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Battalion all-in on youth

NORTH BAY, Ont. — The North Bay Battalion, two games into the Ontario Hockey League season and with two losses, is fully committed to its young roster, Stan Butler said Wednesday.

“We’re going to play these kids and, if they make mistakes, we’re going to play them again and again,” said Butler, director of hockey operations and head coach. “I’ve seen a lot of good players in this league who weren’t very strong to start with.”

The Battalion plays host to the Kitchener Rangers at 7 p.m. Thursday after a 6-4 road loss to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds last Saturday night that was preceded by a 3-0 setback to the visiting Barrie Colts in both clubs’ season opener the night before.

Centre Matthew Struthers, who has been sidelined with an upper-body injury, will make his season debut against Kitchener, said Butler.

While Butler said that veterans such as Struthers, the highest-scoring holdover from the 2018-19 team, and left winger Brad Chenier won’t lose ice time as the Troops’ “go-to guys,” the newcomers on the league’s youngest roster will see plenty of shifts.

“We’ve got a really young crew. On defence, we’ve got (James) Mayotte and (Paul) Christopoulos and, you know, for me, Pacey (Schlueting) is a rookie too. He didn’t get much ice time last year. We’re putting three rookies on defence.”

At that, the number doesn’t include Ryan Thompson, who has yet to play because of a wrist injury.

“We’re playing two goalies who had one game in the OHL,” Butler noted of Joe Vrbetic, who saw action in 33 minutes in relief last season, and Christian Cicigoi. The latter, who turned 18 on July 6, is a year too old for the league to consider him a rookie.

With the Battalion trailing 3-2 as the teams skated four-on-four early in the second period at Sault Ste. Marie, Cicigoi went to the boards to his left to play the puck, misfiring on an attempted pass along the end boards. Cole MacKay intercepted it and tucked it inside the left post as Cicigoi dove in desperation into the crease.

“We had a miscue with the puck on Saturday night,” noted Butler. “Those things happen, but we can only get better by giving people opportunity.”

It was the third Greyhounds goal in a span of 3:36.

Regardless of youthful mistakes, Butler, who skipped the return trip to Sault Ste. Marie as part of what he called his personal “load management,” said he’s pleased with what he sees as a strong work ethic.

“I think we play hard. The results in the first two games weren’t necessarily what we want, but I liked our effort in both games.”

Among the positives was a reduction in offensive chances afforded opponents, with the Colts recording 33 shots and the Greyhounds 27, including an empty-net goal that was sent into the Battalion cage from centre ice by Chenier.

“Our shots against were down from last year, which is something we need to do, so that’s encouraging.”

The Battalion completes its schedule for the week with a 7:05 p.m. Friday visit to the Sudbury Wolves.

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