By Tyler King
Barons head coach Gord Thibodeau wasn’t dropping many hints about his final roster makeup after a pair of weekend pre-season games in Drayton Valley.
“We’re just trying to evaluate guys; vets and rookies alike,” said Thibodeau. “We’re trying to get the vets some game time, and evaluate guys in a bit of a tougher setting than what you had in main camp.”
“We got some good reads on some players this weekend.”
Just what players those were, and what those reads were, was far less clear.
The MOB entered the weekend with 29 players on the roster, having already lost a sizeable chunk of their returning corps.
But continued impressive performances from east-coast recruits Mitchell Vanderlaan, Mitchell Byrne, and Brett McNeil have made clear that the team won’t be wanting for talented players.
Major question marks still remain in two areas – one being who will be selected to back up expected number one goaltender Tanner Jaillet.
Both 1995-born Garrett Storms and 1994-born Jesse Gordichuk, erstwhile of Osoyoos in the BC Junior B loop, split time in Saturday night’s 3-1 loss to Drayton Valley (which followed up a 4-1 win on Friday night).
Neither looked out of place, though the game wasn’t heavy on highlights, apart from Storms’ glove save on a 2-man breakaway in the 2nd period.
Thibodeau wasn’t tipping his hand in any way, though.
“These two guys [Gordichuk and Storms] have done okay,” said Thibodeau. “I wouldn’t say that anyone’s jumped up and grabbed it, but I wouldn’t also say it’s just these two guys. There might be more added to the mix in the future.”
Part of Thibodeau’s decision, if it ends up being between those two, may depend on how many other 1995-born skaters he decides to keep. Under AJHL rules, a team must dress at least 5 players in their 18-year old year or younger, and the backup goalie can count towards that limit. That could make retaining Storms a more attractive option, in addition to the fact that the team could potentially get three full years of play out of him.
There’s also no clear indication as to where Thibodeau is leaning towards when it comes to his captain for this year. After having generally named the wearer of the “C” at the end of the prior year, Thibodeau says the final call for this season won’t come for a while yet.
“We’ve narrowed down our captaincy; we’re just trying to share the load through exhibition,” said Thibodeau. “I think we’re getting close to finalizing the final four that we want. We’ll watch through exhibition, and make that decision in a week’s time.”
Six different players saw time with letters on their jerseys over the course of the weekend; on Friday, Jetlan Houcher was captain with Alex Cromwell and Austin Yadlowski as alternates, while on Saturday it was Zach Wittenburg with the “C”, alongside alternates Adam Durkee and Ryan Bloom.
What may have come as the head coach’s strongest words were his thoughts on how wide open the hunt for a roster spot on this year’s team is. With the squad expected to be a major contender, one might expect conventional wisdom to dictate that veteran AJHLers would have a major leg up on the rest of the pre-season roster.
Thibodeau was having none of that convention.
“There’s some very good 18-and under kids here that certainly have earned more opportunity, and definitely are close to earning roster spots,” he said. “I think the surprises are going to come in the number of veterans that aren’t going to make the team.”
“We’ve had that turnover with a couple of guys leaving already, and there’s going to be a few more leaving here in the next couple of weeks.”
Whether they’ll be replaced by young, up and coming prospects, or by new veterans acquired through trades or the major junior ranks, is a question that may not be answered until well into mid-September.
NOTES: The Barons cap off the pre-season this weekend with their second trip to an annual pre-season tournament in Okotoks. They’ll take on the Okotoks Oilers on Thursday night, the Brooks Bandits on Friday afternoon, and the Camrose Kodiaks on Saturday evening. Follow @tyler_king for updates on all the games!