Sure, the Canmore Eagles had a blip this season, however after weathering a surge of losses the team is playing its own storming brand of hockey.
The Alberta Junior Hockey League franchise has seven wins, six regulation-time losses and one overtime defeat. The prospect of having a better than .500 record at this point of the season may have been an almost fanciful goal for the coaching staff which often overtly hinted that the team will need time to develop.
Queried about whether this year’s rookie crop is developing faster than expected, however, GM and head coach Andrew Milne though wanted to back off on overreacting.
“I don’t want to jump the gun on that,” said Milne. “What I do like is guys are buying into roles and playing a certain way, and that is why we have been able to have success the last little while.
“They understand what their jobs are and what it takes to be successful. And how to play to get more ice time. That is definitely helping [in their development].”
Throughout September, and especially when the Eagles were losing five games in a row, Milne had said the team we saw in September will not be the same team we see in October.
Well, we are past the midway point of October and there have been minimal personnel changes. The Eagles have brought in rookie defenceman Geoff Fizet, but that was in mid-September, and released forward Evan Katelnikoff.
So maybe we all have misinterpreted Milne’s comment. He may have meant the players selected to play during training camp would be elevating their game to a higher level in October. The growth of many of the young players on this squad has been impressive.
“We knew going into the year, we needed those rookies to play big minutes,” said Milne. The coaches, which include Jeremy Reich and Evan McFetters, are making sure that the rookies not only get a fair amount of ice time but are also throwing them on the ice when the going gets “heavy.”
The Eagles boast 10 AJHL rookies that are aged 17 or 18 years old, and Alex Young who is 16 years old.
The Young brothers, which include older brother Colton Young, have become the No. 1 and 2 centres for this squad. While this is about the rookies, we have to reference Colton Young, a second year player and 19 years old, who already has a pair of hat tricks to his credit this season and an AJHL player of the week award.
Colton Young also leads the team in scoring with eight goals and 14 points through 11 games, after missing the first three games due to a pre-season suspension for a punishing mid-ice hit that injured an opponent. The hit and resulting injury could have attributed to the speed at which Colton Young plays this game.
Milne said in a recent interview that Colton Young is the “Connor McDavid of the AJHL.” Seeing his end-to-end rushes with the jersey flapping in the wind, you can almost imagine the comparison.
Having him as a role model of development — he already has the same number of goals as earned in 56 games in his rookie season — can’t help but inspire the rookie players, including his younger brother.
Alex Young has been turning scout’s heads since he grabbed a spot on this team. U.S. colleges and pro scouts have routinely been in attendance to watch his play, and offers have reportedly already been floated his way. However, at 16 years old and still in high school for a couple more years, that decision is for the future.
Alex Young, with seven goals and 10 points, is currently second in rookie scoring on the Eagles.
Leading the way is Quinton Ong at eight goals and 12 points.
Ong is one of two rookies this season to come out of Saskatoon. The other is Tian Rask, who missed six games due to injury, but has two goals and seven points in eight games.
Maybe most surprising of all the rookie forwards is Nolan Steer, slight of build but big of heart for this game, his hard work through training camp landed him a spot on the Eagles’ roster. His game play is making it hard to keep him out of the lineup. Steer has five goals this season.
Max Giangualano has been pencilled in every game with his tenacity being a major thorn in the side of opponents when the coaches feel they need a moment of pure aggression to inspire the team.
The other rookie forwards showing they belong in this league are Ty Budai, Daniel Fisher and Justin Giacomin. All have played their parts exceedingly well while being rotated through the game-day roster.
On defence, Carter Coles is only 17 years old but is already playing big minutes and impressing. He hasn’t disappointed and the Eagles coaches have no problem throwing him out in all situations.
Fizet, who hails from Montreal, is also getting to see more game time as the season wears on. An early season injury to Adamu Tanaka (concussion) has meant fast-tracking his development and his play has shown he is up to the challenge.
Goaltender Logan Dyck rounds out the rookie crop. Last year’s Alberta midget AAA goaltender of the year is backstopping and learning from one of the best this season in Thomas Davis. When called on Dyck is growing into his role and junior A hockey, which is uncompromising for goaltenders, posting a 2.97 goals-against average and .868 save-percentage — numbers that are getting better with each outing.
Sure, there is much that can improve, any GM and head coach will tell you that from Day 1 of training camp to the Royal Bank Cup final. For the Eagles, the defence could be tighter and the team needs to play with more discipline.
Milne addressed the first issue during the team’s five-game losing skid, calling out his veteran defensive corps for not playing up to their potential. The head coach believes his defence heeded the words.
“I definitely think they have gotten better,” said Milne. “They’re getting better and making more simple plays. Overall, the development of the back-end is going in the right direction.”
He addressed the second issue this week.
“We are the most penalized team in the league, which is a concern for sure,” said Milne. “We can’t take stupid penalties. We have to get smarter at that. We are putting our penalty killers in a bad spot and putting too much pressure on our goalies. It’s just too much.”
Both Lloydminster goals on Sunday in a 2-1 overtime loss came via the power play.
This past week, the Eagles went 1-1-1 with the week also including a 3-2 loss to the Fort McMurray Oil Barons on home ice on Thursday and a 4-2 win over the hometown Bonnyville Pontiacs on Saturday.
Canmore, sitting in fourth place, plays Friday in Brooks against the third-place Bandits (8-4-1) with just two points separating them in the standings.
The Eagles next home game is Sunday against the Olds Grizzlys (Canmore Recreation Centre, 2:30 p.m.)
Yes, it is a long season with 46 more games to play but at the rate of development of this year’s Eaglets, it might not be too far-fetched to say that the rest of the league should notice that there is a storm brewing in the south.
EAGLES NEST: The Oil Barons’ Will Conley is the AJHL player of the week. He scored four goals, including two in a win over the Eagles, and added two assists in the week. … Calgary Canucks goaltender Caiden Kreitz was named the AJHL defensive player of the week after posting three wins and posting a 1.68 goals-against average. … The Canmore Eagles. … The Eagles’ biggest fundraiser of the year is the Bow Valley Blue & White Night on Oct. 27, with comedian Kevin Stobo, who hails from Banff, and fire eater Carisa Hendrix ready to entertain at Silvertip Resort. Tickets are $55 and available online at tickets.canmoreeagles.ca, by debit or cash at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the Canmore Recreation Centre during the first intermission of any upcoming Eagles’ home game. … Canmore Eagles’ game stories can be found online at thecragandcanyon.ca.
Photo by: Pam Doyle Photography