By Tyler King
It’s tough to argue with two wins in two games to start off Curtis Hunt’s first pre-season as head coach of the Fort McMurray Oil Barons.
Sure, pre-season results aren’t a barometer for regular season success. But with a very small exhibition roster of fewer than 30 players, we appear to be getting a pretty accurate look at how this MOB team will be constructed for opening night.
Although both games were against the Bonnyville Pontiacs, who aren’t exactly a perennial powerhouse, both matches did heavily feature the same veteran players who will be key cogs in both teams’ lineups this year.
The difference in defensive system between Gord Thibodeau’s decade-plus long tenure and Hunt’s new era was evident from the get-go. Gone is the man-to-man assignment style that defined the Thibodeau regime, replaced with a more traditional system that saw the Barons do an excellent job of limiting opportunities in the dangerous middle areas of their own zone.
While the MOB was outshot significantly in both games, they still came away with 5-4 and 4-0 wins, buoyed by an ability to force Bonnyville’s opportunities to the halfboard areas, while capitalizing on chances in dangerous scoring areas in the Pontiacs’ end.
There was also diversity in who provided the points for the Barons. In the Friday night home game, MOB veterans dominated the scoresheet, with Mitch Vanderlaan, Adam Wilcox, Brett McNeil, and Jetlan Houcher providing four of the goals, with lightning-fast rookie centre Jordan Xavier the lone freshman to light the lamp. McNeil and Wilcox both ended up with two-point nights.
The following evening, it was a rookie showcase, with forward Austin Holmes out of Calgary’s Edge School notching two goals, the first on a breakaway and the second on a tipped point shot. Defenceman Salvatore Scalise, who impressed significantly in last year’s pre-season and appears to be a very likely candidate to make a large rookie impact on the back end this year, had a multi-point night with two assists; the first a point shot which led to an Adam Durkee rebound goal to open the scoring, and the second being the point shot that Holmes tipped in for his second goal.
There appears to be no reason to panic between the pipes this year, with record-setting Jesse Gordichuk continuing his strong play while newcomer Zach Fortin, who spent last year in major junior with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, appears poised to make a significant impact for the Barons as well. The St. Jerome, Quebec native was the subject of a fierce recruiting war in Alberta, with both the Grande Prairie Storm and Whitecourt Wolverines losing out to the Barons in pursuit of him.
It will be easier to draw conclusions about the team after this week’s exhibition tournament in Okotoks comes to a close. With games against the three best teams in the league’s South division – Brooks, Okotoks, and Drumheller – the Barons coaching staff should have a much clearer idea of who can be trusted to drive the team toward a national championship. After veteran defenceman John Teets declined a trade and left the team earlier this week, the team dropped down to six 1994-born overage players – the maximum that it can dress on a given night. But don’t expect Hunt to be finished exploring opportunities to change the roster makeup.
There is still plenty of work to be done by coaches Hunt, Allen and Brodeur before the September 5th home opener, and yet more premature conclusions to be drawn by media observers like myself. But with a very small exhibition roster right now, it would be naiive not to expect the coming week to be extremely active as the Barons solidify their early-season spots for the home opening weekend against Drayton Valley.
There’s lots of time until we hit the high-pressure late season; but time flies when you’re hosting the Western Canada Cup.