A new year brings new optimism no matter what sport and what level. At the Junior A ranks of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, the Sherwood Park Crusaders are full of optimism heading into training camp for the 2017-18 AJHL Regular Season.
The optimism is fueled with new parts coming into the fold for the Crusaders as they begin their 39th season in Sherwood Park.
With four Forwards returning from last season, a completely new looking blue line and a potential Goaltending tandem that has eight AJHL games under their belt, the optimism is cautious but the Crusaders feel they are headed in the right direction with the players they’ve brought in.
“It’s going to be a young, skilled, aggressive group. I’m excited about it. I’m seeing goals in our skates that haven’t been scored amongst our group for quite some time. Watching the young guys is fun, I’m excited, Adam (Manah) and Jeff (Woywitka) are excited. I think everybody will be as well.” Says Crusaders GM Kyle Chase.
Chase enters his second season as the team’s General Manager, but in theory, it is his first season where he and his staff have majority of the players that they’ve recruited.
2016-17 was a transition year for the team as it was Chase’s first year as GM and Adam Manah’s first as a Head Coach. The team was filled with players from the Tim Fragle era.
The Crusaders were active all year in terms of recruiting, courting players throughout the 2016-17 Alberta Midget Hockey League season.
Highlight recruits include the AMHL’s leading scorer Eric Blanchette, his older brother Graham, top Goal scorer Garrett Clegg and one of the league’s top Goaltenders in Sam Burford.
The Crusaders could be one of the youngest teams in the AJHL at seasons end as they are open to anyone, no matter what age, playing on this team.
If you can play, you can play.
That certainly will be the motto at training camp and into the Pre Season.
“There’s no doubt we will have some growing pains and long nights, everybody is going to have to be professional and maintain their composure. We are going to have to learn to work hard, and learn to work together.” Added Chase.
What is crucial for the Crusaders success, not only through training camp and into the Regular Season, is that the veterans & leadership group set the bar and not get complacent when it comes to work ethic.
The likes of Ty Readman, Merritt Oszytko, Brandon Wallis, Ashton Cassault and Dylan Stewart can carry the load up front for the Crusaders. If they are patient, play the right way, that will allow the younger Forwards competing for spots to develop nicely come the Regular Season.
Much goes for the backend as well.
I discussed days ago that the blue line for the Crusaders will look completely different from last season. Pending a total change up, the Crusaders should see at the most two returnees from the Defense core in 2016-17 in Ben McLeod and Austin Shmoorkoff.
The two are captain material, should the team have one this season. The will provide some stability while newcomers battle for spots on the blue line.
2017-18 will mark the second season for Jeff Woywitka running the Defensive group. The former NHL’er fit in nicely last season, and a crop of young fresh D-men should be a nice combo to work with in the upcoming year.
In Goal will be an interesting one.
Can the duo of Brandon Vogel and Sam Burford emerge out of training camp as the Goaltending tandem or will another invite push to be a part of the roster on opening day?
On paper, it should be Vogel and Burford, but this is why you hold training camp.
If indeed the Crusaders start with Vogel and Burford in the crease, they undoubtedly have two of the best AMHL Goaltending prospects. Amidst Vogel’s stellar play for the Crusaders in the final few games of the Regular Season and in the Playoff series against Bonnyville, he was one of the busiest Goalies in Midget AAA last season, making a second best 841 saves in over 1400 minutes of action. While Burford, was top five in Wins, Shutouts, Save Percentage and Goals Against Average.
Over the course of training camp, the Pre Season and into the Regular Season, the team will have to come together quick. Learn about the ups and downs and understand the process of putting a team together. If the new version of the Crusaders can learn to work together through the Pre Season, the sky is the limit for Sherwood Park heading into the Regular Season.
“The unity part of it is something we really haven’t had in the past and need it going forward.” Noted Chase.
As much as 2017-18 could be dubbed a rebuild, the team certainly has the personnel to compete in the Viterra North Division. Ty Readman is the top scorer from last year that is returning to the AJHL this season, and whomever he gets the chance to play with, could allow him to push for a league scoring title in 2017-18. The addition of Dylan Stewart from the Bonnyville Pontiacs adds some experience and size to the Crusader lineup.
The Crusaders will have sessions through the weekend and capped off with the Top 40 Game on Monday August 28th. The team will play five Pre Season Games, three in Camrose, a part of the Kodiaks Pre Season Tournament, and a home & home with Spruce Grove on September 5th in Sherwood Park and September 9th in Spruce Grove.
-Story By Taylor Medak