By Tyler King
The ice is back in at the Casman Centre, and with the Oil Barons’ main training camp shifting into gear, a year of major on and off-ice change is quickly getting underway.
Physical changes to the Casman Centre might be the easiest to notice; and many have surely noticed the significant work being done on the building during any leisurely drive along Thickwood Boulevard.
As the Casman gears up to host the 2015 Western Canada Cup, it’s continuing to expand its amenities and equipment, with a significantly expanded concession area with restaurant-style seating set to open this season.
Expect the arena’s now three-year-old video scoreboard to be used more than ever this year, with a new scoring system allowing the game picture as well as scoring information to be displayed on televisions around the arena, in addition to the scoreboard itself.
Team staff are working as well to increase giveaways and the overall game-day atmosphere and experience, which has made marked improvements over the last four seasons.
On the ice, new head coach Curtis Hunt is back in town and gradually making his mark on the franchise. Blockbuster deals have not yet come down the pipe, though one would be wise to expect several moves to be made by the time the Barons’ pre-season ends.
The task is tall for the first-year coach, who not only finds himself with the common task of educating younger players on his system and style, but must also impart that new style on the Barons’ veteran crop, who have been used to a very unique defensive system in their time with the organization.
But it’s a task with which Hunt, who has taken over franchises ranging from major junior to professional, is not at all unfamiliar.
Perhaps Hunt’s greatest luxury will be the incredibly talented defensive corps he will inherit in this roster. With veterans ranging from the steadily reliable Cole Dunphy, to the hard-hitting alternate captain Zach Wittenburg, to the now-even-taller Taylor Lileikis, or the third-year John Teets and second-year former rookie sensation Brett McNeil, Hunt does not have anything resembling a bare cupboard.
On the goaltending side, Jesse Gordichuk enters after a record-setting year with a sub-2.00 goals against average. While it is true that the Oil Barons’ defensive style of the last decade-plus fostered an environment that inflated goaltenders’ statistics, Gordichuk’s standout year was no anomaly. If he comes into camp showing signs of improvement from a stellar rookie campaign, he could easily be on the same NCAA-bound path that his predecessor, Tanner Jaillet, was able to chart.
But a second goaltending spot is open; and don’t expect Hunt to fill that with an unproven netminder. Several of the puck-stoppers at the team’s summer camp turned heads, and are expected back at main camp.
On the forward side, there is unquestionably some replenishing to do. The Barons lose three of their four top scorers from last year with the graduations of Ryan Bloom, Brennan Saulnier, and Kevin Miller.
But the base that Hunt will have to work with is excellent, with one of the most purely skilled forwards in Canada in Jetlan Houcher (he of 31 goals last season) as a first-line winger and captain. After a breakout 46-point year, Adam Durkee is poised to establish himself as a premiere centre in the AJHL. Meanwhile, even younger forwards like Mitch Vanderlaan, who surged in playoff performance, and Danton Ayotte, who found the net all year with a 16-goal campaign, ought to provide an extra boost on the scoring side.
But there’s no question that Hunt will need to establish depth in the forward corps to make a push for a national championship.
His greatest obstacle to that is the fact that he inherits 8 players in their twenty-year-old year, with a league limit of six per team per game. That reduces the likelihood that he can acquire veterans from other teams, or from the major junior ranks, without sacrificing an existing one.
But this is not an inexperienced manager of hockey teams, and with the MOB guaranteed a spot at the WCC, there is plenty of time for that final roster to take shape.
Don’t forget that fans’ first chance to catch the 2014-15 Oil Barons comes this Sunday afternoon – the annual Blue-Gold intrasquad game gets going at 2pm at the Casman Centre.
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