The one constant about the Langley Thunderâ€™s Western Lacrosse Association off-season has been change.
The Thunder are missing world-class talent from last yearâ€™s team, and as a result, the holes in Langley’s 2014 lineup appear cavernous.
The first name that jumps off the board is Garrett Billings, a right-handed ball wizard and Langley native who earlier this month underwent surgery on a torn ACL in his right knee.
Ironically, the injury occurred at the Thunderâ€™s home, the Langley Events Centre, during an April 5 National Lacrosse League game. Billings and the Toronto Rock were visiting the Vancouver Stealth in the pro lacrosse match-up.
At the time of the injury, Billings had eclipsed the 100-point plateau for the third consecutive season.
Billings â€“ who only dressed for five games with the Thunder in 2013 â€“ isnâ€™t the only offensive threat who wonâ€™t be around this spring and summer.
Also not returning is Dane Dobbie, who led the NLL with 51 goals this past season as a member of the Calgary Roughnecks.
Dobbie led the Thunder in scoring with 29 goals and 62 points in 2013, and racked up 14 points in seven games with the Thunder after being acquired last July from the Coquitlam Adanacs.
As well, towering lefty Mark Matthews isnâ€™t with the team. Matthews joined the Thunder late last season from the Brooklin Redmen of Major Series Lacrosse.
Another key piece missing from the Thunder puzzle is Shayne Jackson, who tallied 21 times and added 28 assists last season.
Also, add the names Tor Reinholdt and Scott Johnson to the list of players who arenâ€™t coming back.
And thereâ€™s one more key cog who wonâ€™t be wearing a Thunder uniform this summer.
Left-handed sniper Lewis Ratcliff is unavailable for summer service because heâ€™s serving a two-year sanction for an anti-doping rule violation. The ban was handed down by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) after Ratcliff tested positive for three banned substances at the 2012 Mann Cup.
On the back end, The Thunder will be without the services of veteran stalwarts John Lintz, Mike Grimes, and Rob Van Beek.
All of this will make for an interesting season for a Thunder team that has dominated the WLA in recent years.
Last season they led the league with an 11-5-2 regular season record, but fell short in their bid for a third consecutive playoff title (and Mann Cup national championship appearance) after losing to the Victoria Shamrocks in the WLA final series.
The Thunder represented the WLA in the 2012 and â€˜11 Mann Cups, losing to the host Peterborough Lakers in 2012, and to the visiting Brampton Excelsiors at the LEC three summers ago.
Moving forward, veteran bench boss Rod Jensen and the Thunder coaching staff have some work ahead of them.
â€œWeâ€™ve dropped a lot in terms of NLL experience and talent, no question about it,â€ Jensen said. â€œWeâ€™re quite a bit of an underdog, right now. Thatâ€™s unfortunate for us. We hit the wall last year during the Victoria series, and now we have to regroup.â€
But itâ€™s not like the Thunder will be devoid of talent and experience this season.
Coming back up front are veterans Athan Iannucci and Alex Turner, whoâ€™ll be counted on to spark the Thunderâ€™s attack. Also, Joel McCready is healthy and ready to play.
Also returning are captain Matt Leveque, defender Brett Mydske, and giant goaltender Brodie MacDonald.
The future, and possible re-build, started on Feb. 6 at the LEC, which hosted the WLA Draft.
The Thunder had to wait until the fourth round to make their first selection, taking 5â€™11â€ forward, Quinn Smith, 22nd overall. Smith played last season with the New Westminster Jr. A Salmonbellies, where he was ninth in league scoring with 76 points (27 goals, 49 assists).
The Thunder then selected forward, Adam Will, 29th overall. Will put up 52 points (23 goals, 29 assists) with the Langley Jr. Thunder last season and finished fourth on the team in points.
With the Thunderâ€™s next pick, they went back to the Langley Jr. Thunder, selecting Nathan Henare 42nd overall.
Rounding out the Thunder selections were Nash Harrison of the Port Coquitlam Saints, Mike Bosch of the Langley Jr. Thunder, Langley Jr. Thunderâ€™s Keenan Staples, and, with their final pick, PoCo Saints goaltender Garrett Spann.
Jensen hopes the returnees, mixed in with an infusion of new blood, will be a recipe for success.
â€œInstead of shutting â€™er down, we need to rebound quickly,â€ Jensen said. â€œWe are proceeding with caution. Iâ€™m not going to say weâ€™re flying out the gates. We are missing a lot of really good players and we have to execute well to make up for the talent that we lost. Weâ€™re going to be a lot youngerâ€¦, but have to put our work boots on and really work hard.â€
Meanwhile, the Thunder have added a new assistant coach and assistant general manager to the mix.
On March 25, the Thunder added Bob Johnston to their coaching staff.
Johnston will take over the offensive coaching duties from Darcy Rhodes who will move to the back end of the bench as the defensive coach.
Fred Klomp stepped down as defensive coach due to family commitments.
Earlier, on Jan. 31, Les Wingrove assumed duties as one of the teamâ€™s governors as well as assistant general manager, a role previously occupied by Gerry Van Beek.
Wingrove has been with the Thunder since July of 2012 when he came on board as the director of scouting and special projects.
Van Beek steps away from the club after a successful eight-year run that saw him help lead the Thunder from obscurity to back-to-back WLA titles in 2011 and 2012. He held a variety of roles with the Thunder including coach, assistant coach, assistant general manager, general manager, and governor.
The Thunder start their season Saturday, May 17, when they visit the Poirier Sport & Leisure Complex to take on the Coquitlam Adanacs. Game time is 7 p.m.
Itâ€™s the first of three road games to open the season. The Thunder are at New Westminsterâ€™s Queens Park Arena on May 22 to play the New Westminster Salmonbellies, before heading to Planet Ice in Maple Ridge to play the Maple Ridge Burrards on May 25.
The Thunderâ€™s 2014 home opener is Wednesday, May 28, when they host the Burrards at the LEC, with a 7:45 p.m. start time.
â€œWeâ€™ve established a good thing in Langley,â€ Jensen said. â€œThe leagueâ€™s going to be tough. All the teams have improved and we are going to have to be ready every night. If we donâ€™t outwork anyone, weâ€™re going to have very little success. Weâ€™re going to have work cut out, but what do you do?â€