New faces. New style.
There is not a lot that is recognizable about this year's Nanaimo Clippers as they prepare for their 41st B.C. Hockey League home opener on Friday against the Victoria Grizzlies.
But their objective hasn't changed: Just win, baby.
It's an objective they struggled with last year with the specter of hosting the inaugural Western Canada Cup hanging over the club and factoring into almost everything they did.
Not only is that gone, but so is much of last season's team. Only nine players are back from the club, and none of their top six forwards or leadership core. But they return a strong blue-line and what could be one of the top goaltending tandems in the BCHL. They also have an injection of youth, speed and skill into the lineup that is already proving successful through their first three games, with a perfect record.
All of it, they hope, adds up to a rejuvenated team and long playoff run.
"It's our expectation to win," said head coach and general manager Mike Vandekamp. "When we start in this league equal with the other 15 teams in the league, we have an equal opportunity to win a league championship just as anybody else does, and we're going to do what it takes to be there in the end."
Offensively, this team will not look anything like the first two installments of Vandekamp clubs in Nanaimo. Yes, there will still be a few big, physical players like Mason Mitchell and Taylor Grobowski, but this summer the emphasis was on bringing in speed and skill, first and foremost.
While they will not be the 1980s Edmonton Oilers, they likely will not be looking like the most recent incarnations of the Boston Bruins either.
"I think that the league is certainly more focused in that direction and I think the game's changed to the point where even some of the physicality we played with in the past would work against us, more than anything," said Vandekamp. "We don't want to give up the physical side of the game or the defensive side of the game. .. but we wanted to add a little more pace to our game with our recruiting."
They have brought in an influx of top young players like Sheldon Rempal, Devin Brosseau, Ryan Forbes, Korey Morgan, Zach Sabatini and Anthony Sabitsky.
But there is also the opportunity for some of the few returning forwards like Brendan Taylor, Mitchell and Grobowski to take on more prominent scoring roles. Taylor has already stepped to the forefront, centering Brosseau and Rempal, as the line has combined for 18 points in three games.
"The whole forward group is younger and is built around the idea of being here for two years," said Vandekamp. "We're going to try and develop a team that is going to be good this year and even better into the future."
The Clippers lost their top 10 scorers from last year, and that was a big reason Rempal made the trip west after leading the Calgary Buffaloes of the Alberta Major Midget Hockey League in scoring with 38 points (20-18-38) in 33 games, finishing eighth in the league.
"I definitely wanted to come in and start it out with a couple of points, but it's been really good the first few games, hopefully I can keep doing it," said Rempal.
Defence will be the backbone of the club early on. They are returning four of their top six from last year, including Austin Dick, Cam Newton, Colton Dahlen and Nicholas Gushue. They're big, they're physical and they can move the puck.
New to the group is 20-year-old Scott Prier from Windsor, Ont., Edwin Hookenson and Josh McArdle, who played last year with Tri-City Storm of the U.S. Hockey League.
"The seven of them together as a group have a good balance of mobility and the ability to create some offence, but they all have some size and strength too," said Vandekamp.
Expectations are high for Prier after being one of the top blueliners in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, where he scored 40 points (11-29-40) in 50 games last year for the LaSelle Vipers. He came out to Nanaimo hoping to attract the attention of scouts from U.S. colleges and universities in his final year of junior hockey eligibility.
"I was talking to a few schools last year, but they told me to come out here, so I did," he said, noting his skating ability and his offensive ability.
Leadership is another void he is already being looked to help fill. Though no official captain has been named - and Vandekamp says he is going to take his time in naming one - he has been wearing a letter already, along with Dahlen. Both are frontrunners to be captain when one is named. It is something that Dahlen says he will not let affect his game.
"You've just do what your job is, you practice hard and lead by example," said Dahlen.
One area where there is no question mark is in net. Jayson Argue showed in the second half of last year why he was one of the best goalies in the country when the Clippers traded for him from the Swan Valley Stampeders of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, before the 2012-13 campaign. He hasn't missed a beat this season, winning both of his starts and looking as sharp as he ever has.
Vandekamp also brought in Liam McLeod, 17, from Kamloops as a late cute from the Blazers'Western Hockey League camp, to help push Argue, and he made 39 saves in a 4-2 win over the Alberni Valley Bulldogs on Friday in his first start of the season.
"I think they should be confident in the early part of the year, they've both played well through the first three games," said Vandekamp.
One of the biggest differences in the way the club will look this season is they will be able to breath without thinking about the WCC. While they did their best not to talk about, it was hard to ignore, and the pressure of the tournament played into many facets of the club, from personnel moves to the way they performed.
Even with all that gone, Dahlen says their objective is the same this year. They want to be back in the WCC and taking a run at a national championship.
"We've got nothing to lose," said Dhalen. "We still have too many players at practice and everybody's looking around saying 'He can take my job, so I better do my job on the ice and in the game.' It's competitive, it's good."
The puck drops on the Clippers home opener against the Grizzlies at 7 p.m. at Frank Crane Arena.
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