OLDS — The Olds Grizzlys believe they are ready to join the elite of the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s South Division.
To do so will take a giant leap from where they have spent the last three years, averaging less than 22 wins a season, including 21 in 2013-14.
Their ascension into the loftier parts of the division did not get off to a great start on the weekend at the Olds Sportsplex, losing 3-2 in overtime to the Okotoks Oilers on Saturday to fall to 0-1-1 through two games.
“We expect to be one of the top four teams in the south this year, that’s a realistic goal for us, that’s something that we’re striving for,” said head coach and director of player operations Brett Hopfe, now in his fourth year with the club.
“It will take some time to get our feet under us, but we’re a team that works hard and competes hard every night. With the skill we have here, that’s going to be something that puts us in the top four in the standings.”
The Grizz built a 2-0 lead through 20 minutes on gaols by Christopher Gerrie and Landon Kletke — but the Oilers tied it in the second period with markers from Justin Meier and Carson Beers, before Beers scored the winner with 30 seconds left in overtime.
The game underlined the Grizzlys’ biggest weakness early in the season, their defence, which still has not replaced the loss of Nikolas Koberstein who was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the fifth round and moved on to the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL.
They are breaking in four rookies on their blue-line, and one of the two returning players — Jack Goranson — was a forward last year.
Their only two regulars back from a year ago are Chayden Lauber and Lukas Pollock.
“It’s difficult but it is something we did look to address,” said Hopfe.
“We’ve got a couple of guys in there that are 19 but are first year players in league (Alex Brewer and Kodi Schwarz). Just that age and added maturity helps out on the back end. They still have a lot of learning to do — the first game I think it was pretty quick for both of them — but tonight I think they both played extremely well and did what we asked.”
With an eye to their prospect list with the likes of James Miller, Kodi Schwarz, Alex Brew and Nicholas Sutter making the full-time jump to junior A, they traded two of their defencemen Jordan Lajimodiere and Marc Eremenko to the Dauphin Kings for goalie Jordan Piccolino.
Piccolino should give the Grizzlys a punchers chance on most nights and help cover up their defensive lapses early in the season.
The Montreal native helped is on his third team in one calendar year after getting dealt from the Cornwall Colts of the Central Canada Hockey League to Dauphin, Man., where he shone for the Western Canada Cup hosts.
He also was selected to the Canada East U19 team for the World Junior A Championships.
“It’s playing in big games and knowing how to handle it and taking check of your emotions, it’s a good experience for this year,” said the six-foot, 157-pound Piccolino, 19.
He will also be expected to help groom 17-year-old rookie Billy Gorn.
“His first two games here have been huge for us, he kept us in both,” said Hopfe of Piccolino. “It’s nice to have that calming factor back there when things get kind of scrambly he’s there to stop the puck.”
They should also be set up front.
The Grizzlys return six of their top seven scorers from last year, with their biggest loss being the graduation of leading scorer Spencer Dorowicz.
However, they do return reigning Canadian Junior Hockey League rookie of the year Christopher Gerrie who scored 54 points (18 goals, 36 assists) in his first 60 games with Olds last season. He’s off to a solid start this season scoring in both of the Grizzlys games.
“It’s tough (losing Dorowicz) he was a big leader for me and I knew I would have to step up,” said Gerri, 18, who is already committed to the Michigan Tech University. “Coming into camp I was keeping my eye on a few players, I think I just have to feel comfortable with everyone and play my game and I think everything will come together.”
Also returning on offence is Kyle Star (19-26-45), Austin Kernahan (14-19-33), B.J. Duffin ( 23-20-32), Dustin Gorgi (13-16-29) and Landon Kletke (11-16-27).
However, Hopfe is also looking in unusual places to help replace Dorowicz’s 75 points (40-35-75), this includes elevating fourth line grinder Kyle Moore (1-2-3) who had 123 penalty minutes in 38 games last season to the top six.
It paid off in their first game against the Camrose Kodiaks, as the six-foot-four, 205-pound winger scored three points (1-2-3) in the game.
“He’s a big guy that competes extremely hard,” said Hopfe. “He gets his points standing in front of the net and going to the hard areas, and that isn’t easy and not a lot of players want to do that. He had tremendous success in the playoffs doing that.”
If they fall short of their top four in the South goal, they want to make good on their potential in the playoffs after giving the Oilers all they could handle last year in the post-season.
“You look at last year and a lot of guys would have done anything to win that series in Okotoks,” said Gerrie. “We always look back at that and tell the guys what other guys were doing to block shots and what it shows for leadership, and I think we’ve got to take that into next week.”
The Grizzlys are in Okotoks (1-0-0) on Friday for a rematch on Friday at 7 p.m. and then are in Canmore to play the Eagles (0-0-0) on Saturday at 7 p.m.