THE North Van Wolf Pack junior B hockey team opens its second season on the North Shore Saturday and it'll be a big rival coming to Harry Jerome arena to get things started with a bang.
The Wolf Pack will take on the Grandview Steelers Saturday night, the team that they bounced from playoff position in the final week of the season last year. The two teams actually tied for the final playoff spot but the Pack won the tiebreaker, thanks in large part to their domination of the Steelers throughout the season. If this season shapes up like the last one, Game 1 could be a doozy with important points on the line.
"It's a big one for us," Wolf Pack head coach Matt Samson told the North Shore News Monday as he was making the final roster decisions for the team. "Grandview is our biggest rival and we had some really good games with them last year. We went undefeated against them and that was the reason we were able to get to the playoffs."
The Wolf Pack were bounced in the first round of the playoffs last year but even that was an improvement compared to previous franchise history - the team originally started playing in the PIJHL in Squamish in 2008 but failed to make the playoffs in three seasons. Before the 2011-12 campaign they moved to North Vancouver and things have been looking up since then. Samson is hoping year 2 on the North Shore - where recruiting has proved much easier than it was up the road in Squamish - will be another big step forward for the franchise.
"You look at our prospect camp, we had over 120 kids that wanted to try out," he said. "You look out there and see all those kids that are hoping to make your hockey club and it feels good."
The Wolf Pack talent pool is deeper than ever, said Samson, adding that the proof is in the players that didn't even make it onto the final roster.
"We aren't able to fit some guys into our hockey team that are very good hockey players so I think that tells you you're definitely getting better when you're releasing guys that can definitely play at this level," he said. "That makes the decisions harder but that's a good problem when you have that much talent to choose from."
Leading the way for the Pack will be American import Quin Buckellew along with North Vancouver's Marcus Houck and Spencer Quon, a trio of returning forwards who will be counted on to form the team's No. 1 line.
"We're going to rely on them to put the puck in the net and be out there when we need a goal," said Samson. "Between the three of those guys, they all should be over a point a game. There's lots of talent, they complement each other well. Quon's a big centre, a great passer with good vision, really good hands. Quin's a shooter, he's a goal scorer. We've seen that, he's put 20 in. Marcus is a bit of both - Marcus is a really good finisher and he also can distribute the puck."
The trio will need to produce to make up for the loss of Brady Bjornson, the franchise's alltime leading scorer and top point-getter last season who has exhausted his junior eligibility.
"That definitely was a big loss, that's a lot of minutes to replace," said Samson.
Behind the top line will be three more forward units that can all play, the coach said.
"We're going to have a lot of depth," he said. "We're shaping up to have a real good scoring line and then we'll have three lines that can go on powerplay, they can penalty kill, they can all play so it's really a matter of who's going on a given night that might determine which line gets the most ice time."
Ben McWilliams of North Vancouver is expected to anchor a strong group of veteran defencemen that includes five players who were on the team last year.
Goaltending is a bit of a question mark as last year's standout starter Jordan Liem is trying out for the SJHL's Nipawin Hawks and looks like he'll make the squad. To fill the gap the Pack recently traded for Jordan Hospes, a player who suited up for Abbotsford and Ridge Meadows in the PIJHL last year. A veteran goalie with junior B playoff experience under his belt, the 19-year-old Hospes will get the start on Saturday night, said Samson.
Other newcomers expected to produce right out of the gate are former Northwest Giants forwards Taylor Tanti and Dylan Tuskey, both of West Vancouver, as well as defencemen Kane Sakata of North Vancouver and Jivan Sidhu of Burnaby.
If all goes according to plan, the Pack won't need to wait until the final week of the season to clinch a playoff birth this year, said Samson, adding that they still have to contend with a very strong conference that includes perennial powerhouse teams from Richmond and Delta.
"We're not looking to grind it out to the last week of the season to reach the playoffs. We'd love to get a top-three spot - top-two gets us home ice in the playoffs. That's a goal that we're definitely going to work towards but top-three is something that I think we can accomplish in our division with the group we have."
Game time Saturday is 7 p.m. at Harry Jerome rec centre. Tickets are available at the door: $8 for adults, $5 for seniors and students, children five and under are free.