Story and Photos by Christian J. Stewart (ISN)
August 26, 2014, Saanich, BC (ISN) – The Saanich Braves hit the ice at Pearkes Arena Monday afternoon for an intra-squad game to open their 2014-2015 Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League (VIJHL) training camp and take the first steps toward putting a less than stellar 2013-2014 season behind them.
Braves players Conner Allan (black jersey) and Scott Henderson (gray jersey) look for the puck after a faceoff during the Braves intra-squad game Monday (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)
The Braves finished the 2013-2014 season with a 11-34-1-2 record, making the playoffs, but bowing out to Comox in four straight games in the first round.
The season, by all accounts, was a rebuilding one, as the Braves, looking to fill the shoes of a 2012-2013 team that finished second overall (30-14-4) and graduated a wealth of players to the college or Junior A level, featured a rookie-laden line-up, who took their lumps in a season full of hard knocks, tough breaks, injuries and bad luck.
Braves defenceman Mackenzie Valentine carries the puck out of his end during the intra-squad game Monday (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)
Those rookies are now returning “veterans” and it is that core group that Head Coach Brad Cook will look to for the leadership needed to make this season a successful one.
“Last year certainly was not our dream season, but it was certainly a season I expected,” said Cook prior to Monday’s on-ice session. “We really only returned one forward from 2012-2013 and as we were not in position to go out and spend big bucks to fill those spots, we made a decision to re-load with young guys and local guys. Were we going to take it on the chin? For sure, but we were OK with that, as long as we were doing the right things as an organization development wise and to get the kids to the next level.”
Forward Josh Poland was second in goal scoring last season and hopes to improve on that this year (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)
“And now look at us,” emphasized Cook. “We are returning a bunch of guys both at forward and on the back end. As a coaching staff, now we have to hope that those guys come back better. That is key to all of this. If they come back and are the same as they were as a group last September, then we have some issues that will need to be addressed. We have to hope that they learned from last year and have become a year more mature, a year physically stronger, a year mentally stronger and that they come back one year better.”
Forward Evan Horvath is one of 12 returning Brave players and will look to build upon his successful rookie season with the team (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)
To be precise, on the ice Monday were 12 returning players, 9 of which were VIJHL rookies in 2013-2014. Add in 6 skaters who saw action as affiliate players last season and the Braves had 18 returning players on the ice to begin camp. As Cook notes, this bodes well for the team, but it is still a team that will feature a number of second year players and at the moment, is light on veteran leadership.
Goaltender Jason Stewart, who finished last season with the Braves, returns and will look to provide the Braves with consistent goaltending from game to game (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)
“We only have two returning 20-year olds in camp,” noted Cook “and those are Dayne Ellison and James Sneddon. Obviously we will look to both of them for veteran leadership on the ice and in the room, but this team will definitely need to work as a unit to get things done. It will have to be a “team first” attitude and scoring by committee. We are not going to have that go to guy, or that go to line that we can put out there. It is going to have to be all 12 or 16 forwards pushing each other and working as a unit to get things done. And I don’t mind that. It gets everyone pushing each other and when you do have success, all players share in that success, not just the one line.”
James Sneddon (facing camera, gray jersey) will be one of two returning 20-year olds who will provide veteran leadership to the team this season (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)
While the Braves will feature a number of returning and rookie local players, Cook has recruited from afar to help bolster the line-up this season, reaching back to his hometown of Detroit for a pair of 19-year olds, defenseman Kyle Schnettler and forward Alex Schlueter. “Both players played on the Detroit Falcons of the North American Prospects (Midget AAA) Hockey League last season and put up good numbers and they are keen to learn the junior game out here and use the Braves as a stepping stone to the next level,” said Cook.
Detroit import Kyle Schnettler will provide leadership on the defensive end for the Braves (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)
While Cook emphasizes that scoring will be done by committee, you can be sure that he is hoping that committee is led by some of the same players that enjoyed offensive success last season, including forward Nyshan Basra, who joined the team at the trade deadline and put up nearly a point per game (6G, 7A) in the ten regular season and four playoff games that he played in. Also in that category are forwards Josh Poland, second on the team in goals scored in 2013-2014, as well as Hunter Atchison and Evan Horvath who both showed well as rookies last season.
Garret Stankoven is one of three returning defenceman that the Braves will call upon this season (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)
Returning forwards Jack Rachwalski, Quinn Miller, and Scott Henderson will also be expected to move their game up a notch and will be pushed at camp by the likes of Conner Allan, Jordan Parmar and Liam Kinshella (all AP players with the Braves last season), as well as signed rookie Cameron Kovesdi (from Ridge Meadows Midget AAA) and camp hopefuls Jonah Philip (Sooke Midget), Mak Rokic (Victoria Midget), Mike Affleck (Victoria Midget), and Mike Sproule (Saanich Midget).
Forward Mike Sproule is one of many rookies in the Braves camp that are looking to make their mark (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)
On the defensive end, returning players Mackenzie Valentine, Garrett Stankoven and James Sneddon will now be the veteran leadership on the back-end that will be bolstered by the likes of Schnettler, as well as signees Evan Badry and Connor Birmingham. Badry (a Saanich Minor product), who played 22 games for the Braves last season before being released back to Midget, as well as Birmingham (a JDF and South Island Royals Midget AAA product) were both signed following this year’s prospect camp and should be welcome additions on defense. Also in camp vying for a look on defence are Elliott MacIsaac (Saanich Midget) and Jake Wilhelm (Saanich Bantam AA).
Defenceman Evan Badry played 22 games for the Braves last season and will be a welcome full-time additon to the blue line in 2014-2015 (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)
Between the pipes, 19-year old Jason Stewart, who finished the season with the Braves last year, returns and appears to be the incumbent for one of the two goaltending slots, but will face a stiff challenge from the likes of Michael Franks (Peninsula Midget), an AP with the Braves last season, as well as Taylor Findlay (Saanich Midget) and Joe Barton (Racquet Club Midget).
Goaltender Joe Barton, here making a save Monday, is one of three rookie goaltenders in camp vying for a spot on the team (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)
“The best part for all players this season is that they will all have a great opportunity to play a number of minutes in this league,” noted Cook. “What they do with those minutes will dictate our success. I am optimistic. Despite the season last year, we had a good finish and were competitive in the playoffs. Hats off to the guys who were here for that. At the end of the day, it made us all stronger and I think we’ve all learned something from that. Last year our core group definitely learned how to lose, this year we are going to learn how to win.”
Training camp continues this week with on-ice session at Pearkes Arena on Tuesday and Wednesday both at 3:30-5:00 pm. The sessions are open to the public.
Defenceman Jake Wilhelm carries the puck during the intra-squad game Monday (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)
Fans will get their first chance to see the 2014-2015 Braves in game action this coming Thursday and Friday as they play a pair of home-and-home exhibition games against the Westshore Wolves. On Thursday the 28th , the Braves travel to JDF Arena for a 6:30 pm start and on Friday the 29th, the teams return to Pearkes Arena also for a 6:30 pm start.
Camp then continues next week and leads up to the Braves 2014-2015 season opener on Thursday September 4th when they travel across town to the Archie Browning Arena in Esquimalt to meet the Victoria Cougars. Game time is 7:00 PM.