Viterra AJHL South Division Preview

After an eventful summer off the ice, the Alberta Junior Hockey League returns this weekend for the 2019-2020 campaign.  In the South Division, the biggest change surrounds the Calgary Mustangs who have taken a leave of absence this season, reducing the division to seven teams.  However, the biggest story is what hasn?t changed – once again, the Brooks Bandits enter this campaign looking to repeat as AJHL Champions after capturing their fifth title in the last eight years.  The Bandits were able to turn this into their second National Junior A Championship of the decade, this time as hosts of the tournament.

Here is how every team in the AJHL South shapes up entering the regular season.

Brooks Bandits: 57-3-0 1st in the South Division

As mentioned, the Brooks Bandits sliced through the AJHL like a hot knife through butter in 2018-2019.  Entering the playoffs on a torrid 33-game win streak, the Bandits would roar to an AJHL Championship with a 12-3 playoff record that was capped with a four-game sweep of the defending champion Spruce Grove Saints in the finals.  The Bandits would come across adversity in the subsequent Doyle Cup, losing the series 4-2 to the BCHL?s Prince George Spruce Kings, but would have their vengeance by beating those same Spruce Kings 4-3 in the National Jr. A Championship Game in front of a raucous Brooks crowd. 

Key Returning Players: Pierce Charleson (?00, Goaltender); Jordan Di Cicco (?99, Defence); Taylor Makar (01, Forward); Jakob Lee (?99, Forward)

2019-2020 Outlook:  Change is an inevitable facet of junior hockey, and unless Head Coach/GM Ryan Papaioannou is hording the fountain of youth in Brooks, even the Bandits must adjust as players move on.  Fortunately for the Bandits, arguably nobody has been better at finding talent in the last decade than Papaioannou, who will begin the campaign with 11 college committed players on his roster (seven of which are AJHL rookies).  They say those who never remember history are doomed to repeat it, but the Brooks Bandits take exception to this.  They remember what it takes to win and will look to repeat those feats this season.

Opening Weekend: The Bandits will have to wait for their most recent banner raising as they begin the 2019-2020 campaign on the road.  On Friday, the Bandits visit the Drumheller Dragons and will then head up QE2 to face the Camrose Kodiaks.  For all the success the Bandits had last year, one of their three losses did come on opening night in Drumheller when the Dragons skated to a lopsided win.  Coach Papaioannou will look to make sure this is one bit of Bandits history that doesn?t repeat. 

Calgary Canucks: 9-49-2 7th in the South Division

After a rocky start last season led to a coaching change, Brad Moran?s Calgary Canucks certainly seemed to improve and establish a culture change in one of the most storied franchises of the AJHL.  Despite the slow start, the Canucks were able to pull away from the Olds Grizzlys in the playoff race and secure the final spot by 5 points, but were ultimately felled by the Okotoks Oilers 3-0 in a Best-of-Five series.

Key Returning Players: Zach Bokenfohr (?99, Defence); Michael Bladon (?99, Defence); Dylan Clark (?01, Forward); Brendan Morrow (?00, Forward)

2019-2020 Outlook:  With a new logo and a new organizational identity, the environment is certainly right for returning and new Canucks alike to shrug off last year and get to work this year.  Head Coach Brad Moran has strong, experienced support on his blueline with Bokenfohr (team captain) and Bladon while Morrow and Clark will be primed to build upon their point-every-second-game pace record last year.  The goaltending duties fall to ?01 Jay Thomson (30 GP last season split between Drumheller and Olds) and rookie ?02 Connor Martin. 

Opening Weekend: The Calgary Canucks will have an immediate spark to their season on opening weekend as they host a pair of rivalry games starting with the Okotoks Oilers on Friday.  The Oilers have been neck-and-neck with the Bandits for the last few seasons, so this is a great measuring stick opportunity for Moran?s Canucks from the first puck drop.  On Saturday, the Canucks host the Olds Grizzlys who are also looking to grow after a missed trip to the post-season in 2018-2019. 

Camrose Kodiaks: 32-21-7 4th in the South Division

The Camrose Kodiaks broke the 70-point barrier for the first time since 2015-2016 last year, but for the second straight year they were knocked out of the post-season by the Okotoks Oilers in the second round, this time after a thrilling 5-game series that went the distance versus the Calgary Mustangs.  The Kodiaks would tinker with their staff following the season, with long-time Head Coach Boris Rybalka shifting to GM duties and Clayton Jardine taking over as Head Coach.  The Kodiaks would then add Richard Petiot as an assistant and skills coach.  Petiot played for the Kodiaks in his junior career and was a member of the 2001 squad which captured a National Jr. A Championship.

Key Returning Players: Griffin Bowerman (?00, Goaltender); Jacob Kendall (?99, Forward); Robert Kincaid (02, Defence); McKenzie Welke (?99, Forward); Carson Welke (?99, Forward); Cody Laskosky (?99, Forward)

2019-2020 Outlook: Several Kodiaks got a kick start to their campaign as part of Team AJHL at the Junior Club World Cup in Sochi, Russia, where they finished second.  This includes returning Kodiaks goaltender Griffin Bowerman, and defencemen Robert Kincaid and Lane Brockhoff.  The Kodiaks have been a model of consistency for the better part of a decade, recording at least 32 wins in eight of the last ten seasons and never missing the playoffs in franchise history.  With a strong veteran group complimented by a skilled class of rookies, seeing someone other than Rybalka behind the Kodiaks bench may be the biggest change as the Kodiaks look to contend once again. 

Opening Weekend: The Camrose Kodiaks will begin their 2019-2020 season on home ice, welcoming the last year?s last place Olds Grizzlys on Friday and then the defending national champion Brooks Bandits on Saturday.  Both games should prove to be a tough test for the Kodiaks, as both opponents will be eager to start their seasons off in a positive way.

Canmore Eagles: 30-25-5 6th in the South Division

The Canmore Eagles lived up to their moniker last season, as their high-flying offence (233 goals for) was the defining trait of their team throughout the regular season.  In the playoffs, the Eagles were able to upset the Drumheller Dragons in a 5-game series that saw the first four contests require overtime.  In the second round, the Eagles were able to split the first two games against the Brooks Bandits but would fall in five games.

Key Returning Players: Alex Young (?01, Forward); Connor Lyons (?99, Forward); Max Giangualano (?00, Forward); Owen Reith (?99, Forward); Brent Schuldhaus (?99, Defence); Logan Dyck (?99, Goalie)

2019-2020 Outlook: The Canmore Eagles may have changed the look of their feathers with a crisp new logo but with many top-flight scorers returning, Head Coach and General Manager Andrew Milne?s Eagles will once again not struggle to fill the opposition?s net.  Alex Young and Max Giangualano have already had some elite level hockey to prep for the campaign, as both were fixtures on Team AJHL at the Junior Club World Cup.  Other key returning forwards such as Tian Rask and Connor Lyons provide the Eagles with balanced depth.  Returning goaltender Logan Dyck should help the Eagles shore up defensively, and Canmore can springboard off a thrilling playoff run into a season full of promise.

Opening Weekend: The Canmore Eagles won?t begin regular season play until Wednesday of next week after the start of training camp was delayed by arena construction.  The Eagles will have some extra time to prep before a home-and ?home against the Calgary Canucks.  Game #1 is in Calgary while the Eagles will have their home opener against the Canucks on Friday next week. 

Drumheller Dragons: 37-19-4 3rd in the South Division

A team on the rise since the arrival of Head Coach Kevin Hasselberg, the Dragons improved by 7-points last season and their 78-point campaign was the 2nd best in franchise history.  The season began with authority when the Dragons blew the doors off of the Brooks Bandits 11-3 on opening night and the Dragons got off to a 13-5 start.  Drumheller was able to ride that wave into the second half of the season and would finish 3rd in the division, bested by the Okotoks Oilers by a mere two points.  However, a tight playoff series with the underdog Canmore Eagles would see their season end prematurely, as Drumheller would fall 2-1 in a winner-take-all Game 5 on home ice.

Key Returning Players: Shane Ott (?00, Forward); Brady Risk (?99, Forward); Derrick Budz (?99, Forward); Aiden Yakimchuk (?00, Defence); Roc Truman (01, Forward)

2019-2020 Outlook: Heading into this season, the Drumheller Dragons have prominent returning pieces, but those pieces will be called upon to serve a bigger on-ice role.  Brady Risk and Roc Truman come into the season off of representing the AJHL at the Junior Club World Cup while returning veteran Derrick Budz was named captain this past week.  The Dragons certainly have enough to continue their upward progression established under Head Coach Kevin Hasselberg, and their strong veteran group will be an invaluable resource for several first-year Dragons. 

Opening Weekend: The Drumheller Dragons will get right into it against some of the AJHL?s most consistent clubs when they welcome the Brooks Bandits and the Okotoks Oilers on opening weekend.  By taking on the top two teams in the division from last year, key rivals, and coming off being upset in the first round, the Dragons have plenty to play for as soon as the season begins.

Okotoks Oilers: 39-19-2 2nd in the South Division

The Okotoks Oilers followed up the franchise?s first ever trip to the AJHL Finals with a tremendous campaign, highlighted by a 40-goal season from Dylan Holloway, who was named CJHL Junior A Player of the Year in May.  For the third consecutive season, the Oilers would once again surge their way into the South Division Finals where, once again, they would meet the Brooks Bandits.  The Oilers season would end in a hard-fought six game series.

Key Returning Players: Brady Parker (?00, Goalie); Marc Pasemko (?99, Forward); Louis Jamernik (?00, Forward); Seth Bernard-Docker (?01, Defence); Eric Parker (01, Defence); Zane Kindrachuk (?00, Forward)

2019-2020 Outlook: The Okotoks Oilers will have a new look on the ice this season, with four of last year?s top five scorers having moved on to post-secondary hockey.  Marc Pasemko, Zane Kindrachuk and Louis Jamernik are the key returning Oilers up front, while Brady Parker will form a solid goaltending duo with former Calgary Mustang Ashton Abel.  On the back end, Seth Bernard-Docker didn?t disappoint in his rookie season and his sophomore season should be another tremendous step forward for the skilled blueliner while Eric Parker joined Kindrachuk with Team AJHL at the Junior Club World Cup.  The Oilers have put up at least 36 wins in 6 of the last 7 campaigns and will look to do so once again this season. 

Opening Weekend: Good teams have to be able to play in tough environments on the road and the Okotoks Oilers will try and do just that with a pair of road games to start the season.  On Friday, the Oilers will make a quick trip into Calgary to take on the new-look Canucks.  On Saturday, Okotoks treks to the badlands to play the Drumheller Dragons. 

Olds Grizzlys: 6-51-3 8th in the South Division

The 2018-2019 season did not go in the direction envisioned by the Olds Grizzlys.  Starting with a 16-game losing streak, the Grizzlys found themselves with just two wins after Christmas and would miss the playoffs for the second straight year.  Injuries were also an issue, highlighted by then recently acquired defenceman (and former captain) Matthew Kasowski being limited to just 27 appearances. 

Key Returning Players: Nolan Spadafore (?99, Defence); Hunter Floris (?00, Forward); Dane Milgate (?99, Forward); Kaiden Kanderka (?00, Forward); Duncan Hughes (?00, Goalie)

2019-2020 Outlook: After missing the playoffs for two consecutive seasons, the Olds Grizzlys are obviously looking to snap this streak and return to the post-season.  Although painful, there are positives to be mined from losing lessons.  For the Olds Grizzlys, growing pains have the potential to become gains for returning players up front like Dane Milgate, Kaiden Kanderka, and Hunter Floris.  Additionally, Duncan Hughes will be another year older and another year better in the crease for Olds and of the six wins picked up by Olds last year, Hughes was in net for four of them.  The Grizzlys also had a roster rollover with many off season trades, so the message is clear that the Grizzlys are looking to put things back into the win column. 

Opening Weekend: The Grizzlys? grind to get back in the playoffs begins on the road with a Battle of the Bears when they face the Kodiaks in Camrose.  The Grizzlys will stay on the road this weekend to take on the Calgary Canucks on Saturday.  The Grizzlys and Canucks rivalry heated up last season, particularly during the playoff race.