THE WEST IN DECEMBER

How The West Conference Fared In December – by C. Scott Holland

The month of December was a relatively short one and the records posted by the nine teams are fairly indicative of their progress or lack of improvement.

The December records are as follows:
Leamington 6-0 – 12 points
Sarnia 4-1 8 points
London 4-2 8 points
St. Thomas 4-3 8 points
Strathroy 3-2-2 8 points
Chatham 3-3 6 points
LaSalle 3-3 6 points
St. Marys 1-5-1 3 points
Lambton 1-6 2 points

Many of the West’s teams have made some changes and with the trade deadline looming early in January they will be looking to bolster their lineups.

The Leamington Flyers have already addressed some of their needs. They added a forward (Aaron Langlois) and a solid defenseman (David Storey). Both players have aided the first-place club in maintaining their solid standing as they hold an 11-point lead over second-place St. Thomas with two games-in-hand. Those two contests are a luxury in a division where competition is strong night after night. The Flyers only realistic need is a player who can provide consistent firepower. However, they could survive without such a player since their scoring comes from all lines. Leamington’s goaltending is the best in the entire GOJHL – 59 ga in 30 games – narrowly topping that of St. Catharines and Caledonia. Not much tinkering needs to be done with this squad and a strong stretch run could wrap up the regular season title by mid to late January.

The St. Thomas Stars’ worst scenario occurred in December – they lost the services of Ryan Valentini, who was traded by the London Knights to the Sudbury Wolves, and then the Knights called up Eric Henderson as a replacement player. Their 4-3 record is deceiving since they had two shutouts in December – one against Strathroy and one against Sarnia. Add a narrow win over Lambton but the Stars ride has been more like a roller coaster. They can handle teams below them, but have struggled against Leamington at home where they lost 8-3 plus lost a tough 6-5 decision to LaSalle. They will need to find some solid defense and while Matt Macpherson, who they acquired recently, is a vet blueliner, his overall experience may not be enough to lead the Stars. As well they will be looking to replace some offense to fill the hole left by Valentini. Despite the fact that Matt McJannet and Carson Brookshaw have been the guys who have picked up the pace offensively, they have been putting up enough points to win but still show signs of defensive weakness. Consistency is their main concern, and for playoffs they will have to find ways of beating Leamington if they are to have a good run. Look for the Stars to make a deal for either a defenseman or a power forward. Both could help them immensely.

The London Nationals remain in a good position and while they ran up a record of 4-2, the two games they lost in December were close scores. All but their final two games of the month were decided by two or less goals. They scored 33 goals in 6 games which indicates enough offense but the only twice did they allow less than two in a game. While the biggest surprise for London has been their netminding they may be looking for a veteran defenseman or power forward who could improve their chances and final playoff positioning. Coach Pat Powers will have to give up some youth if they do indeed acquire one or the other but this team is one that will be tough to beat both in the stretch run and come playoffs. They could stand pat, but they will have to regain their early season form if the are to make any kind of statement.

Until December the Sarnia legionnaires struggled and eventhough they began the month by playing two of the weaker teams, they managed to pull off a couple of unexpected wins (over LaSalle and London). They ran up a record of 4-1 with improved their goaltending and defense which has only allowed 16 goals (six of those were tabbed by London, a team they nipped). Suddenly this team has found some offense despite faltering in the final contest before the break and were blanked by St. Thomas. A key issue is the offense, which suddenly clicked, and has shown signs that this team is getting on the same page. Consistency is part of the equation as well. The Legionnaires don’t have any big guns outside of Ryan Vendramin, but if they can acquire another sniper and continue to get solid goaltending, they could find themselves among the top four. They aren’t that far off the mark and do have talent to offer in any kind of trade which would land them another piece of the puzzle.

The LaSalle Vipers did not have a great December. With a .500 record they found themselves losing to some of the teams they are battling – London and Sarnia as well as a loss to Lambton. A big problem has been their defense and goaltending. With vet defenseman Nathan Veres being injured, his return, which is long overdue, would be a huge post-Christmas spark. The recent addition of Cale Allen from the Leamington Flyers hasn’t paid any dividends yet, but could come playoff time. The Vipers have the players, but will need to sharpen their goaltending and defense if they are to make the top four. Both defensive and offensive help is needed. They have players who might be traded and if they do get defensive help and on a hot streak like last year’s playoffs – watch out!

The Chatham Maroons have undergone enough turmoil within he last two years that many wonder how they have managed to be as competitive as they are. The additions and subtractions have been fast and furious. The loss of vet goalie Brendan Johnston is a key factor but rookie Parker Butler and rookie forward Austin Thompson have been the saving graces for the Maroons. But even with some solid back-up netminding, Chatham needs an experienced defenseman to compliment the rookies and vets who are already there. The biggest hurdle for Chatham has been conquering teams with similar records like LaSalle. Their 3-4 record in December is not hard to fathom since the three victories were against the three teams below them in the standings. Three of the losses to top teams were by one or two goals which shows the Maroons are competitive but like many other teams in the conference Chatham’s downfall is lack of consistency both offensively and defensively. They seem to be one veteran forward and one veteran defenseman shy of becoming a top contender. Only one other concern with this club: how many games can rookie Parker Butler play without becoming overworked? He will certainly be used almost exclusively during the stretch run and playoffs.

After having a horrendous two months of futility and numerous changes the Strathroy Rockets have suddenly shown remarkable poise for one of the GOJHL’s youngest clubs. While they still struggle against the top clubs, the scores have been close and the team has notched several wins along with a couple of points in OT losses. Their worst effort was a 4-0 shutout at the hands of the St. Thomas Stars. Their firepower is still lacking – 18 goals in 7 games but their goaltending and defense is giving them chances (they allowed only 23 ga and no opposition scored more than four against them). While this squad could use veteran presence in all areas it’s doubtful they will trade any of their youth. This is a team that appears to be on track for improvement not only in the stretch run but next season as well. A main concern will be keeping the vast core of this team together. The Rockets will be a spoiler if anything and while an extended playoff run is not forecast they could at least provide some better opposition to their eventual opponent.

Like the Rockets the St. Marys Lincolns have plenty of youth and need veterans in all areas. Their biggest improvement has been in their offense. The team managed to score four or more goals in four of their seven games. That is a good sign. But while their offense has suddenly started clicking, their netminding and defense is still permitting far too many goals. A veteran defenseman could start to provide help and allow the Lincs to gain a playoff berth albeit it could be a rather quick exit. No matter how one looks at this club, there is still plenty of work to be done, but the essence is there.

The multitude of problems the Lambton Shores Predators have faced just don’t seem to go away. They won a single contest in December – a surprise upset of LaSalle – while losing six, most by larger deficits than this team should be permitting. With all the vets and talent on this team, the main culprit inhibiting them from advancing is their defense and goaltending. Some overall improvement in all areas is needed and new head coach Randy Pearce has to get this team functioning as a unit instead of individuals each doing their own thing. Any kind of cohesiveness would greatly aid the Preds in their quest for a playoff spot. Goaltending is a primary factor but even with a solid goalie, this team needs some defensive help. Only the Lincolns have allowed more goals in December than the Preds. On a bright note, in three games the Preds scored four or more goals but lost. Those three wins would have easily put them into firm possession of 8th place. As it stands now, they have the talent to trade for veteran help, but whether any moves aid this team in gaining a playoff spot depends on the type of player(s) they acquire or deal. Many teams will be after their top two or three players, Without those same young men, the Preds could still gain a playoff position, but regardless, they have lots of improvement ahead in order to become a serious contender.

As the January trade deadline approaches deals will be made and holes filled, but for many West teams this year a single player may make a difference in how far they advance in playoffs.

Good luck to all the West Conference teams.

C.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 2005/05 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. He can be reached at: cttocsh1@yahoo.ca

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