By Derek Holtom
MJHL Web Correspondent
Eleven teams. Sixty games. Tens of thousands of kilometres of travel. And more pre game pasta meals than we could ever count. Welcome to the 2017-18 Manitoba Junior Hockey League season.
Every team enters the season with dreams of hoisting the Turnbull Cup in April. Some teams start the year with a much better chance than others – but as long as you’re in the playoffs come early March, you’ve got a shot.
In Part 1, let’s start our tour around the MJHL for a quick look in on each team. We’ll split this up into two parts: Part 2 coming Friday.
Today, we’ll feature Dauphin, Neepawa, OCN, Portage, Selkirk and Steinbach. We’ll profile the other five teams on Friday: when our season kicks into high gear.
Last year: 17-36-5-2, 10th place, DNQ.
The Kings celebrate their 50th campaign in the MJHL with plenty of hope to getting back into the post season. Last year’s disappointing finish saw the team ice plenty of youth, including 16-year-old Riese Gaber, who ended up third in team scoring with 32 points in just 42 games. The Gilbert Plains product is back and had already been lighting up the scoreboard in the preseason. Returning forward Brendan Arnold and rookie Nick Ness (from Minnesota) could also figure into Dauphin’s plans for a rebound year.
Last year: 21-33-3-3, Eighth place, lost in first round to the Steinbach Pistons in six games.
Neepawa got back into the post season last year, but this year they will be looking for more. With brand new boards, glass and a scoreboard in the Yellowhead Arena, there is a lot of buzz surrounding this team this year. Expect last year’s leading goal scorer Justin Metcalf to continue to set put up huge numbers for the Natives, with Ashton Anderson looking to be his set up man once again. Bradley Marshall will also be looked at to provide an offensive punch. The loss of McCreary product Reigan Buchanan leaves a bit of a leadership hole, though the Natives are returning enough veterans to fill that void.
Last year: 39-17-3-1, Third place, lost in league final to the Portage Terriers in six games.
What a roller coaster year it was for the Blizzard, with so many ups and downs. Entering the season with much more stable footing, the Blizzard are looking to get back to the league final and finish the job. But they’ll have to do it without the star power of last year’s league MOP Brady Keeper, who has since graduated. His brother Anthony Keeper (43 points last year), and Brady Valiquette (30 points) will be among those expected to help OCN challenge for top spot once again.
Last year: 37-19-1-3, fifth place, won the MJHL championship in six games over OCN Blizzard.
That the Portage Terriers won the league again in a “rebuilding year” should pretty much tell us they will be extremely strong again this year. Their seven top scorers from last year were under the age of 20 and were all eligible to return. The Terriers will lose some of their potential returning talent, but with the likes of James McIsaac, Jeremy Leipsic and Chase Brakel on board, how can Portage not already be considered as the team to beat this year?
Last year: 39-18-2-1, fourth place, lost in the first round to Portage Terriers in six games.
Steelers hope to have a strong season and be competitive on a daily basis. Returning to the line-up is third-leading scorer Nathan Halvorsen (48 points) and fourth-leading scorer Connor Barley (46 points from last year), so they should have a solid No. 1 line. Also look for netminder Landon Poiron, who started six games for the Steelers last year (with one shutout) to factor in their goaltending picture).
Last year: 49-10-1-0, first place, lost in the second round to the Portage Terriers in six games.
It was a bitterly disappointing finish for the Pistons last year. They finished first overall and had home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. But the Portage Terriers stung them in six games in the second round, sending the top seed packing. Steinbach’s biggest loss this year will be in goal, as all-star netminder Roman Bengert has moved onto the college ranks. However the Pistons do bring back a good chunk of their offensive talent from last year, including Bradley Schoonbaert (72 points), Will Koop (52 points) and have high hopes for Drew Worrad whom they acquired for last year’s leading scorer Mack Graham. Braden Purtill, with 31 points in 38 games last year, has already been named captain. I suspect Portage and Steinbach will once again battle for top spot in the MJHL.