Olds Grizzlys head coach and general manager Brett Hopfe is dead set on this year being a break through for the club.
He has shown to this point that he is not afraid to pull the trigger on big deals to land top players, and his team has responded by winning eight of their last 12 games heading into the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Christmas break.
Hopfe makes it clear he is not done adding to his club with the Jan. 10 Canadian Junior Hockey League trade deadline looming.
“We feel this is the first year in a long time where we’ve got two deadly lines, a third line that can produce and our fourth line is a great energy line,” he said. “If we continue to work hard and find a piece here or there then I think we’re going to have a lot of success.”
The Grizzlys enter the break fifth in the South Division with an 18-14-5 record, but that puts them well ahead of the pace from the last three years when they’ve averaged 50 points. The Grizzlys have not had a winning season since the 2009-10 campaign when they finished 30-28-2.
This, so far, year appears to be different.
In three separate trades, they have added two top six forwards — Jade McMullen and Colton Sheen — and a starting goalie — Jesse Gordichuk.
In the meantime, they had three players return from the Western Hockey League — forward Ty Mappin and defencemen Jordan Steenbergen and Kirk Johnson.
These additions have had huge returns for the club. Sheen has 19 points (10 goals, nine assists) in 18 games, McMullen has 10 points (7-3-10) in seven games and Mappin has 36 points (10-26-36) in 26 games.
Mappin, in particular, has take a big step forward in his game the last 12 months. He was reassigned last year by the Saskatoon Blades after a full season with the Everett Silvertips in 2012-13 and scored 25 points (8-17-25) in 46 games. This season, after being released by the Blades, he has been one of the top forwards in the league.
“I think it’s just confidence,” he said. “Confidence is the biggest thing with me. This year I’ve been putting up pretty good numbers and I think I’ve been playing pretty well. The guys around me help so much too.”
He has formed a strong chemistry on a line with McMullen — who was acquired from the Grande Prairie Storm for Alex Brewer, Josh Zablocki, and Dustin Gorgi on Dec. 1 — and Kyle Moore.
“Mappin and Moore are very skilled players, but also very different players as well,” said McMullen, who is tied with Chris Gerrie for the team lead in points with 42 (26-16-42). “Maps likes to move the puck and then get open for a shot on net and Moore’s kind of a crash and bang kind of guy. It works really well where we get it in deep, we move the puck around and usually one of us are in the slot, ready to shoot.”
McMullen was the Storm’s leading scorer when he was dealt, and though he didn’t formally request a trade, he let it be known that he was willing to move on if they were looking to deal.
“It’s exciting for me, I wanted to be traded to a team that isn’t in the rebuilding stage like Grande Prairie is, that’s going to make a run for the AJ title,” he said.
They joined an already solid offensive unit that included Gerrie, the reigning CJHL rookie of the year, who along with McMullen is sixth in league scoring with 42 points (20-22-42) in 37 games, and Landon Kletke, who is 14th with 35 points (15-20-35) in 36 games.
Their goaltending was supposed to be one of their strengths this year after bringing in Jordan Piccolino who led the Dauphin Kings of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League to the RBC Cup last year. But after a 7-7-3 start where he posted a 3.67 goals against average and an .883 save percentage, Hopfe made another change.
This time he traded for Gordichuk from the Fort McMurray Oil Barons for Kyle Star on Nov. 7, and he has solidified the position, posting an 8-5-2 record with a 3.20 goals against average but most importantly a .917 save percentage — seventh among starting goalies.
He has allowed the Grizzlys to play a more offensive brand of hockey while they figure out their young back end.
“For us, save percentage is the true testament of a goalie, goals against can be numerous different things regarding our players” said Hopfe.
Hopfe says they still four open cards and two roster spots available heading into the trade deadline, and he intends to use them. He is looking at bringing in another forward and a defenceman.
“We’re looking for an energy forward and defensively we’re looking for a stay at home defenceman,” said Hopfe. “We’ve got some guys in mind that we’ve been working quite hard to get something done with them.”
For the players, this does nothing but give them confidence that they are going to be a team to reckon with in the new year.
“It takes guts for the coaches to do that and get those top guys that we need to succeed,” said Mappin. “I feel like they’ve made the right choices and we can only build from there.”