of making the trip there in May for the Western Canada Cup.
Record last year: 24-33-3 (Sixth in the South Division, Lost in first round to Okotoks)
Quick stats: Logan Drackett’s 20 wins last year made him the first Canucks goaltender with at least 20 wins in a season since Aaron Dell had 25 in the 2008-09 season. The Canucks last made the second round of the Gas Drive Cup playoffs in the 2011-12 season.
What’s new: Airdrie native Jordan McConnell was traded from the Drayton Valley Thunder to the Canucks in June and the forward will be looking to improve off his rookie campaign, where he played in every single regular season and playoff game. His 12 goals and 25 points are respectable totals to build upon for the coming season. Also recently acquired was Mark Drohan, who exited from the Fort McMurray Oil Barons in the 2015-16 campaign, but will hope to rekindle some of his offensive magic on the Canucks’ blue line. The biggest addition however will come behind the bench as James Poole joins the Canucks. The former Okotoks Oilers head coach joined the Canucks in May after six seasons in Okotoks and will look to provide the Canucks with a way to navigate themselves past the first round of the playoffs.
Team’s outlook: In a competitive South Division, the Canucks, along with their crosstown rival Mustangs, haven’t fared that well in recent years. It’s still his first full year in the role, but if Poole can replicate some of the success he had in Okotoks, it would be an encouraging step forward for the team. The team will likely rely on Logan Drackett again this year as the 1998-born goaltender aims to improve on his 20-win campaign last year.
Record last year: 12-44-4 (Eighth in the South Division, Did not qualify for playoffs)
Quick stats: While plenty of players turned in respectable offensive campaigns for the Mustangs last year, those numbers didn’t help the team in the standings, especially during a 29-game losing streak. To say the obvious, avoiding a similar streak this year would help turn things around. Failing to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season, the Mustangs will be seeking a turnaround this season.
What’s new: The Mustangs will field an almost entirely new goaltending duo if the current roster’s suggestion of Tyler Van Vilet and Cole Hayward occupy the team’s two spots on opening night. Violet is the most experience of the two, with three games of AJHL experience. Forward Ethan Kopyczyn had 11 goals and 27 points in CSSHL last year and was signed by the Mustangs for the coming season in June.
Team’s outlook: The Mustangs will continue to have a bevy of offensive options, but seeing how stacks up to the top teams of the South Division may be another story. Jordan Xavier had a breakout season last year, scoring 18 goals and 40 points in 44 games. He’ll hit the 100-game plateau in his team’s opening game, and will be counted on to produce again this year. Anthony Orubor is another player the team will be counting on for production after 14 goals and 35 points last year.
Record last year: 38-18-4 (Second in the South Division, Lost in South Division Final to Brooks)
Quick stats: The Kodiaks have won 86 regular season games over the past two seasons, putting them third behind the Spruce Grove Saints and Brooks Bandits. Also, the Kodiaks have seven 40-plus win seasons and 13 30-plus win seasons since the 2000-01 campaign. That type of success doesn’t happen overnight, but the Kodiaks have now gone eight seasons without a AJHL title, last making it to the league final in the 2010-11 season.
What’s new: The top additions this offseason for Boris Rybalka come in the form of 1996-born forward Josh Zablocki and 1996-born defenceman Joseph Tambasco. Both Zablocki and Tambasco had significant campaigns for the teams they were on should get a chance to grow on those numbers with the Kodiaks. The Kodiaks also recruited the best-named player in the entire league in Jack McCool.
Team’s outlook: The Kodiaks will once again be making a strong challenge for supremacy in the South Division. A strong combination of veteran experience and talented young players will make the Kodiaks contenders once again. Big production out of the team’s emerging younger talent from last year like Ryan Hartman, Liam Motley, Angus Scott and Estian Coetzee should help keep the Kodiaks in contention, but it’s unclear what it’ll take to loosen the Bandits’ grip on the South Division. Expected to lead the group of overages will be Mackenzie Bauer, whose 25 goals last year ranked him third on the team.
Record last year: 26-27-7 (Fourth in the South Division, Lost in second round to Brooks)
Quick stats: The Eagles scored 205 goals last season, marking the first time since the 2009-10 season that they had reached that plateau. Unfortunately, the increase in offence didn’t coincide with a drop in goals allowed as the Eagles allowed 240 goals, the most since their total of 257 in the 2011-12 campaign. The team had nine players record double digit goals last season, the most in at least the last decade.
What’s new: Mitch Zambon of Saskatoon could be a player to watch. With the outgoing core of forwards due to age, Zambon, who had 17 goals and 35 points at the Midget AAA level, could find himself in a growing offensive role. Colton Young isn’t new to the eagles, having played eight games with the team, but the forward could play a big role soon enough. After a 20-goal, 39 point campaign in the AMHL, Young added a goal and an assist in eight games with the Eagles. The 2016-17 season could be a breakout year for the 1998-born forward.
Team’s outlook: The main producers of last years offensive awakening came courtesy of Logan Ferguson and Matt Forchuk, who combined to score 49 goals and 144 points. Replicating that offensive success again for the pair, as well as the team’s depth players again this year would go a long way in ensuring another year of home-ice advantage in the first round of the Gas Drive Cup Playoffs. The team had four of their top ten scorers last year age out, so replacing them may prove to be challenging in the short term. In bringing back Ryan Bontorin and Ryan Gilchrist, the team should expect bigger things in Bontorin’s final year of junior hockey and Gilchrist’s sophomore season.
Record last year: 25-29-6 (Fifth in the South Division, Lost in first round to Canmore)
Quick stats: Last year’s total of 56 points was the lowest put up by the team since the 2011-12 season and marked the first time they didn’t have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs since that season as well. Ten of the team’s 11 games between Nov. 18 and Dec. 16 will be at home, and ten of the Dragons’ final 13 games are on the road. Finding success in both stretches will go a long way in determining their season.
What’s new: Following a strong second season in the league with the Drayton Valley Thunder, Jordan Taupert was sent to the Dragons to complete a futures trade before the roster cutdown date in late November 2015. In two seasons, Taupert has missed only two games, recording 18 goals and 43 points. He should provide an immediate offensive boost to the Dragons.
Team’s outlook: With a wave of offseason trades, the Dragons’ success this year could hinge their ability to find chemistry. The offseason changes could result in as many as 10 of the team’s top point producers last season. The additions of Austen Wong and Mitch Scott should help the team’s offence find their form while players like Evan Tschumi and Taupert will be expected to be contributors as well. Rookies from last year like Will Van Der Sloot will likely look to get the most out of a full AJHL campaign after two goals and four points in a limited eight-game audition last season.
Record last year: 32-25-3 (Third in the South Division, Lost in second round to Camrose)
Quick stats: The last year the Oilers finished outside of the top three of the South Division regular season standings was in their inaugural campaign during the 2005-06 season, when finished fifth. Similarly, their 67 points in the 2015-16 campaign were the fewest since that season as well.
What’s new: The team swapped out head coach James Poole for Tyler Deis in the biggest move of the offseason. Riley Morris will be the oldest goaltender in the Oilers organization this year and will look to replicate and improve upon his 21-win season last year.
Team’s outlook: The Oilers are one of those teams that have always been a formidable challenge to any opponent in recent years, but haven’t had that formulate into results beyond winning a pair of regular season division titles. The Oilers have made it past the first round in nine of the 11 seasons they’ve been in existence, which is commendable, but the desire to win beyond the second or third round of the playoffs has to be on the team’s mind. It’s hard to say the Oilers should be so much more when they guarantee themselves a date against the perennial contenders from Brooks and Camrose in the second round of the playoffs pretty much every year. With a new head coach at the helm, the Oilers may take time to adjust before attempting to solve the perpetual problem once and for all.
Record last year: 16-40-4 (Seventh in the South Division, Lost in first round to Camrose)
Quick stats: Getting into the playoffs hasn’t been a problem for the Grizzlys, who have qualified every year since missing out in the 2004-05 season, but finding success has been another story. The Grizzlys’ last playoff victory came March 12, 2014 against the Okotoks Oilers. Since then, they’ve been swept in three straight series. Regular season success also eluded the team last year as their record yielded the fewest points for the team since the 1986-87 season where they recored a 9-49-2 record for 20 points.
What’s new: Entering his final season of junior hockey, Landon Gross will get his second chance to play in his home province after being traded to the Grizzlys in August. Gross put together a solid 2015-16 campaign, scoring 21 goals and 39 points in 44 games after 18 goals and 31 points the season before. In 57 career AJHL games, albeit with the Grande Prairie Storm, Gross has just seven goals and 15 points. His second opportunity in the AJHL may prove to be different.
Team’s outlook: Like the Oilers, it’s hard to measure what the team’s realistic expectations for the season should be when they’re forced to go up against the Brooks Bandits or Camrose Kodiaks every other year. A four-game set at the end of September will see them face Brooks, Sherwood Park, Camrose and Whitecourt in the span of 10 days.