By Derek Holtom
It’s that exciting time of year as the Manitoba Junior Hockey League gets under way. Three teams are celebrating milestone years. The defending champions have a lot of holes to fill. There have been coaching changes galore on just about every team.
Oh, and the Portage Terriers were chosen to host the RBC Cup in two years.
All this adds up to what could be a wildly unpredictable season – and that should mean exciting hockey for fans across the league.
Here’s part one of a two-part series looking at each team, and what we might expect from them this year.
Last year – 48-8-2-2 (First place, won the MJHL and ANAVET Cup).
What to expect – The Pistons have a lot of holes to fill for the coming season. After a dream season which saw them make it all the way to the RBC Cup, the Pistons lost 15 players from last year’s team. This includes netminder Matt Thiessen, and star players such as Bradley Schoonbaert, Braden Purtill, Mark Taraschuk and Riese Gaber to name just a few. The Pistons do bring back netminder Matt Radomsky (a shutout machine last year), but head coach Paul Dyck will have to find some new players to lead this team – players such as Brady Tatro and Boedey Vaeth, who last played for the Swan Valley Stampeders.
Prediction – Early growing pains, but expect them to be in the mix for the top four in the MJHL
Swan Valley Stampeders
Last year – 28-25-6-1 (Eighth place, swept by Steinbach in the first round).
What to expect – It would be nice to talk about the Stampeders’ youth movement again leading them, or how many points Josh Tripp might put up for his hometown team. But the big story is the sudden departure of head coach and general manager Taurean White just two games into the preseason. No reason was given for his resignation, but the Stampeders enter the season under the guidance of Darren Webster – an outstanding hockey mind who has been scouting and has served as an assistant coach for years, but who has a full-time job which prevents him from doing the job full time. This is not how the Stampeders expected to kick off their 20th season. Local rookie Carter Cockburn is one player to keep an eye on – he has a plenty of upside.
Prediction – The team enters the season in turmoil, but could this be a case of addition by subtraction? They certainly hope so. Eighth or higher will be their goal this year.
Last year – 8-48-3-1 (Last place, missed the playoffs)
What to expect – The Waywayseecappo Wolverines are also entering their 20th season in the MJHL, and they are looking to turn things around in a major way from last year. The Wolverines really didn’t become a competitive team until they brought in head coach Taylor Harnett in late November. The Wolverines now look like a real team. He has brought in talent from his home province of Alberta, while veterans who toughed it out last year – players such as Riley Vautour and netminder Isaac Labelle – stand to really break out this year. Adding MJHL veterans such as Brady Pupp and Nick Doyle gives this team a lot more credibility heading into the season.
Prediction – The Wolverines will definitely be in the hunt for a playoff spot this year – and perhaps more. Last year they finished 43 points out of a playoff spot. That won’t happen this year.
Last year – 35-25-0-0 (Fifth place, defeated OCN 4-2 in the first round, swept 4-0 by Virden in second round).
What to expect – The Flyers are another team with some major changes behind the bench. Long serving head coach Ken Pearson is stepping back to concentrate on the general manager duties, allowing assistant Steve Mullin to become the new head coach of the Flyers. He’ll take over a team that will be in a rebuild mode – their top seven scorers (including Matt Christian and his 81 points, who moved onto NCAA Division III hockey this year) have all graduated. They also traded away some veteran talent (Pupp to Wayway for instance), leaving Mullin with a largely new team to mold from the ground up.
Prediction – Expect some growing pains for the Flyers, who could be in a battle for a playoff spot this year, something their fan base is not totally accustomed to.
Last year – 32-30-5-3 (Fourth place, lost to Winkler 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs).
What to expect – The OCN Blizzard did much to stabilize their franchise last year, with an aborted plan to end the team two years ago put on hold (which occurred during a memorable run to the MJHL final). Matt Summers has rejoined the team as their new head coach, replacing Doug Hedley who is returning to the Kings (after having returned to the Blizzard two seasons ago). The Blizzard were a real score-by-committee team last year, and while they lost several players to graduation, only one had more than 50 points – Anthony Keeper (who had 53 points). In fact the Blizzard – who were known for years for their dynamic offense, didn’t have a 20 goal scorer last year. Summers, one of those prolific offensive talents from years gone by, will try and instill some of that confidence in the Blizzard this year.
Prediction – The Blizzard have a lot of question marks heading into this season. So do a lot of teams. How quickly they progress could determine whether this is a playoff team or not.