Friday night in Lloydminster against the Bobcats the Sherwood Park Crusaders will embark on their 36th season in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. In the cyclical nature of Junior hockey, there will always be questions heading into a new season. Usually those questions stem from the holes teams have in their lineup. Who will replace who?
That question will certainly be put forth to the Crusaders Forwards going into 2014-15. With 5 of the top 6 scorers on the team graduating, the Crusaders will be in search for some new offensive catalysts to not only replace 5 forwards but to replace 3 of the top 10 leading scorers in the AJHL last season in Nicholas Jones, Sean MacTavish and Andrew Taverner. Jones also led the league in goals with 41.
The search began in training camp and in the Pre Season. Head Coach and GM Tim Fragle is back for his 5th season at the helm.
“It was a grind a lot of hours, smaller camp this year than past, started a bit later, it was a competitive camp, we took the best kids into the Pre Season and was pretty happy with what we saw, tough task to replace are top 5 scorers, not a whole lot of lob sided victories in the Pre Season.”
The Crusaders saw some exciting things from the group of 1st year players they have brought in. Sherwood Park native Tyler Maltby had an excellent Exhibition schedule and is ready to lead a strong crop of players coming from the Alberta Midget Hockey League.
“[Tyler] Maltby, [Cole] Gammer, [Lane] Zablocki, [Josh] Hayward and [Chad] McAnn, guys that were point per game players at Midget AAA and when you’re a point per game guy in that league you got some offensive make up. [Luke] Kempf brings that hard nosed grinding style, so we’ve got some high end AAA guys that are going to be close and were they fit and how they deliver is to be determined, but no question and everyone in the league knows we have to get better in [the scoring] department.” Fragle said
It will be constantly asked, how the scoring will be replaced, for Fragle it is the biggest concern going into this season.
“Going into last year we were confident Taverner would lead the offense and we’d be able to build around him, but the way Jones and MacTavish developed offensively, it was further ahead than we thought of. Jones point increase from his rookie year to last year was huge, we’re hoping some of those 25 to 30 point guys from last year make the push to 50 and 60 points.” Added Fragle.
Fragle also believes his group is a little more balanced as well.
“One thing we felt last year was we were real top heavy on the offense, we want to be able to get offensive contributions from all 4 lines. When we fell to Spruce Grove in the playoffs last year, it wasn’t their top guys that killed us, it was there depth that scored some goals in game 6 and 7, that really showed their depth. If we want to win those 6 to 7 game series we need those guys to step up, we feel we are deeper but there are some question marks on who is going to take that step.”
Fragle was asked to pick a possible X factor among the Forwards for this season.
“Ryan Kruper, he is a guy that will get an opportunity to make that improvement offensively, if he plays his game, his numbers will improve. He his hard to play against and no one likes playing against him.”
Along with the likes of Ryan Kruper, you have, Arthur Gordon, Cameron Brezinski, Liam Gregor, Reid Bosse, Bryar Ortynski, Bowen Croft and one other player that will be looking to make that step and hopefully replace the scoring is 2nd year Crusader Daniel Wray.
“Replace isn’t the word but, I’ll definitely try to contribute in different ways and still score but in different ways then we saw with, Taverner, Jones and MacTavish, more goals driving wide, tip ins and net front battles.” Wray noted.
Wray’s experience in Junior should help him this year as well, the Edmonton product joined the Crusaders last season after spending 2012-13 with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League.
“Biggest thing for me has been time with the puck, first year in the WHL, not a whole lot of time, last year in the AJHL, maybe a split second more to make a decision, but now after skating with western league guys in the summer, it seems the more you get older the more time you have to read the play and make decisions.” Said Wray.
Undoubtedly the strength of this team and maybe the identity will be Defense. 5 retuning Defensemen, gone are Marshall Donald and David Randall, as well both Goalies are back, Tommy Nixon and Zac Klassen return for Sherwood Park.
“We want to be committed to play in our own end, we are fortunate we now have some experience in goal, which was a trade off last year as we knew, by going with 2 young goaltenders but we feel we are in a good spot this year and on the back end we bring back 5 guys, and 3 first year Defensemen. Normally you’d have those guys playing in your top 6 but with the veteran experience they will be fighting to get into the lineup.” Fragle notes.
The coaching staff is confident both Goalies in Tommy Nixon and Zac Klassen can be leaned on for success this season.
“We could throw both goaltenders out and we feel good, I think it’s going to be a good competition between those 2 guys this year.” Fragle said.
Associate Coach Scott McNeil conquers.
“Good competition is healthy, that will benefit both guys, and I think Zac will surprise a lot of people.”
Tommy Nixon also likes the makeup of the team, and is ready to build off his 21 wins last season.
“I’m looking to be a leader on the ice with my play, last year my play was scrambly at times, this year I want to be a calming influence for the guys, I want them to know if they make a mistake I’m there to help bail them out, and Klassen to, it’s been great to see him in camp and how much better he’s gotten, and obviously I want to win a few more games.” Said Nixon
The 5 returning Defensemen are led by captain Dane Phaneuf who finished 6th on the team in scoring last season and was good for 8th in the league among Defensemen with 31 points. 2nd year Crusaders Ben Sowa, Brett Magee, Chase Torontow and Dustin Cave round out the returnees on the back end. Rookies Chris McKay, Evan Bowden and Ben McLeod will push each other to crack the lineup night in and night out.
Phaneuf and Cave provide the most experience out of the Defensemen and will be relied on to push and lead the Defense core this season.
“Being a 20 year old you get a leadership role thrust upon you because all the young guys are looking at you and looking up to you, they’re just watching for the first couple of months looking how you train, how you act on and off the ice.” Cave said.
Cave will be entering his first full season with the Crusaders after being acquired at the trade deadline last season and after spending time in the BCHL.
“The AJHL is more physical compared to BCHL, BC is a little fast but guys take risks, in the AJ it’s a lot more systematic, teams run good fore checks in the neutral zone and in the offensive zone, more structure defensively as well.” Cave added.
That structure should bode well for the type of role Cave wants to create for himself.
“Being a physical Defenseman, watching out for our young guys making sure no one is getting hurt and taking runs at them.”
Cave also touched on what he thinks will be the identity of this year’s Crusader team and where the Defensive core ranks among the AJHL.
“We are going to be really defensive orientated, its good having both returning goalies and we are going to have to shut teams down, hopefully we can also generate offense from the back end, a couple of guys can put up the points. I’d like to say that [we are the top Defensive core], I think we are definitely top 2.”
As mentioned Cave is in his 20 year old season.
“Ultimately I’d love to get a scholarship, that’s the goal and more importantly I’d like to see the team win a championship, that’s what everyone’s here for.” Cave said.
The Crusaders are still searching for their first AJHL championship.
Sherwood Park will need an excellent Regular Season to give them a chance to go for the Gas Drive Cup this year.
“Going into the season you want to finish as high as you can, but anytime you can get home ice, in the top 4 in the division that’s something we will be looking for…it’s going to be difficult but from our point of view why can’t we be in the thick of things and pushing for home ice that’s what we expect.” Tim Fragle points out.
The Crusaders finished in 4th place in the now Viterra North Division with 61 points and 29 wins. It will remain to be seen how this season plays out but right now the Crusaders are in a great position to make a run at a Championship, Tim Fragle will hope his team can evolve into a contender come February.
“We are making steps every year, but to get over that hump depth is something that we need to improve upon to push us over.”
-Story by Taylor Medak