The Langley Rivermen have two pairs of rather sizeable skates to fill this B.C. Hockey League season.
The Rivermen will have to find ways to replace the league’s leading scorer from last year, Mario Puskarich, along with his linemate (and Edmonton Oilers fifth-round draft pick) Evan Campbell, both of whom have graduated to the NCAA level with Vermont and UMass-Lowell, respectively.
Puskarich led the BCHL in goals (41) and points (89) while finishing second in assists with 48 during the 2012/13 campaign.
He was on the receiving end of many of Campbell’s passes. Campbell finished the campaign with 46 assists to go along with his 20 goals, to place second in Rivermen scoring and sixth in the league in points.
Team-wise, the ’Men squeaked into the post-season with a 24-26-1-5 record, good for fourth in the Mainland Division.
During the opening round of the 2013 playoffs, the eventual BCHL champion and Royal Bank Cup finalist Surrey Eagles dispatched the Rivermen in four games in their best-of-five series.
Returning head coach Bobby Henderson won’t be content with his team simply making the playoffs this season.
“We get a couple of bounces and who knows, really?” Henderson said, reflecting on last year’s series against Surrey. “That’s definitely the expectation this year: we’re not satisfied getting in [to the post-season] or going through a couple of rounds. We want to be playing until May.”
And while he knows replacing the 61 goals that Puskarich and Campbell put up last season will be tough, Henderson believes he has the personnel to put a scare into opposing defences.
Langley’s offence will be led by returning forwards including captain Mitch McLain (14 goals, 32 points last year), James Robinson (nine goals, 42 points), Austin Azurdia (18 goals, 35 points), Evan Anderson (11 goals, 31 points), Jakob Reichert (nine goals, 28 points), and Matt Ustaski (11 goals, 27 points), to name a few.
“Obviously we’re giving up a lot of goals from the lineup but with the guys that we have coming back, they’re a year more mature, so we might have a bit better team depth overall up front,” Henderson said.
From what he’s seen so far, Henderson has been impressed with the play of 19-year-old Ustaski, a hulking 6’5” winger from Glenview, Ill.
“Ustaski’s really taken the next step,” Henderson said. “He’s leading the charge during the exhibition season, offensively, so far. It’s what we’ve expected. It’s kind of taken a little longer to get it going but he looks good right now.”
McLain steps into the role of captain. Asked if he feels any added pressure wearing the ‘C’ he said, “No pressure. It’s an honour but everyone on the team has a role and everyone’s got to perform.”
While he’d naturally like to improve upon last year’s stats to help the team, McLain said offence will take care of itself.
“There’s many ways you can win a hockey game,” he said. “We have a lot of skilled guys who can score, but obviously you want to contribute as much as you can.”
On defence, Henderson is excited about the addition of 1994-born defenceman Chris Forney, who hails from Thief River Falls, Minn. and played for Thief River Falls High, scoring five goals and 11 assists in 22 games.
Joining him on the blueline are returning defenceman Viktor Dombrovskiy, Tanner Johnson, Austin Bietenbeck, and Mark Whiteley, along with fellow BCHL freshman and Minnesota hockey product Tony Bretzman.
“Bretzman and Chris Forney are both from Minnesota and they are pretty highly sought-after players out of the state,” Henderson said. “They’re both getting a lot of attention from a lot of colleges already.”
Twenty-year-old Travis Maxwell adds a veteran presence and some sandpaper on the back end.
A native of Fox River Grove, Ill., Maxwell split time last season in the United States Hockey League with the Lincoln Stars and the Austin Bruins of the North American Hockey League.
“We’ve got a lot of depth back there [on defence] this year,” Henderson said.
James Barr provides the last line of defence. Barr was a workhorse in the net last season, making 47 appearances with 21 wins and a 3.48 goals against average.
BCHL rookies on the ’Men’s opening night roster include Forney, Bretzman, Spencer Grigull, Brendon Kearney, Marcus Vela, and local boys Brendan Gulka and Darien Craighead, son of BCHL alumnus and former NHL’er John.
“Tough to tell what his production will be like early,” Henderson said, regarding the 16-year-old Craighead. “But I think over the course of time he’s going to be a force.”
Vela, the Rivermen’s other 1997-born prospect who played midget hockey in Burnaby last season, is already fielding full-ride scholarship offers from universities.
Attendance-wise, the Rivermen are hoping to grow their fan base. Averaging 1,137 fans through 29 home games during the 2012/13 campaign sounds impressive, but it still left swaths of blue seats (entire sections, in fact) available in a Langley Events Centre arena bowl that can seat more than 4,000 fans at capacity.
The ’Men will be competing for entertainment dollars with the newly relocated Vancouver Stealth, a National Lacrosse League team that will debut at the LEC in the new year.
At the LEC, the NLL has proven to be wildly popular in past exhibition games and in the championship final that the Stealth was involved in this past spring.
The Rivermen will be sharing the LEC’s arena bowl with the Stealth through the second half of their season.
Henderson believes the team will draw from its already dedicated fan base.
“I believe our fan base has been growing pretty much every year,” he said. “I don’t think the Stealth will be a factor. If anything, it will be good for us. It will give some exposure to the building. We have a nice little group of die-hard fans that are at every home game and we’re starting to see them on the road.”
Rivermen fans can expect to see a fast, highly skilled team that will battle hard every night, the head coach added.
“The compete level is huge,” Henderson said. “It’s the first thing that scouts ask about.”
On the subject of competitiveness, McLain feels the Rivermen will be a hard team to play against.
“Night in, night out, we’re going to be tough,” he said. “We’re offensive but we’re going to take care of the defensive zone, and everyone’s going to compete.”
Ultimately, McLain said “the big picture” is winning a championship.
“That’s definitely on everyone’s mind but you can only play one game at a time, so we’ll take care of one night and see where we are in the future,” he said.
Joining Henderson behind the bench this season are associate head coaches Jon Calvano and Kurt Astle.
Calvano spent three seasons as head coach and general manager of the rival Coquitlam Express, and led the Express to two BCHL playoff berths while setting a team record for most points in a season.
Astle, who also played at Merrimack and St.Norbert colleges, starred in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, leading the SJHL in scoring during the 2006/07 season.
The Rivermen open their season Friday, taking on the Trail Smoke Eaters as part of the BCHL Showcase weekend at the Prospera Centre in Chilliwack. On Sunday afternoon, they meet the Merritt Centennials at Prospera.
McLain said it’s vital that the Rivermen get off to a flying start.
“It’s huge,” he said. “We just need to go in there and take care of business. Get the four points and take it from there.”
@ Copyright 2013