Following the big announcement of the media partnership with the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group and the first of a few bus trips down Highway 97, the Spruce Kings are ready to start the 2013-14 season Saturday night with game number one versus the Cowichan Valley Capitals. The game is one of the 16 games, and first of two for the Spruce Kings, being played this weekend at the Prospera Centre in Chilliwack during the Bauer BCHL Showcase.
For the second year the League's regular season has started with the Showcase where every team plays their first two games of the season in front of scouts from every NHL team, NCAA school and scouts from other hockey teams from across North America. At last year's Showcase the Spruce Kings opened the season with a 2 and 0 record defeating the Merritt Centennials in regulation time and the Langley Rivermen in overtime, this year the Spruce Kings will be looking to duplicate that effort against a pair of Island Division teams in the Capitals and the Nanaimo Clippers.
At the time of writing this blog, neither of the Spruce Kings opponents have stepped on the ice although the Clippers will be the first when they start their season at 3pm Saturday afternoon against the West Kelowna Warriors. The Capitals first game will be versus the Spruce Kings and their second game will come later on Sunday when they take on the Trail Smoke Eaters.
At this early juncture of the regular season, not much is known about the teams who have have been busy recruiting players in the off-season, putting them through their paces during training camp and in exhibition games. Preseason games are not a good measuring stick for how well a team is or isn't because many times the preseason roster is full of players that coaches and scouts are hoping to get one last good look at and send a message to the player that they are on their radar for the future but not right now.
The Prince George Spruce Kings will start the season with a full compliment of 22 players featuring nine returning players, six local hockey products, five American born players, three Canadian boys from out of province (all from Ontario), four 20 year olds, eight 19 year olds, seven 18 year olds and three 17 year olds with the youngest player being Mitch Barker from Kamloops BC who will be 16 years old under December.
Looking at the roster, the Spruce Kings will be looking for scoring from the returning trio of Chad Staley, Jeremiah Luedtke and Justin Rai. Last season the three played consistently on the same line finding chemistry early until injuries broke the line up. All three have come back for their second season with more muscle and seemingly more desire and if they can find their chemistry again will prove to be a dangerous line no matter who the opponent is. Justin Rai may have made the biggest improvement in bulking up but all three have shown just how much more ready they are for the physical demands of the game at the BCHL level.
Players like Brent Lashuk and Braiden Epp will also need to find their scoring touch after being sidelined for much of the preseason with minor injuries. Jake LeBrun is a local Prince George hockey product that earned his spot on the team last year with a strong showing in the preseason. In the off season LeBrun also bulked up and could become that missing piece in front of the net and fill the role of a power forward that gets rewarded by playing in the dirty areas.
Arguably last season's Lady Byng candidate from the Spruce Kings roster was Bryant Christian, this year Christian appears to have shed the nice guy image and has become of a more of take no crap kind of player and key man in the faceoff circle. Winning faceoffs anywhere on the ice is a key component to success, especially when you can win them in the offensive zone and turn those draws into quick scoring chances. If Christian can maintain his high faceoff average, he could become the dark horse in a scoring race setting up the point man for the booming shot.
Speaking of a booming shot, Sean Landrey may be that guy up front too. It is clear to see that Landrey took the challenge of becoming a physically stronger player seriously and demonstrated that during the Factory Hockey Player Development fitness challenges. After pounding the pavement in the beep test, hurling a 12 pound medicine ball and deadlifting his own body weight, Landrey proceeded to pump out over 200 situps nearly doubling any other players before seemingly becoming bored of the procedure.
The five remaining forwards are all rookies that made it difficult on the coaches and scouts to come up with the final required cuts to the preseason squad in order to be down to a twenty-two man roster in time for the BCHL Showcase. Matt Painchaud has shown that he is an up and coming top faceoff man in the BCHL and head coach Dave Dupas has rewarded the youngster with a number of key faceoff assignments during the preseason games. Mitch Barker and Derek Bulmer have demonstrated an ability to get to the net with hard accurate shots and if the future is bright for these two, they very well could find themselves in a regular rotation that puts them in the top six for most games.
Riley Hawes is a player that has just the right ingredients to be another power forward. Hawes is a big presence on the ice that isn't afraid to use his body to protect the puck or steal it away. Getting that body to the front of the net and otherwise causing problems for the defence will be an area where Hawes may very well find success; that with his big reach will also come in handy for the Spruce Kings.
One other forward that everyone is excited to see play is Cole Todd who didn't finish the game in Merritt last Saturday after crashing awkwardly into the end boards in the second period. Todd is a gifted forward that has both speed and an accurate shot. I believe that he hasn't been able to use either of those assets together because of being confined to some of the smaller ice surfaces in the BCHL through the preseason, but watch out for Todd on the larger ice surfaces in the Lower Mainland.
On defence there is a 50/50 mix of returning and rookie players but don't let the notation of rookie fool you because some of these rookies are anything but. Caleb Thompson and Danny Kiraly are a pair of American boys that have played under the bright lights of some fairly prestigious tournaments and that is where team scouts first identified and recruited these players. Thompson comes from the football factory state of Oklahoma but has shown an ability on the ice that has left coaching and scouting staff smiling. In every game, Thompson has shown a fierce level of compete and resolve and although nobody was keeping track of plus minus, I would be surprised if Thompson was less than a plus player. Kiraly is another player that is strong on the blue line and finds a way to get his shots through from the point.
The other rookie on the blue line is Stephen Penner, a Prince George hockey product that played last season with the Cariboo Cougars and was acquired just before the start of the regular season as a free agent from the Nanaimo Clippers. That could become an interesting motivation tool for Penner and the Spruce Kings on Sunday afternoon. Another new face on the blue line is Christian Weidauer who came from Ontario in a deal with the Carleton Place Canadians during the off season. Weidauer is a big defenceman that played for Team Canada East in the World Junior A Challenge. Playing out west is a dream for Weidauer and he is looking to do what needs to be done to have that dream come true.
The three returning defenceman include third year blueliner Skylar Pacheco and second year vets Karan Toor and Mitch Eden. In an interesting turn of events, all three defenceman opted to change their jersey numbers from the previous season with Eden deciding to take #27 that Kevin Guilinan wore last year. Eden showed up at camp this year in a great physical shape; that along with his knowledge of the BCHL and desire to lead the Spruce Kings this year, has Eden looking like he is on top of his game both offensively and defensively.
Toor, who will wear number 10 this year, came back this year chiseled having opted to go with a leaner and meaner body. This decision has already payed dividends in the blueliners speed and ability to carry the puck out of his own zone. Pacheco also opted to change his jersey to number 9, but his game retains the cool confident feel that it had last season. Pacheco was used in the preseason on the number one powerplay unit and it looks like coach Dupas will be calling on the veteran leader to find ways of getting the puck from the point to the net in much the same fashion as he did last Saturday against the Merritt Centennials.
Filling the void left by the departure of Kirk Thompson is no easy task, but it is one that Alex Murray has shown he is ready to take on. Murray played the majority of games during the preseason and although the Spruce Kings were unable to find the win column in the mean-nothing games, Murray was the most consistent player on the ice. Calling the games myself, I couldn't help but see flashes of Kirk Thompson in the style of Murray and with increased confidence at the BCHL level, Murray will become the next recognizable name in goal for the Spruce Kings.
Jesse Jenks also has to fill a vacancy in net this year after Liam McLeod opted to request a release so that he could give the game a try at the Major Junior level. Unfortunately for McLeod that didn't quite work out, but he has found another roster spot and will actually be on the Nanaimo Clippers game day roster for Sunday's contest. As the saying goes, one persons loss is another's gain, so do is true for Jenks as he finds himself in the backup role but having already shown that he is quite ready to step on the ice and start stopping pucks.
There are a couple of minor changes behind the bench as well. Dave Dupas stays on as the team's head coach but Colton Buffie has come down from the media box where he was the video coach to become the new assistant coach working alongside Jason Garneau as the other assistant coach. Dupas and Buffie have developed a working relationship over the past three years, so despite that this is Dupas' third assistant coach in as many years, the communication between the two will be very good.
The Spruce Kings first game of the season and first game at the BCHL Showcase is scheduled for 6:30pm Saturday night versus the Cowichan Valley Capitals. The game will be available online only with a free audio broadcast on the Spruce Kings website through the embedded Mixlr player or from the Spruce Kings mixlr channel. There will also be a pay per view broadcast available from Fasthockey.com (remember to click on the "away" broadcast link for this one). The Spruce Kings will play their second game of the weekend at 2pm Sunday afternoon as the home team versus the Nanaimo Clippers.