Bonnyville Pontiacs 37-19-4 (fourth in the North Division, lost in the second round to Fort McMurray)
Graduating Players: Gen Bryshun, Erik Donald, Alden Dupuis, Ryan Piche, Tyler Podgorenko, Ryan Symington.
Trade Acquisitions: Lucas Thorne (Alberni Valley).
The Pontiacs will be without a number of essential players from last year’s lineup with six players graduating including captain and heart and soul of the team Ryan Symington. They could find themselves to be vulnerable on the blue line with six players from their defence no longer with them. Second-year defenceman, Zach Aston will be their most experienced blueliner after playing 52 games – including 8 playoff games – in his rookie season. Some promising news for the Pontiacs is that Arizona State commit Derek Brown will be returning for his final year of junior. They will also have back both Brandon Whistle – 45 PTS in 44 GP – and PJ Morocco – 47 PTS in 58 GP. The three of them will be relied upon the most in that Bonnyville offence. However, they won’t be the only offensive weapons the Pontiacs have. Isaac Saniga – 33 PTS in 55 GP – is expected to continue where he left off last season and become a key secondary scorer for them. Also, the recently acquired Lucas Thorne from the Alberni Valley Bulldogs, should be a player to keep an eye on. The Pontiacs will again have Sandro Silvestre between the pipes keeping their goaltending intact.
Key to Success: With so much inexperience on the blue line, the Pontiacs will have to lean on veteran forwards Brown, Morocco, and Whistle. The three of them are all more than capable of handling the pressure. Brown was only one point from leading the team in points in 2017, Whistle was a point-per-game player, and Morocco was clutch for them in the playoffs scoring seven points in nine games. Once the defence comes around some of the pressure will be lifted. However, to kick off the year they will have to hit the ground running.
Drayton Valley Thunder: 17-39-4 (sixth in the North Division, lost in the first round to Spruce Grove)
Graduating Players: Matt Benko, Tyler Benko, Anthony Orubor, Rhett Wilcox.
Trade Acquisitions: Sam De Melo (Prince George Spruce Kings), Dryden Wust (Melville Millionaires), Brayden Richards (Notre Dame Hounds), Josh Borynec (Spruce Grove Saints).
A common trend seems to be occurring in Drayton Valley: for the fifth time in seven seasons the Thunder finished as the sixth seed in the North Division. If the Thunder want to snap that streak they will need a “we before me” attitude. The Valley will be without Rhett Wilcox, who was team leader in points in 2017; the hope is that Josh Borynec – acquired from the Saints in the Tobin trade – can step into his role. The belief around the organization is that he will have his best year yet. Defensively, the Thunder are looking to tighten up after conceding 252 times, in 2017. They have brought in Sam De Melo and Brayden Richards to help out the cause. Their will be a familiar face between the pipes with Joseph McLeod returning.
Key to Success: The biggest key for the Thunder will be to stay committed. They had so many games last season where they lost by one goal which could have easily gone the other way. Drayton Valley will not be blowing teams out of the water offensively, they will have to keep games close and low scoring. With wins comes confidence, and with such an inexperienced roster the Thunder will need confidence.
Fort McMurray Oil Barons 44-13-3 (first in the North Division, lost in the division final to Whitecourt)
Graduating Players: Jackson McKinstry, Brandon Ralph, Toby Shattler, Jordan Steenbergen, Stefan Wood.
Trade Acquisitions: Jesse Zaharichuk (Sherwood Park Crusaders), Reed Morrison (Calgary Canucks)
After a trip to the North Division final in 2017, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons will look to repeat the success they had last season, only this time change the final result. They will have a strong veteran back end with All-League Team defenceman Curtis Roach returning for his 20-year old season, along with Taner Miller and JC Thivierge. The Oil Barons did trade away Kyler Newman to the Calgary Canucks, showing the confidence they have in the young players coming in like Noah Kallichuk and Ryan Conroy. Goaltending will also not be an issue for them with Eric Szudor returning. Offensively, however, the Barons will be without leading point scorer and captain Brandon Ralph, which will be a tough obstacle for them to overcome. Also, with returning forwards Ryan Cox and Shane Fraser, the Barons will be hoping they can bring have the same offensive impact they had the year prior.
Key to Success: There are few, if any, better than Eric Szudor in the AJHL. Szudor performed at an elite level for the Barons in 2017 helping them secure 27 wins – six of them shutouts – whilst posting a 2.16 GAA. The Barons do have a similar lineup to the one that saw them make it to the North Division Final, however, if they want to push themselves over the hump Szudor will have to be in top form.
Grande Prairie Storm 15-38-7 (seventh in the North Division, lost in the first round to Whitecourt)
Graduating Players: Dolan Bjornson, Brendan Montgomery, Adam Wilson.
Trade Acquisitions: Christopher Lanouette (Terrebonne Cobres), Edouard Michaud (St Gabriel), Justin Bernier (Princeville Titans).
The Storm are heading into the season as a much-improved team from 2017. With key players returning and the acquisition of numerous players with major junior hockey experience, Grande Prairie is looking to continue to push themselves up the North Division standings. Former QMJHL forward Edouard Michaud has been the spearhead of the charge, having himself an excellent pre-season and actually grabbing himself a hat-trick against North Division champions the Whitecourt Wolverines. With Michaud in the lineup and star forward Michael Clarke, the Storm could one of the most threatening offence in the North. On the back end, Grande Prairie has been looking to improve in any way they can after leaking goals last season: finishing with the most goals against in the North. They have brought in Christopher Lanouette, a ‘97 born defenceman who has experience playing in the QMJHL. Grande Prairie will also have Tyrell Boucher, Carter Wolski, and Walker Cote returning. The goaltending situation will be much different than the one we saw last season. Charles-Olivier Levesque – former Rimouski Oceanic netminder – and Ethan Slobodzian will stand as the Storms’ last line of defence in hope that they can bring that goals against number down.
Key to Success: The Storms’ biggest strength will be their offence. They already have Michael Clarke – 62 PTS in 60 GP – who was their only consistent offensive weapon in 2017. Parker Smyth started to find his groove after they acquired him from the Spruce Grove Saints – 25 PTS in 29 GP. Continuing, based on their preseason performances, neither Michaud and Bernier have found it difficult to adjust to the AJHL style. You can even add Dallas Comeau into that mix, he is a returning player who finished second on the team in scoring – 30 PTS in 60 GP. With the offence they have this team could find themselves in the top half of the division.
Lloydminster Bobcats 15-42-3 (eighth in the North Division)
Graduating Players: Austin Ehret, Scott Ivey.
Trade Acquisitions: Andrew McCann (Kindersley Klippers).
It’s safe to say it was a tough season for the Bobcats after finishing eighth and missing out on the playoffs, following a second place finish in the North and a trip to the RBC Cup final the year before. Now, Lloydminster should be feeling some optimism heading into this year’s campaign. They have a number of core players returning including their leading point scorer Kobe Walker and Western Michigan commit Daniel Hilsendager. Their forward group will include many familiar faces with seven players returning, most of them capable of playing a top six role. Hilsendager will lead a young group on the back end, along with returnee Evan Wood and newly acquired veteran Andrew McCann. As for goaltending, the loss of Austin McGrath will be a huge blow to this team after he opted to start his collegiate career at Cornell University. He will be tough to replace; as of right now it would seem that Reece Klassen will be getting the nod.
Key to Success: The Bobcats goal will be to get back to the playoffs. With the offensive group they have returning that goal should easily be met. They have had a year to mesh and gain chemistry; it is now time to put all that to the test and excel whilst doing so. If their offence can get rolling there is really no reason as to why this team cannot make the playoffs, even with the uncertainty they have between the pipes.
Sherwood Park Crusaders 32-25-3 (fifth in the North Division, lost in the first round to Bonnyville)
Graduating Players: Gage Joel, Tyler Maltby, Ben Sowa, Chase Torontow, Tanner Younghans.
Trade Acquisitions: Ryan McKinnon (Melville Millionaires), Kole Bryks (Melville Millionaires), Brendan Kallis (Steinbach Pistons), Dylan Stewart (Bonnyville Pontiacs).
With only five players returning from last year’s roster, second year Head Coach Adam Manah and GM Kyle Chase were able to hit the restart button in Sherwood Park. Fortunately for the Crusaders, one of the returnees is 68 point man and highly skilled forward Ty Readman. It is likely that the Crusaders could have up to eight rookie forwards with five of them finishing in the top 30 of Alberta Midget Hockey League (AMHL) points. On the defensive side, the Crusaders will have a new look blueline led by veterans Kole Bryks and Brendan Kallis. Between the pipes, standout playoff performer Brandon Vogel will be relied on often throughout their 2018 campaign.
Key to Success: When Ty Readman plays well, the Crusaders will play well. He has the ability to make other players around him better with his great vision and puck movement. Also, do not underestimate his scoring ability, in 2017 Readman tucked home 23 goals, good enough for third on the team. Watch out for the Readman connecting with rookie Garrett Clegg this season, the two of them looked good together during pre-season.
Spruce Grove Saints 40-18-2 (third in the North Division, lost in the second round to Whitecourt)
Graduating Players: Eric Benshadle, Cole Chorney, Dexter McLeod, Brett Smythe, Jordan Thomas,
Trade Acquisitions: Chris Van Os-Shaw (Humboldt Broncos), Parker Tobin (Drayton Valley Thunder), Jamison Ree (Weyburn).
The Spruce Grove Saints will be feeling optimistic heading into the season with 11 players returning including leading point scorer Josh Harris. The Saints added, even more, experience to their lineup with the acquisitions of Chris Van Os-Shaw, Parker Tobin, and Jamison Ree: the three of them combine for over 200 junior games played. Goaltending will be solid once again for the Saints with Nolan Kent coming back after a promising rookie season and the acquisition of Drayton Valley goaltender Parker Tobin. In front of them, the Saints will have a young yet experienced defensive unit with Jamison Ree being their only ‘97 born defenceman. Up in the offensive zone, the Saints should have a deadly attack with the Josh Harris leading the way along with the newly acquired Chris Van Os-Shaw. Logan Gaine should also have a solid season if he can continue where he left of the previous year. Overall, Spruce Grove should be challenging for the top spot in the North all season.
Key to Success: The biggest key to the Saints success is simple. If the players can perform at the level they are capable of they will be a dominant force. They have top quality players at every position and arguable the best roster in the North. Nolan Kent will lead by example at the back whilst Josh Harris and his forward group will finish off the job up front. If the Saints can all get on the same page they will be the team to beat in the North.
Graduating Players: Kellan Cornelis, Eric Krienke, Mitch Lipon, Colton Meekhof, Morgan Messenger, Nick Quillan.
Trade Acquisitions: Tyr Thompson (Olds Grizzlys), Brayden Labant (Melville Millionaires), Marc-Antoine Benoit (Princeville Titans), Joshua Dobberthien (Calgary Canucks).
There will be many unfamiliar faces in Whitecourt after they faced a summer of player departures. The organization said goodbye to one of the AJHL’s best goaltenders in Pierce Diamond, along with All-League Team forwards Joseph Nardi and Joseph Young. Unlike last year, the Wolverines won’t have the star power up front; instead, they will be a known as a more balanced offence. Liam Motley will be looked towards to lead the Wolverines offensive charge and he will want to continue where he left off – 39 PTS in 39 GP. Motley won’t be their only weapon with newly acquired forward Tyr Thompson – 49 PTS in 60 GP – stepping into the lineup from the Olds Grizzlys. Coach Thibodeau will be wanting both Jaedon Leslie and Cody Laskosky to build off last season and step into bigger roles for the club. On the blue line, Whitecourt is looking in good shape with a trio of ‘98 born defencemen returning – Ryan Grant, Tanner Foster, and Noah Tooke – all of whom played 45 or more games in their rookie season. Between the pipes, Pierce Diamond will be replaced by former QMJHL netminder Xavier Potvin. Potvin spent the past two seasons with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens and if the name sounds familiar that's because he is the son of former NHLer Felix Potvin.
Key to Success: The Wolverines have a weapon that no other team in the league has and he goes by the name of Gord Thibodeau. With the knowledge and experience Thibodeau brings, he will be able to find away to give his team a chance every single night. Plus, he is going to want to hit that 900 game win mark sooner rather than later.
Story by Liam Horrobin