NORTH BAY, Ont. — The North Bay Battalion opens its sixth Ontario Hockey League season by facing the two reigning conference champions, starting with a 7 p.m. Friday date with the visiting Hamilton Bulldogs, the league titlists.
The Battalion, which visits the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds on Saturday night, finished sixth in the Eastern Conference last season with a won-lost-extended record of 30-28-10 for 70 points before being eliminated by the Kingston Frontenacs in the first playoff round. There are, as always, plenty of changes for the new campaign.
Six skaters, including overage defenceman Cole Cameron, acquired last Thursday via trade from the Owen Sound Attack, have yet to make their Battalion debuts.
Rearguard Pacey Schlueting was North Bay’s first-round pick in the OHL Priority Selection last April, while left wingers Cameron Peters and Harrison Caines were chosen in 2018 and 2017 respectively and winger Egor Postnov and defenceman David Maier were selected in the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft in June in the first and second rounds respectively.
Christian Propp, who joined the Troops from the Barrie Colts via Owen Sound last October but played only five and a half minutes before suffering an injury and returning to action in December, is the No. 1 goaltender from the start of the season, backed up by Christian Purboo, who played in five games last year.
“We want to finish as high as we can,” Stan Butler, director of hockey operations and head coach, said Wednesday.
“I think our offence will be pretty good. I think Propp as a goalie should be a very good goalie, and from there our defence, as people alluded to, are young and it’ll just take time to see how they develop. They might lack some physical strength and maturity, and that will come with time.”
Gone from the blue line are overagers Jesse Saban and Riley Bruce, who has been succeeded as captain by Justin Brazeau, and Swedish import Adam Thilander.
“I think we’re going to have a bit of a learning curve,” said Propp. “We’ve got some smaller D at the back end. We’ve got a younger group as well. But I think we’re going to be playing an exciting brand of hockey this year. We’ve got some defencemen that can skate, that can wheel around out there.”
The defensive holdovers are Nick King, Travis Mailhot, Simon Rose, Braden Henderson and Payton Vescio, who played one game with the Battalion and the rest of 2017-18 with the affiliated junior A Powassan Voodoos. Mailhot was injured in training camp and didn’t play in the preseason, in which the Troops went 2-3-0.
Overager Brazeau, a right winger who led the team offensively last season with 39 goals and 36 assists for 75 points in 68 games, was named captain Tuesday.
“I think he’ll lead by example,” Butler said of Brazeau. “I’m reading a book on it right now. It seems like a lot of the better captains are people that lead by example. Sometimes when guys yell and scream, it gets old. Every so often you’ve got to stand up and give your opinion on things, but I think for the most part you’re better off just to lead by example.”
Brazeau, who shone in exhibition play with customary centre Matthew Struthers even in the absence of left winger Luke Burghardt, who has had to quit hockey because of a spinal condition, said he’s looking forward to positive results.
“It’s a good feeling any time a coaching staff recognizes you to lead a team. I’m not sure what it says about myself; hopefully they just like what I’ve been doing the last couple of years, and I’ll try to keep doing my best this year to lead these guys. I think we’re going to have a good team, so I’m excited for the year.”
Brazeau, who attended the rookie and main camps of the National Hockey League’s San Jose Sharks as a free agent after going undrafted, as are Struthers and Propp, suggested it was nothing new, after he was taken in the 13th round of the 2014 OHL Priority Selection from his hometown New Liskeard Cubs major midgets.
“I knew, being where I was from, I was going to get picked in the later rounds, so I never expected to go high. I knew I would have to work hard if I wanted to get to where I am today. It’s nice being up north. I get to see my family and friends all the time.
“There wasn’t too much pressure on me coming in as a later-round pick. I just came in, worked hard and see what happens. It’s obviously worked out pretty well so far.”
Among the veterans up front are centres Adam McMaster, Kyle Potts and Luke Moncada, left wingers Brad Chenier and Daniel Walker and right winger Brandon Coe.
Russian import Postnov, a left shot, has played both wings in the preseason.
“Egor’s got a language challenge,” noted Butler. “We’ve got him in an (English as a Second Language) class as we talk right now, so I think it will take him some time to learn the language. We’ve got to be patient with him.
“In David’s case, he’s coming from Austria, and it’s a different style of play over there. It’s a bigger rink, and we’ve got to be a little bit patient with him as well.”
Hamilton, which finished atop the East Division and conference last season with a record of 43-18-7 for 93 points, defeated Sault Ste. Marie in the OHL Championship Series and represented the league at the Memorial Cup tournament at Regina.
“They’re defending champs,” Butler said of the Bulldogs. “They’ve got a lot of kids from North Bay on their team. They’re going to be a good test for us. I think we’re excited to get the season going, and we’ll evaluate our team from there.
“It’s always exciting at the start of the year. You always wonder how your team’s going to do and things like that. We’re going to get a good test this weekend. We play Hamilton and then we hop on a bus and go five and a half hours to Sault Ste. Marie, so that should be interesting.”
Hamilton lists centres Ben Garagan and Dylan D’Agostino of North Bay and defenceman Jake Gravelle and goaltender Zachary Roy, both of Callander, on its season-opening roster.
Propp was philosophical about the annual dismissal in other centres of Battalion chances.
“A lot of teams aren’t expecting us to do great things this year, and I think we have an underdog team, to be honest. We’re going to use that to our benefit.
“I believe we have some of the top players in the league in Brazeau and Struthers, and those guys were unfortunately passed over in the draft as well, so they’re coming in extra hungry. I’m coming in extra hungry because we were passed up.
“We were able to do some great things in the second half of the season last year, so I think, if we can kind of blend that experience in with the new younger guys coming in this year, we can do great things in the league this year.”