2018 Viterra AJHL North Division Preview

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The 2018-19 AJHL Regular Season starts Friday night!  Here is a look at the eight teams that make up the Viterra AJHL North Division:

Bonnyville Pontiacs 20W-32L-8OTL (7th in the North)

The Bonnyville Pontiacs hit the reset button midway through last season trading away stars like Derek Brown (97), PJ Morocco (97 – Arizona State Sun Devils), and Brandon Whistle (97).  They finished 7th in the North, which was their lowest finish in 16 years, and were swept 3-0 in the first round against the Fort McMurray Oil Barons.

General Manager and Head Coach, Rick Swan has revamped his roster from top to bottom. Headlining the off-season acquisitions is goaltender Colby Muise (98) from North York (OJHL). Muise had a fantastic season in the OJHL posting a 1.81 GAA and a 0.934 SV% in 31 games for the Rangers. His fine form continued into the post-season where he had a 0.919 SV%. Muise could prove to be the most vital addition to the Pontiacs lineup this off-season. Swan also brought in former Salmon Arm (BCHL) captain Grayson Constable (98). Constable, a Lethbridge native, must have started out his Pontiacs career with a good impression as he has been named the organization's captain for the 2018/19 season. A few of the other newcomers are defenceman Sean Thomson (98) from the Grande Prairie Storm, forward Marc-Antoine Benoit (99) from the Drayton Valley Thunder, and Ty Enns (99) from the Penticton Vees.

There are some familiar faces with AJHL All-Rookie (North) team forward Lucas Thorne (99) returning for his second season in Bonnyville, along with his fellow Ontario native defenceman Luke Albert (98) and forward Bobby Young (98). They also have Isaac Saniga (00) returning for his third year of AJHL hockey, and he still has two years to play. Injuries held him back last season, but we could see the Spruce Grove native have a breakout season with the Pontiacs.

Bonnyville plays three games on the road – Whitecourt twice and then Sherwood Park – before their home opener against the Crusaders on Friday, September 21st. That same weekend they host the Fort McMurray Oil Barons for the first time since they were eliminated from the post-season. December could prove to be a tough month for them with six of their seven scheduled games on the road all against North Division opponents. That heavy road schedule in December is made up to them with 14 of their last 23 games being played at the RJ Lalonde Arena. The Pontiacs finish up their regular season against the Whitecourt Wolverines.

Drayton Valley Thunder 17W-40L-3OTL (8th in the North)

It’s the start of a new era in Drayton Valley. After finishing in the AJHL’s basement, the Thunder went out and got their guy in Eric Thurston who was hired as the team’s new General Manager and Head Coach back in March.

Thurston began by establishing a veteran presence from his blueline bringing in a couple of veterans in Tanner Foster (98) from the Whitecourt Wolverines, and Zach Aston (98) from the Bonnyville Pontiacs. The two of them have over 100 AJHL games and are coming off career years with their former teams. Aston won’t be the only Aston joining the Thunder with his younger brother Jake joining the team too. Other new veterans who are calling Drayton Valley home this season are Jeremy Klessens (99) from the Olds Grizzlys, Tanner Hopps (00) from the Penticton Vees (BCHL) and James Orban (98) and Bradley Ong (99) from the Alberni Valley Bulldogs (BCHL).

This new look Thunder team fared well in the pre-season with wins against the Spruce Grove Saints, Olds Grizzlys, and Camrose Kodiaks. Coach Thurston will be looking for that form to continue when they take on Sherwood Park in back-to-back games this weekend. Throughout November and December, the Thunder are only away from the Drayton Valley Omniplex for nine games. That long stretch of home games will be a period in which the Thunder will need to capitalize on; especially with eight of those games being against North teams. Then in January they are on the road for eight of their 12 games that month. Their final game of the regular season comes on March 3rd against the Fort McMurray Oil Barons.

Fort McMurray Oil Barons 42W-13L-15OTL (2nd in the North)

The Fort McMurray Oil Barons are looking to continue their strong regular season form of the last couple of seasons and take the next step towards winning an AJHL Championship.

Head Coach Tom Keca is going to be without many key contributors from last year, with eight players from the 2018 roster moving onto the collegiate level. Amongst those on the departing list are 48 goal man, Will Conley (97 – Holy Cross Crusaders), goaltender of the year nominee, Eric Szudor (97 – University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves), and Captain Shane Fraser (97 – NAIT Ooks). Even with the significant turnover in players, the Oil Barons should have 15 players returning for another year of AJHL hockey, including AJHL All-Rookie (North) Team goaltender Chris Curr (99). Curr posted impressive numbers in his first year of junior hockey finishing with a 2.39 GAA, 0.922 SV% and had 16 wins in 25 games. They’ll also have both defenceman Taner Miller (98) and forward Liam Izyk (98) returning; both of whom served as assistant captains last season.

Coming into the team are three new players – all with junior hockey experience from other leagues. Brought in from the RBC Cup Champions, the Chilliwack Chiefs, is defenceman Sean McCloskey (00). McCloskey is heading into his second season of junior hockey and has played in 39 games, all with the Chiefs, tallying three points – all assists. Also going north to Fort McMurray are a pair WHLers in Kole Gable (98) and Brendan Stafford (00). Gable is forward who has played in 166 WHL games with both the Edmonton Oil Kings and Swift Current Broncos. Back in 2015, he played in four regular season games for the Barons and also played five games in the Western Canada Cup when Fort McMurray were the hosts. As for Stafford, he spent last season with the Lethbridge Hurricanes. Before that, the Sherwood Park native played a full 60 game schedule with his hometown Crusaders scoring 24 points (6 goals, 18 assists) before moving onto Lethbridge.

Fort McMurray wrapped up their pre-season schedule in strong fashion with back-to-back victories over the Lloydminster Bobcats. They’ll open up their season at the Casman Centre with back-to-back games against the Grande Prairie Storm. Following that, they won’t be back home until October 5th with games against the Bobcats, the Bonnyville Pontiacs, the Drumheller Dragons (Showcase), and Canmore Eagles (Showcase) all coming up on their schedule. The Oil Barons faceoff against playoff rivals the Whitecourt Wolverines – the team which has eliminated them from the playoffs in back to back years – for the first time on November 16th at the Scott Safety Centre. Their final regular season game comes against the AJHL Champions, the Spruce Grove Saints, on March 3rd at the Grant Fuhr Arena.

Grande Prairie Storm 28W-29L-3OTL (4th in the North)

The Grande Prairie Storm made a massive jump up the standings last season, with a 32-point improvement and going from 7th to 4th in the North Division. On top of that, they eliminated the Sherwood Park Crusaders in five games in the first round of the post-season picking up their first series victory since 2010.

Head Coach, Matt Keillor made his team tough and hard to play against but also had a good number of skilled players in his lineup with four players averaging over a point-per-game – Justin Bernier (97), Edouard Michaud (97), Dallas Comeau (97), and Connor Blake (98). Over the summer, the Storm have moved 11 players via trade, ageing out, and to college. They’ve done an excellent job at replacing all that talent that has left by bringing in the right balance of veteran and rookie talent. A few of those players coming in are forward Alex Nordstrom (00) – All-time leading Scorer of his high school: Hancock Central – forwards Zach Webb (98) – the Calgary Canucks top scorer from 2018 – and defenceman Nolan Spadafore (99) – a CSSHL champion with Edge School Prep.

Heading into their 2019 campaign, Grande Prairie will be wanting to build off a spectacular 2018 and making it further in the pos-tseason. It does not start off easy for them with a trip to Fort McMurray to face the Oil Barons on back-to-back nights, followed by back-to-back home games against the Spruce Grove Saints and then the Whitecourt Wolverines heading into Showcase Weekend in Camrose. A good start to the season could prove to be vital in whatever success the Storm has. A date with the Sherwood Park Crusaders – a team who they battled it out for fourth place with – is on the schedule for October 27th when the Crusaders travel north to the Revolution Arena. Grande Prairie wraps up their regular season campaign in Sherwood Park on March 2nd.

Lloydminster Bobcats 23W-34L-3OTL (6th in the North)

The Lloydminster Bobcats made it back to the post-season in 2018 after finishing 6th in the North. They made a 16-point improvement to finish in their best regular season position since 2016. Despite being swept by the Whitecourt Wolverines in the first round, the Bobcats had a successful first season under Travis Clayton.

Now, to take that next step, Clayton has brought in former Melfort Mustangs (SJHL) star forward Drew Warkentine (98). Last season, he had 31 points (15 goals, 16 assists) in 36 games for the Mustangs after spending two years in the WHL with the Prince Albert Raiders. Another addition to the Bobcats lineup is 2000-born defenceman Mason Waite (00) from the Winnipeg Wild MAAA program. Waite is an offensive-minded defenceman and served as the Wild’s captain in 2018 when he scored 51 points (10 goals, 41 assists) in 48 games. Also coming in to help bolster the blueline is Ryley Hogan (00) from the Bonnyville Pontiacs.

One downfall for this team are the losses of three key contributors from their 2018 roster. They are going to be without captain Connor Odelein (97), leading scorer Kobe Walker (98), and AJHL Outstanding Defenceman nominee Daniel Hilsendager (00). Both Walker (RIT Tigers) and Odelein (Regina Cougars) are heading to the collegiate level while Hilsendager is moving to the USHL. 

The loss of those three players may have played an impact on the team's performance in the exhibition season. Lloydminster won only one of their seven pre-season games which came against the Bonnyville Pontiacs.

As we look ahead to the start of their 2019 campaign, a trip to the home of the AJHL champions, the Spruce Grove Saints, will be first on the card on Friday night. The next night they are back in Lloydminster for their home opener against the same opponent. Before going to Camrose for Showcase Weekend, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons are in town for back-to-back games, and then travel to the Drayton Valley Omniplex to play the Thunder. The Whitecourt Wolverines are in town for the first time since eliminating them from the playoffs on October 27th. The two of them will also kick off the Bobcats’ 2019 calendar year at the Centennial Centre Arena on January 2nd. Lloydminster closes out their 2018/19 regular season schedule against the Wolverines on March 2nd at the Scott Safety Centre.

Sherwood Park Crusaders 27W-31L-2OTL (5th in the North)

For the second-straight season, the Sherwood Park Crusaders, under Head Coach Adam Manah, finished 5th in the North Division and were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round. The roster was young and inexperienced with 12 rookies on their opening day line up against the Drayton Valley Thunder.

This season, that young and inexperienced lineup is full of experience and is looking to compete in the North. They are going to be without their three leading scorers from last season – Ty Readman (98 – Northern Michigan Wildcats), Ryan Cox (98 – Niagara Purple Eagles) and Dylan Stewart (97 – NAIT Ooks) – despite that, they have made plenty of moves to replace them. Rookie forward Carter Savoie (02 – Denver Pioneers) and Zafir Rawji (01) have built up great chemistry in the pre-season and could be two players up for the AJHL’s Rookie of the Year award come awards season. Joining them in that race could be defenceman Michael Benning (02 – Denver Pioneers) who is the younger brother of Edmonton Oiler Matt Benning. He’s an elite puck-moving defenceman who spent last season with NAX Elite 15s where he scored 49 points (14 goals, 35 assists) and was the league’s highest scoring defenceman.

Returning for the Crusaders are Arjun Atwal (99) who after returning from Saskatoon (WHL) became a point-per-game player, last year’s assistant captain Brandon Wallis (98), and William Zapernick (99) who led the team in rookie scoring. General Manager Kyle Chase made a big splash in the trade market recently to bolster up his forward group bringing in Tyson Scott (99) and Brett Wieschorster (01 – Vermont Catamounts) from the Drumheller Dragons.

Sherwood Park defeated the Olds Grizzlys in back-to-back games to finish off their pre-season schedule and head into their 2019 campaign. Their schedule started off similarly to last season with back-to-back games against the Drayton Valley Thunder. Last season, the Crusaders came away with maximum points against the Thunder and will be looking to do the same again; especially with rivals the Bonnyville Pontiacs coming to town the following Wednesday. In October, the Crusaders travel north to take on the Grande Prairie Storm for the first time since the Storm eliminated them from the post-season. That same month they also play host to crosstown rivals the Spruce Grove Saints. On December 15th, Sherwood Park plays an out of town home game for the residents of Vermillion against the Bonnyville Pontiacs. Their season comes to an end on March 2nd at the Sherwood Park Arena against the Storm.

Spruce Grove Saints 47W-10L-3OTL (1st in the North)

The Spruce Grove Saints had a fantastic 2018 season; securing their first AJHL championship since 2015 by defeating the Okotoks Oilers in five games. They fell short of making it to the RBC Cup losing 4-1 to Wenatchee (BCHL) in the Doyle Cup.

As the Saints head into their title-defending season, they are going to have to do it without 14 players from their championship winning team. To replace them, Head Coach Bram Stephen has brought in 11 new players including nine rookies. In the forward group Jake Ashton (98) was acquired from the Olds Grizzlys and is coming off a career-high season. The other newcomers are three rookies: Kris Bladen (00), Bruce MacGregor (01), and Stanley Cooley (02 – Northeastern Huskies). With four blueliners departing from their championship roster, Stephen decided to bring in a veteran defenceman to bolster his backend by adding Cody Babichuk (98 – RPI Engineers) from West Kelowna. That deal also left the Saints with no goaltenders on their roster with Hayden Missler (99) being part of that trade. Now, Spruce Grove is heading into the season with two rookie netminders in Braedan Stephen (00) and Matthew Davis (01).

Returning to Spruce Grove for his second season is forward Jordan Biro (00 – Denver Pioneers). Biro was one of the best rookie scorers in the AJHL with 32 points (8 goals, 24 assists) in 50 games. He followed up a strong regular season with an excellent post-season run scoring 10 points (3 goals, seven assists) in 13 appearances. Along with Biro, Logan Ganie (99) is heading back to Spruce Grove where he will be looking to continue his development after a 40-point season with the Saints. The two of them could be towards the top end of the AJHL scoring race at the end of the regular season.

The Saints start out their regular season with 8 of their first 11 games on the road including two games at Showcase Weekend. At Showcase, fans will be treated to a repeat of the 2018 AJHL finals when Saints go up against the Okotoks Oilers which should be a fantastic game to watch. When that streak of road games is over, they are back at the Grant Fuhr Arena for three straight games against North Division opponents the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, Drayton Valley Thunder, and, crosstown rivals the Sherwood Park Crusaders. The Saints travel to face off against fellow North Division finalist, the Whitecourt Wolverines, on October 23rd with the Wolverines then coming to Spruce Grove on November 14th. Their regular season schedule ends on March 3rd against the Oil Barons on home ice. 

Whitecourt Wolverines 33W-20-7OTL (3rd in the North)

The Whitecourt Wolverines had another successful season under Gord Thibodeau making it to the North Division final for the second straight season. Unfortunately for them, they were not able to make it to the AJHL final, like the year before, after losing 4-0 to the Spruce Grove Saints.

Whitecourt will be without the likes of forwards Liam Motley (97 – Cornell Big Red), Stevie Bryant (97 – UMass-Boston Beacons), and AJHL All-League (North) team goaltender Xavier Potvin (97 – Saint Mary’s Huskies) this season with them all moving onto the college level. Luckily, Jaedon Leslie (98) is returning for his final year of junior hockey after initially planning on going to Ohio State a year early. With Leslie now staying, if he can play in 48 games this season, he will pass Kellan Cornelis as the franchise’s all-time leader in games played. Along with Leslie, the Wolverines will have ten players returning from last season’s roster including leading goal scorer Ben Evanish (98).

To replace those who have departed Thibodeau brought in 11 new players. Charles-Olivier Ouimet (98) headlines the group after a stellar season with the Montreal-Est (QJHL) where he led his team with 65 points. Also coming in is Felix Meunier (99) who spent 15 games with the Drayton Valley Thunder last season.

Whitecourt starts their campaign with three straight home games and two of them against the Bonnyville Pontiacs, plus one versus the Thunder. A repeat of the 2017 AJHL finals will occur on October 13th when Whitecourt travels to Brooks to face the Bandits. Playoffs rivals, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons show up at the Scott Safety Centre for the first time on November 16th. Then heading into the holiday season, Whitecourt is at home for four straight games before getting on the bus for four away games. Their season wraps up on March 3rd against the Bonnyville Pontiacs.

Story by Liam Horrobin