By Patrick King
The 2008-09 Canadian Hockey League season is underway but for fans in Canada’s newest junior city in Montreal, Que., the on-ice product may have some catching up to do.
While the team may be new to the city after the Juniors relocated to Montreal this summer following three seasons as the St. John’s Fog Devils, absent from the franchise’s opening festivities were those who brought the team such optimism upon its arrival. Names like Angelo Esposito, Jake Allen, Matt Fillier, Luke Adam and T.J. Brennan, who are household names in the Québec Major Junior Hockey League, were miles away attending various National Hockey League camps.
Not surprisingly, without the majority of their stars, the Juniors have registered just one win in the young season while posting an overall record of 1-3 and 0-2 at home.
Although head coach and general manager Pascal Vincent said it gives his coaching staff an opportunity to evaluate some of the younger players, he acknowledged playing without five of their top players has its consequences.
“It’s hurting a lot,” he said. “Those guys are going to play probably between 22 and 28 minutes a game, times four and the goalie.”
The situation in Kelowna, B.C. isn’t much different than that in Montreal, except the Rockets are missing nearly double the players. The Kelowna Rockets had nine players from their roster head to NHL camps, the most of any Western Hockey League franchise.
Like the Juniors in Montreal, the Rockets struggled out of the gate, losing their first two games. But as Rockets head coach Ryan Huska says, the problem isn’t so much with which players are missing as the amount of players absent.
“I think the most difficult part would be your practices,” Huska said. “We’ve been very short numbered for the last two weeks and it’s tough to get some systems down if you’re practicing with two and a half or three lines and only five defencemen.”
Of the nine Rockets players who attended camp, forward Lucas Bloodoff was the only player in their opening night lineup, where he subsequently broke a hand. Forward Brandon McMillan is the lone other returnee to date while others, such as Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Luke Schenn, remain at camp.
And while the Rockets, like most of the other teams around the CHL, expect to have most of their players return, Kelowna already has the mindset that Schenn won’t return to junior.
“If we get him back it’s a bonus,” Huska said. “I think it would be a great thing for Luke if he can crack the Maple Leaf lineup and I think it would also be a good thing for our organization to feel like we developed and helped a guy along.”
As Jim McKellar, assistant general manager of the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights, indicates, the Rockets’ viewpoint with their missing star is the right approach. Just one season ago, McKellar’s Knights were in a similar position as their dynamic duo of Patrick Kane and Sam Gagner made the jump from the draft straight to the NHL, leaving the Knights empty-handed.
“We had a pretty good feeling that Patrick Kane would be gone and Sam, if anybody saw him play in the Canada-Russia Super Series, had a pretty good indication that he’d have a pretty good start to his season and the sky’s the limit for a kid like that,” McKellar said.
“You’re always adjusting your plans because there are all kinds of variables that come up,” he continued. “They could have been injured just as easily as they were in the NHL so there are always variables and things changing and you have to adjust to the environment you’re living in.”
Which, for the fans in Montreal, meant seeing the Juniors play without their most marketable player in hometown star Esposito. While fans in attendance for the home opener needed a program to identify with the players on the ice, the buzz around the city was evident given that the game was sold out a week in advance.
“It would have been great (to have Esposito for the home opener from a marketing standpoint) but even if he would have been there, there’s no way we could have had more people in the stands,” Vincent said. “It would have been great (for him) to play against his old team (the Québec Remparts) as well. He would have been really excited to play that game but it’s one of those situations we don’t have any control over.”
One can’t help but wonder then, if junior teams can’t control the timing of the NHL’s training camps, why not start their seasons later to compensate and minimize the amount of time they would miss their players. As Vincent sees it, starting the season later would only create another issue.
“It’s almost impossible due to school rules and when they have to start and we have to register them,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, a lot of paper work to make sure they’re all set in their schools.
“We can control just so much. Of course, if the NHL started earlier that would be great but it’s not up to them. Just like us, we don’t have to adjust to the midget or Junior A, we do our own thing and they do their own thing.”
The Rockets made headlines on the weekend when they acquired overage goaltender Kris Lazaruk from the Kootenay Ice. With goaltender Torrie Jung at Tampa Bay Lightning camp, the move appeared, on the surface, as a potential band-aid to their depleted opening season roster.
Fact is, Huska said the Rockets, who many feel will compete for the WHL title this season, would have made the trade regardless of whether Jung was with them from the start of the season or not.
“I think what it came down to is we had Kris on our watch for the last little while and when he became available we thought it would be in the best interest of our club to make a move,” Huska said, adding that Lazaruk will be the team’s starter this season as Jung is expected to be moved. “That’s the main reason we went ahead and did that, to make sure we had a solid guy in the net no matter what the situation.”
Rather than being upset over the timing of the situation, each source recognized that although their team may be missing more stars than others, most teams are going through the same issues.
“It’s not really a situation where you can use that as an excuse,” Huska said. “If we were the only team around the league that was missing guys, OK, maybe that would be allowed to creep in but there are lots of other teams that are in the same boat that we are.”
“At the end of the day what really counts, and we all know that, are the playoffs,” Vincent added.
And as a developmental league for professional hockey, McKellar views the team’s goal of winning championships as being just as important as moving players on to the pros.
“At the end of the day, as the London Knights organization, we have to continue on developing players and trying to get more players to the next level,” he said. “The best approach an organization can take is to enjoy the players while you have them.”