By Tyler King
Last year, it was easy to pick subjects for this column during the summertime, with the amount of activity going on in the AJHL, and specifically with the then-rebuilding Oil Barons.
Having been owed a boatload of “future considerations” from other franchises as a result of end-of-season trades, Fort McMurray made headlines on a biweekly basis as it announced what players would be joining the squad for the coming year.
The storylines didn’t stop there, either. When a good number of those future considerations chose not to report to Alberta, the story developed into the flipping of those assets to other teams for yet more players.
In the end, the Barons ended up with major acquisitions like eventual scorer Ryan Bloom and stellar defenceman Austin Yadlowski, key cogs in the MOB’s quick ascent to a #1 national ranking.
This year, by comparison, apart from the major story of the Barons’ coaching change, news hasn’t been nearly as forthcoming; and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Yes, there have been moves on the personnel side, with associate coach Tom Keca and goaltending coach Cody Hryniw leaving the staff, while Ryan Allen was retained with an expanded assistant’s role, scouts were added in Saskatchewan and Colorado, and it’s expected the coaching staff will be further fleshed out in the coming weeks.
But as far as roster moves go, Curtis Hunt hasn’t come in and cleaned house.
Good on him for it.
At the team’s recent summer camp, Hunt emphasized the open mind with which he was entering his new position, not judging returning players on past performance, but rather leaving it to their performance at the camp to define his first impressions.
Those impressions did not appear to be dramatic enough for Hunt to want to make any drastic changes before the team’s main camp, which is about a week away.
It seems despite the team’s excess of 1994-born players, Hunt will be giving members of that returning roster a fair shot to make the 2014-15 squad.
It’s a far cry from the Oil Barons of the last few years, who have been among the league leaders in number of trades at all points of the season.
Hunt’s efforts have likely focused on replenishing the team’s younger demographic. With one of the oldest teams in the AJHL last year, and a trade-deadline move that sent two of its younger prospects to Calgary in exchange for an overage defenceman, the Barons were fairly bereft of 19-year old and younger players on the incoming roster for the coming season.
Expect Hunt’s scouting additions and overall hockey connections to draw in some unfamiliar, but soon-to-be-familiar, names once the ice at the Casman Centre has settled.
It’s exactly what the MOB needs after being dispatched in 7 games by a Spruce Grove Saints squad that was loaded with 18 year old and younger players; proving that the Brooks Bandits’ style of emphasizing the 19 and 20-year old cohorts was not a necessary recipe in capturing an AJHL championship.
Thankfully for the Barons, their North division rivals haven’t exactly stepped up to make off-season headlines with any major transactions.
The Drayton Valley Thunder sent a backup goaltender to Whitecourt, while the Grande Prairie Storm have begun cleaning house under new head coach (and former Oil Barons bench boss) Kevin Higo, but nobody has stepped up to make much of an impactful intra-league trade.
Whitecourt’s acquisition of forward John Mullaly, who had 34 points in 42 games in the Maritime league last year, might be the biggest addition any North division team has made.
Even the Lloydminster Bobcats, fresh off being awarded the 2016 RBC Cup, haven’t made much of a splash, beyond signing a young WHL prospect, and acquiring a forward and defenceman from the Saskatchewan league.
As main camps get closer for all teams, and the pre-season schedule gets underway, expect someone, somewhere in the AJHL North to step out from the fray and make a clear push for that division title.
Otherwise, it will likely be Spruce Grove’s to inherit once again.