***Top Shelf is a new weekly column on the Saints website, written by News Anchor Thomas Strangward of The One 88.1***
To say the Spruce Grove Saints don’t enter the AJHL season as the team to beat is far more than an understatement.
The team seemingly picked up right where they left off last season during pre-season play, finishing a stalwart 6-1. Granted, the pre-season is meant for players making the first cuts from fall camp to strut their stuff, but having nine new faces added to the Saints roster for the season opener against Fort McMurray meant it must have meant something for Head Coach and General Manager Jason McKee.
Coach McKee was so impressed with the fall camp performances, it made final roster decisions very, very tough.
“It was a real good camp for us, we had a real good pre-season. There were some real tough decisions,” explains McKee. “Everyone who attended camp was in excellent physical condition, so we were really happy with that.”
The Saints open up the season as defending AJHL champions for the 2nd year in a row, but the road ahead isn’t familiar to everybody. Some very familiar faces are gone from the team, including captain and leading scorer Jarid Hauptman and scoring forwards Parker Mackay and Paul Lovsin.
The Saints led the AJHL in goal scoring last season, lighting the lamp an impressive 254 times, so it will be interesting to see who picks up the slack. Returning players who stood out in the last few preseason games include Nicolas Correale, Austin Hunter and Colton Leiter while reigning AJHL Rookie of the Year Brandon Biro will also be looked upon to continue his offensive presence.
Another interesting storyline for the upcoming Saints Season is the overall competitiveness of the Viterra AJHL North. Spruce Grove ran away with the division last year, finishing with 102 points compared to 2nd place Llyodminster’s 72. However, the Saints aren’t even the best ranked AJHL team on the CJHL Pointstreak Pre-Season 2015-2016 Top 20 Rankings. They sit 11th while the much improved (and RBC Cup hosts) Lloyminster Bobcats sit 6th.
“I expect it to be very tight from 1st to 8th, I don’t see a ton of separation in the team at this point. I think there’s going to be a lot of very close hockey games,” says Coach McKee, cognizant and respectful of improving divisional opponents.
The early season will be a gruelling test for the defending AJHL champions but Spruce Grove won’t get a look at their hometown squad until next weekend. The Saints open up the season with a three game road trip- a back to back against the Fort McMurray Oil Barons this weekend and then they make a Tuesday stop in Bonnyville to face the Pontiacs.
Their home opener will be next Friday against the Calgary Canucks and they’ll welcome Fort McMurray the next night- where they will also raise their 2014-2015 Championship banner.
Both games start at 7 pm.
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