SUDBURY - The puck drops on the Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League regular season Wednesday night at the McClelland Arena.
And the visiting Abitibi Eskimos will be looking for a better result than when they opened the 2012-13 campaign against the Sudbury Nickel Barons at the Jus Jordan Arena.
The visitors skated off with a 6-2 victory in that contest, setting the Eskimos down a path that would see them open the season with a record of 0-4 — including a 4-1 loss to the Nickel Barons in Sudbury.
Few players who took part in last year’s season opener for the Eskimos remain on either squad on the eve of the 2013-14 campaign.
Defencemen Kevin Walker, Ryan Kerr, Bryce Robert and Kealey Cummings, as well as forwards Zach Innes, Ben Miller and Aaron Kerr are the only seven Eskimos back.
Still, Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne likes the mix of experience and youth Abitibi will ice for Wednesday’s opener.
“I’m optimist, that’s the word,” he said.
“It’s a big difference from last year and the reason is that we have 10 returning players (including three who did not play in the 2012-13 opener, Ryan Tront, Ryan Wildman, Jacob Kenney).
“That makes it a lot easier for the program, meaning the kids know what the philosophy is, they know the program, so when we introduce it to the new players, I have got players who are pretty much programed and they can help them out, so that’s nice.
“I am optimistic this year that we have a mixture of youth and older players. That I am really happy about … that’s why the word optimistic comes in again.”
That formula should also produce better chemistry in the Eskimos’ dressing room.
“Already my staff (assistant coaches and trainers) have said the dressing room is 100% better than last year,” Gagne said.
“They find that the new players are good kids, so that’s reason for optimism.”
Up front, the Eskimos have added a number of players who should be able to help contribute to the offence, including Brady Clouthier, Marc Dube, Brenden Locke and Tommy Labrecque.
“Aaron Kerr has just been released, he was in camp with Owen Sound, so he is back at practice with us now,” Gagne said.
“We are expecting Wildman, Innes, Dube and even Ryan Tront is going to score more than the four or five goals he scored last year (to go along with 20 assists).
“And the young Locke is definitely going to boost up the offence. He is such a talented little player who plays big.
“And Brady just does his job, but he is coachable, he listens and he has got skills. This is going to be a new league for him and I like what he has … he has that little competitiveness. He is going to bring leadership, also. He is going to put up some numbers, you are absolutely right.
“Tommy, we are going to use him more as a big strong power forward, go in the corner, muck it up and he has got great hands, so he will be able to finish. We are expecting some points from him, too, but his role is going to be a tough, power forward.”
Former Eskimo Erik Robichaud, who spent the past two seasons in the QMJHL, is currently in camp with the Sudbury Wolves, but if he fails to make the OHL squad he might be in the picture for Abitibi.
The blue line has also received a bit of makeover, with the addition of former Kapuskasing Flyers Jamey Lauzon, Brennan Roy and Sheehan Moore, as well as New Jersey native Steven Petitte.
“Our defence, some of them have been there for three years,” Gagne said.
“You have Cummings, it’s his third year, you have Walker, it’s his third year and he is good defensively and supplies leadership on and off the ice, and you have Robert, it’s his second year, and we have Petitte, who is 20 years old, from New Jersey. He is a really smooth defenceman and he does his job well. He listens and does what we are asking for.
“It’s going to help out our goalies, definitely.”
The Eskimos have opted to go with two rookie goalies from the Kap Flyers, Sylvain Miron and Julien Deschenes — both 18 years old.
For the Nickel Barons, the nine players back for the 2013-14 season are goalie Michael Muzyka, as well as skaters Josh Moore, Jacob Punkari, Ryan Chretien, Gio Faschia, August Jarecki, Bradley Bell, Evan Purcell and Brett Dusick.
New Nickel Barons coach Trevor Blanchard concedes the 2013-14 version of his squad will not play the “run-and-gun style” employed last season when the Sudbury lineup featured two of the NOJHL’s leading scorers — centre Darcy Haines (81 points) and winger Sebastien Leroux (82 points).
“We definitely lost two of our top scorers from last year,” he said.
“Seb Leroux and Darcy Haines have moved on, but we have a good supporting cast from last year’s roster back in Giovanni Foschi, August Jarecki, Marty Jolicoeur.
“They will be three of our top forwards that we will be looking at to play some big minutes and put up some big numbers.”
Jolicoeur was third on the Nickel Barons in scoring last season, finishing with 19 goals, 24 assists and 43 points in 44 regular season games.
The Nickel Barons will also have a lot of experience back on the blue line, which Blanchard feels could be a strength of the team.
“We have Bradley Bell coming back,” he said.
“We didn’t think he would be coming back because he had made an OHL team, but he has decided to go the NCAA route.
“So he will be one of the top D-men in the league, which is nice to have him back for a year.
“We also have Brett Dusick and Mathieu Levcavalier, two of our D from last year, who are entering their final season in the league.
“We are going to be counting on them to play a lot of minutes, also.”
Blanchard is also pleased with some of the newcomers the Nickel Barons will have in the lineup this season.
“We have actually got a couple of kids from up North,” he said.
“We have one from Hearst, Yanic Hebert, who played for the Hearst Elans last year, and we have got Guilliame Rheault, who had a quick stint with Abitibi (52, 12-9-21, 20, 2011-12) a couple of years ago and ended up taking a year off last year. He is here for school at College Boreal, so he has factored in on our roster, also.”
Given the makeup of his roster, Blanchard expects the Nickel Barons will play a “pretty structure-oriented” style of system during 2013-14.
“We are going to have a forecheck in place and our D zone is going to be fairly tight, because I think our strong suit is our back end this year.
“We have seven capable defencemen who are on a card for us, who are on our roster going into the first game, so we are going to be playing a little bit more of a tight forechecking game, instead of that run-and-gun style we played last year with Leroux and Haines being able to go up and down the ice at will.
“I think we are going to veer away from that a little bit. It’s going to be more of a dump and chase type of thing.”
That should produce a more balanced scoring attack.
“We have definitely got three lines that are going to be counted on the put the puck in the net,” Blanchard said.
“Our fourth line is going to be a little bit more of a shutdown type of defensive line. It’s definitely going to be scoring by committee this year.
“I don’t think you are going to see anybody putting up that 100-point range that we saw from Leroux and Haines last year, but you will probably see a lot of the guys maybe between 40 and 50 points this year. Hopefully a good handful our forwards can get up to that number of points and we can put the puck in the net whenever it is needed.”
The Nickel Barons’ goaltending picture is still a little murky on the eve of the regular-season opener.
“Right now we have committed to one goalie, Andrew Lefebvre, who is coming in from our local midget program,” Blanchard said.
“He has played in town for a few years. He is an 18-year-old goalie.”
During his interview with The Daily Press, Blanchard was at the rink watching the Sudbury Wolves Blue and White game, which featured Muzyka, who impressed as a 16 year old with the Nickel Barons in 2012-13.
“We are waiting to see what they are going to do with Michael,” he said.
“The plan is to have them two in place, but if the Wolves happen to make a decision to keep Michael we have a couple of guys in our camp who are kind of on hold for the moment.
“And we also have got the possibility of perhaps grabbing another one of the Sudbury Wolves cuts if Michael earns one of the two spots (with the Wolves).
“Michael proved to us last year, specifically in the playoff series against Elliot Lake, that he is capable of winning hockey games at such a young age. His composure and poise were definitely not what you would expect from a 16 year old, more like an older player in the league.”
The Eskimos lost both games they played during the exhibition season to the Gold Miners, 5-2 on home ice and 3-2 in double overtime in Kirkland Lake.
The Nickel Barons fared slightly better, winning 4-3 in Elliot Lake and then dropping a 7-1 decision to the Bobcats on home ice.
The Eskimos will open their home season Saturday night at the Jus Jordan Arena when the Espanola Rivermen make their first visit to Iroquois Falls.