The U18 AAA Red Deer Optimist Chiefs will be young this season but they’re expecting to compete.
After going 4-1 through exhibition play the Chiefs prepare for the Alberta Elite Hockey League (AEHL) regular season to get underway this Saturday, Sept. 30 in Calgary against the Buffaloes.
Chiefs head coach Tyler Lightbown said they’re optimistic.
“I know everybody usually is this time of year but I like where we’re at right now and I’d say what stands out most about them is their work ethic,” he said.
“It’s a great group of kids so the coaching staff is excited to get the opportunity to work with them.”
With only five returning players, the Chiefs are well-balanced with five 15-year-olds, eight 16-year-olds, and seven 17-year-olds.
“It’s a good mix so considering lots of teams we play will have upwards of 10 or 11 17-year-olds I think we’re in a good spot,” Lightbown added.
He added their expectations this year are to take a big step up from last season and make the playoffs. In 2022, the Chiefs missed out on qualifying for the postseason by just a few games.
“A lot of our players are ready to prove themselves and push this program back to a level they’re more accustomed to,” he said adding their sights are also set on finishing top three in the division.
“We’ve lost a lot less players to academies this year which has been a problem for the last few years. We’ve got a lot more players who’ve stuck around and I really think that’s going to help.”
Lightbown is excited to see what returning goaltender Connor Baumbach can accomplish because they’re expecting a big season out of him.
They will also roll out a deep-forward group. With plenty of depth but not a lot of size, the Chiefs bench boss said they’ll play a run-and-gun style and are confident they’ll score a lot of goals.
“Win or lose we’re going to be an exciting team to watch because we’re going to be highly offensive and there’s going to be a lot of pace,” he said.
Lightbown has also been impressed with his player’s maturity and their intelligence on the ice. It’s early but he said they’re showing up ready to work every day with a good attitude.
With the talent they had on last year’s squad, Lighbown said they underperformed at times but their biggest problem was they only played a total of eight periods with a full roster.
“When you end up missing the playoffs by a game it’s tough because we had our expectations pretty high last year and we were not able to achieve those goals,” he said.
“We definitely brought it up with the group and the level of consistency that’s needed not only in gameplay but also in taking care of yourself.”
After the season opener on Saturday in Calgary the Chiefs will play three of the next four games on the road before hosting the Calgary Royals on Friday, Oct. 13 at 8 p.m. at Servus Arena.
Prior to the game, they will host a celebration to unveil Red Deer Minor Hockey’s new logos that will be displayed on the Chiefs jerseys.