The Victoria Cougars are headed to the 2016 Cyclone Taylor Cup no matter what happens during the regular season.
After getting selected as the host team by Hockey BC, the Cougars automatically receive a berth in the four-team tournament which will feature the champion from the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League, the champion from the Pacific Junior Hockey League, and the champion or runner-up from the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League.
One thing is for certain, Victoria does not want to enter the 2016 Cyclone Taylor Cup through the backdoor as host.
It has been a busy offseason for Cougars head coach Mark Van Helvoirt and his coaching staff who have spent the past five-and-a-half months putting together a championship calibre team.
“We are looking forward to building a team that will have an opportunity to compete for a provincial championship,” Van Helvoirt said.
Three weeks after Victoria won the bid, Van Helvoirt pulled off a blockbuster deal by acquiring forward Cody Hodges and defenseman Connor Harding from the Chase Heat of the KIJHL in exchange for future considerations.
Both players were with Chase the past two seasons.
Hodges, a right-handed shooter, led the Heat in scoring last year with 28 goals and 31 assists for 59 points in 49 games.
Harding, who is as tough as nails, finished last season with a team-high 114 penalty minutes.
The Cougars lost their top four scorers from last year – Sam McMullen, Michael Fretz, Wade Johnson, and Robert Zadra. Those players alone combined for 130 goals and 308 points.
Despite the losses though, Van Helvoirt is optimistic about the upcoming season.
“We may not have the high-end talent that we had in seasons past but we are really striving to have a more balanced attack, “Van Helvoirt said. “With some of our recent additions, we feel we have added more depth to our lineup this year.”
As always at this level of hockey, there is a lot of turnover.
Still, Victoria returns boatloads of talent.
Nathan Looysen, who was acquired from the Peninsula Panthers in exchange for Garnett Roberts last season, could very well finish among the league leaders offensively.
Joining Looysen as players who will be counted on offensively are Ryan Carson, PJ Heger, John Kretzschmar, Brett Lervold, and Lane van de Wetering.
During the offseason, Van Helvoirt inked a couple of gems in 18-year-old Brandon Tutte and 17-year-old James Scott. Both players played this past season with the South Island Royals of the BC Major Midget League.
Tutte is an offensive dynamo who led the Royals in scoring with 13 goals and 36 assists for 49 points in 39 games. Talent aside, the six-foot-one, 180-pound forward is also a natural play maker who seems to end up on the score sheet every night.
“We feel Brandon can come in and play with some of our other offensive players and really produce. He will also expect that he will an effective component to our power play,” Van Helvoirt said.
Scott got his first taste of the VIJHL as a call up last season and became an instant fan favourite. The five-foot-eleven, 170-pound forward scored three goals for the Royals in 13 games.
“James is a smart player who is effective on both sides of the puck. He will bring speed and tenacity every night,” Van Helvoirt said.
Scott scored a goal in the Cougars lone preseason game.
Included in the group of forwards as well are Dom Kolbeins and Liam Kinshella.
Victoria is in good shape on the defensive side of the puck despite losing Jake Stolz to graduation.
Ryan Buse, along with Nick Lyons and Ryan Vorster, will shoulder a heavy workload this season. Also returning are Austin Wilk and Mitch Moloney who can play forward as well.
The Cougars led the VIJHL this past season with the best defensive record and they have the right personnel to do so again this year.
Included in the group of defensemen as well are Kurtis Gamble and Nico Somerville.
Goaltending has always been a key to success for Victoria.
Anthony Ciurro returns after posting a .934 save percentage to go along with his 1.51 goals against average, three shutouts, and a 17-1-0-0 record in his rookie season.
After posting a league-high 25 wins and four shutouts for the Cougars last year, Grant Payne will instead be stopping pucks for the University of Northern Colorado.
Backing up Ciurro will be 18-year-old Sean Wendlandt.
A recent graduate of Hill-Murray School in Maplewood, Minnesota, Wendlandt went 10-6-0-0 while posting a 2.07 goals against average and a .906 save percentage.
Standing six-foot-two, the Hudson, Wisconsin native was selected in Round 21 by the Sioux Falls Stampede during the 2013 United States Hockey League Draft.
The coaching staff remains intact from last season. Returning are associate coach Suneil Karod, associate coach Thomas Kala, associate coach Brody Coulter, and goaltending coach Bill Morrison. Stolz, a defensive wizard during his playing days, was hired in the offseason and will serve as an associate coach.
“We are looking forward to an exciting season ahead,” Van Helvoirt said. “This group has seemed to come together as a team quite quickly. They seem to really enjoy playing together and really encourage each other at practices and workouts.”
Victoria opens the 2015-16 campaign at home against the Kerry Park Islanders on Thursday, September 10.