AJHL Viterra North Division Preview

Bonnyville Pontiacs

Last season’s record: 30-19-11 (Third in the division, lost in North Division Final to Spruce Grove)
Key additions: D Bryan Gerstenfeld, G Austin Althaus, F Zach Mills, F Derek Brown, F Chandler Klein, D Riley Perka
Key subtractions: F Dillan McCombie, F Mitch Fritz, F Ryan Black, F Evan Warmington, G Troy Tremblay, D Cory Santoro
Club direction: Coming off their first-ever appearance in the North Division Final, the Pontiacs will have said their goodbyes to a number of players who got them there while carrying over a number of players who are poised to make another deep run.

The state of Minnesota will have a reason to cheer for the Pontiacs this year as Althaus and Mills will bring their talents to Bonnyville. Althaus had 23-0 record with the Idaho Junior Steelheads last season, sporting a 1.38 goals against average, .913 save % and five shutouts along the way. Mills meanwhile captained Hill-Murray High School, scoring 19 goals and 40 points in 25 games to cap a high school career where he averaged 1.24 points per game.

For their recruiting in Canada, the Pontiacs recruited forwards Derek Brown and Chandler Klein, both standouts with their respective teams in the AMHL last year. On the trade front, the Pontaics were quiet this summer besides bringing in Bryan Gerstenfeld from Trail. The 1995-born import defenceman is committed to Army for the 2016-17 season and should help make an impact in the team’s chances.
How the coach sees it: “it gives us a little more sense of confidence because guys have been there in terms of the organization,” Pontaics head coach Rick Swan said in regards to getting back to the AJHL North Final and potentially beyond in 2015-16. “Knowing that if we play hard within a framework of a structure, we have an opportunity to be successful there. A lot of things have to go right when you get to the North Division Final, which we were fortunate enough to have.”

Drayton Valley Thunder

Last season’s record: 24-24-12 (Sixth in the division, lost in first round to Bonnyville)
Key additions: Ryan Allen (assistant coach), F Jordan McConnell, F Nolan Krewusik, F Mackenzie Harden.
Key subtractions: F Trevor Poirier, F Jamie Waddington, F Hayden Dawes, F Braden Jakubowski, G Marc-Olivier Daigle, D Alex Brewer
Club direction: The Drayton Valley Thunder look to finish in the upper end of the North Division after several seasons in the bottom half of the standings.  The team ended the 2014-2015 season in the right direction at 7-2-1 and went 3-3 in the 2015 Pre Season.

It won't be an easy transition with the loss of Poirier and Waddington up front and Daigle in net. Returning forwards expected to lead the team again are Brett Smythe, who led the team in scoring in his second season with the club, while Brayden Harris will enter his fourth season with the Thunder, hoping to improve upon his 32-point breakout season in 2014-15.

On the blue line, the recent departure of Alex Brewer will open the door for one of the Thunder’s defencemen to step up and fill the gap. That defenceman to step up could be returning Joseph Tombasco, who had an encouraging rookie season.

Forward McConnell could also add to the club's upswing depending on how long his adjustment period to Junior A is.

The net seems to be the sink or swim part of the Thunder’s roster with Daigle now departed. Garrett Mason saw limited action last year behind Daigle, holding a 7-6-4 record by the end of the year. His success could sway the Thunder’s season one way or another.

How the coach sees it: “Any time you start a new year, your main goal in our league and our division should be making the playoffs,” assistant coach Ryan Allen said. “Obviously we want to win as many rounds as we can, but first and foremost you want to make sure you earn a spot and get there.” 

Fort McMurray Oil Barons

Last season’s record: 31-23-6 (Fourth in the division, lost in first round to Sherwood Park)
Key additions: Tom Keca (head coach), Dave Dupas (assistant coach), F Jake Wozney, F Brett Edwards, F Ravi Dattani, F Connor McCallum
Key subtractions: G Zach Fortin, G Brett Lewchuk, D Brett McNeil, D Zach Wittenburg F Jetlan Houcher, F Adam Durke, F Mitchell Vanderlaan
Club direction: It feels almost like a generation ago — not just 17 months – that the Oil Barons were one goal away from going to the AJHL Final in the 2013-14 season. In those 17 months following that game, the MOB have fired Gord Thibodeau, hired Curtis Hunt as his replacement, have him resign after a little more than a year on the job and hired Tom Keca as his replacement in mid-June. With that in mind and a bevy of players traded away or lost to age/school commitments, Keca has been clear from the start that the 2015-16 season will be a rebuilding one for the MOB.

Up front, the line of Jackson McKinstry, Logan Franz and Austin Holmes will be the team’s top line on most nights, leading a large group of younger players. After re-acquiring Connor McCallum from the Calgary Canucks, Rookie forwards who could earn more minutes include Brett Edwards, who has shown his worth in the preseason, Damon Porter, who was a dynamite playoff performer in the AMHL last season and Jake Wozney, who will bring a new veteran presence to the team.

On the blue line, the MOB haven’t officially lost Mark Drohan yet, who was still in camp with Tri-City, but assuming the team moves on without him, things look bleak. Tyler Dea will provide quality minutes for the team and is a solid candidate for the team’s captaincy, but the status of sophomore blue lines Salvatore Scales and Alyn Nanji could turn the tide one way or another.

Losing both your starting and backup goaltender in the offseason isn’t exactly the best move, but it’s a fate the MOB experienced this summer, losing Zach Fortin and Brett Lewchuk. Replacing the pair will be new acquisition Ravi Dattani and rookie Eric Szudor, fresh off his AMHL Playoff MVP performance with the CAC Gregg Distributors.

How the coach sees it: “This is going to be a unique year in the sense that we’re going to be very young,” Tom Keca said. “Right now, we’re going to have three or four at least 1998-born players on the team, this is going to be a little bit of a rebuild.

“For us, the team that we’re going to try and build will be back to a team where the roster is hopefully stable. We’re going to play an upbeat game and in order to do that, we’re willing to go a little bit younger.” 

Grande Prairie Storm

Last season’s record: 15-41-4 (Eighth in the division, missed playoffs)
Key additions: D Brett McNeil, F Braden Jakubowski, F Luke Mahura, D Brett Doiron
Key subtractions: F Stefen Seel, F Dustin Gorgi, G Logan Thompson
Club direction: A year removed from missing the playoffs for the second year in a row, head coach Kevin Higo hopes consistency is the best policy to solving the Storm’s playoff woes.

The team saw Stefen Seel as the only real large loss from the offseason and will return Tristan Crozier, Josh Zablocki, Ian McLellan and Ben Assad to the growing list of forwards to watch on Grande Prairie’s team.

The Storm secured their blue line by re-acquiring Brett Doiron and Brett McNeil in a deal with the Oil Barons, giving the team two players who can log heavy minutes and provide some offence at the same time.

In the crease, a number of rookies have been battling for spots in camp, including Arik Weersink, Cody Campbell and Jordan Greenfield. Whichever goalie does take the reins of the Storm’s net will have players up front to support him.

How the coach sees it: “I think we’re a lot farther ahead than we were at this point in time last year,” Kevin Higo said. “We’ve got a lot of returning guys. Last year at this time, we were trying to breakdown a culture that needed to be changed. This year our culture and our work ethic are disciplined. Our attention to detail is much better.”

Lloydminster Bobcats

Last season’s record: 32-20-8 (Second in the Division, lost in second round to Bonnyville)
Key additions: G Alex Leclerc, D Christian Lloyd, F Morgan Messenger, F Marco Ballarin
Key subtractions: G Christopher Tai, F Ashton Clark, D Mitchell Brennan, G Devin Green
Club direction:

For Thibodeau and the Bobcats, their season only ends one way: hoisting the Royal Bank Cup on home ice. In the same breath, Thibodeau isn’t one to let his team limp into a major tournament, or the playoffs or the regular season.

Up front, Kevin Darrar, Troy Van Tetering, Patrick Geary, Taylor Mulder, Morgan Messenger, Taylor Mulder and Evan Tschumi will cause headaches for teams throughout the year. When they aren’t up to the task, Ryan Hendrix, Taylor Allen, Zac Giroux and Marco Ballerin are more than capable of contributing. This team has scoring top to bottom and will be an offensive threat most likely every night. Young guns Jaxan Kaluski, Noah Bauld and Nicholas Quillan will compliment a team gunning to be the best in Canada.

Offensive power on the blue line is precisely what Thibodeau has heading into the season. Offseason acquisition Christian Lloyd performed at a point per game pace in the OJHL last year with 52 points in 51 games. Add in players like Austin Yaremchuk, Graydon Smith, Allan MacPherson and Alex Pernitsky and you have all the makings of a strong core on the blue line.

In net, Alex Leclerc appears to have been anointed as the franchise’s starter for the coming season and they couldn’t have it in more careful hands. Playing with the Sherbrooke Cougars of the Quebec Junior Hockey League, Leclerc posted a 2.38 goals against average in 24 games with a save % of .921. In the playoffs, he elevated his game, carrying a .934 save % in nine games with a 2.32 goals against average.

How the coach sees it: “We realize that we’re going to be playing in May and you want to take steps now to build your team and hopefully not make a whole bunch of roster moves between now and May,” Thibodeau said. “We’re just looking to get consistency right from the start and if we can build on that through the course of the season, that’s what we’re trying to do.” 

Sherwood Park Crusaders

Last season’s record: 28-25-7 (Fifth in the division, lost in second round to Spruce Grove)
Key additions: F Devon McAndrews
Key subtractions: G Tommy Nixon, F Arthur Gordon, D Dane Phaneuf, D Stephen Shmoorkoff
Club direction: This year will be an intriguing one for head coach Tim Fragle and the Cru, with plenty of variables for their season ahead. The bad news for the crux is that they lose experience at each position in forward Arthur Gordon, defenceman Dane Phaneuf and goaltender Tommy Nixon. The good news for the Crusaders is that they have a trio of players ready to step into those roles.

At forward, Ryan Kruper will lead the charge up front. His 38 points in the 2014-15 season were second only to Gordon. With his rights recently acquired from Grande Prairie, WHL forward Devon McAndrews will provide another option for the team’s offence. Cameron Brzezinski will also be looked to for leadership on the team. A trio of 1997-born players in Reid Bosse, Tanner Landeroute and Cole Gammer should also play a big role in Fragle’s offensive schemes.

Replacing Phaneuf will be 1995-born blue liner Brett Magee. Other options to plug the hole at the blue line surround Ben Sowa, Chase Torontow,Chris McKay and Evan Bowden. The Cru’s defensive structure will likely stay the same, save for the subtraction of Shmoorkoff and Phaneuf, giving the team’s blue liners a chance to gel and not experience too much of a shake up.

Between the pipes, Zac Klassen proved his worth last year, but faltered during the team’s second round loss to the Saints. With Tommy Nixon bolting for the NCAA a year early, and Klassen assuming the starter role, the pressure will be put on the young goaltender’s shoulders for a full 60-game season. His performance will be one of the make or breaks for the Cru.

How the coach sees it: “We bring back 15 players from last year team so I feel like we’ve got a good experienced group coming back,” Cru head coach Tim Fragle said. “We would like to push and improve on our fifth place finish from last year.”

Spruce Grove Saints

Last season’s record: 48-7-5 (First in the division, Won AJHL Title, 0-4 at Western Canada Cup)
Key additions: Still taking a long look at his roster, McKee didn’t release any names for players he was expecting to make an impact, but with spots open on his roster, the bench boss will be on the lookout to fill the bottom six of his team and the top six for the future.
Key subtractions: F Jarid Hauptman, F Parker Mackay, F Lukas Biensch, F Paul Lovsin, D Graydon Smith
Club direction: The Saints wrapped up their 2014-15 season with their second consecutive trip to the Crescent Point Energy Western Canada Cup. With a 2-6 record in the round robin at the tournament, they’ve seemingly met their match for challenges.

The Saints are used to overcoming their obstacles easily and this year will be a big indicator of what happens to the Saints going forward. Head coach Jason McKee is back, as are a number of key pieces.

At forward, the quintet of Brandon Biro, Nicolas Correale, Austin Hunter, Tyler Busch and Riley Simpson will go a long way in determining if the league’s top offence the past two seasons can match its predecessors.

On defence, the Saints will return much of the same blue line core that allowed just 121 goals last season. The team’s defencemen got the job done on the offensive side of the puck. Jordan Thomas, Macklin Pichonsky and Cole Nicholson each finished with 29 points last year.  Other contributors such as Connor James and Colton Leiter have provided an offensive touch the Saints will rely upon at times this season to stay on top of the mountain.

As the Top Team Goaltenders from the 2014-15 season, Matthew Murray and Brett Zarowny will man the crease in the 2015-16 season, with the team expecting more of the same strong play. Murray was the better goaltender of the two with a 1.72 goals against average and a .920 save %. McKee expects to go with the hot hand and the pair shouldn’t expect anything less, elevating their game as the season goes on.
How the coach sees it: “We obviously hoping to have depth at all positions and we’ll have a young team again,” McKee said. “I don’t think there’s a lot that’s changed from year-to-year for us.” 

Whitecourt Wolverines

Last season’s record: 24-28-8 (Seventh in the division, lost in first round to Lloydminster)
Key additions: D Connor Vermeulen, D Mitchell Brennan, D Cory Santoro, F Linden Penner, F Kevin Domingue, F Marc-Olivier Bouchard, D Matthew Gervais, D Jack Zielinski
Key subtractions: F Luke Mahura, F Morgan Messenger, F Trace Elson, F John Mullally, F Romano Morrison, F Dylan Thudium, D James Vermeulen
Club direction: Just like all teams, the Wolverines will lose some key pieces on forward and defence, but head coach Joey Bouchard is just fine with the backup plan and is already prepared to avenge his team’s first-round exit from the playoffs last year.

Jordan Davies, Joseph Nardi, Lance Yaremchuk, Justin Young and Taden Rattie will make up the team’s offensive threats. Additions Linden Penner, Kevin Domingue and Marc-Olivier Bouchard might help Bouchard quickly forget about the forward core he lost this offseason.

So far, the team’s offence has clicked in the preseason,  scoring 36 goals over seven games, but once the long stretch of the regular season sets in and if chemistry doesn’t come quick to the team, it’ll be interesting to see if the loss of Elson, Mullally and others takes a toll on the club.

On defence, the additions of Santoro, Vermeulen and Brennan, Zielinski and Gervais gives the Wolverines plenty of fresh faces manning the blue line for the 2015-16 season. As with the forwards, early chemistry will be the key to success night in and night out. 

At the goaltending position, it’ll be Tanner McCorriston’s job to begin the season and the 1995-born goaltender will be looking to deliver his best season yet. Entering the season with a career 30-12-3 record, 2.41 goals against average and .913 save %, his stats are certainly pointing in the right direction. If he can get help from his d-core and isn’t overworked due to an ineffective backup, he just may by the secret to carrying the Wolverines past the first round.

How the coach sees it: “We’re going to be pressuring hard,” Wolverines head coach Joey Bouchard said. “We’re going to have a lot of speed, a lot of skill and we’re not going to be sitting back at all. We want to apply the pressure, use our speed to our advantage and we feel we have the right tools here.”
(Audio provided by Andrew Peard/XM1053FM)


Robert Murray