By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Gold Miners team the Timmins Rock will welcome to the McIntyre Arena for the home opener of their NOJHL regular season Saturday night will bear little resemblance to the Kirkland Lake squad that hosted the Dudley Hewitt Cup tournament just months ago.
NOJHL scoring leader Brayden Stortz (54, 38-62-100, 32), traded to the Wellington Dukes, of the OJHL, is gone.
So to are Logan Fredericks (53, 51-38-89, 51), Brett Ouderkirk (55, 21-40-61, 20, Marc-Antoine Arseneau (52, 23-29-52, 73), Brandon Wolfe (54, 16-28-44, 40), Blake Anderson (41, 11-33-44, 33) and Joel Fortin (54, 17-21-38, 12).
In fact, only two members of the 2015-16 Gold Miners squad — forward Alexander Hester (24, 12-19-31, 28) and goalie Victor-Olivier Courchesne (1,446:00; 17-8-0-0, 2, 2.82, .904) will be wearing the white, blue and gold Saturday night.
“Victor was pretty much our No. 1 goalie for most of the year last season,” said Gold Miners coach and general manager Marc Lafleur.
“Trevor is a penalty-killing specialist. Other than those two guys, we have a brand new group and a lot of our guys are quickly understanding the standard they have to abide by when it comes to practice.
“It has been a bit of a learning curve that way, not only in terms of learning our system but also the expectations we set our for our players here in Kirkland Lake.”
Lafleur understands it may take some time for the Gold Miners to gell and come together as a cohesive unit.
“I think every coach is in the same boat when it comes to that, but obviously if you are a team that has a lot of veterans coming back you have an advantage early on in the season,” he said.
“Ultimately though, it’s not where we are in early September that is important, it is where we are going to be in November and December that will be key.”
Despite the massive turnover, Lafleur is confident his squad will be quite competitive this season.
“We haven’t had the success we were hoping for in the exhibition season, but we had a short bench and considering the number of guys we had available, especially last weekend, we are happy with how things went,” he said.
“We have added a few more players we feel are definitely going to help us out in different ways.”
After dropping both ends of a home-and-home exhibition series with the Rock — 7-5 in Kirkland Lake and 4-2 in Timmins, the Gold Miners took part in the inaugural Polar Bear Classic tournament hosted by the Cochrane Crunch last weekend.
The Gold Miners were winless in that event — dropping a 4-2 decision to the Kingston Voyageurs, who went on to win the event, being edged 3-2 by the Iroquois Falls Eskis and falling 4-3 to the Espanola Express.
“In the game against Kingston, we were actually leading after two periods,” Lafleur said.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough gas to hang on and win it in the third period. Over all, the entire weekend was pretty good considering what we had available to play with.”
The Gold Miners have added a number of players in the days following the Polar Bear Classic to bolster their lineup, including 18-year-old defenceman Dayton Keith, from the Comox Valley Glacier Kings, of the VIJHL; forward Damian Caringi, from the London Lakers, of the GMHL; defencemen Alex Olschewske, from the Richmond Generals, of the USP3HL; and defenceman Roberto Lentini, from the Vaughn Kings Midget ‘AAA’ and the Toronto Patriots, of the OJHL
“One of the kids the people in Kirkland Lake are happy to see with the team is Marshall Nikitin,” Lafleur said.
“He is a local boy and we don’t often have local players in the lineup here with the Gold Miners.”
Nikitin (7, 0-0-0, 10) spent the 2015-16 season with the Wellington Dukes, of the OJHL).
Nikitin will not be in the lineup when the Gold Miners open at home against the French River Rapids Friday night, however, or when they travel to Timmins to take on the Rock Saturday night, due to injury.
“This stems from the exhibition games against Timmins,” Lafleur said.
“He is going to be out of the lineup for about a month or so.”
Otherwise, the Gold Miners are sporting a few bumps and bruises from their five exhibition contests but everybody else should be available to play.
The names and faces may have changed, but the Gold Miners will employ a similar style to that which led to so much success in Kirkland Lake over the past couple of years.
“We are going to have a lot of speed in our lineup and, if anything, we will have more speed this year,” Lafleur said.
“Over all, my teams in Kirkland Lake have always been identified with being responsible on both sides of the puck and being able to play a 200-foot game.”
Two of the newcomers to the Gold Miners who have impressive since they arrived with the team are forwards Ashton Amaya and Kevin Ford.
“Those are two players who have really stood out for us,” Lafleru said.
“We knew they were going to be really good, but we just didn’t know how good they were going to be. They really seem to be gelling well together and they have good hockey sense and they are creative.”
Some of the newcomers on the blue-line have stood out, as well.
“On the back end, we have got T.J. Oricchio, who was a teammate of Amaya’s last year,” Lafleur said.
“We have expectations that he will be able to fill a lot of roles on our blue-line.”
The Rock may be a few players under the 20-man limit for Saturday night’s home opener.
Coach and general manager Paul Gagne has confirmed that forward Brandon Major has opted to “retire” to pursue his education.
In addition, the status of rookie forward Stewart Parnell remains up in the air as he continues to nurse a lower-body injury suffered in the second exhibition game against the Gold Miners.
“He re-injured it in practice this week, so might be out of the lineup, as well,” Gagne said.
And, of course, newly acquired defenceman Brendan Campbell will be sitting out the first game of a four-game suspension he earned for a hitting-to-the-head infraction during last year’s playoffs with his former team, the Ridge Meadow Flames, of the PIJHL.
While the Gold Miners took part in the Polar Bear Classic last weekend, the Rock have not played since Aug. 27 — giving Gagne and his staff ample time to implement their “program.”
“We have just been spending time introducing various components of our program to the players,” Gagne said.
“We are trying to get our players to play with instincts as much as we can for our home opener.”
Unlike the Gold Miners, roughly half of the players in the Rock lineup for Saturday night are veterans.
“They really know what to expect when we run drills and they are leaders on and off the ice,” Gagne said.
“You don’t have to spend as much time correcting mistakes because we have so many veterans who are doing the drills properly.”
With a pair of exhibition victories against the Gold Miners under their belt and many more veterans in their lineup, the Rock would appear to have a slight edge on their opponents heading into Saturday night’s contest.
“The first game of the season, nobody really knows where their game is at,” Gagne said.
“Confidence, conditioning wise, you really don’t know until the puck drops. A lot of the time, the first game is a bit of a craps shoot. Hopefully, having more veterans will stack the odds in our favour.”
As with most games, exhibition, regular season or playoffs, Gagne is more concerned about his own squad than who will or won’t be in the lineup for Kirkland Lake Saturday night.
“Obviously, we have to be aware of what they are doing, but you have to take care of your own backyard first,” he said.
“After we perfect our game, then we can make some adjustments with regards to our opponents.”
Fans who frequented Rock games last season are well aware that when the team is playing Rock hockey, they get in hard on the forecheck, finish their checks, move the puck quickly out of their own zone and minimize the amount of time spent in their end of the ice.
“We have one game on Saturday and then we don’t play until the following Friday, so we need to go out there and leave everything on the ice,” Gagne said.
All the Rock players, especially the veterans, are anxious to start playing some meaningful hockey again.
“It is great to practise and the boys have been working really hard, but it is nice to get the puck rolling,” Gagne said.
After finishing second in the NOJHL in attendance during the 2015-16 campaign, the Rock are hoping to be able to entertain even larger crowds this season.
“We had such good fan support last year and we are hoping it really continues this year,” Gagne said.
“Now, we just have to go out there and give them a good product on the ice for our fans.”