Abitibi Eskimos began training camp looking for a solution to the departed offence provided by the club’s top two scorers in 2010-11.
Erik Robichaud, coming off a rookie season in the Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League that saw him score 31 goals and add 42 assists in 50 games, is in the training camp of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Moncton Wildcats.
And Josh Clancy, who put up 30 goals and 32 assists, is too old to wear the black, gold and white of the Eskimos this season.
The return of Marc-Alain Begin to Iroquois Falls, however, will go a long way toward easing any concerns Abitibi fans may have had about offence.
Begin spent all of the 2010-11 season with the Val d’Or Foreurs of the QMJHL.
He scored 15 goals and 25 assists in 68 games.
Begin also had 2 goals and 5 assists in 14 games with the Foreurs during the 2009-10 QMJHL season after starting that campaign with the Eskimos and putting up 39 goals and 59 assists in 40 NOJHL games to finish second in league scoring to linemate Felix Boutin, who had one more point and played nine more games.
“He’s a guy who was on our first line a couple of years ago when we won the championship and went to the Dudley Hewitt Cup and was one of our better players,” said Paul Gagne, coach and general manager of the Eskimos.
“Coming here and having QMJHL experience under his belt, he’s a leader, he knows the coaching staff, he knows the philosophy and the kids look up to him.”
“They see him come in and ‘oh, Begin’s back’ and it’s a breath of fresh air. We are ecstatic to have him around.”
Begin will be in the Eskimos’ lineup when they face off against the Blue Devils in Kirkland Lake Friday night in the first game of a home-and-home exhibition series and when the two teams meet again at the Jus Jordan Arena on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Gagne would like to find a “Robichaud-type” player to skate alongside Begin, but is not holding out any hope his former forward will return to the Eskimos lineup.
“If he comes back, that would be great, but if not, that’s the way it is,” he said.
“If we don’t hear from him, it means he has made the team and that’s our objective … to develop the kids and if he can go to a higher level, then so be it. That’s what we want to do.
“But definitely we are looking for somebody to play alongside Begin. It’s going to be hard to do, but that’s what we are pursuing right now, is a top notch kind of player in the Robichaud calibre.”
Jeffrey Gagne (6 games, 0 goals, 0 assists), who also played with the Foreurs last season, and Zach Innes (33 games, 8 goals, 7 assists), a graduate of the Sudbury Nickel Capitals of the Great North Midget League will skate with Begin on the Eskimos top line.
“In practice we have been trying it out a bit and it will be a good evaluation for this weekend,” Gagne said.
“The young Gagne is a great hockey player and he will certainly fit in as a No. 1 or No. 2 centreman.
Richard Therrien will centre the Eskimos second line for the exhibition games, with newcomer Delmer Moses and Chris Gartner, who joined the team halfway through the 2010-11 campaign.
“That’s a pretty strong second line,” Gagne said.
“We are impressed with that.”
The third line for the weekend will be composed of Jordan Delaurier, who will be going to training camp with the OHL Kitchener Rangers, and a pair of Timmins natives who spent time with the Ontario Hockey Academy in 2010-11 — Troy Columbus and Jacob Kord, whose older brotherJustin Kord plays defence for the Eskimos.
Even the Eskimos fourth line has the potential to contribute on offence.
Kapuskasing Flyers grad Remi Bernier (34 games, 11 goals, 25 assists) is playing on that unit with Ryan Mercier.
“He’s one of those kids who is effective, but he is not flashy and is not the fastest skater, but he makes things happen,” Gagne said.
“Gradually I may be moving him up there and giving him some ice time, especially this weekend.
“It will be a good test for him, at a higher level.”
On the back end, Gagne expects big things from returning defenders Kord and Karl Spenard.
“Everybody is going to be playing the same style, but you always have your more skilled players and your hitters,” he said.
“I can see Justin Kord being one of the key players in the league this year. His size doesn’t reflect on his play, because he is always in your face, he is always in your way.
“He positions himself beautifully in the defensive zone and offensively he sees the play really well, he’s got a good shot and he passes the puck well.
“Spenard is also in the same category as the young Kord.”
Sixteen-year-old blue-liner Kealey Cummings (6 games, 1 goal, 1 assist), who also played for the Sudbury Nickel Capitals in 2010-11 and is a graduate of the Ontario Hockey Academy, is another defenceman Gagne expects big things from.
“He has got good size, a good shot and he moves the puck well,” he said.
“He just like a sponge. He listens to everything you say.”
Timmins Majors grad Kevin Walker (30 games, 2 goals, 5 assists) will also be part of the Eskimos defence.
“He has size and he likes to play physical,” Gagne said.
Greg St. James, a graduate of Orano Juvenille ‘AA’ program, Hearst Elans grad Guillaume Rheault (30 games, 10 goals, 15 assists) and Daniel Villeneuve, a Pembroke native, will also see time on the blue-line.
St. James and Rheault both have the ability to play forward, should the need arise.
The Eskimos to goaltenders — veteran J.P. Fecteau and newcomer Martin Bilodeau (2.62 goals against average, .914 saves percentage) who spent 2010-11 with Les Comètes d’Amos of the Abitibi-Témiscamingue Midget ‘AA’ Hockey League — will each play half of the game in Kirkland Lake and the game at home against the Blue Devils.
“Bilodeau is technically sound and he is very mature for his age,” Gagne said.
“He is happy to be here and he works awfully hard. Our goalie coach, Steve Hamel, has been working with him all week and he is a sponge … he wants to listen to the goalie coach. I like his style and his character too. He wants to do his job and he wants to try and get that No. 1 job, too.”
The only player the Eskimos currently have in camp who won’t see action this weekend is Cody Linklater (27 games, 14 goals, 12 assists), who played for the Kapuskasing Flyers last season, and is out with an injury.
“He is going to be back next week sometime,” Gagne said. “He was in his second, or third day of training camp and hurt himself.”
Defenceman Cameron Carns, who played with the Eskimos last season has not decided yet if he wants to return for the 2011-12 season.
• NOTES — The Eskimos golf tournament, that had been scheduled for Sept. 3, has been cancelled