THUNDER BAY – Josh Laframboise says missing the OUA hockey playoffs was a slap in the face.
The Lakehead Thunderwolves, who at one point this past season were ranked in the national top 10, collapsed in the second half, turning a 7-2-0 start into a 12-15-1 campaign, falling outside the top eight in the OUA West and failing to advance to the postseason for just the second time since the team was resurrected in 2001-02.
Things have to change next season, said Laframboise, earlier this week named his team’s top player for February.
“We’ve just got to play a full year. This league, if you take a weekend off, look what happens. You don’t make playoffs, you miss it by a point,” he said, noting the preparation for 2019-20 begins right now.
“Starting now, it’s the off-season, so we’re going to go home and put in the training in the off-season and try to come back and get ready to battle at the end of August.”
Laframboise, who had a hat trick against McGill on Oct. 20, then didn’t score again until Jan. 4 against Waterloo, finished the season with a team-leading 11 goals and his 20 points were good enough for second behind second-year forward Daniel Del Paggio.
One of the lone bright spots on the team after the Christmas break, with eight of his 11 goals coming in the second half, including a second hat trick against Guelph, Laframboise said the end result of the season was tough to take, knowing the team was losing some high-end talent to graduation.
Next year’s squad will be without the likes of Devin Green, Brennen Dubchak, Austin McDonald, Matt Alexander, Sam Schutt and captain Dillon Donnelly, who left early to sign a professional contract with the ECHL’s Wichita Thunder.
Coach Andrew Wilkins, coming off a disappointing rookie season behind the bench, is already heavy into the recruiting season, scouring the major junior and Junior A rinks for talent to help the team improve its play at both ends of the ice.
The Wolves were the fifth-worst defensive team in the OUA, giving up 102 goals in 28 games, the fourth time in five seasons more than a 100 pucks found their way past the LU goaltending tandem.
They also scored just 82 times, placing them 13th in the league, the third-lowest total in team history.
“We have to find players – high-end players who can come in and be players for us right away,” Wilkins said.
“I liked our last recruiting class and it will be good for us moving forward.”
It included the likes of Tomas Soustal, Jordan King, Jordan Larson and defenceman Caleb Boman, adding blue-liner Chase Stewart after the break from the professional ranks.
Wilkins said he’ll be building his team around character and work ethic first.
“But again, you need to have high-end talent in this league. You need to have a deep team. You have a team that’s good offensively and obviously, with that being said, there’s room for three forward, a couple of D and a goalie. It’s a busy time right now, that’s for sure,” Wilkins said.
Moving forward, he said he truly believes the Wolves are in trouble, but admitted inexperience on his end probably played a factor in missing the post-season.
He too is looking to improve when 2019-20 rolls around.
“We’re in a tough division, experienced coaches, experienced programs,” he said. “I don’t think we’re far off. I think we’re right there. Our special teams can always get better, but I think we made improvements from last season.
“Obviously not being able to make the playoffs is a big stinger, but I think it’s just being more consistent as a team.”