Dan MacDonald wasn't sure what to think before the Alberta Junior Hockey League season opened.
The coach of the Okotoks Oilers was looking at a rookie-laden lineup and a big hole in net left by most valuable player and all-star goaltender Brad Eidsness.
Well, three weeks in, the Oilers are sitting on top of the South Division and MacDonald still has that rookie-heavy cast of troops and still isn't sure what to expect the rest of the way. But, needless to say, he's pleasantly pleased.
"Though we've had success, it's hard to say where we are," he said, as his team moved into a week-long layoff after the first nine games. "We're still looking at those wins like 9-8, 7-5 . . . those sorts of things so we're still finding our way.
"We're happy with it, no doubt. The players are working hard and that's the biggest thing. We're not a finesse team or a team that's system strong. We're just strong working kids."
The Oilers are making do with a dozen rookies, a couple new goalies, a handful of strong character veterans and a half-dozen U.S. players who have proven to be a real asset.
Six U.S. colleges, at the urging of former Oilers coach and director of player personnel Gary Van Hereweghe, staged a prospects camp in Okotoks prior to the start of the AJHL season.
"That was really beneficial because those American kids came up and they stayed . . . they just stayed," said MacDonald. "We've been very fortunate . . . it was a good bonus for us."
What the Oilers landed out of the deal was 18-year-old goalie Steve Papciak, a couple of solid defencemen in Tyler Matthews and Scott Keeven and strong forwards in John McInnis, Andy Singhouse and Cody Dion, who has been out since suffering an injury in the third game.
All of them have either come out of U.S. high school or midget hockey programs.
"One of the biggest things they've had to adjust to is the hitting and they don't fight there at all so they're learning that part of it," said MacDonald. "They also wear full masks in high school and in college but they're here for the same reason as the other guys . . . they want to get a scholarship and further their hockey career."
Corban Knight sits atop the club's offensive stats with eight goals and a couple of assists, while veteran defenceman Brandon Hoogenboom has eight points (three goals). McInnis is in with five goals among seven points, while veteran Jesse Hudkins has two goals in his seven points plus a team-leading 48 penalty minutes.
Sean Cahill has put up the best numbers in the crease with three wins in four starts, a 1.76 goals-against average and a heady .930 save percentage. Papciak has a 3.50 GAA in two games. Braley Torris was the third goaltender but has been released.
"We think our goaltending has been good," said MacDonald. "They're young guys but we think they're going to be good."
Asked if there are any pleasant surprises among his cast of rookies, MacDonald quickly answered there were "quite a few. But the other side of it is we've had some real good leadership from the veterans . . . guys like Jesse Hudkins, Justin Daigle, James Bannister, Hoogenboom, (Chris) Duszynski. They're doing a real good job."
You'd have to think the Oilers are only going to get better as they build chemistry and learn to play with each other.
"We have lots of work to do yet," acknowledged MacDonald. "We feel fortunate we have this start. It's easier to win now than it is in February when everyone is playing for spots so, right now, we're crossing our fingers.
"We've made a lot of mistakes and that's why we've given up a lot of goals. We have to shore that up and learn how to play defence better but we're really going hard to the net and if you do that, you're usually going to have some success."
John Down, Calgary Herald
Published: Sunday, September 28, 2008