2014 Barons starting to take shape

There’s been no shortage of news with the Fort McMurray Oil Barons as of late, with new head coach Curtis Hunt beginning to put the final touches on both his on and off-ice crews.

The week leading up to the team’s main camp began with the news that Hunt had brought on former Ottawa Senators goalie Mike Brodeur to complete his coaching staff as the team’s video and goalie coach.

Brodeur had already done some work with the team at its Summer Camp in St. Albert, and brings a significant resume to the table. As starting goalie for the Camrose Kodiaks in 2003, he won an AJHL championship, before moving on to the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL where Hunt was his head coach, and Brodeur led the league in save percentage.

Drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks, Brodeur’s playing career primarily saw him in the ECHL and American Hockey League, the latter of which featured an all-star campaign in 2008-09 with the Binghamton Senators when he started 36 games and put up a .921 save percentage and 2.45 goals against average.

Brodeur was a favourite of Don Cherry when he came up to Ottawa for parts of two seasons, and his positive attitude and approach has already impressed a wealth of people down at the Casman Centre. It’s likely players will respond extremely well to his presence with the staff.

“Being a backup for part of my career, watching the game was what I did,” Brodeur said after his hiring was announced. “I did a lot of watching and analyzing, and I think I can use that to help these players analyze their game and fix the small things.”

“At this point, they know all of the basic skills, but there’s always room to improve,” he added.

With the coaching staff set, the team’s vast scouting network converged on Fort McMurray just as 30 players from across the continent made the trek up here for the team’s main training camp.

30 players may be one of the smallest camps in franchise history; and frankly, it’s refreshing to see a junior hockey team eschew the trend of teams inviting north of 50 players to camp despite the obvious fact that the vast majority won’t have a chance to make the squad.

Familiar names abounded at the Casman, with the captain Jetlan Houcher opening the scoring of the annual Blue-Gold intrasquad game on a nifty wrist shot with just over four minutes left in the first period.

Last year’s rookie sensation Danton Ayotte showed he’s got a great chance to become a force in the AJHL in his second year. After a very strong showing at the team’s summer camp, Ayotte stole the show at the Blue-Gold game, notching 2 goals and 2 assists in his team’s 6-3 win.

Local products also made a significant impact, with three players listing Fort McMurray as their hometown, including Edmonton Oil Kings prospect Kole Gable who was one of only two goal scorers for Team Blue.

The other Blue scorer was second-year Baron Mitch Vanderlaan, whose spectacular skating and pinpoint shooting skill was on display with two goals on the afternoon. The Cornell University commit could easily become one of the AJHL’s best pure scorers this year.

Some familiar names were omitted. Hayden Dawes was not at camp, nor was forward Luc Lalor, who was drafted by the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League in the off-season and apparently intends to make the same jump that former MOB defenceman Matt Purmal made.

But that doesn’t leave the cupboard bare for Hunt at all. With a returning defensive corps that includes a bevy of veterans, most of whom took the off-season to increase significantly in size, Barons fans will expect big things from overagers John Teets, Zach Wittenburg, and Cole Dunphy, as well as second-year standouts Brett McNeil and the now-even-bigger towering Taylor Lileikis.

Expect the forward contingent to be the focus of the new general manager’s time as the leadup to the home opener on September 5th continues. While there’s no crisis in scoring when a team has talent of the calibre of Houcher, Vanderlaan, Ayotte, and Adam Durkee, scoring depth would be a significant luxury for a team that will be returning one of the strongest defensive and goaltending tandems in the AJHL.

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