NORTH BAY, Ont. — The North Bay Battalion opens the 20th season in the franchise’s history at 7 p.m. Friday when the Barrie Colts visit Memorial Gardens.
For Stan Butler, director of hockey operations and head coach since the Ontario Hockey League club’s inception, the primary goal is simple: get back to the playoffs after missing for only the third time last spring and for the first time in four years in North Bay.
“We need to have a different attitude in the dressing room,” Butler said Wednesday, alluding to intangibles that derailed the Troops in 2016-17. “I think our players need to know that each and every day they come to the rink they’re here to work and get better.”
Added Butler: “Every team’s going to be tough for us. We’re like the new kid on the block. We’ve got to start at the bottom and work our way up again.”
The Battalion posted a won-lost-extended record of 24-38-6 for 54 points last season, finishing fourth in the Central Division ahead of Barrie, which was last in the league. A slew of injuries, notably to goaltenders Brent Moran, since graduated, and Mat Woroniuk and to four defencemen at the same time but also including several forwards, was instrumental in the failure to qualify for the postseason.
“The type of injuries we had last year were not hangnails and ingrown toenails,” noted Butler. “They were serious things that took a lot of time to rehab.”
Defenceman and captain Riley Bruce and left winger Jacob Ball returned to action for the final two of six preseason games after recovering from shoulder injuries, and all holdover players who attended National Hockey League camps other than centre Brett McKenzie are expected to be available for the Barrie game.
Rearguard Adam Thilander rejoined the Troops last weekend from the Carolina Hurricanes, and blueliners Cam Dineen and Brady Lyle now have returned from the Arizona Coyotes and Anaheim Ducks respectively. Right winger Justin Brazeau was expected back in North Bay on Wednesday night from the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“Last year we had a lot of injuries on the back end, so it’ll definitely be really nice to have everybody in the lineup,” said Bruce.
In fact, rookie defenceman Travis Mailhot suffered a slight shoulder separation in the preseason and is likely to be sidelined for two or three weeks.
Butler said he’s been told by the Vancouver Canucks, who selected McKenzie in the seventh round of the 2016 NHL Draft, that the overage candidate will play exhibition games with the Utica Comets, Vancouver’s American Hockey League affiliate, and that it may be the middle of October before a decision is made as to whether to sign him.
Another large question applying to the Battalion roster is Czech centre Filip Chytil, who was taken sixth overall in the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft in June, days after he was chosen in the NHL Draft.
“He’s playing tonight for the New York Rangers, and his goal as a first-round pick, like most first-round picks, is to play in the National Hockey League,” said Butler. “He’s going to play games with their NHL team and then after that’s over they’re going to evaluate with him.”
In the meantime, with 25 skaters, including McKenzie, and two goaltenders, in Woroniuk and Julian Sime, on the roster, Butler said, there figures to be plenty of jockeying for positions yet.
“We have a lot of young guys who want to push for ice time and for spots. We probably still have some decisions to make on players, so we’ll just have to see. But you can’t make decisions on players until you know which players are coming back.”
Right winger Brandon Coe, the third overall pick in the OHL Priority Selection last April, figures to get ample ice time.
“He’s definitely going to be a good player — I don’t think there’s any doubt about that, but I really don’t like to set goals for kids in their first year because so many different things can happen,” said Butler. “You really don’t know what’s going to transpire, so I’d rather just play it by ear for him.”
The Battalion visits the Sudbury Wolves at 2 p.m. Sunday to complete its opening-weekend schedule.