2018 Viterra AJHL South Division Preview

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Tonight marks the start of the 2018-19 AJHL Regular Season!  We take a look at the the Viterra AJHL South Division heading into Opening Weekend:

Brooks Bandits 45W-14L-1OTL (2nd in the South)

For the first time since 2014, the Brooks Bandits did not represent the South Division in the AJHL finals. The Bandits fell short of their ultimate goal when the Okotoks Oilers eliminated them 4-2 in the best-of-seven South Division Final.

This season, Brooks is the host of the National Junior A Championship, a competition which they were crowned champions of back in 2013. With a National Championship berth coming at the end of the season, no matter the outcome of the regular season, the Bandits have loaded up on top end talent in preparation. Nick Hale (99 – Holy Cross Crusaders), Andranik Armstrong (99 – UMass-Lowell River Hawks), and Thomas Samuelsen (99 – Connecticut Huskies) are all coming in from south of the border. A couple of Alberta products heading to Brooks are Eric Olson (99) who spent last season in the NAHL, and Taylor Makar (01) from the Calgary MAAA Flames. Now that Mitch Benson (97) has moved onto college, Brooks brought in two new goaltenders in Pierce Charleson (00) and Max Wright (99). Charleson was with Caledonia (GOJHL) last season where he had a 1.51 GAA in 21 games, which was the best in the league. Also coming in from the GOJHL is Max Wright (99) who too had a good season out east with a 2.11 GAA to go with a 0.926 SV5.

A few returning for the Bandits are forward Simon Boyko (99 – Vermont Catamounts), defencemen Luke Bast (00 – North Dakota Fighting Hawks), and Brandon Scanlin (99 – Colgate Raiders). This trio will be three of the best players in the AJHL this season.

The road to the National Championship for the Bandits begins against the Dragons at the Drumheller Memorial Arena on opening night. Their home opener comes against the same team one week later. Okotoks is in town for the first time on Thanksgiving Monday for a rematch of the South Division finals. On November 16th, the defending AJHL champs, the Spruce Grove Saints, travel to Brooks for their lone visit of the 2019 season. Brooks’ season ends with a visit from the Oilers on March 2nd.

Calgary Canucks 26W-32L-2OTL (6th in the South)

The Calgary Canucks could not repeat the success they had in 2017 – when they finished third – and dropped down to sixth in the South Division standings. A disappointing post-season saw them eliminated by the Drumheller Dragons in round one.

The Canucks are expected to have a young line-up this season with only a small number of players returning. A couple of names expected to be back at the Ken Bracko Arena are Cooper Johnson (98), Tyler Petrie (99), and Zach Russell (99). The new veteran faces joining are defenceman Adamu Tanaka (98) and forward Justin Giacomin (00) from the Canmore Eagles. They came over in a trade which had Mark Drohan (98) head the other way. Another newcomer is Braden Paquette (00) who was with cross city rivals, the Mustangs, last season. Paquette had 13 points in his first year of junior hockey.

Darryl Olsen and his Canucks open up the season with a limited travel schedule in their first five contests. Calgary welcomes the Canmore Eagles and Brooks Bandits to the Ken Bracko Arena on opening weekend. A couple of trips to the Father David Bauer Arena to face off against the Mustangs and another home game against the Olds Grizzlys wrap up the Canucks schedule before heading into Showcase Weekend in Camrose. On November 10th, Calgary gets their first opportunity at revenge against Drumheller when the Dragons travel to Calgary. Their regular season ends on March 1st against crosstown rivals the Mustangs.

Calgary Mustangs 24W-29L-7OTL (5th in the South)

It was a tremendous season for the Calgary Mustangs. They improved their record, from 2017, by 37 points which helped them finish fifth and make it back to the post-season. The success they had in the regular season could not be replicated in the playoffs. They were swept 3-0 by the Camrose Kodiaks in the first round; however, their disappointing playoff run did not take anything away from what the Mustangs achieved.

Head Coach, Tyler Drader brought in three new players via trade, all from the Okotoks Oilers. First, defenceman Reece Soukoroff joined the Mustangs on June 1st in a deal which saw Ayden Roche-Setoguchi (98) head back to Okotoks. His two former Oiler teammates, goaltender Ben Howard (00) and forward Cole Basnett (00) joined him soon after in Calgary in exchange for forward Louis Jamernik (00). Howard was phenomenal for Okotoks, especially at the start of the season when Riley Morris was sidelined. The Calgary native won his first nine starts in the AJHL and finished the season with 22 wins. With himself and Ashton Abel (99) between the pipes, the Mustangs are going to have one of the best one-two punches in the league.

A big boost to the Mustangs line-up will be the return of their top four scorers from last season: Joseph Karpyshyn (98), Daniel Rybarik (99), Chase Miller (98), and Brady Barclay (98).

The Mustangs’ season gets going on Friday against the Grizzlys at the Olds Sportsplex. Following that, Calgary is back home for four straight games at the Father David Bauer against the Canmore Eagles and Calgary Canucks. December is a month with limited travelling required. The Mustangs have six of their nine games at the Father David Arena and also a game against the Canucks at the Ken Bracko Arena. Their other two contests come against the Eagles and Drumheller Dragons. However, the little travel in December comes back around in January for when they travel to four different North Division arenas. Drader’s Mustangs wrap up their regular season on March 3rd against the Drumheller Dragons.

Camrose Kodiaks 24W-24L-12OTL (4th in the South)

General Manager and Head Coach Boris Rybalka guided his Kodiaks team to the post-season once again after a fourth-place finish in the South. They faced a tough task in the second round going up against the future South Division Champions, the Okotoks Oilers. Camrose fought hard against the Oilers and gave Okotoks a run for their money. The 4-0 series sweep does not represent how the series was played.

Camrose is going to be an experienced veteran team this season with 16 players expected to return. They will be strong in goal with Griffin Bowerman (00) and Luke Lush (98) holding down the fort. On the blueline, they should have a strong starting six with five of them playing with the Kodiaks in 2018. The two rookies coming in are Adam Kolcon (00) who was with Victory Honda U18 where he had 21 points (8 goals, 13 assists) in 32 games. Also, another newcomer is Lane Brockhoff (00) who plays an offensive style of play too. The forward group will be led by Kyler Kupka (99 – Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks) who is coming off a career year with the Kodiaks.

Kupka and the rest of the Kodiaks get going in Camrose on Friday with a contest against the Okotoks Oilers, then on Saturday the Drumheller Dragons are in town. They hit the road for the first time with a trip Spruce Grove followed by a weekend in Okotoks and Brooks. The Kodiaks also will also host the AJHL’s Showcase Weekend, again, where they challenge the Grande Prairie Storm and Sherwood Park Crusaders. In January, Camrose kicks off 2019 with a three-game homestand against the Bonnyville Pontiacs, Calgary Canucks, and Calgary Mustangs. On March 2nd, Camrose closes out their regular season against the Canmore Eagles.

Canmore Eagles 21W-37L-2OTL (7th in the South)

The Eagles 2018 season did not go quite as planned. After finishing second the season before, Canmore struggled to recover from losing their three leading scorers – Matt Forchuk (96 – Quinnipiac Wildcat), Logan Ferguson (97 – Holy Cross Crusaders), and Braden Saretsky (96) – which resulted in them falling to seventh in the South. And for the second-straight season, they were eliminated in the first round of the post-season.

With the departure of so many veterans, Canmore relied on the Young brothers to lead the team offensively. The oldest Young, Colton, tripled his point total going from 22 to 68 while his younger brother, Alex, had a great rookie season scoring 50 points and finishing second in team scoring. The Eagles also had breakout seasons from Jake Ashton (98), Tian Risk (99), and Quinton Ong (99 – Yale Bulldogs). One of those breakout stars, Ashton is no longer with the Eagles after he was sent to the Olds Grizzlys. Heading into the new season, Canmore is going to have a couple of veteran goaltenders in St Albert native Thomas Davis (98) and Logan Dyck (99) from Calgary. While the numbers were not significantly impressive for either goalie last season, they are both good goaltenders and will play a key role in whatever success the Eagles have in 2019.

Canmore will play seven games on the road before they play a game on home ice due to arena construction. The opponents that day are no other than South Division Champions, the Okotoks Oilers, a team the Eagles only beat once last season. Canmore will be at home after that game for four of their next six games. Christmas time will be full of hockey at the Canmore Recreation Centre with the Eagles scheduled for seven home games. In the New Year, the Eagles will make the short journey down the highway to Banff for a game against the Calgary Canucks. On March 2nd, they close out their regular season against the Camrose Kodiaks at the Encana Arena.

Drumheller Dragons 33W-22L-5OTL (3rd in the South)

The Drumheller Dragons got the Kevin Hasselberg era off to a fantastic with an appearance in the second round of the playoffs, along with their highest regular season finish since 2014. A new Dragon star was born in Jordan Taupert, who had himself an MVP calibre season with his 74 points (30 goals, 44 assists) and earned himself an invite to the Team Canada West World Junior A Challenge camp alongside his two teammates Hunter Virostek (98) and Markus Boguslavsky (99).

Along with those three returning players, Drumheller is going to have ten returning players making them one of the more experienced teams in the South. One player to watch out for is forward Alex Rotundo (98). Rotundo was only able to play in 25 regular season games last season, but still made a significant impact on the team with his 26 points (16 goals, 10 assists). He continued his strong play into the post-season scoring 10 points (3 goals, 7 assists) in as many games. He’s played at a point-per-game rate the past two seasons, and this year could be his year to break through and be one of the league's top scorers.

The Dragons have a tough start to their season with three of their first five games coming against the Brooks Bandits twice and South Division Champion Okotoks Oilers. Drumheller and Brooks have a fierce rivalry so we should expect that matchup on September 14th to be an exciting game. In the off season, the Dragons made a deal with the Sherwood Park Crusaders that brought Aiden Yakimchuk (00) and Josh Brindza (99) to Drumheller. Going the other way were forwards Brett Wieschorster (01 – Vermont Catamounts) and Tyson Scott (99). They will take on their former teammates for the first time on November 16th at home. On January 4th, they start 2019 off with a matchup against the Bandits in back-to-back games. Their season then concludes at the Drumheller Memorial Arena on March 3rd against the Calgary Mustangs.

Okotoks Oilers 52W-6L-2OTL (1st in the South)

To say last season was a phenomenal one for the Okotoks Oilers would be the understatement. They broke the record for the longest winning streak in league history, had their best season in franchise history, and saw two of their players drafted into the NHL. The only disappointment they had all season was their loss to the Spruce Grove Saints in the AJHL Finals which, of course, was not how they wanted to end their historic year.

Coming back to help the Oilers win their first championship is forward Dylan Holloway (01 – Wisconsin Badgers). Holloway had a great summer away with Team Canada adding an Ivan Hlinka Gretzky Cup goal medal to his collection. He will be heading into his second year of junior hockey and his coming off a 27-point season. Austin Wong (00 – Harvard Crimson) is also heading back to Okotoks after being drafted 215th overall by the Winnipeg Jets. For the first time since 2015, there is going to be a new face between the pipes for the Oilers with Riley Morris (97 – Mount Royal Cougars) moving on to the college level. Nolan Hildebrand seems likely to take over the role after being acquired from Penticton in July. Hildebrand had a 2.42 GAA in 19 games for the Vees along with a 0.910 SV%. It’s looking like he will be backed up by rookie Brady Parker (00) who was with the IHA Midget Prep program in 2018.

Oilers fans get a first chance at watching their team in action on September 21st when the Camrose Kodiaks are in town. That came comes after they open up the season on the road in Camrose followed by a trip to Olds. It is not long before they get a chance at redemption against the Spruce Grove Saints with the two of them scheduled to faceoff at Showcase Weekend. The Saints are not in Okotoks until late February. They meet Brooks for the first time on October 8th at the Bandits home arena. The two of them also close out the season against one another on March 2nd.

Olds Grizzlys 18W-37L-5OTL (8th in the South)

It was a tough season for the Grizzlys. Olds missed out on the playoffs for the first time since 2005, which came after a season with saw them knock off the second-seeded Canmore Eagles in the playoffs.

To get back to the playoffs, Olds will have forwards Cody Laskosky (99), Dylan Williamson (98), and Josh Borynec (98) all returning and should give them some good offensive firepower. On the blueline, they have brought in Matthew Kasowski (99) from the Spruce Grove Saints to help tighten them up defensively. Dressing between the pipes for Olds is Duncan Hughes (00) who was signed from the Red Deer MAAA Chiefs of AMHL. Hughes had a good year with the Chiefs (2.14 GAA, 0.911 SV%) and earned himself two call ups to the Grizzlys lineup. When with his new Junior team he posted an outstanding 0.935 SV% against the Canmore Eagles and Okotoks Oilers. If he can play at that sort of level for the Grizzlys in his rookie season, Hughes could guide them back to the post-season.

Their journey back to the playoffs begins on Friday with a home game against the Calgary Mustangs followed by a visit from the Okotoks Oilers on Saturday. Their matchups against the North Division teams get going early when they make the trip to the Sherwood Park Arena on September 23rd. Olds’ schedule is very evenly spread out with their one real home stretch coming at the start of November with the Calgary Canucks and games versus the Calgary Mustangs and Drayton Valley. The Grizzlys regular season ends on March 2nd against the Drumheller Dragons at the Olds Sportsplex.

Story by Liam Horrobin