If the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League pre-season is any indication, the Nelson Junior Leafs have put together a team ready to compete for a championship.
Earlier this week, the Leafs closed out the preseason with a pair of decisive wins — 8-0 and 7-4 — against defending league champion Castlegar. The two teams will match up again tonight as the 2013-14 KIJHL regular season gets rolling.
“We’re not sure how to react to that,” Leafs head coach Frank Maida said about his team’s perfect 5-0 preseason record. “We played well and we are feeling good right now as a group that’s coming together. We’re really looking forward to starting the season this weekend.”
The Leafs home opener is set for Saturday night against Creston at the Nelson and District Community Complex.
“We’ve had a great, competitive camp,” said Maida. “We couldn’t have really asked for a better camp and are really happy with the talent we had for the last two weeks.”
The Leafs will host the Cyclone Taylor Cup in the spring and therefore have an automatic berth into the provincial championship. But as the local club embarks on the regular season, Maida said they are not looking for the easy ride and plan to earn the KIJHL title on their own merit.
“I believe we have the team here to win a championship,” he said.
The Leafs plan on getting to the top using the basics.
“We’re going to be extremely fast, our team is built around speed,” said Maida. “We will be quick on all loose pucks and quick on the backcheck. You will see really good skating and puck movement from this team.”
The Leafs added a pair of key veterans to the offensive attack in the off-season in a trade with Castlegar. Jamie Vlanich and Travis Wellman both have the potential to be explosive offensive weapons. In the preseason, Calgarian Wellman showed flashes of what is to come.
“He is a good example of how our team is going to be built this year with that kind of speed,” Maida said.
Returning forwards include Aaron Dunlap, Matt MacDonald, Matthew Naka, Bryce Nielsen and Carson Willans. They will be joined upfront by Blair Andrews, Tyler Garcia, Austin Lindsay, Nolan Percival, Brandon Sookro and Alec Wilkinson.
Though the Leafs scored in bunches in the pre-season, Maida said his focus is not on scoring statistics.
“Our first priority is our own zone, that is where it all starts,” he said. “We will then use our speed to create offensive chances.”
The defensive corps looks solid with returning blueliners Cole Arcuri, JJ Beitel and Robson Cramer being joined by Darnel St. Pierre, Austin Seaman and Austin Tambellini.
Maida calls the crew a mobile unit that will move the puck fast and provide offense.
In goal, Nelson Minor Hockey product Adam Maida earned a spot and will share puckstopping duties with KIJHL veteran Tyler Moffatt.
In total there are seven Nelson-raised players currently on the roster — Arcuri, MacDonald, Percival, Sookro, Willans, Maida and Tambellini — and the coach is expecting them all to make an impact.
“We’re excited to have the locals in the line-up and it’s going to be a good year for the Nelson boys,” said Maida.
It’s a long season and Maida said the first few weeks will be important in laying the foundations for a team he hopes will turn into a force.
“Our first month will be focused on learning and getting our systems down,” said Maida. “We need everybody to understand our systems in all three zones and that will be the focus.”
The puck drops in the Saturday home opener at 7 p.m.