The Brooks Bandits stole all the hardware in the AJHL last season, running away with the South Division title and losing just two of 14 playoff games en route to the league championship.
So, the big question this year is, can anyone stop them from repeating?
“I don’t see why we can’t (repeat),” says General Manger/ Head Coach Ryan Papaloannou, but he expects his charges to want even more out of this season than just another AJHL banner.
“If we were satisfied with what we did last year, we would be satisfied with some fairly serious complacency,” he says. “We’d like the opportunity, like a lot of teams have had, to participate in an RBC (national junior A championship tournament). It would be something nice for our organization.”
Brooks lost out to the Penticton Vees in the Pacific region playoff. The Vees would go on to win the national junior A title.
So, who can stop the Bandits from stealing all the hardware this year?
The Canmore Eagles finished at the bottom of the division and looking up, GM/ Head Coach Andrew Milne says he expects everyone to again be chasing the Bandits, but isn’t ready to hand them the title just yet.
“They returned a lot of key guys,” says Milne. “However, this division is not going to be as cut and dry as it was in past years.”
Milne expects the Okotooks Oilers, Olds Grizzlys, Camrose Kodiaks along with his veteran-laden Eagles to take a run at the division crown.
The Calgary Mustangs and Camrose Kodiaks have made major changes in the off-season and could be dark horses if the frontrunners slip up. The Calgary Canucks have the ability to surprise everyone with 17 players — including 15 returnees — with junior A experience.
The Bandits (47 wins and 13 losses during the 2011-2012 regular season) are returning more than a dozen players with championship experience and the coaching and scouting staff has not been basking in the glow of a job well done last season.
The defending AJHL champions will be hoping that recent acquisition Artsiom Kalashnikov, a Belarusian who played with Alberni Valley of the B.C. Hockey League last season can help fire up the offence, even if he is not exactly the replacement for junior graduate Matt Wilkins.
Wilkins led the league in scoring last season with 34 goals and 65 assists for 99 points in his final year of junior eligibility. He is now at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. on a scholarship.
Kalashnikov scored 16 goals and raked up 42 points in 55 games in 2011-2012 in the BCHL. The Bandits will be hoping the 18-year-old can complement returning high-performance forwards Cam MacLise (32g-50a—82pts) and Mark Reners (41g-36a—77pts).
“We don’t have Matt Wilkins, so we don’t need to replace him, but work with the players we do have,” said Papaloannou.
Other key acquisitions during the off-season include defenceman Tyson McCallum, who played for his hometown Dawson Creek (B.C.) Rage in the North American Hockey League last season.
Other players with junior A experience moving to the Bandits, include defencemen Tyler Narsing (Wenatchee, NAHL/ Helena, American West Hockey League) and Cody Bardock (Prince George/ BCHL) along with forward Alex Roberts (Coquitlam/ BCHL).
The big question mark on this team might be who will replace stalwart goaltender Jan Obernesser, who left for Sioux Falls of the U.S. Hockey League.
Michael Fredrick was the backup last season and appeared in 12 regular season games and played just 12 minutes during the playoffs. The Bandits did acquire Adam Weersink during the off-season. The 19-year-old split last season between Olds and Sherwood Park, appearing in just 17 games.
Both were given the chance to shine in the exhibition season.
“The exhibitions counts for nothing, so we will see how they do when the season starts,” says Papaloannou.
The same can be said around the league:
Calgary Canucks (19-41)
The Canucks brought back 15 players and it may all be in the name on one forward line, so maturity and maybe familiarity may be the catchwords for GM/ Head Coach Ryan Barrett.
Clayton Petrie led the team in scoring last season but was closely followed by Gui Glasspool and Willy Sakal, all returning players. Matt Heseltine was second on the team in scoring but moved to city rivals Mustangs during the offseason.
The Canucks acquired Jordan Kancsal (Olds), Brett Fagerheim (St. Albert) during the offseason. While the rookie core includes forwards Nicolas Plesa, 19 years old, Mathew Plesa, 18, and Peter Plesa, 16 — it might turn out to be a Plesa-nt trio for the city team as they chase down a division title.
Andrew Guglielmin looks ready to take over the reigns at the No. 1 goaltender after playing 17 games last season behind Michael Matyas, who has taken up a scholarship offer to the University of Alaska in Anchorage.
Calgary Mustangs (31-29)
The Mustangs have a new head coach in Mario Amantea and he has some very big holes to fill.
The biggest might be replacing all-star goalie Jay Deo, who is now with Alberni Valley of the BCHL.
“It’s a big hole to fill there,” says Amantea. Rookies Jake Tamagi and Ravi Dattnai have been handed the chance to shine.
“I think for this year what’s going to be important is that we’re a strong team defensively,” says Amantea. “Our forwards need to be strong defensively. The team was dependent on Deo on a lot of nights last year. We need to have a more disciplined approach to defence this year.”
The Mustangs also lost forward Wooje Sung, who is headed to Finland after two seasons with the Mustangs. The team has added Blair Wentworth (Dauphin/ Manitoba Junior Hockey League last season and the previous three years with the Chilliwack/ WHL) and Heseltine (the last three seasons with city-rival Canucks).
“I think from my perspective just bringing a more disciplined approach to systems and team play, that’s gonna be probably a little bit different from last year,” says Amantea. “Something that’s going to be really important is that we’re all playing from the same playbook. That’s gonna be critical.”
Camrose Kodiaks (33-27)
The Kodiaks were third best in the South last season and GM/ Head Coach Boris Rybalka is faced with a rookie-laden squad while hoping to improve offensive production while not sacrificing on defence.
“One of our keys is going to be using the whole team to be successful,” says Rybalka. “One big one is increasing scoring potential. Although we’re young, we want to be able to score. We’ve always been a good defensive team, but we want to be good on the offensive side as well.”
It might mean some quick development from the some of those 10 rookies on the squad.
“We want to improve every day and get ready to go all the way in the playoffs. Our goal is to win championships,” says Rybalka. “We have a young team this year (but) that doesn’t bother us. With us, youth is fine and recruiting went well.”
Key to the young players developing quickly may be the play of veterans like captain and stalwart defenceman Jonathan Lashyn and forwards Luc Vandal and Nolan Marshall.
Canmore Eagles (18-42)
It was a difficult 2011-2012 season for the Eagles, with the team losing is first five games and winning just three of its first 20 games. The team also faced tragedy early in the campaign with the untimely death of rookie forward Patrick Steel in November.
Steel fell ill at a practice and was found dead the next day at his billet.
“No hockey team is ready to lose a teammate,” Milne said looking back at the events. “I don’t think you can put a value on that.”
However, it is said time does heal all wounds, and in the case of the Eagles this is hopefully the case.
The team is returning 17 players, but will be without its top scorer and top goaltender from last season as they have moved on to the WHL. Forward Luke Philp is expected to play with the Kootenay Ice and goaltender Cam Barnes is now with the Kelowna Rockets.
Milne though is hoping that everyone has learned what it is like to miss the playoffs.
“We should be not only a year older but a year wiser,” he said.
Key additions to the team include 20-year-old goaltender Ty Swabb, who started last season with St. Albert before being traded to the Prince George in January.
Hometown product Nils Moser is back after three seasons in the WHL with the Tri-City Americans and Regina Pats while Zack Rassell returns to the team after spending the last half of the 2011-2012 season with Prince George of the BCHL.
Drumheller Dragons (17-43)
If the team can match the optimism of its new GM/ Head Coach Brian Curran, the Dragons will be breathing fire all season long.
“Expectations are always to win everything. I don’t coach to rebuild,” says Curran.
Curran, who played 10 seasons in the NHL, is taking an all-or-nothing approach to his first year with the ailing team. Despite a poor 2011-2012 campaign, Curran has high hopes for the crop of young players.
“The team, being as bad as it was, that was about as bad as it can be,” said Curran, who has coaching experience in the ECHL, Central Hockey League and International Hockey League. “The only way to go now is up.”
The return of top scorers Ryan Bloom and Doug Jones bodes well for the Dragons. The new coach is confident despite a larger number of rookies on the team, and believes they will develop sooner rather than later.
Okotoks Oilers (34-26)
After topping the South in each of the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 seasons, the Oilers finished a distant second to the Bandits last campaign and GM/ Head Coach James Poole has some definite ideas about how to get back to the top of the division.
“We know we’re not going to be a powerhouse to start with, but with our core group from last year plus some strong players recruited this year, by the end of the year we’re hoping to be a threat to go deep into the playoffs,” says Poole.
“We still think on the blue line we could add on one more veteran. We’ve got three extremely talented young guys.
“We want to improve the culture around our team, being a driven team towards teamwork instead of individual scholarships. We’re happy with the ability to start young and start a new culture around our team.”
The team lost a lot of strong defensive players and the new defensive core is “talented but young” notes Poole.
The acquisition of Cody Michelle (Coquitlam/ BCHL) should help bolster the team’s offence, as the top four point collectors all either graduated or have gone on to U.S. college hockey.
Jared D’Amico takes over as the No. 1 goaltender this season.
Olds Grizzlys (22-38)
The Grizzlys are hoping an older squad will help them climb to the top of the division.
“Right now we’ve got a pretty good team in place. We went a lot older this year,” says Head Coach Brett Hopfe. “The last two years, we’ve had two 16 year olds each year, none this year. We’re expecting big things.”
The team has lost three “very key” defencemen and off-season acquisitions include blueliner Matt Hanger (Calgary Canucks the past two seasons) and forward Landon Viveiros (St Albert).
The goaltending tandem of veteran Brandon Thiessen and Ethan Jemieff, who played seven games as an affiliate player last season, will also be key to the team’s success.
“Our goal is to be the best team out of the south, and I think we’re capable of that” said Hopfe. “We’ve got our top two lines back. In camp, we were looking for role players and we found very capable role players to step in and do that job.”
As the regular season unfolds, beginning Friday night, Sept. 7, all will start to reveal itself, the contenders and pretenders, and even though the Bandits Papaloannou thinks his team capable of repeating he is not ready to award his charges the South Division crown on Day One.
“I think everybody has gotten better and not that it was easy last year, but it will be 10 times harder to win this season,” said Papaloannou.
Compiled by Russ Ullyot and Justin Parsons at the Canmore Leader