AJHL Showcase Weekend Preview

Photo – Em Rose:

As the first month of the 2016-17 Alberta Junior Hockey League season ends, all 16 teams will congregate in Camrose for the annual AJHL Showcase event where their skills will be put on display in front of a plethora of hockey scouts from across North America.

Of the 17 matches on the weekend from Thursday to Sunday, 16 will take place at either the Max McLean Arena or Encana Arena. As much as players will want to put on a top performance for the scouts in attendance, valuable points in the standings will also be up for grabs.

Two important points will be on the line when the Drumheller Dragons (1-3-1) and Drayton Valley Thunder (2-2-0) meet in the first game of the showcase Thursday afternoon. The Dragons possess one of the league’s early points leaders in Jordan Taupert. His pace through five games may not be sustainable, but the 1998-born forward should easily eclipse his career-high total of 22 points last season. Unfortunately, that hasn’t quite helped the Dragons find success in the win column so far. Allowing an average of 3.8 goals per game while scoring 2.8 goals per game themselves haven’t helped them in the early portion of their season.

The Thunder will aim to move up in the standings with their game Thursday followed by a Friday contest against the Canmore Eagles (2-3-0). The Thunder are having similar issues to the Dragons in terms of matching offence to keep up with a defence that is lacking. A road penalty kill is where the team’s defence needs to make a big change early on, surrendering six goals on just the first eight opportunities of the season.

Drumheller will also be in tough against their Saturday opponents, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (4-2-0), who have bolted out to start the season. The Barons are just one win away from matching their home win total from all of last season. While they’ve faced some easier competition in the early portion of their season, the team is finding ways to win games they lost to similar teams last year, a positive sign for the club’s quick turnaround.

Leading that turnaround have been players like Taner Miller, who leads the team with eight points and leads all defensemen in the AJHL for scoring. Another rookie from last season, Damon Porter, also has points in every game this year and is one goal away from matching his goal total from last season. The biggest improvement for the Barons however has come in net, where Eric Szudor and Forbes Ploszaj have been rock solid in net. Besides their one loss entering play Wednesday, the tandem have collected three shutouts.

The Barons will face the Dragons Saturday after taking on a formidable challenge in the Brooks Bandits (4-1-1). The Bandits are off to their usual offensive start, scoring 24 goals in their first five games. Rookie import Oliver Chau has gotten himself off to a hot start, scoring six goals and nine points in his team’s first six games. Following a shutout victory Wednesday, the Bandits will enter the Showcase weekend in their familiar spot of first in the Viterra AJHL South Division.

After the Bandits play the MOB Friday, they’ll tackle the Sherwood Park Crusaders (3-3-0) Saturday afternoon at the Encana Arena. The Cru managed to take a game off their crosstown rivals from Spruce Grove on the opening weekend, but have bounced up an down besides that, crushing a beleaguered Eagles team last weekend after dropping a winnable game the night before in Olds. Left winger Alex Rotundo is off to a strong start in his 2016-17 season, scoring two goals and eight points in six games, matching half his offensive output from last year already.

The Cru will matchup against another tough South Division opponent in the Okotoks Oilers (4-1-0) to kick off their showcase Thursday. Early on, the Oilers have slotted themselves into third in the Viterra AJHL South Division thanks to some timely management of their offensive and defensive games. After suffering their first loss of the season in the opening weekend against the Camrose Kodiaks, they came right back the next weekend to squeak out a 6-5 victory. Through their first five game, the Oilers find themselves 3-0 in one-goal contests. Improving on their 13-7-3 record in one-goal games last year will go a long way in helping them stay at the top of the division once more.

Completing a back-to-back the next day, the Oilers will serve as the visitors to the Lloydminster Bobcats (0-5-0) Friday afternoon. The Bobcats are going through an understandable rough patch after the exodus of last year’s Royal Bank Cup team. One early bright spot for the squad is rookie centre Zach Webb, who has three goals in his first five games this season. Scoring more than a single goal in only one of their five contests, the Bobcats’ youth have yet to find their full strength in the league, but may get that chance Saturday.

The Bobcats will matchup against the Calgary Mustangs (0-5-0) in a battle of the two remaining winless squads in the league. The Mustangs lost their first two games of the season by a combined score of 14-1, came close to their first victory in a 6-5 loss to the Canucks, but have yet to find the win column. They have had some short-handed success though, sitting in a four-way tie for the third-most short-handed goals in the league with two.

Coming off a win against Fort McMurray Wednesday, the Bonnyville Pontiacs (4-1-0) will continue their push towards the top of the Viterra AJHL North Division standings when they take on the Calgary Canucks (4-2-1) Friday followed by a date with the Mustangs Saturday.

The Pontiacs’ offend has come by committee in the early going. PJ Marrocco leads the team with six goals, but the contributions of defenceman Erik Donald (seven points in five games) and Alden Dupuis (four goals and six points) can’t be forgotten either. With their lone loss coming by a slim one-goal margin to the Spruce Grove Saints (5-1-0) on the tail-end of a back-to-back, the Pontiacs are proving themselves to be strong contenders in the division again.

Fighting the for that top spot are the Saints, who occupy that top rung heading into the weekend. The Saints will face the Eagles and Camrose Kodiaks (3-1-1) over the weekend. All the subtractions over the offseason appears to have had little overall effect. They still rank first in the Viterra North thanks to players like Brett Smythe (five goals, eight points) and Cody Young (four goals, 10 points, six-game point streak). Goaltender Nolan Kent has made an immediate transition from the Alberta Midget AAA Hockey League to the junior ranks, posting a 4-1 record with one shutout.

The Canmore Eagles will have a tough turnaround against a pair of North Division foes, facing the Saints Thursday afternoon and then playing a Friday game that begins at noon. The early results aren’t there for the Eagles, who seemed to be flying high before a three-game swing through the North Division clipped their wings. Matt Forchuk has led the way three goals and nine point in five games while teammate Braden Saretsky has chipped in five goals and eight points as well.

Speaking of important weekends for South Division team, the Canucks will be tested twice in Camrose to prove if their early success is for real. Wednesday’s shutout loss was the first time the Canucks have been blanked in a game since Nov. 14, 2015. The added benefit of James Poole behind the bench has the team contending for the division lead so far. Parker Ward’s five goals and eight points lead the team. At the rate the Canucks are going, with 23 goals for and 23 goals against, their success may not be sustainable, but it’s fun to watch for the time being.

Their Friday opponents, the Whitecourt Wolverines (2-1-2), aren’t out of the thick of the division race by any means, but were pegged to be doing better early on. Opening weekend losses to the Thunder hampered their start out of the gates, but two out of three wins on a South Division road swing last weekend helped to restore some calm to the team for the time being. Bryson Traptow has five goals in his last four games.

Before the Wolverines and Canucks can square off, the Old Grizzlys (2-3-0) will open their showcase Thursday against the Wolverines. Landon Gross is the early goal scoring leader for the Grizzlys with four goals in five games. The Pincher Creek native is well on his way to matching his career-high goal total of 21 goals in a season, which he set last year in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.

As the hosts of the showcase itself, the Kodiaks will have two tricky opponents to face on the weekend, hosting the Grande Prairie Storm (2-2-0) Friday before matching up against the Saints Saturday. The Kodiaks haven’t been bad to start the season, but could easily be sporting a perfect record heading into their marquee weekend. A blown third period lead against the Oilers last week and a come-from-behind overtime win by the Canucks a day later may have soured the Kodiaks minds for the time being, but they’ll still be a threat.

Mackenzie Bauer (six goals, nine points) and Liam Motley (four goals, 10 points) are leading the way so far for the Kodiaks, but the team has a whole list of offensive contributors featuring six other players averaging at least a point per game or better. A pair of wins at home, regardless of who gets the last change, could help as a confidence booster to the club.

After securing their first two wins of the year last weekend, the Storm will go in pursuit of more success when they take on the Kodiaks Friday and Grizzlys Saturday before a date with the Wolverines Sunday. The Storm will need to find some way to balance out the wild swings in momentum, giving up 12 goals on the opening weekend of the season before scoring 12 themselves a week later against Drayton Valley.

Michael Clarke has scored four goals in four games to account for a third of his team’s offence. Jake Elmer and Cruz Cote each have a pair of goals to add to the offensive attack that will be seeking all the help it can get.

The weekend will conclude not in Camrose, but at the Scott Safety Centre in Whitecourt, where the Wolverines and Storm will do battle Sunday afternoon. The two teams split a home-and-home set during the exhibition season, but will be clawing for the important two points up for grabs Sunday.

By @NovaCanuck