Bill McDonald says his Lakehead Thunderwolves kind of caught the OUA by surprise last year.
He knows it’s not likely to happen again.
Faced with a partial rebuilding year after losing much of the team’s firepower with the departure of Matt Caria, Luke Judson and Mike McDonald, the Wolves clung to first place for much of the campaign and came within a win of a trip to nationals.
With training camp mere weeks away, the second-year coach said players can expect a lot of competition for jobs when the blades hit the ice.
“We’re going to have a lot of tough evaluating I expect to do in a short period of time,” McDonald said.
This past offseason brought more change.
Gone are captain Andrew Wilkins and forwards Trevor Gamache and Brennan Menard.
Incoming recruits include Austin McDonald, brother of second-year goaltender Justin McDonald, former AHLer and Thunder Bay native Nathan Cull; local Dylan Butler who spent last season in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League; former SIJHLer Brennan Dubchak, younger brother of current Thunderwolves player Carson Dubchak; and Junior A teammates E.J. Faust and Jake Wright, who spent last season in the Maritime Junior Hockey League.
“We’ve got a few local guys who have played away. These kids here probably watched the Thunderwolves when they were kids and now they’re back and pretty good players,” McDonald said. “What I tried to do here, and not to demean anybody who played for us last year, but I think we increased our depth.
“I found in some really big games I was running a few guys pretty hard. This year I don’t believe I’ll have to do that. With that said, I think it’s going to be a very, very competitive training camp.”
While not guaranteeing anyone a job, Bill McDonald said it’s more likely he’ll keep a few extra bodies around this season, rather than making wholesale cuts when training camp begins on Sept. 2.
It depends on performance, he noted.
“I think with the guys coming in, they’re all going to be able to move around and skate and I think we should be very aggressive.”
After losing to Windsor in the OUA West final, then falling 7-4 to Carleton in the bronze-medal game, the coach said the team has to make improvements to take the leap to the next level and be worthy of mention on the national stage.
“The positive thing is for the majority of the guys we’ve got coming back this year, we’re not changing the system, so we’re going to have a jump on the system, where as I came in here last year, obviously it was changed up quite a bit,” he said.
“With that being said, we’re used to it and I think the other guys will just follow the lead. I think we can do pretty well. I’ve been paying attention to the signings down east and there are some good players. There always are. But we just have to improve like we did last year and hopefully we take it one step farther.”
The Wolves have plenty to build on with the talent already in place.
Forward Cody Alcock put together one of the top freshman seasons in the country last year, scoring 14 times in 27 appearances to top all Thunderwolves scorers.
Fellow rookie Kelin Ainsworth also showed flashes of brilliance with eight goals, fourth highest on the Thunderwolves. Leading point-getter Mike Hammond is back, with Mike Quesnele and Mitch Fillman expected to anchor a deep blue-line.
In net, assuming he can stay healthy, the Wolves have Jeff Bosch, who proved he was the right choice as the No. 1 goalie, posting a .923 save percentage in 14 games, fifth-best in the nation. He also had the eight-best goals against average, at 2.33.
Justin McDonald, meanwhile, proved a capable back-up, filling in admirably when Bosch went down for an extended first-half stretch.
The Wolves open non-conference play on Sept. 19 and 20, hosting the Mount Royal Cougars at Fort William Gardens. OUA play opens Oct. 3 on the road against Waterloo. The home opener is Oct. 10 versus York.
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