“Highly skilled, fast, and probably more dynamic than we’ve been in the past. We’ve got four lines that can all score.”
That’s how Langley Rivermen head coach and general manager Bobby Henderson describes his junior A squad, which is gearing up for its home opener this Saturday at the Langley Events Centre.
The Rivermen are coming off a so-so 2014/15 campaign in which they finished second in the BCHL’s Mainland Division with a 29-23-1-5 regular season record before being ousted in six games by the Prince George Spruce Kings in their best-of-seven, opening round playoff series.
“To be honest with you, I thought we overachieved at times through the regular season,” Henderson said. “I think we had eight 17-year-olds at one point, so it’s tough to win when you’re young like that, but our guys found a way to win a lot of hockey games.”
Even with the absence of their top three scorers from last year in captain Kevan Kilistoff (66 points), Gage Torrel (64 points) and San Jose Sharks 2015 draft pick Marcus Vela, this year is a clean slate, with loads of new talent coming on board, led by 18-year-old Justin Fregona, a Mississauga, Ont., native who starred with St. Andrew’s College last season.
Henderson compares the right-handed shooting Fregona to former Langley junior Jeff Antonovich, when it comes to his size and tool kit.
Pretty lofty praise, considering Antonovich led the BCHL in scoring in 1994-95 with 60 goals and 133 points.
“He’s just an extremely dynamic player,” Henderson said of Fregona, who is committed to play NCAA Div. 1 hockey with the University of New Hampshire. “He’s very exciting to watch. An undersized guy but he battles hard and has an unbelievable skill set.”
Fregona said Langley seemed like the best spot to be as he continues his hockey career.
“It just felt like the perfect place,” Fregona said.
Also new to the team is forward Luke Voltin, who played for the Vernon Vipers last season, Chase Zieky (committed to Providence), Dominic Franco (a 6’3” power forward with a scoring touch, who is committed to Army) and Max Kaufman (going to NCAA Div. 1 Vermont).
The returnees are pretty impressive in their own right. Up front, Matthew Graham (18 goals, 34 points), Justin Szeto (11 goals, 29 points), and Ben Butcher (36 points) are among the notables who are back this season.
Anchoring the back end are newly anointed captain Jordan Schneider, Will Campion, and Zach Bleuler.
The Rivermen should be set in goal with the return of Bo Didur, who posted 20 wins with a solid 3.06 goals against average and one shutout.
Graham is one of the players who will be depended upon to carry the offensive load, with help from 5’9” 165-pound Szeto, who is bound for Harvard University in 2016/17.
Graham enjoyed last season, his first in the BCHL.
“It was my first year playing junior so it was an adjustment but Bobby did a really good job of helping the rookies adjust to the league,” Graham said. “Just being out in B.C., playing in this league, it’s a great league… it was a really good experience for me.”
Graham said the Rivermen weren’t satisfied with their first-round playoff exit. “We definitely have the bar set higher this year.”
Meanwhile, with the players he has, new and returning, Henderson has high hopes this season.
“We want to win our division, first and foremost,” he said. “Obviously it’s going to take our group some time to adjust because there’s guys from all over the place who haven’t played together, but I expect that we’ll be competitive right out of the gate, but I think we’ll be a team that improves all through the year.”
And the captain is…
The Rivermen named their leadership group last week.
Leading the team as captain will be Schneider. His assistants will be Graham, Campion, and Butcher.
The group are all entering their final season in the BCHL and it will mark the first time in team history that the entire leadership group has been made up of 20 year olds.
“We felt that this was a solid group to lead our team made up of guys who know the league and can not only provide a good example for how to win but also help the new players transition into the league,” Henderson said.
Schneider is a towering 6’5” defenceman from Toronto who is committed to Clarkson for next season and will be counted on to provide a steady, physical presence on the back end.
Campion, from Seaford, NY, posted 30 points in his rookie season.
Butcher is in his second stint with the team and is in his fourth season in the BCHL.
Graham, from Bedford, N.S., had a strong pre-season and is coming off a strong rookie campaign.
The new captain was complimentary of the three assistants: “They are all well respected leaders in the dressing room and have eased new players into our culture. They are excellent role models and will help hold the group accountable throughout the season.”