Defence is the name of the game for the St. Albert Merchants in the Capital Junior B Hockey League.
Keeping the puck out of the net is the No. 1 priority for the Money Men after averaging a bloated 4.55 goals against in 38 games while being outscored by margins of 173-147 during the 18-16-4 regular season and 14-6 in the two-game opening playoff sweep by the Stony Plain Flyers.
“One of our goals as a coaching staff and as a team is to definitely get those statistics down this season and we’re going to do that by implementing a couple of different systems,” said Jake Behiels, head coach of the sixth-worst defensive team in the CJHL that let in seven shorthanded markers and 36 power-play tallies while depositing three shorties and 36 goals with the man advantage.
“There is a new rule change within the league this year as you can’t change when you ice the puck so that’s going to be a factor for sure but we’re going to implement some systems where instead of icing the puck when we get into trouble we can go a different route,” Behiels added.
At training camp, a handful of hopefuls between the pipes “are battling for spots for sure,” Behiels said, with incumbents’ Ethan Crotty (7-9, 4.38 GAA, .884 save percentage) and Ryen Papirny (11-11, 4.54 GAA, .887 save percentage).
A core of returning defencemen are among the approximately 30 players at tryouts and about 15 saw action with the fourth-place finishers in the west division.
“Quite a few of our forwards are still around,” Behiels said. “We’re still looking to continue the offensive hockey that we’ve had in the past years.”
Matt Havens is the offensive ringleader with 25 goals, including seven on the power play, and the sleek winger was ranked eighth in league scoring with 59 points in 38 games.
The last two seasons Havens has compiled 57 goals, 16 with the man advantage, and 134 points In 66 league games and 14 playoff contests.
“He expects a lot from himself, especially on the ice,” Behiels said.
The Merchants had three skates at tryouts before Friday’s exhibition against the host Sherwood Park Knights. The score was unavailable at press time.
Monday the Merchants play the Edmonton Royals at Coronation Arena and the last preseason game is Sept. 17 against the Knights at Akinsdale Arena. Faceoff times are 8 p.m.
“We’re approaching Friday to definitely take a look at some of the newer players and see what we have in the graduating midget players as well as the goalies,” Behiels said. “It gives us a chance to really see these players in a league they’re not used to. These graduating midget players are playing against 21-year-olds and they’re 17, 18 years old. It’s a different pace, it’s a different physicality, it’s a different type of hockey game so it gives us a chance to see how they respond to that and then go from there. “
The Merchants start off the season with a bang Sept. 22 against the archrival Morinville Jets at 8 p.m. at the Akinsdale rink. The Money Men’s home record in 2016/17 was 9-9-1.
The Jets finished first in the west with 18 more points than the Merchants and in the season series posted wins of 8-1, 6-5 in overtime and 5-2 after losing 7-6 in a shootout.
Behiels is back for his second season behind the bench after the former Merchants’ sniper (59 goals and 95 points in 102 games in three regular seasons from 2009 to 2012) served as the assistant/offence coach with the Edmonton Mustangs in two previous CJHL campaigns.
“Last season as a first-year head coach I thought it was a success. Obviously it was cut shorter than we would’ve liked but the effort that we received in playoffs was great. Stony Plain played really well. Their goalie (Luke Hall) played unbelievable. We outshot Stony 53 to 20 in the last game of the season (5-3 loss Feb. 12). Our guys put everything that they had into that hockey game and we unfortunately came up a little short.”