Heading into training camp, the general sense around the Sherwood Park Crusaders was that this was going to be a transitional year. The type of year that wouldn’t see the team rocketing up the AJHL standings or tearing the league apart by any means, but fans would get a chance to see some good young talent and witness the birth of the team’s next core.
The focus would be on growth and development as compared to winning at all costs.
Then training camp started, and the thought in my head as we begin the 2017/2018 season is… why not both?
It appears as though this team will have a solid #1 goalie, which they didn’t have last year, as well as a solid group of veterans both up front and anchoring the blueline. The other thing you have to remember is; this is junior hockey. The kid who wasn’t big enough or couldn’t make plays at AJHL speed last year, could burst onto the scene this year and become a real impact player. There are a few players on this team’s roster who I feel have the ability to do so.
To fully break down this team, let’s start with the most important position:
To say the team’s goaltending scenario was a mess last year would be a massive understatement. Zac Klassen, Jake Morrissey, Matt Berlin and Dorian Laganiere-Labranche all made starts during the regular season. Apart from Berlin, none of them took proved they could be a solid #1 in this league.
Then the playoffs rolled around and Brandon Vogel got his chance. Bursting onto the scene against Bonnyville, stealing game 1 for the Cru. More Bonuses For lack of a better term, it was love at first sight. Sherwood Park rolled with Vogel for the remainder of the first round and he held his own, making 40 or more saves in every single playoff start as the team was eventually bounced in round one by The Pontiacs.
This year, you can expect to see a lot of the 18-year-old Vogel between the pipes. I’d say you can look to the man wearing #31 on his jersey to start upwards of 40 games.
The team also has fellow ‘99 goalie Sam Burford, who showed in camp that he can be a competent backup. There may be question marks surrounding this team, but fans and the coaching staff should have confidence in their last line of defense.
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Okay, in case you missed the entire offseason, allow me to recap the general feeling around the team’s defense.
It went from “good core of returning players” to “they have nobody” to “A few vets may be coming back!” then back to “they have nobody” before finally landing on the group they have now which is a solid core of newly acquired vets with some pretty nice young pieces that can play lower in the lineup.
Simply put, Kyle Chase did an amazing job building up a more than competent defense in a rather short amount of time.
Tyler Pang should see a heavy dose of minutes, and by the end of the year, he could be one of the best offensive d-men in the league. He skates better than anyone else on this blue line and when he gets the puck at the top of the offensive zone, his vision and ability to find passing/shooting lanes is second to none.
Brendan Kallis is more of a meat and potatoes type d-man. He has good offensive instincts, but what he’ll bring this team is good honest minutes at both ends of the ice. He’s mean and physical in his own end while still being able to contribute on the scoresheet. A true #1 defender in the fact that he can start shifts in either zone and contribute on the PK and PP. I would really like to see him and Pang start the year on the top pair.
Kole Bryks is another new name and while his offensive game didn’t shine in camp, I thought he brought a strong physical presence and once he’s up to mid season form, I think he’s a more than ready to anchor the team’s second pair. The team also has 17-year-old Blair Bush who had a very strong preseason in my eyes and as he grows throughout the year, could evolve into another really good d-man.
The third pair is a question mark right now, but I like the look of this group heading into the regular season. What was considered a major deficiency in the offseason, could quickly an above average group of defenders in the AJHL.
No Maltby, Rotundo, Atwal, Younghans or Dykstra heading into this season. Those 5 players contributed 114 goals for this team last year, which was almost half of the team’s total goals (229). So where are they going to find that offense
Well luckily, they still have Ty Readman who is the only returning top 10 scorer in the AJHL, so he will likely lead the charge once again. Joining him on the top line will likely be Merritt Oszytko, who should see a solid spike from his 18 goals last year, and rookie Garrett Clegg who showed everyone in training camp how much he loves shooting the puck. Those 3 seemed to have clicked and seem to have the ability to push the offense.
They also have newly acquired vet Dylan Stewart who likely would have cracked 20 goals and 40 points had he not been in the WHL for half the season. Ryan McKinnon is another vet that was brought in over the offseason. While McKinnon’s numbers don’t jump off the page (29 points in 52 games) he has raw skill and just from watching some preseason games, he isn’t afraid to try a big move.
Other returning players who the team will need to contribute to the offense in some capacity are Will Zapernick, Graham Blanchette, Eric Blanchette, and Ashton Cassault.
Young talent will be important as well. Marco Runco is one name to look out for. He works really hard and I could see him climbing up the lineup and finding a more prominent role as well.
Playoff experience is important, so while it may be a transitional year, finding a way to extend your season is important to developing players for 2018/2019.
The way I see it, there is a clear cut elite group in the North Division. Fort McMurray, Whitecourt, and Spruce Grove will all be strong and should be the teams vying for first round byes.
That leaves Sherwood Park competing with Drayton Valley, Lloydminster, Grande Prairie and Bonnyville for the final 3 playoff spots.
I believe that Drayton Valley and Grande Prairie are going to struggle this year, and I don’t think their young talent comes close to the Sherwood Parks, so I do honestly believe that we could see the Crusaders grab a playoff spot.
Despite all the talk of transition and development, don’t sleep on the Sherwood Park Crusaders this year.