Coming off a league championship season, North Van Wolf Pack head coach and GM Matt Samson knows he’s got to set some lofty goals for his high-powered squad.
Can they lead the league in power play efficiency, scoring at least 30 per cent of the time with the man advantage? That seems attainable for a team featuring several prolific returning scorers as well as many talented newcomers. Can they post a penalty kill percentage of 90 per cent? That’s a big number, but the PK is a major point of emphasis for Samson this year and he wants his players to know it.
Can they win 40 games? Now we’re getting into uncharted territory, particularly given the fact that the junior B PJHL season only lasts 44 games. No team has ever won more than 39, even when the season used to be four games longer.
“That’s a lot of wins, but I think as a coach I’ve got to set our expectations high,” said Samson. “That’s what we’re looking to do. … The challenge is to keep these guys motivated every day. They’re going to be better talent-wise, but we can’t always rely on our talent to win games.”
So far so good. The Wolf Pack has played five regular season games and won them all. That’s a perfect 5-0 record so far, only 35 more to go to get to 40.
The Wolf Pack lost a few key players from last year’s team – including captain Justin Lee and both members of their goaltending duo – but lots of talent has returned, led by leading goal scorer Lucas Barker, who will serve as captain this year.
“He definitely has the respect of the dressing room,” said Samson. “He leads by example, he works hard, he’s vocal when he needs to be and at times he’ll let his play on the ice do the talking.”
Barker also isn’t afraid to bark at teammates if he doesn’t like what he’s seeing, said Samson.
“Lucas is a little more vocal (than Lee was), not afraid to put some guys in their place if they’re not on the same page,” he said. “If guys aren’t working hard, aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing, he’ll definitely let them know.”
Barker is joined on the top line by Jacob Fournier and Dominic Davis, two returning players coming off high-scoring seasons last year. The team has also added Alex Suprynowicz, a PJHL veteran who was top-10 in the league in points last year, scoring 29 goals with 29 assists for the Delta Ice Hawks.
On defence the team’s top pair from last season, Jacob Callas and Nathan Haaksma, is back for another title run, with newcomers Lucas Wong, Raihan Kheraj and Ryan Suzukovich all bringing junior A experience to the team.
In goal 20-year-old Bradley Cooper, who also comes to the team with junior A experience under his belt, is expected to be the No. 1 option with Eric Clark already showing that he’ll be a capable backup.
“We’re pretty loaded, for sure,” said Samson, adding that they have the talent to chase their lefty goals.
There’s one ultimate goal, however, that Samson won’t be dwelling on throughout the season. North Van has won two PJHL championships, but in each of those years the team fell short at the next level, the Cyclone Taylor Cup provincial championship tournament. A win at the Cyclone Taylor would send the team off to a level they’ve never reached, the Keystone Cup junior B Western Canadian championships. In 2015 the Wolf Pack finished fourth out of four teams at the Cyclone Taylor Cup. In 2019 they finished third.
“For the guys that were on the team last year, we came real close to winning everything,” said Samson. “I think that they see that potentially we have the same opportunity to get back to provincials. It’s a four-day tournament and anything can happen. The goal is to get their first, that would be the first step, and then winning it would be a challenge for the returning guys, some of the older guys saying lets go for a gold medal this year.”
All of that, however, will take a back seat for the team as they fight to win a repeat PJHL title.
“Honestly winning the league and winning the regular season and establishing the program as a destination for young players and for older players looking to finish their careers out on a good team, that is the biggest thing to me,” said Samson, adding that the four-day format of the Cyclone Taylor Cup brings in a lot more uncontrollable factors than a 44-game regular season followed by three best-of-seven playoff series.
“Winning three best-of-seven series within your league is pretty good, it’s a tough thing to do,” said Samson. “We’re going to have some tough competition this year for sure.”
The chase continues Friday for the Wolf Pack with a road game against the Mission City Outlaws. On Saturday they’ll be back at home to face the Ridge Meadows Flames, puck drop at 7 p.m. at Harry Jerome Arena.