From the Crag and Canyon: Eagles start picking team for new AJHL season; prepare for whirlwind exhibition schedule

If three days of training can be summed up in one word then it would be “optimistic”.

Andrew Milne, general manager and head coach of the Canmore Eagles, was hoping to see “some jump” from his veterans during their last scrimmage, the annual Blue vs. White clash, before this junior A team embarks on a rapid-fire schedule of Alberta Junior Hockey League exhibition contests.

“I liked what I saw. We are not identifying Matt Forchuk or Logan Ferguson and those [veteran] guys. … I liked what I saw from some of the veteran guys and some of the young guys are exactly what we thought they would be,” Milne said following a 2-1 overtime victory by the White squad.

The exhibition season is up next and includes four games over a three-day period starting today (Wednesday) against the Calgary Mustangs (7 p.m., Canmore Recreation Centre)

Split squads will feature in games on Thursday against the Olds Grizzlys (7 p.m., Canmore Rec Centre) and Calgary Canucks (7 p.m., Chestermere).

The pre-season concludes Friday against the Canucks (7 p.m., Canmore Rec Centre).

The Eagles have 15 returning players and have already added to its roster by carding Colton Young (1998 forward, Calgary Royals midget AAA), who appeared in eight Eagles games last season registering two points (one goal – one assist), brothers Trevor (1997) and Tyler (1998) Van Steinburg (both Kimberley Dynamiters, KIJHL), and Mitch Zambon (Saskatoon Blazers, midget AAA).

The team has seven 1996-born players: goaltender Ryan Bontorin; defence Jonas Gordon, Brett Stewart, obtained from the Penticton Vees in the off-season for Ryley Risling; forwards Matt Forchuk, Colby Livingstone, Kyle Pauls and Braden Saretsky.

It is creating an early season headache situation for Milne, with the AJHL card limit of six 20-year-old players (born in 1996 for this season), meaning one player will have to leave the organization in the near future although the head coach tried not tipping his hand on the possibilities of who might be on the way out. More on this later.

Only four 1997-born players are on the pre-season roster: defence Jarell Pinchuk, forwards Logan Ferguson and Coy Prevost, along with Trevor Van Steinburg.

If the team expects to improve on last year’s 26-27-7 record (fourth in the South Division) and get past the second round of the divisional playoffs it is the 1998-born players that will have to step up and fill in the gaps. Currently, 15 players fit that category.

The returning players include: defence Cole Noble and Adamu Tanaka; forwards Jake Ashton, Nolan Kurylo, Daylan Marchi, Adam Tisdale and now count Tyler Van Steinburg and Young in that mix. Goaltender Ryan Gilchrist, who backed up Bontorin last season, is currently at the Western Hockey League Seattle Thunderbirds training camp with no confirmation if or when he is going to be rejoining the Eagles as of Monday afternoon.

Newcomers looking to impress are: goaltenders Josh Belisle (Calgary Northstars midget AAA), Cody Campbell (Grande Prairie Storm midget AAA); defence Jesse Sheen (Calgary Buffaloes midget AAA); forwards Brandon Aab (Vancouver, Wash. Rangers, WSHL), Tyler Graber (Red Deer Chiefs midget AAA) and Jon Vandermolen (Ontario Hockey Academy U18). All are capable of making the Eagles and will get plenty of ice time over the next few days to show they belong.

“Finding the right group is important. We have good corps of returning players, so we are happy about that,” Milne said. “The right fit is important: the ability to play anywhere in the lineup is going to be huge … that adds to some really good internal competition [for ice time]. That is what we are hoping.”

If the 1998 class impresses, it is going to be even more difficult for any of the 1999- or 2000-born players to crack the lineup.

“We are going to have a tough lineup to crack for sure,” Milne said. “This [pre-season] for them is more or less to see where they fit into in the future. The 2000s are in tough. Sixteen-year-olds don’t step into our league and be successful very often, so this way we get a good gauge where they are at and build a relationship moving forward with some of them.”

Carter Coles (Calgary Buffaloes minor midget) and Cam McAdam (Calgary Northstars minor midget) might be the best on that front, although at 16 years old both their futures look to be better served with a year at the midget AAA level where they would be guaranteed plenty of ice time rather than appearing in spot duty at the junior A level. Both have been signed to the Eagles’ protected list. Each AJHL team can have up to five players on this list, known as white cards.

Most the 14 midget-aged players still in camp will get game time in the exhibition contests coming up before they are released back to their minor teams.

Each junior A team can card up to 45 players over the course of the season but can have no more than 25 on their active roster plus up to five protected list players. Milne expects to carry 25 active-roster players into the start of the season.

The Eagles dressed 40 players for the Blue-White contest – 20 aside. Game day included a morning skate for both squads. Milne wasn’t impressed by the morning skate encouraging his assistant coaches, Jeremy Reich (White) and Evan McFeeters (Blue), to rip into their teams before they set foot on the ice for the mid-afternoon clash.

A few dozen fans, mostly parents and families, took in the Monday afternoon contest at the Canmore Recreation Centre, which featured a 2:45 p.m. start time. It was not exactly the offensive showcase that anybody was thinking would be on display.

“I thought our teams would produce more offence than that,” Milne summed up the game, then appeared to shrug off the lack of goals as growing pains as the players on both sides were playing with unfamiliar linemates.

The first period featured many of the Eaglets excelling, as games of this type tend to do with the prospects in a rush to impress while the veterans take a more patient approach.

The game’s first goal came from Liam Glover (2000, Calgary Knights of Columbus minor midget) midway through the opening period. He wired a one-timer past Bontorin just three seconds into the first of just three power plays in this game as Livingstone was sent off for tripping. More on him later.

Zach Anderson (1999, Calgary Buffaloes midget AAA) tied the contest late in the period when he tipped in a centring pass from Andres Bridgewater (2000, Calgary Royals minor midget) between Belisle’s pads.

There was no scoring in the second period, although there was a noticeable difference in overall tempo, as players got more familiar with each other, and the physical play was more evident with players not shying away from giving out or taking a hit.

The third period featured even more of the kind of play coaches love to see, although no one could beat either Campbell, in goal for the White the second half of the game, or Justin Travis (1999, Red Deer Chiefs midget AAA), who played the back half of the game for the Blue squad.

The best chance in the third period came when White was killing a penalty. In the opening seconds of that Blue power play, Marchi stole the puck and went White blue line to goal uncontested. He tried to deke Travis only to have the goalie reach back to his right while lying on the ice and block the puck at the post.

This game would go to 3-on-3 overtime where Livingstone, who was one of the more dominant players in the second half this contest, made up for his earlier mistake and put away the winner just 15 seconds into the extra period. He was put in alone by Forchuk. After Travis made the save on Livingstone’s first shot, the second-year Eagle collected the rebound and had a wide-open goal to deposit the game winner.

“I liked what I saw from (Livingstone). … We are going to be asking more from him this season and he looks ready to do that,” said Milne. Could that be an endorsement as one of the six 20-year-olds to be sticking around this season?

Picked up at the January trade deadline, he appeared in 18 games last season and counted just seven points (3G-4A) struggling at times to fit into this squad, although in the playoffs he produced some shiny moments.

As for the other 20-year-olds, Forchuk led the AJHL in points for a good part of the season and finished fourth overall with 72 points (27G-45A). By all appearances and Milne’s comments he seems to be one of the untouchable players.

Another untouchable appears to be Stewart, who was acquired to shore up the defence. He played for two B.C. Hockey League clubs last season – Salmon Arm Silverbacks and Surrey Eagles – and combined had 19 points (9G-10A) and 81 penalty minutes in 52 games. His playing rights were traded to his hometown Penticton Vees before being moving onto Canmore in August.

Saretsky’s rookie season in the AJHL saw him pot 37 points (17G-20A). He also showed a feisty side that led him leading the team with 120 penalty minutes in 57 games. This is a side of the game Milne admits the team needs to improve.

As of now, Bontorin seems to be the goalie of record, coming off season in which he appeared in 41 games (17-18-5, 3.77GAA, .895 save-pct.).

There are also two hometown players in this mix in Pauls (196 games played over four seasons, with career totals of 23 goals and 28 assists) and Gordon (56 games played in his rookie season to lead all defence, with three goals, eight assists and 105 penalty minutes).

“There is definitely no easy decision in this process,” Milne said.

Following the slate of fast-approaching exhibition contests, the Eagles will have a week to prepare for the start of the regular season.

They open at home with games against the Calgary Mustangs on Friday, Sept. 16 and Drumheller Dragons on Saturday, Sept. 17 (both games are 7 p.m., Canmore Rec Centre).

EAGLES NEST: Along with the absence of Gilchrist, two veteran players did not participate in Monday’s scrimmage: defence Jarell Pinchuk and forward Adam Tisdale. Also Coles was attending a Calgary Buffaloes event. All but Gilchrist are expected to participate in the exhibition games.

—- For more from Russ Ullyot at the Crag and Canyon –