If you go by what the ever-subjective Canadian Junior Hockey League Top 20 rankings are projecting, it would appear that the Battlefords North Stars are runaway favourites to repeat as Canalta Cup champions as they are the only team from the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League to crack the list.
In reality, however, it’s highly unlikely that the North Stars will run roughshod over the rest of the competition and post another 12-0 record in the post-season.
As the new season gets underway Friday, there appears to be no clear-cut favourite to win the SJHL title with a handful of teams having a legitimate chance to lift the trophy in April.
The makeup of each roster will be completely different once the playoffs begin, but as opening night draws closer each of the 12 coaches in the league have a good sense of what their squads have to offer as they battle it out across the province.
Battlefords North Stars
The only change behind the bench in the SJHL took place with the defending league champions as Nate Bedford left his role as head coach and general manager in June to take over the Portage College Voyageurs in Cold Lake, Alta.
Replacing him is 32-year-old Brandon Heck, who has spent the last four seasons as the head coach of the Camrose Red Wings of the Alberta Major Bantam Hockey League.
“After the pre-season, I’m excited to get some practices in the books and work out the details to get everything in place and get going as a team,” Heck said.
“This is going to be a different team with a different identity than last year. We might not be as big or as tough as we were a year ago, but we’ll be able to move the puck in a similar fashion to last season’s team.”
While the North Stars will be losing a number of weapons on offence, along with the top two blueliners from last season’s squad in Kendall Fransoo and Connor Sych, they still have a number of key players back from a team that won their first title since 2000.
“Layne Young has high-end skill and he’s a threat to score every time on the ice, plus we have some other returning forwards like Troy Gerein and Owen Lamb who play the game the right way at all times,” Heck said.
“On defence, Levi Kleiboer’s patience with the puck blows me away every time and Cody Spagrud is someone who I think will put up some more points this season. Plus, Taryn Kotchorek’s numbers in goal speak for themselves.”
One of the teams that ended up getting swept aside by the North Stars during their run to the championship were the Bruins, as they reached the semifinals for the first time since 2005.
“We were disappointed that we didn’t have a better showing in that round as we felt like we left a bit on the table,” Bruins head coach and general manager Chris Lewgood said. “With that said, I don’t think anyone was going to beat the North Stars in a seven game series. They were the best team in the league and they deserved the Canalta Cup.
“We’ve made some nice strides over the last couple of seasons and we are moving in the right direction with our team culture. If you combine that with the quality of players we have here, it bodes well for success.”
The Bruins’ offence looks to be one of the best in the SJHL on paper with Zach Goberis, Kaelan Holt and Michael McChesney expected to lead the way.
“Michael was the rookie of the year for our division last year and he’s really turned our heads in the pre-season,” Lewgood said.
“Another sophomore guy we are excited about is defenceman Johnny Witzke. He played in the shadow of Josh Reiger [who is now with the NCAA’s North Dakota Fighting Hawks] and I expect him to have a breakout year.”
Curtis Meger was expected to be the starter in goal, but he’s currently vying for a spot with the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League, leaving the Bruins with a trio of new faces in between the pipes.
Flin Flon Bombers
Although they are still searching for their first championship since 1993, two straight trips to the league final has done a lot for the Bombers when it comes to recruiting new talent.
“We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of high-end guys come up here and be a part of the program lately,” Bombers head coach and general manager Mike Reagan said.
“Winning helps, but we’ve also seen a number of players getting NCAA Division I scholarships over the last couple years. I think when players look at our program, they see it as viable option in getting up to the next level.”
Reagan, who is the longest serving head coach in the SJHL, has also been rewarded for the team’s success, as he’ll be behind the bench for Canada West at the World Junior A Challenge in Truro, N.S. this December.
“It’s an honour to have the chance to not only represent the Bombers but the entire SJHL at an international event,” Reagan said.
“I’m not going to lie, there’s a little bit of nerves, but when you have those feelings you know that you’re going to be taking part in something special.”
While the Bombers will lose a number of key members from last year’s team, they still return some veterans to go along with the fresh faces.
“Nick Shumlanski’s a three-year veteran in our league who put up nearly 60 points last year and Nate Hooper’s been an impact forward early on after a good rookie campaign,” Reagan said. “Brendan Newton’s entering his third season in goal and I think he’s one of the top netminders in our league.
“We have so many good young players, but Chrystopher Colin has stood out so far. He’s joined us from Montreal and had five goals in exhibition play.”
Another player to watch is 20-year-old blueliner Kurtis Rutledge, who spent the last two years in the WHL with the Tri-City Americans and the Kootenay Ice.
A year after missing out on the post-season for the first time since 1980, the Broncos got off to a quick start last fall before eventually getting caught up by the injury bug and getting knocked out in the quarter-finals by the Nipawin Hawks.
“We learned a lot of valuable lessons about what it takes to be one of the top teams in the league,” Broncos head coach and general manager Darcy Haugan said.
“It’s all about getting in that mindset of taking your effort level up to that next level. After what happened last year, we understand that it’s a marathon and not a sprint.”
According to Haugan, the Broncos will be a balanced team this year with a good mix of youth and experience.
“Up front we have our captain Logan Schatz back along with third-year forward Kaleb Dahlgren, who we acquired from the Notre Dame Hounds in the summer,” Haugan said. “We also brought in another veteran in Conner Lukan from [the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s] Spruce Grove Saints in the Chris Van Os-Shaw trade recently.
“On defence, we have Stephan Wack and Logan Boulet returning, so they’ll be leading the way for us there.”
The Broncos also acquired Sam-Jaxon Visscher, who started last season with the Hawks before joining the AJHL’s Whitecourt Wolverines, in the summer to replace graduating workhorse netminder Garret Mason.
While he hesitates to call it a rebuild, Klippers head coach and general manager Geoff Grimwood made a conscious effort to make his team younger over the course of last season.
“We were pretty disappointed with how things started early on and we made some decisions to put us in a better place for this year,” Grimwood said. “I don’t want to say it was a write-off, but we knew early on that we weren’t going to be a team that was strong enough to do a lot of damage in the playoffs.”
Coming off of an opening round loss to the Weyburn Red Wings, the returning players from last year’s Klippers squad are expected to move into bigger roles this season.
“I think we have a lot more balance this year as we’ll have four lines that can chip in offensively,” Grimwood said. “This isn’t a team with a lot of star players on it. They play hard as a group and it will be a lot of fun to watch.
“There a couple of guys we are looking at moving up into bigger roles. Justen Close was our backup last year and we expect him to move into that starting goalie position. Kyle Bosch did a good job up front as a 17-year-old, so we’re hoping to see him establish himself a bit more this season.”
La Ronge Ice Wolves
Evan Vossen was thrown into the line of fire last November as he took over the reigns for an Ice Wolves squad that had fired head coach and general manager Shawn Martin a few weeks earlier.
To say it was a challenging campaign would be an understatement, as the Ice Wolves won just six contests and finished the year on a 29-game losing streak.
“It was a case of sinking or swimming when I came in with just a few weeks before the roster cutdown in December and the trade deadline in January, but I feel like that’s the best way to learn sometimes,” Vossen said.
“We got younger at the deadline and I think that was the best thing for us when looking back on it. We had a chance in the summer to reflect on things and I was better prepared to know what pieces I had to put in place for this year as a result of the moves we made.”
The Ice Wolves, who were the only team in the SJHL not to play a pre-season game due to scheduling issues in Kindersley and a highway closure prior to a trip to Flin Flon last week to the wildfires up north, will have a dramatically different roster from a year ago with a just handful of returning faces.
“There’s a renewed sense of energy and a different attitude around the guys,” Vossen said. “It was tough to get up and play in the last month of the season when there’s not much to play for, but our guys that are back with us have taken the extra time to improve and that’s rubbed off on the new players.”
Third-year forward Derek Frater and fourth-year blueliner Bryce Fiske are expected to be the key cogs for the Ice Wolves as they look to get back to the playoffs.
In their quest to become the first team to win three straight league titles since the Broncos did it from 2007 to 2009, the Mustangs went through a surprising drop in form over the final weeks of the season as they just snuck into the playoffs before losing in the first round to the Notre Dame Hounds.
“It was a growing year for us as we didn’t have a lot of 20-year-old guys compared to the top teams in the league,” Mustangs head coach and general manager Trevor Blevins said.
“We got some playoff experience though and our guys learned a lot about what it takes to be a contender, especially with some tough competition in our division with Flin Flon and Nipawin.”
Although leading scorer Dakota Boutin has been dealt to the British Columbia Hockey League’s Penticton Vees, the Mustangs still have a number of offensive weapons on their roster with returning forwards Reed Gunville and Kalem Zary.
They also return netminders Derrick Hucul and Evan Plotnik, while second-year blueliner Tyler Heidt is the only player in the league currently committed to a NCAA program as he’s slated to join the Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves next year.
“We have so many guys coming back, so it’s really hard to single anyone out as they all bring an important piece to the team,” Blevins said.
“Our experience is coming through with the veterans and we’re really happy with our young guys that we have joining them.”
A new face on the Mustangs blueline will be one that’s well known to junior hockey fans as Loch Morrison has joined the team after three seasons in the WHL with the Calgary Hitmen, Prince Albert Raiders and Victoria Royals.
“He played over 200 games in the league and his leadership is something that we’ve noticed right away,” Blevins said. “He’s going to log a lot of minutes on the blueline for us and we’re really happy to have him land here.”
It’s been two seasons since the Millionaires have been in the playoffs, but their impressive late charge to almost get in the dance last winter has second year head coach and general manager Devin Windle excited about what lies ahead for his team.
“I think there was a point in January where everyone had written us off from getting in the playoffs,” Windle said. “The character the guys showed was impressive and I was proud of the hard work they put in to battle it out until the last night of the regular season, even though we were disappointed about how it ended.”
With a number of players coming back, and the acquisition of forward Rylee Zimmer and defenceman Troy Williams from Flin Flon during the summer, the only team in the SJHL that has yet to win the title seems set to return to the post-season.
“The development our returning guys had last year was impressive,” Windle said. “We only have a couple of 97’s back with our captain Clayton Eisler leading the blueline, but we have a bunch of 98’s with Damian Bentz, Dayton Heino and Tucker Scantlebury among our top forwards.
“We also have Colby Entz returning in goal and he’s someone that we take for granted sometimes as he’s always solid for us.”
The Hawks seemed poised to return to the final for the first time since 2001, but they were unable to punch their ticket to the championship series as the Bombers erased a 3-1 series deficit to defeat their division rivals.
“It was obviously a bittersweet feeling for everyone involved,” Hawks head coach and general manager Doug Johnson said.
“Yes we had a lot of success and we made it to the semis for the third straight year, but it’s disappointing that we’ve been unable to get over the hump and return to the final.”
Unlike last year, when the Hawks brought in the likes of Josh Bly and Keegan Milligan via trades to help strengthen the forward core, Johnson says the team will start this season with stronger depth up front.
“We’ve very deep and very good,” Johnson said. “We have a good mix of speed and size, and I think that will be our strength as we go forward.
“We were able to bring in Zach Cox from Drayton Valley in the AJHL and Austin Mikesch has come over from playing high school hockey in Wisconsin to stand out for us. If you go up and down the lineup from the young guys to the older players, everyone’s really stepped up their game.”
While the Hawks will return a number of key defensive performers, their biggest question mark is in between the pipes.
Last year’s SJHL MVP and CJHL Goalie of the Year winner Kristian Stead has joined the NCAA’s Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves, while backup Declan Hobbs is currently in the mix for a spot with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs.
“Declan put up some really good numbers for us last year and I think he’d be one of the top guys in the league if he came back, but we wish him nothing but the best in Spokane,” Johnson said.
“Right now we’re going with two young guys in Lance Alm, who played midget in North Battleford last year, and Jacob Anthony from Sherwood Park in the Alberta Midget League.”
Notre Dame Hounds
With a team that had a mix of youth and experience, the Hounds ended Melfort’s run as the top team in the SJHL in the opening round before their season ended in the quarter-finals against the Bombers.
“I thought it was an okay year for us,” Hounds head coach and general manager Clint Mylymok said. “We had some good individual success but there were a number of learning curves for our younger guys, as we had one of the youngest rosters in the league.
“We ended up running into a well-coached Flin Flon team at the wrong time, as they really stepped up their game”
It will be a new look up front for the Hounds this year as they will be without their two biggest offensive catalysts.
Ben Duperreault, who finished tied with former Bomber Greyson Reitmeier for the league scoring title on 79 points, has graduated to the Regina Cougars in U Sports and CJHL Rookie of the Year recipient Adam Dawe is looking to crack the roster of the United States Hockey League’s Sioux Falls Stampede before moving up to the NCAA’s Maine Black Bears.
“This year’s team will be built from the back end out,” Mylymok said. “We have a few guys that are currently at USHL and WHL camps that we are waiting on, but I feel like the defensive part of our game will be the key to our success.
“We brought in some guys to help with that as we acquired defenceman Max Salpeter from Drayton Valley in the AJHL and goalie Jacob Standen from Hawkesbury in the CCHL [Central Canada Hockey League], who has a ton of experience as a 20-year-old.”
Returning players Colby Brandt, Chance Longjohn and Chaz Smedsrud are expected to be the top scorers for the Hounds as they look to fill the holes left by Duperreault and Dawe’s departures.
Weyburn Red Wings
Despite being swept aside in the quarter-finals by the North Stars, the first season behind the bench for Red Wings head coach Wes Rudy was one where he learned a number of valuable lessons.
“We felt going into the season that we would be a highly competitive team, but we got hit by the injury bug and entered the playoffs down two goaltenders and three defencemen, which didn’t help us out at all,” Rudy said.
“With all that said, it was still a great learning experience for me, especially as I got used to dealing with more of the challenges that kids have now compared to when I played. There was a lot that I took away from moving up to that head coaching role and that helped [general manager] Tanner McCall and I as we looked to improve our team for this year.”
The Red Wings will have an experienced group in their own end of the ice with all but one member of the defence returning, while Jake MacLennan and Carter Phair are both back between the pipes.
“We’ve also brought in Arik Weersink from Grande Prairie in the AJHL, so we’ve got a lot of options in goal,” Rudy said.
“I’m really excited about the defensive core. Our captain Mike Eskra will be in his fourth season on the blueline, and that’s somebody I think fans will need to keep an eye on all year long.”
Up front, the Red Wings lost a number of forwards to graduation and will be looking to fill those holes with a mix of returning players and new faces.
“Tanner’s brought in guys who have experience in this league and or have played Junior A elsewhere, so they know what to expect,” Rudy said.
“One of those new guys is [former North Star] Jeremy Velazquez, who we acquired from La Ronge and he has really picked up his game as training camp has gone on. Tyran Brown’s back with us as a third year forward, and he’s another guy who worked hard during the summer to step up his level of play.”
Unlike last year when he jumped into the role of head coach and general manager just days before the start of the season, Casey O’Brien has had a whole summer to build the Terriers team to his liking.
“We had to replace some guys due to graduation and some other guys who jumped up to major junior, but I feel like recruiting went well,” O’Brien said.
“There’s a lot of other things that I got to do for the first time this summer, such as putting together the bus schedule and booking ice time, but I really love being in the rink and working on those things.”
After being knocked out in the quarter-finals by the Bruins, this year’s Terriers squad will have a different look offensively, especially after Jared Legein signed with the WHL’s Victoria Royals and twin brothers Carson and McKenzie Welke were traded to the AJHL’s Camrose Kodiaks.
“The biggest thing we’ll be working on is our chemistry as we have some younger faces to go with the older guys that we brought in over the summer,” O’Brien said.
“We signed our first overall pick in the 2015 draft in Austen Flaman and we brought in William Brouchu, who had good numbers playing prep hockey in Quebec. The two players we added in the Welke trade, Slater Strong and Dalton Ossman, both have good size and skill and will be good pieces for us.”
There will also be new faces in goal for the Terriers as last year’s starter Nathan Hargrave has graduated from junior hockey and backup Matt Vernon is trying to make it on to the roster of the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks.
They will also be without their top blueliner from the 2016-17 campaign as Regan Sieferling has moved on to the NCAA’s RIT Tigers.