One Third Of Season Gone – A Look At How The West Is Shaping Up – by C. Scott Holland

This is the first of a three-part look at the GOJHL’s three conference at the one-third point of the season.  First up – the Western Conference

It’s very close to one third of season for most teams and after checking the standings in the West Conference, which has traditionally been one of the closest and toughest, the GF (goals scored for) and GA (goals scored against) tell the tell for the most part about what each team needs at this particular point in time.

LEAMINGTON FLYERS – At the top of the heap are the Leamington Flyers. Coach Tony Piroski has emphasized a defense-first approach and for this club and it has worked. Despite losing the bulk of their top players, including 6 of their top 8 scorers, everyone on the 2015/16 squad has played exceptionally well. Like last season they are getting timely scoring, but do not have any overwhelming, dominant scorer. Having scoring coming from more than one or two lines is certainly a plus. The goaltending duo of Tyler Wall and Michael Barrett provides solid netminding and both are tough to beat on any given night. The team has five veteran defensemen including the newest addition, Brendan McGhee (captain Jacob McGhee’s younger brother) who was released by the LaSalle Vipers. Only missing ingredient is a perhaps a powerful scorer, yet this team can easily remain atop or near the top of the standings without such a player.

LONDON NATIONALS – London is as solid as they’ve they’ve been since wining the Sutherland Cup a few years ago. The biggest surprise has been their rookie netminders. Both Zach Weir and Connor Hughes are handling the job between the pipes rather well. Add a very high number of older veterans who have provided leadership and skill plus the fact that they have bought into coach Pat Powers’ systems and this team will be near the top and a tough competitor come playoffs. The ingredients for success are there.

CHATHAM MAROONS – Chatham has always relied upon veteran players, but this year coach Tyler Roeszler is at the helm of a bench that has a pleasant mixture of promising young and veteran talent. Some of the rookies like Austin Thompson and Dede Cato, who has played with the Maroons on a limited basis previously, have started to shine. Other young Maroons like Teddy McGeen and 20-year-old goalie Parker Butler have shown they are learning and executing as well. All players are contributing greatly. But the biggest change has been the recent acquisition of goalie Brendan Johnston, who has in depth OHL experience with the Windsor Spitfires. Their biggest liability is their defense which has only two vets and while they are currently as hot as any team can get whether coach Tyler Roeszler can transform himself into a good Junior B coach or not is yet to be proven. If the Maroons are to make any kind of run this season, they will need to stay healthy and add another solid defenseman to the corps.

LASALLE VIPERS – LaSalle Vipers’ coach Bill Bowler has once again done wonders with a mix of rookies and vets. His biggest problem thus far has been the loss of Nathan Veres due to injury and a bit of inconsistent netminding from Eli Billing. Unlike last season though, the Vipers don’t have an overpowering defense. Some vets are providing scoring for them, but not as steadily as what might be needed to go on any lengthy winning streaks. The bright spot for them is that they have enough older players to provide leadership and a return by Veres to the lineup soon could help them improve their position. Overall one defenseman and one power forward could make a huge impact on this team.

At this juncture in the standings there is a bit of difference as the remainder of the team all have one thing in common – they have more goals scored against than scored for.  This points the finger either at the teams’ offenses, defenses, goaltending or any combination of the three as being the culprit for poor or inadequate performances. For some of those teams the start of this campaign may not have gone as smoothly as hoped.

SARNIA LEGIONNAIRES – Sarnia Legionnaires, like Chatham, they have a roster filed half with vets and rookies, yet goaltending is one of their main concerns. The Legionnaires have undergone plenty of changes. Coach Mark Davis replaced Dan Rose as the club’s head coach in the off-season and the slow start indicates that it is a work in progress rebuilding Sarnia. Ryan Vendramin has only been in the lineup for a handful of games and his presence on a full-time basis should boost the Legionnaires. But Sarnia lost a great deal of scoring and defense last season and replacing that experience is difficult. With two rookies between the pipes and neither one showing exceptional abilities goaltending is a key issue. However thanks to some better defensive work and timely scoring recently the team has started to play better. Sarnia is not an overpowering scoring threat but does have adequate scoring to help win games. but they do need help between the pipes and defensively.

ST. THOMAS STARS – The St. Thomas Stars while only one goal shy of being .500 in that department have the firepower with recent acquisitions. It may indicate some poor defensive work as well as a lack of consistent scoring. They have had some OT games and some high scoring ones (6-6 tie, 7-6 OTL) which reflect some defensive and goaltending letdowns. While Nik Dampier has proven he’s a top goalie, he just really hasn’t gotten proper support in all his starts. Yet a more pressing problem for coach Darren Kelly may be losing players rather than gaining them. Ryan Valentini and Eric Henderson are two players who may well be gone from the Stars depending on moves by the players’ OHL team, the London Knights.  Newcomer Ethan Nother will need some time to adjust. Lately it’s been the lack of scoring for them and the Stars will need to get timely contributions from all their lines if they are to remain a top contender. Head coach Darren Kelly has his work cut out if they are to crack the top four and secure a home ice advantage in playoffs.

STRATHROY ROCKETS – As for the Strathroy Rockets, they are young so that alone explains the team’s inconsistency. Yet neither goaltender Dane Gubbels or Mat Ouellet have fared extremely well and while some of that is related to the inexperienced defense one of them will soon have to step up and start stopping pucks. Both are very solid goalies but one or the other has to soon start playing at a even higher caliber in order to get the Rockets some wins. But Strathroy does not have any pure firepower. This is a major concern because you can’t win many games by scoring one or two goals. Averaging just 2.44 goals per game now, no Strathroy team in history has ever made the playoffs scoring less than 3 goals a game.  Even if they keep close to top teams like in the recent 4-1 and 2-0 losses to Leamington, their offense has to begin generating goals especailly on the powerplay. Having a young, inexperienced team is one thing but taking too many penalties hurts and the young Rockets’ coaches without much Junior B or higher coaching experience is a bit of a drawback. Perhaps the club would be better off with a more experienced coaching staff who can draw players. But right now the young staff is handling itself well – perhaps things will work out with them. Having their defensive coach Mike Herman quit a few days ago due to “personal reasons” is devastating. GM Mike Bondy will have to fill that hole as quickly as possible in order to prevent the ship from sinking any further than what they already have. Strathroy needs to find a catalyst type of (veteran) player to inject some juice into the squad.
LAMBTON SHORES PREDATORS – Don Dickson’s Lambton Shores team has plenty of experience but goaltending and defensive lapses have cost them. Anthony Hurtubise, who supposedly has the skill set to be a leading goalie for Lambton, just hasn’t done the job for them. Penalty problems have plagued the team and Dickson’s displeasure with on-ice calls have sidelined him from the bench for a few games already. The players’ mindset and the coaching could be major factors here. Like with the Rockets (and Lincolns) there is no firepower other than Ethan Sarfati, who is a point below Chatham’s Ian Faubert for the West scoring lead, takes far too many penalties to be effective. Far too many goal against haven’t allowed them to be competitive but having Franc Sproveiro is a plus for them. Too bad they didn’t have another three of him. This franchise is not in an ideal location for drawing either fans or players. Yet the realty is: they’ve had some good players who could have helped the team rise but unfortunately those players either asked to be or were traded away. Solid coaching and better recruiting is needed to get this franchise moving upward.

ST. MARYS LINCOLNS – Just when everybody figures the St. Marys Lincolns have fallen on hard times, they seem to have solved their basic problem of goaltending and partially helped their defensive woes with the addition of Jack Wieringa. Absolutely no firepower here unless they pick somebody up soon. Don’t see that happening for a cash-strapped team. While they do have far too many goals against to be highly competitive, acclaimed head coach Merlin Malinowski, has started to get the team moving slightly in the proper direction. It is coming and they still have plenty of time to make the playoffs this year. They are at least one to two years away from being a real force if things go well but it is a long, slow process. The Lincs, by theory, could be in the playoffs this season if all goes well.

Overall there’s plenty of promise but few will make a huge impact this year – not unless any of them can find a key player for the stretch drive and playoffs.

The next month will be a key for all of these clubs as we head into the Christmas break and they start jockeying for position from which to make a stretch run.

(Photo credit – Mark Malone, Chatham Daily News)

C. Scott Holland is an accomplished author, a former Western Jr. B Hockey League statistician and is recognized as the West Conference’s and GOJHL’s historian. A lifelong resident of Leamington Scott was a journalist for the now defunct Leamington Post for 26 years and currently writes for the Southpoint Sun. Among the books he has authored are: 75 Years: A History of the Leamington and Erie Shores Golf Course; A Century In The Making – History of Heinz Canada 1909-2009; Leamington Flyers 1992/93-2011/12 Platinum Anniversary Special Program; the Western Jr. B Record Book 2003/04 and 2005/06 editions; as well as updates of both the West Conference and GOJHL Record Books. He was been a member of he Leamington Jr. Flyers hockey club for the last 27 years and served many years as a board member, statistician, press box announcer, and scorekeeper among other duties. He has been named the West Conference Volunteer of Year and a Windsor-Essex Sportsperson of Year award. He resides in Leamington with his wife Susan.

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