Mario DiBella knows too well what kind of team the Nelson Leafs were last season. He’s spent the summer making sure he doesn’t see that team again.
The Leafs head coach and director of player personnel is getting his first look at what a summer of scouting and trades has accomplished this weekend as the team runs through its training camp, which opened Friday and runs to Monday at the Nelson and District Community Complex.
It’s DiBella’s first camp with the Leafs since taking over as head coach last December following the departure of David McLellan. He doesn’t have to think too hard about how he hopes this year’s roster differs from their predecessors.
“We lacked from a goal-scoring perspective, we lacked overall team toughness,” said DiBella. “Hockey’s a game that has two things that are front and centre to every successful team. One is a certain level of intimidation and the other is skill. And you have to have both.”
With that in mind, DiBella and general manager Sean Dooley set out to revamp the Leafs during the off-season following a first-round sweep against the Beaver Valley Nitehawks. The pair scouted a half dozen camps and made three trades for four players — forwards Sawyer Hunt and Dale Howell, defenceman Austin Steger and goaltender Jason Sandhu — they hope not only stick with Nelson, but return the team to championship contention.
DiBella credited Dooley with taking the initiative following his spring promotion to GM.
“Kudos to Sean. He was the architect of a number of those trades just in being persistent with who he would discuss what it was we were looking for,” said DiBella. “When some of those opportunities came available, he did the negotiation and we thought that we did well with what we gave up in order to get what we got.”
Eighteen forwards, 14 defencemen and eight goaltenders are attending the Leafs’ camp. Ten of those players, such as Levi Hulston and Sam Weber, were regulars on last year’s squad, while four others will look to secure full-time gigs after splitting time between Nelson and their major midget team.
DiBella said he’s already guaranteed some roster spots to certain players, although he declined to say who. “There’s going to be some returning players from last year that are in tough to keep their spots,” he said.
Some of those players may also make the jump to Junior A after the Leafs’ camp, which complicates DiBella’s roster cuts. Scouting, he said, is a trick of finding players with the potential to play in, for example, the BCHL, but aren’t quite ready.
“Of course every player who we talk to says I want to play Junior A, and we just need to be patient and understanding and let them know that we’re a good fit if their Junior A aspirations don’t turn out,” said DiBella.
“Ultimately, knowing how the entire system works, I can definitively tell them or tell their parents if they aren’t committed to by a certain time of the year, chances are they aren’t playing Junior A. So they need to have a backup plan.”
The Leafs play four exhibition games, with the first two on home ice Aug. 30 against the Castlegar Rebels and Aug. 31 against Beaver Valley. They’ll open the KIJHL regular season Sept. 9 on the road against the Nitehawks, while their home opener is set for Sept. 16 against the Spokane Braves.
The Leafs will have just three home games in September, and won’t have more than four games at the NDCC per month until a 10-game stretch from Dec. 31 to Feb. 5. in Nelson.
DiBella said he campaigned for a schedule front-loaded with road games, partly because he doesn’t expect much local interest in hockey during the autumn but also so his team can develop away from the spotlight.
“I like the ability of starting on the road and not putting on the pressure of playing in front of hometown fans,” he said. “I’m very excited about our schedule. I think we’ve got a good schedule, one that is conducive to what we are looking for.”