The objective is simple for the Red Deer Vipers this year: Get back to playing Vipers hockey.
2013-14 was an unmitigated disaster for the club that one season earlier had won the Heritage Junior B Hockey League’s North Division.
Head coach Stephen Pattison lost the locker room, the team slumped to fourth in the division and was ousted in a three-game survivor series by the Three Hills Thrashers. Pattison was replaced by former captain JD Morrical just before the start of the post-season, but there was no time to turn things around.
Morrical has already made it clear to the players, last season will not happen again.
“I wasn’t here last year, but I came to a few games and watched and it was tough for me to watch them play like that, because I know what their winning potential is,” he said. “I’m expecting good things out of this team.”
Morrical was a three-year Vipers captain and one of their top players in recent history, scoring 150 points (49 goals, 101 assists) in 116 games with 121 penalty minutes over four seasons.
His biggest attribute is he has the respect of the locker room.
“My brother got the chance to play with him and I got to hear about how he was one of the greatest captains and a great leader,” said current captain Justin Corbett. “Then the guys he has on the bench (Kaare) Odegard and (Brennan Francon), they’ve both got the credentials so they’re easy guys to follow.”
Corbett, who was given the ‘C’ in January, says last year it was a locker room divided.
“There was a lot of things inside the dressing room, people just did not agree with what was being coached and it kind of turned everyone against each other,” he said.
Morrical is hoping Corbett can take hold of that leadership role this year and have everyone fall in line.
“I don’t want to have to be the guy that does that role, we have leadership in there that needs to step up and take it on,” said Morrical, who is also joined by assistant coach Jeff Kohut. “I’m willing to do it, I don’t mind pumping the guys up, but it’s got to come from the guys in the room, it can’t come from us all the time.”
This year expectations are high for a return to league final, though their biggest road block will likely be the arch-rival Blackfalds Wranglers who swept their home-and-home series — 10-3 and 5-3 — to close out the pre-season.
They return a strong cast from last year, with the biggest losses up front being second and third leading scorers Kolton Gillett and Chris Robertson, respectively.
Still there should be enough offence with top point-getter Cole deGraaf (18 goals, 24 assists) back for his fourth year while Corbett (17-15-32) was just shy of a point a game last year as well.
There are also high expectations for some of their rookies like Matthew Thiessen, who scored eight points (3-5-8) in a four game cup of coffee with the club last season and will be playing alongside deGraaf this year. Meanwhile, rookie Justin Van Tetering should be their new shut-down centre.
“We have a lot of offensive talent, we just have to want to score goals,” said Morrical. “Right now we’re expecting to score goals but we’re not willing to put the work in.
“We’re looking for three lines to score goals, I don’t think we have anyone that will put 100 points up, but we have five or six guys that I think could easily get 40 or 50 points this year.”
On the back end they have five veterans on the blue-line returning: Eric and Justin Moltzahn, Kyle Kapalka, Adam Ferguson and Jon Finnigan. The one addition on defence is hulking 18-year-old rookie Brett Marsollier, who measures in at six-foot-four and 190 pounds.
“He’s a big defenceman we’re really going to rely on and he’s been playing well,” said Morrical.
“The rookies are not the issue, it’s the core leadership we are trying to fix up.”
One of the big questions, however, will be in net.
The only returning goalie is 18-year-old Innisfail netminder Klay Munro, who played well in his first season with the Vipers, posting a 9-6-0 record with one shutout. But with a 4.37 goals against average and a .860 save percentage he has much to prove to grab hold of the starter’s spot full time.
As camp closed, the Vipers stiull had three other goalies battling for on other spot — Conner Zenchuk, Lane Congdon and Rylan Bardick.
“The starting position is up for grabs,” said Morrical. “Clay will be here for sure … it’s a very competitive position right now. We had nine goalies throughout camp and right now we’re down to four.”
It is Corbett’s final season of junior hockey and he wants to make it a memorable one.
“I don’t want to jinx anything, but hopefully we can get back to North Division champs and get to provincials,” said Corbett. “It’s going to take everyone coming together and being a team and not getting mad at each other.”
The puck drops on the Vipers’ season tonight with a tough road trip down to Okotoks to play the four-time defending league champion Bisons at 8 p.m. They return home on Saturday to host the Airdrie Thunder at 8 p.m. at the Red Deer Arena.