It’s still early in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League season, but the building blocks appear to be in place for the Nelson Junior Leafs.
The Leafs roared out of the gates last weekend, controlling defending league champion Castlegar on Friday night and then putting on a clinic in the first 20 minutes of Saturday’s game against Creston.
It’s a long way until the Leafs host the 2014 Cyclone Taylor Cup in April, but coach Frank Maida has put together a core that looks like it can legitimately challenge for a provincial championship.
In the summer Maida made a blockbuster deal with Castlegar to bring Jamie Vlanich and Travis Wellman to Nelson. In the opening weekend, the two 20-year-olds showed why they were sought after. Playing together, the two diminutive speedsters combined for nine points in two games.
“Obviously Wellman and Vlanich have put up the numbers,” said Maida. “They are playing very well and they are going to be leaders on this team. But as a group, every player is buying in and it’s working well.”
Another line that was noticeable was the trio of Aaron Dunlap, Bryce Nielsen and Tyler Garcia. The three formidable forwards controlled play every time they hit the ice.
“There is a lot of strength, skill and speed on that line,” said Maida. “Once they gel a little more they will be a great combination.”
You have to score to win, but championships are built on defence. In that department the Leafs look very strong with the pre-season acquisition of Darnel St. Pierre and a core of veteran blueliners who are very mobile and sturdy.
“He was the most valuable defenceman in the Doug Birks Division [with Revelstoke] last season and he is demonstrating why he was that player,” Maida said of St. Pierre. “We’re very happy to have Darnel as part of our team.”
Earlier this week Maida bolstered the backline with the addition of Patrick Croome. The newcomer hails from Calgary, but was the captain of his Junior B Peninsula Panthers on Vancouver Island last season.
This week the Leafs have been preparing for their only game of the weekend against Summerland on Friday night at the Nelson and District Community Complex. Maida has taken the opportunity to start to shape the core he has in place.
“It’s been all about our systems this week,” he said. “We need to get the players to understand the systems and that is what we will be working on.”
Friday’s game starts at 7 p.m.