Viterra AJHL North Division Preview

After a busy off-season, another exciting AJHL season gets underway on Friday night! That means it?s time to get up to date with what has happened with your favourite AJHL franchise. Here?s a look at all eight Viterra North Division teams:

Bonnyville Pontiacs: 41-15-4 2nd in the North Division

Key Returnees: Daine Dubois, Jeremy Gervais, Easton Hesse

Led by a veteran core, the Bonnyville Pontiacs put together a franchise setting year with 41 regular season wins and a second place finish in the North Division – their highest finish since 2015. General Manager, Rick Swan, had a busy off-season recruiting talent to put together a season as they did. Grayson Constable, Colby Muise, and Marc-Antoine Benoit were all brought in via trade and became considerable additions to the success of the team. The Pontiacs lost only four games in the first two months of the season to solidify their spot at the top of the division. They continued to be a strong contender for the majority of the year, but a late season hiccup forced them to be the second seed heading into the post-season behind the Sherwood Park Crusaders. In the first round, Bonnyville took on the Whitecourt Wolverines and swept them 3-0, moving onto the second round to face the Spruce Grove Saints. They wouldn?t go any further, however, falling 4-0 to the 2018 AJHL champions. At the end of the season, the organization bid farewell to many key players including, captain Grayson Constable, Bobby Young, and Luke Albert alongside five other players moving onto the NCAA.

Despite the departure of key players, Pontiacs fans should feel optimistic heading into this new campaign. Rick Swan had another busy off-season bringing in the right balance of experienced veterans and rookies to the Yaks organization. Josh Kroon and Cayden Shmyr join the team from the Calgary Mustangs along with Alexander Marrocco, brother of former Pontiac PJ Marrocco, from the Chilliwack Chiefs to fill the absence on the blueline with Luke Albert, Sean Thomson, and Matthew Monk no longer with the team. On top of that, Jeremy Gervais returns for his second season with Bonnyville to give them one of the best defensive groups in the AJHL. Standout rookie goaltender, Easton Hesse looks to become the number one netminder after spending a season behind Muise and gaining experience.  The Leduc native finished with a 1.77 GAA, 0.929 SV% and had 13 wins in 19 appearances. Finally, Marc-Antonie Benoit and Daine Dubois return for another season giving Bonnyville two of the top dynamic forwards in the AJHL.

The Pontiacs open up their 2019-20 campaign on the road at the Scott Safety Centre in Whitecourt. It may seem like deja vu for some with this being the exact way the two teams opened the 2018-19 season. Bonnyville beat Whitecourt in all four of their visits to Woodland Country last season including a playoff victory which put the nail in the coffin on the Wolverines season. They?ll also be a few familiar faces up against the Pontiacs in this contest with Ethan Leyer, Isaac Saniga and Garin Butler all joining the Wolverines over the off-season.

Drayton Valley Thunder: 24-30-6 6th in the North Division

Key Returnees: Jeremy Klessens, Jesse Pomeroy, Tanner Hopps

Following a disappointing campaign, the Drayton Valley Thunder looked to head in a new direction in 2018-19, and the first step to that change was bringing in Eric Thurston to be the new General Manager and Head Coach. Thurston put his stamp on the team immediately bringing in plenty of new faces like Jeremy Klessens, Tanner Hopps and Tanner Foster to help change the culture in Drayton Valley. They followed that up with back-to-back victories over the Crusaders to start the season. Shortly after, Thurston made arguably the most significant move of the season acquiring Luke Lush from the Camrose Kodiaks who would go on to be named the AJHL Goaltender of the Year. Lush then went on to earn himself an NCAA Division I scholarship at Sacred Heart University. With the backing of Lush, Drayton Valley was able to put together their best season since 2015 and finished sixth in the North. They?d faceoff against the Saints in the first round, and despite a tremendous effort, they were eliminated, falling 3-1 in the series.

Thurston and his team will be looking to take the next step forward in 2019-20. A good chunk of their roster should be returning for another season including three of their top four scorers from last season – Jeremy Klessens, Tanner Hopps, and Matthew Kinash. The blueline will also be filled with experience led by Niagara University commit, Jesse Pomeroy, and the recently acquired Ethan McLaughlin from the BCHLs? Alberni Valley Bulldogs. The battle for the number one spot between the pipes is likely to continue into the regular season with Lush no longer in Thunder Nation.

The Thunder season starts up right where it left off with a matchup against Spruce Grove. They?ll start out on the road at the Grant Fuhr Arena on Friday night and then return back to the Drayton Valley Omniplex the following night for a rematch.

Fort McMurray Oil Barons: 32-19-9 4th in the North Division

Key Returnees: Chris Curr, Ryan Conroy, Brendan Stafford

Fort McMurray put together a skilled and experienced group for the 2018-19 season. Last season The Oil Barons found themselves on the wrong side of a few close games and a fourth place finish in the division. They eliminated Grande Prairie in four games in the first round and then pushed the Crusaders to their limits in round two. However, that was the end of the road for the Oil Barons falling in six games. Forward Reed Morison was outstanding in his final year of junior, scoring 41 goals which led the league. Himself and Kole Gable proved to be one of the deadliest duos in the AJHL. Defensively, Taner Miller was the leader and helped mentor Yale commit, Ryan Conroy, and also other youngsters like Gunner Kinniburgh, Max Struss and Konrad Belcourt. Chris Curr put together another outstanding season with a 0.914 SV%, a 2.66 GAA and 23 wins to his name.

Heading into the 2019-20 season, Bob Beatty is in charge in Fort McMurray after the departure of Tom Keca. Beatty is a National Championship winning coach after the Humboldt Broncos defeated the Camrose Kodiaks to win their first national title in 2003. The new coach in Baron Country named Ryan Conroy as the captain, replacing Miller. Conroy is regarded as one of the best defencemen in the AJHL and will be relied upon a lot throughout the season. While Oil Barons don?t have a standout star in their forward group, they do have plenty of depth along within their group with the additions of Logan Bromhead, Ty Budai, and Hunter Lamb over the off-season. Brendan Stafford also returns to Fort McMurray after scoring 27 points (13 goals, 14 assists) in 49 games last year. In goal, Chris Curr heads back North for his third season as an Oil Baron with Josh Dias coming back for his second.

Hockey season is back in Oil Barons country on Friday and Saturday night at the Casman Centre. The Grande Prairie Storm are the opponents over the weekend, and the last time they faced off against each other, the Oil Barons eliminated the Storm in the post-season. With the rivalry fresh in the minds of both teams, fans should be in store for an exciting weekend of AJHL hockey.

Grande Prairie Storm: 30-26-4 5th in the North Division

Key Returnees: Jarin Sutton, Jackson Wozniak, Kaeden Lane

Despite finishing one spot lower in the standings, the Grande Prairie Storm had their best season since 2013 with 30 wins to their name. A significant factor in their success was in large part due to their deep offensive group. Six forwards scored fourty or more points with the Pontiacs being the only team to have more (seven). Vincent Milot-Ouellet led the team with 59 points (24 goals, 35 assists) in 55 games with Zachary Okabe right behind him with 58 points (31 goals, 27 assists). However, even with such an expressive offence, the Storm were unable to prevent a first round knockout by the Fort McMurray Oil Barons.

Jackson Wozniak has been chosen to lead the Storm into battle replacing graduating forward Connor Blake as captain. Blake was one of many players Grande Prairie were forced to replace for the 2019-20 season. Devin Sutton was brought in to help restore the offence. Sutton is the twin brother of Jarin Sutton (Storm defenceman) and played for the Kelowna Chiefs in 2018-19, scoring 59 points (23 goals, 36 assists) in 31 games. Speaking of Jarin, the other half of the Sutton brothers is coming back for his final season of junior hockey. Jarin gave them another offensive option from the blueline. Now with Tyrell Boucher in the BCHL, he?ll be looked at to continue to produce at that level. Between the pipes, Kaden Lane and Lars Kaliel will both be back for Grande Prairie.

Grande Prairie starts their season with a Battle of the North series as they travel to the Casman Centre for a pair of games on Friday and Saturday.

Lloydminster Bobcats: 9-49-2 8th in the North Division

Key Returnees: Cale Elder, Ty Mosimann, Ryley Hogan

The Lloydminster Bobcats struggled to find any traction last season winning only nine games and finished at the bottom of the division. Nigel Dube was brought in from the Camrose Kodiaks to be the new General Manager and Head Coach, replacing Travis Clayton mid-season.  Dube began to mold together his ideal roster bringing in players from around Western Canada in attempt to guide the Bobcats up the ladder. Over the off-season, he?s been a busy man bringing in 19 new players to Lloydminster.

With the number of moves made to improve this roster, fans should feel optimistic about the upcoming season. The forward group looks strong with a good balance of talent led by Cameron Aucoin who was brought in from the North Division regular season leaders, the Sherwood Park Crusaders. Joining Aucoin are Tyler Schendel, Nolan Coventry, and Kris Bladen who all come with AJHL experience. Kyle Fulton and Gunner Kinniburgh were added to the blueline to help tighten up a defensive unit which conceded 276 goals last season. Cale Elder also returns between the pipes with Garrett Larsen joining the Bobcats from the state of Wisconsin.

Their season does not get off to an easy start with a trip to the Sherwood Park Arena on Friday night. A place where they failed to win in three attempts in 2018-19. They then host the Crusaders on Saturday night for their home opener.

Sherwood Park Crusaders: 44-14-2 1st in the North Division

Key Returnees: Arjun Atwal, Carter Savoie, Michael Benning

It all came together for the Sherwood Park Crusaders in 2018-19 as they set a franchise record for most wins in a season (44). They carried their momentum from the regular season to the North Division finals for the first time since 2003. The Crusaders were unable to get by the Spruce Grove Saints, however, falling 4-2 in the series. Rookie sensation, Carter Savoie, was an offensive juggernaut in Sherwood Park scoring 73 points (31 goals, 42 assists) in 58 games. He took plenty of silverware home at the end of year, being named the AJHL Rookie of the Year and was a member of both the All-League and All-Rookie team. The highest honour was still to come for Savoie as he was awarded the CJHL Top Rookie award.

Savoie will remain in Sherwood Park as he and his team look to take the next step to the championship. He isn?t the only one returning with 12 players coming back including Arjun Atwal, Carter Gylander and Michael Benning. General Manager, Kyle Chase, bolstered up his forward group with the addition of Jarred White from the Oil Barons, bringing some extra physicality to his lineup. Max Wutzke was the lone veteran addition on the blueline coming in from the BCHL. The Calgary native adds plenty of experience with over 100 junior hockey games to his name. Carter Gylander and Jordan Frey will be relied upon between the pipes for the Crusaders.

The Crusaders open up their season in front of a home crowd when the Lloydminster Bobcats roll into the Sherwood Park Arena on Friday night. Sherwood Park dominated the Bobcats at home in 2018-19, taking three wins out of three. They then travel east on Saturday night to finish their back-to-back series against Lloydminster.

Spruce Grove Saints: 40-17-3 3rd in the North Division

Key Returnees: Jordan Biro, Cam Mitchell, Matthew Davis

Despite a loss in the league finals against the Brooks Bandits, the Spruce Grove Saints put together another successful season, taking home a North Division title. Matthew Davis was one of many standout stars in Spruce Grove in his rookie season. His 2.03 GAA was first amongst starting goaltenders, and he finished first in shutouts with 6 in 35 games played. Furthermore, Davis had a 0.914 SV% which was the ninth best in the league. Standing in front of Davis on the blueline was Saints captain T.J. Lloyd. Lloyd had a tremendous season leading the Saints blueline which was littered in talent. With Davis behind them and Lloyd commanding the blueline, Spruce Grove conceded the fewest goals in the North with 141 against after 60 games. Offensively, Lloyd put up 45 points (11 points, 34 assists) in 53 games, which resulted in him being named the AJHLs Most Outstanding Defenceman at the end of the season. Parker Saretsky led the team in points with 56 in his last season with the team.

The Saints are going to be without many key players from the past few seasons as five players move onto NCAA programs. However, the ones that remain are still an experienced group which makes them again one of the most talented teams in the division. The trio of Jordan Biro, Cam Mitchell, and Ryan Peckford is one to watch offensively. Biro and Mitchell both hit a career high in points in 2018-19 and will look to take the next step in their offensive development. Meanwhile, Peckford joined the Saints in January from the Western Hockey League and took the AJHL by storm with 22 points (7 goals, 15 assists) in 16 appearances. Fans should expect to see him near the top of the scoring race all season long. Davis returning between the pipes gives you another reason to believe they can head back to the AJHL finals for the third year in a row.

Their journey begins on Friday night at the Grant Fuhr Arena versus the Drayton Valley Thunder. The Grant Fuhr is one of the most intimidating arenas in the AJHL, which should provide the Saints with an advantage in game one. The following night they?ll then make the trip to the Drayton Valley Omniplex to complete the back-to-back.

Whitecourt Wolverines: 21-37-2 7th in the North Division

Key Returnees: Adam Sandstrom, Brayden Labant, Hayden Clayton

The 2018-19 season was a tough one for the Whitecourt Wolverines after a seventh place finish and a first round elimination. Many familiar faces moved on via trade to ensure the future of the Wolverines is bright with the talent coming back in exchange. Amongst those departing were captain Ryan Grant and Jaedon Leslie who have their names near the top of many franchise lists. Gord Thibodeau was also a member of the exiting cast after three seasons with the organization. His assistant, Shawn Martin, took over for the remainder of the season and was then named the General Manager and Head Coach in the off-season.

Now, with a full off-season under his belt, Martin has brought in plenty of new faces to help them climb back to the top. Headlining those recruits are Cassidy Bowes – the University of Michigan commit – from the Penticton Vees and Ethan Leyer – St Cloud State University commit – from division rivals the Bonnyville Pontiacs. The two are joined by Sam Anderson, Kaleb Ergang, Tyson Scott, and Charles Antoine Giguere giving the Wolverines a new look offensively. On top of that, leading forwards from last season, Brayden Labant, Hayden Clayton, and Bjorn Robinson, are all returning making Whitecourt possibly one of the most dangerous teams in the league. The defensive group should look relatively similar, however, with five players expected to return including captain Adam Sandstrom and Whitecourt native Spencer Augot. Heading into the year, Vincent Duplessis seems to be the new number one for the Wolverines.

On opening weekend, the Wolverines host the Bonnyville Pontiacs, the team that ended their 2018-19 campaign, in back to back games at the Scott Safety Centre. Making home ice the fortress it once was is a goal of the Wolverines this season. A couple of wins over a top team like Bonnyville would send that message to the league.

Story by @LiamHorrobin