The St. Albert Merchants are close to completing the makeover of the team’s roster.
“We’re only one or two pieces away from being a very, very strong team this year,” said coach Jake Behiels. “We’re missing a couple of main pieces but we’ll start to see that trickle-down effect from junior A so that should help us.”
The Merchants skated into Friday’s home opener against the rival Morinville Jets with roughly 23 players after going 2-1 in the preseason. The score from Akinsdale Arena was unavailable at press time.
Sunday the Merchants travel to play the Wetaskiwin Icemen, the defending Founders Cup champions in the Capital Junior B Hockey League. Game time is 6 p.m.
“They’re both big strong teams but they’re going to be quite surprised with the fact that we now have that as well. We’re a lot bigger, a lot stronger and a lot tougher,” Behiels said. “They’re teams that are tough to play against and it’s definitely going to be a good test to put our boys up against theirs and see how we really stack up.”
The lineup is anchored by four over-agers: Matt Havens (25 goals, 59 points in 38 games), Brendan Passek (15 goals, 31 points in 28 games), Mike Bruni (14 assists, 16 points in 36 games) and Chris Motoska (five assists in 32 games).
Newcomers include defenceman Adrian Parth and forwards Peter Corrigan and Jack Langenhahn of the midget AAA St. Albert Tire Warehouse Raiders and defenceman Mark Matsuba, a former Raider who spent two Western Hockey League seasons with the Brandon Wheat Kings (two goals, 10 points in 86 games from 2014 to 2016).
Three goalies are still in the mix as the sixth-worst defensive team (4.55 GAA) in the CJHL last season attempts to shore up its backend. Ethan Crotty (7-9, 4.38 GAA, .884 save percentage), a returning Merchant, Brandon Boughen of the junior C St. Albert Comets and Michael Knoblach of the midget AA St. Albert Blues are the remaining puck stoppers.
The Merchants were outscored by margins of 173-147 in the regular season and 14-6 in the two-game opening playoff round sweep by the Stony Plain Flyers.
“Our defence for sure is going to be quite a strength. We still have our main players on offence so we’re definitely still going to be able to put the puck in the net but we upgraded our defencemen and now we’ve got a better chance of keeping the puck out,” said Behiels, who was behind the bench for the fourth-place 18-16-4 Merchants in the west division in his first head coaching gig.
A recent job promotion forced Behiels to step back into the assistant coach’s role and Scott Rodda, the previous head coach who was serving on the team’s board of directors, is back in charge of the Money Men.
“The work responsibilities have gotten to be a little more than I anticipated this season,” said Behiels, a former high scoring forward with the Merchants.
Rodda took a breather from coaching after three winning seasons, highlighted by the fourth-place finish at the 2014 provincials as the Founders Cup finalists in the CJHL playoffs for an overall 45-11-1 record and Challenge Cup pennants in 2014 (34-3-1) and 2015 (32-6).
In Rodda’s last season, the Merchants placed third in the west at 24-12-2 and in the 2016 playoffs were eliminated by Wetaskiwin in the best-of-seven semifinals in five games.
Friday the Merchants host the Beverly Warriors at 8 p.m.