AJHL North Division Preview

The North division of the Alberta Junior Hockey League is arguably among the most competitive among all Junior A loops across the country. And this year, it doesn't appear much will change in that regard. For the past few seasons, it has been the Spruce Grove Saints and Fort McMurray Oil Barons who have ruled the proverbial roost, as the other clubs have strived to hit their benchmark without success.  Either the Saints or MOB have earned top spot in the division and in many cases gone on to the league title for the past five seasons. Last year, it was Gord Thibodeau's Oil Barons who came out on top in the north before falling to the AJHL champion Brooks Bandits. It was a busy year for the Oilsands City crew who started a very long campaign representing the league at an international Junior A tourney in Russia at this time last year. While both of those teams are expected – as always – to be in the hunt, each of the other six franchises pose interesting and dynamic questions. Each year over the past three, we've asked is this the season Chad Mercier's Bonnyville Pontiacs can get over the hump? With the Sherwood Park Crusaders putting up some heady numbers in the exhibition season, are they the club to watch this season? The Grande Prairie Storm suffered through its worst AJHL season in franchise history, can they rebound? The Lloydminster Bobcats have had a complete changing of the guard in the front office – what will that mean on ice? Fran Gow's Drayton Valley Thunder have been on the steady rebuilding climb over the past two seasons, can they parlay that into playoff success? But the biggest question mark has to be the Whitecourt Wolverines. A lot of unknowns here, as the franchise – formerly the St. Albert Steel and Fort Saskatchewan Traders before that – finds new life in the booming norther Alberta city, where the Junior B “Wolverines” dominated its NWJBHL league for so many seasons.

Here's a team-by-team rundown

Bonnyville Pontiacs 2011-12: 34-26- 74 pts; fifth, lost to Sherwood Park Round 1. Key Returnees: Ty Carey, Tanner Dusyk, Tommy Barszcz, Swan McCormick, Klein (via trade) Key Departures: Blake Leask (University of Alaska Anchorage), Kevin Carthy (NAIT), Dante Borrelli (NAIT), Jordan Krankowsky (NAIT), Zach Beisel (Injury), Ryan Kearns (Portage College), Dylan Wells ( Providence NCAA Div 1), Coltan Waltz ( Brandon). Key Acquistions: TJ Fairall (via trade with Swan Valley MJHL), Stephen Klein goaltender, Nate Engert (via trade with Camrose), Dan Wedman (recruit), Sam Plaquin (recruit), Tom Kohler (recruit), Connor Garden (recruit), Spencer Foo (recruit), Brady Bakke ( recruit,  captain of Telus Cup winners Red Deer).

“We have some key departures that we hoped we filled and also have a good nucleus of forwards returning that we hope can improve on last year’s performances and so we are looking to improve on what was a disappointing end to our season,” says Head Coach/GM Chad Mercier, referring to a first-round exit at the hands of Sherwood Park. “The last 10 games game and playoffs of the 2011-2012 season did not the go the way we had hoped so we want to make amends for that this year.”  Mercier predicts the usual very tight competitive balance in the division this campaign and hopes his team will rise to the challenge. “I see the same as the last few years, very tight, real competitive with every game forcing us to be at our best to have any chance of success,” says Mercier. Mercier adds his team's key to success this year will be to stay healthy, have new defensive acquisitions step up and fill some voids of our key departures and  “have our leaders and core be our best players night in and night out.” “We have a great group of young men that buy into giving back to our community in a lot of different ways and that has become a big part of our culture,” says Mercier. “We have also showed the ability to be competitive year after year in a tough division and we are looking to improve on that which we know will be a difficult task.” ••• 

Drayton Valley Thunder 2011-12: 27-33- 60 pts, sixth, lost in second round to Spruce Grove. Key Returnees: (Forwards) Eric Sieben, Nathan Smith, Jordan Baillie. Defenders Luke Madil, Austin Yadlowski. Cody Nicolay in goal. Key Departures: Tyler Helton UConn, John Baird, Mount Royal, Austin McKay Lake Superior, Brant Sherwood Plymouth State, Trammell Lynes Concordia College (Wisconson), Jordan Abt NAIT, Jordan Thomas Concordie Wisconson  Key Acquisitions: Via trades, Tyler Hart (D)  rights from GP via Spruce Grove, Mitch Maraschiello, goalie from Lindsay Muskies for futures.

One of the league's all-time winningest coaches Fran Gow will be once again asked to create a little magic for the Thunder. By looking at the list of departures, you might figure he has his work cut out for him. The Thunder have been in a steady re-building up ramp for the past three seasons, and Gow says staying that course is key. “Our objective is to continue to build on what was established with our team last year as we have established what our expectations need to be each season,” he says. A first-round upset of the Lloydminster Bobcats was a good first step in adding to the playoff-ready culture. Gow's continued perspective is to make the Omniplex a tough place to play and erase the notion that the Thunder are a free space on the bingo card – not so many years ago that seemed the case. “We always aim to be competitive, as usual, but to do that we have to have our guys out their competing every night and I think we have the guys to do that,” says Gow.  He points to his goaltending, special teams play and consistant team play over all of his lines as keys to success. “Our organization continues to be involved in the community, promote sponsors and advertisers, while delivering a positive hockey experience to our players,” says Gow. “Leadership, teamwork and determination are key elements for our players to achieve their life goals. “The Drayton Valley Thunder is important to the community because of our strong core of volunteers, billets, board of directors, endorsers and fans,” says the longtime coach who has won league title in both Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie and hopes to bring one back to Drayton Valley as well, their only title, ironically, captured against Gow's Storm. •••

Fort McMurray Oil Barons 2011-12: 47-13 – 98 pts, second, won division final, lost to Brooks in league final. Key Returnees:  Goalie Tanner Jaillet, d-man and captain Brock Maschmeyer and Forwards Kevin Lacroix and Harrison Hendrix will be expected to play big roles. Key Departures: Defender Colton Parayko – Alaska; goalie Brody Hoffman- Vermont;  forwards Carson Cooper – Yale, and Justin Rose – Northern Michigan. Key Acquisitions: None It was a long, long year for Gord Thibodeau's Fort McMurray Oil Barons last campaign. Actually, it started in Omsk, Russia when the MOB represented the AJHL in the first World Junior A Challenge. That was the team's training camp. Back across the pond, the MOB steadily rose to the top of the north stack and battled the Spruce Grove Saints all season long, eventually falling short of a regular season crown by just two points, but outduelling them to get to the league championship – losing there to the Brooks Bandits. Can we expect a return to the top echelon again? Anyone who knows Thibodeau, knows he plays the cards close to the proverbial vest. But he certainly does classify this year's MOB, at least from the outset, as a rebuilding project. “We have a young team, replacing 12 players from last year’s club,” says Thibodeau. “(Ideally), our goal, as always, is to be very balanced, competitive and responsible,” he adds. Thibodeau adds he expects the AJHL north to be competitive as always but, in fact all the way through 1-8, he suggests. “Defense and goaltending will be key for a young team,” says Thibodeau.  And if the team comes out of the gate slowly, don't be surprised to see Fort Mac make some moves. Thibodeau has never been shy about doing that in past and with not too much summer player movement, it looks like a wait-and-see atmosphere in the Oilsands City.  

Grande Prairie Storm 2011-12: 21-39- 46 pts, seventh, lost in first round to Fort McMurray. Key Returnees:  Forwards Gus Correale, Tanner Labbe, Braden Crone. Defenders Scott Milnthorp and Sasha Larocque. In net, Curtis Skip. Key Departures: Hugo Turcotte- Niagra University;  Mitch Neumeier- SAIT  Key Acquisitions: Forwards Marc-Etienne Drapeau from the Sherbrooke Cougars, Sam Lawson from Drumheller, Ryan Mathews, Dawson Creek Rage, Ryan Baskerville from the Spruce Grove Saints, Adam Danyluk, Calgary Mustangs. Defenders Jeremey Barrialut QMJHL, Drew Nikirk Dawson Creek Rage, and in goal  Nick Kulmanovsky from the NAHL. Solid young recruits include d-man Tyler Haiste and Brandon Hodge and forwards Dylan Thudium and Connor Fynn.

The Grande Prairie Storm hovered in a standings spot last year they have not been used to nor do they want to become so. The team continued to be the only AJHL franchise to make the playoffs in every year of its existence, 16, but seventh place and batting around .333 is not where first-year bench boss Blaine Bablitz wanted to be. Hence wholesale changes in personnel. “Our goal as a team this year is to be known as the hardest working team in the league. We are aiming for home ice in the play-offs and will be working all season to make sure we are peaking by the time play offs begin,” says Bablitz. A lofty goal, and one which will need much better on-ice performance to be achieved.  “I see the North again being very competitive from top to bottom with each team having a chance to win our Division.” Bablitz, who is among the all-time leading point-getters for the Storm, has been critical of work ethic at times, and that was his focus going into camp this year. “The biggest key to the Storm having success this season will be a complete buy-in from each member of the hockey team and how hard we are willing to work,” he says. “Heading in to the season, we again have a new look to our hockey team. I feel very good about the additions I have made to our team. This season we will be a very hard working team each night, with much more depth than we had last season. The Grande Prairie Storm prides itself on its on-ice success. But at the same time we like to play a large role within the community helping and trying to influence the youth of Grande Prairie in a positive way.” •••

Lloydminster Bobcats 2011-12: 38-22- 84 pts, third, lost in first round to Drayton Valley. Key Returnees:  Mitchell Gartner and Grant Baker, defenders. forwards, Matty Marcinew will be an offensive threat, Casey Knight provide solid physical play and play a leadership role within the team. Travis Wellman and Linden Lewis will solidify the team’s creativity and offense. Key Departures:  Josh Atkinson- Alaska Fairbanks; Topher Flannigan-Amhurst College; Tyler Briggs- Traded to Westside; Kyle Harris- NAIT Ooks  Key Acquisitions: Kelvin Walz- NAHL Minot -F; Linden Springer- WHL Prince George –D; F Nolan Yeremchuk- aquired in a trade from Storm for Jake Matkin.  It's a new regime on the Alberta/Saskatchewan border as the Bobcats welcome Ryan Parent as new bench boss for the upcoming campaign. Brian Curran's return to the AJHL south, opened up a challenge and opportunity for Parent and he says the team is up to it. Last year, the team has one of its best ever regular seasons, only to be dumped by the Thunder in the first round. “The Bobcats are looking to move forward with a compliment of veteran presence and youth,” says Parent, a Saskatchewan native. Parent was with the Pursuit of Excellence Hockey Academy in Kelowna, B.C. where he coached the Major Midget Prep team competing in the North American Prospects Hockey League in the U.S. and the Canadian Sport Schools League in Canada. Parent and assistant Kyle Tapp expect the Bobcats to continue to be a tough stop on the schedule, and they expect the same top to bottom in the AJHL north. “There should be good parity in the North with no weak clubs,” says Parent.   “Utilization of the depth within our lineup will be the key for our success,” he adds. The Bobcats' new structure is still in its early stages. AJ fans might recall the Bobcats were close to leaving the city a few years ago, likely headed for Whitecourt, but a huge community surge of shareholders saved the club. This is not lost on Parent and his philosophy. “With the recent transition from private ownership to a community owned team, there is a definite buzz and excitement surrounding the club within the community,” he says. “The club is paramount to the greater community of Lloydminster.”

Sherwood Park Crusaders 2011-12: 37-23-78 pts, fourth, lost to Fort McMurray in the second round. Key Returnees: Forwards Danny Smith 59 pts, Dayton Reinboldt 54 pts, Eric Liknes 31 pts;  D-men Blair Mulder 20 pts, Josh Healey 13 pts and Goalie Matt Tomkins 18 wins. Key Departures:  Jessi Hilton – UBC, Peter Quenneville – Dubuque (USHL), Jesse Koch (NAIT)   Key Acquisitions:  Several key recruits and Carter Page and Preston Amundson from Dawson Creek (NAHL).

Tim Fraggle's Cru continues to improve.  Not only did they have a very good exhibition season, they put up some big numbers along the way. Is this the year for Sherwood Park to return to glory? Many prognosticators are picking the club to challenge for a division title. For now, Fraggle says the goal is a simple one: “Improve on our fourth place finish from 2011-12.”  “Our team depth, staying healthy and having our key returning players playing up to their potential will be big for us,” says Fraggle. “I think the division will be very competitive again as most teams have reloaded with good recruits.” It's been a long time for one of the league's longest-standing franchises to be among the elite come season's end. Fraggle is hoping a strong campaign and solid playoff run will get them back there. “The Crusaders are entering our 34th season in Sherwood Park and we looking forward to continued development as a team in making strides to being championship contender consistently,” he says.

Spruce Grove Saints 2011-12: 46-14- 100 pts, first, lost in North final to Fort McMurray. Key Returnees:  F – Tim Nolte, Dylan Richard, Sammy Spurrell; D- Corey Chorneyko, Dustin Fostvelt.  Key Departures:  David Glen – Penn State; Nolan Huysmans- Alaska Fairbanks; Austin Sevalrud – Anchorage Alaska. Key Acquisitions:  Recruits Carson Soucy and Parker Mackay 

After living at or near the top of the AJHL North for the better part of a decade, Jason Mckee and the Spruce Grove Saints braintrust might have you believe they are in a rebuilding youth movement. And while that looks to be the case, it certainly hasn't stopped the Saints from running at a title before. “We will be a young team that will be trying to get home ice advantage in the playoffs,” says McKee. “We will have two first-year guys to start season in goal (import Brenden Jensen, and Joel Miller),” he adds. With that in mind, McKee says it's vital to get off to a solid start.  “We will have to play a solid , consistent, team game to have sustained success,” says McKee. “It will be very competitive with a lot of parity throughout the entire division,” he adds.  The Saints' traditional rivals from St.. Albert are still around, they've just moved up the road to Whitecourt. That's something they share in common with the Wolverines having moved from the Edmonton suburb not so long ago themselves.
“We will be a hard working – team approach hockey team,” says McKee, who has always prided his focus of being able to roll four lines consistently.
“ We are proud of our history in Spruce Grove and would like to continue with another successful 2012-13.”

Whitecourt Wolverines 2011-12 (as St. Albert Steel): 9-51- 21 pts, eighth, missed playoffs. Key Returnees:  Jamie Johnson, Ryan Berlin, Colton Meaver, Dallas Smith, Brady Goebel, Kyle Scaber, Matthew Abt. Key Departures:  Rhys Hadfield Key Acquisitions:  Dalton Olsen and Joel Herbert (Spruce Grove); Ty Morgan  (Olds)

The Wolverines present the biggest enigma heading into the AJHL season. It's a new franchise but not really. The Whitecourt Wolverines have been the class of the NWJBHL for several seasons, winning championships and taking the city by storm. No pun intended, though the addition of the Wolverines has buoyed a natural rivalry with Grande Prairie. “And Spruce Grove and Drayton Valley too, I would say,” says bench boss and assistant GM Joey Bouchard. So the pedigree of a franchise is strong, no doubt. “We've been very successful here with volunteers, sponsors, billets…averaging upwards of 700 a game at the Junior B level, so this is very exciting times for Whitecourt, the community is thrilled,” he says. But keep in mind, the bones of the franchise remain the St. Albert Steel, last place last season and out of the playoffs, registering just nine wins last year. “We expect to be very competitive, actually we expect all of the teams in the division to be very competitive, but we're confident. We had a great exhibition campaign, made some key additions and recruited well, so we're happy with where we are.” ••• So while each team coaches, manages and strategizes a tad differently, they do all seem to agree on one thing: That this year's AJHL North is going to be even more competitive top to bottom than in past. And that's saying something.

Fred Rinne Special to the AJHL