Chilliwack Bruins general manager/head coach Marc Habscheid is putting the finishing touches on the roster he will go to war with in Vancouver Friday night.
Habscheid’s crew opens the year with high expectations, and the coach feels pretty good after a competitive training camp and pre-season.
Chilliwack starts the season carrying three goaltenders; Lucas Gore, Braden Gamble and Cole Holowenko.
None had particularly strong pre-seasons, but Gore and Gamble are known quantities.
Gore, a 20-year-old veteran entering his third full season, logged 41 games last season. The Kamloops kid won 20 games with a 2.98 goals-against average and .902 save percentage.
Gamble was brought up from the AJHL’s Drumheller Dragons following the trade of Mark Friesen. His first start was a 25-save shutout win over Vancouver, and he ended winning six of 20 appearances with a 3.54 GAA and .882 SP.
Holowenko spent most of last season with the BCHL’s Merritt Centennials, and the team hopes he can live up to his potential as a former second round bantam draft pick.
How Habscheid allocates starts is yet to be determined, although Gore figures to get the lion’s share of the work.
“It’s early and we’re still trying to sort things out,” Habscheid said. “We don’t want to carry three goalies for long, but we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for them and the organization.”
The defensive unit will remain up in the air until Habscheid knows definitively what’s happening with 20-year-old Brandon Manning.
Chilliwack’s captain is still in New York attending training camp with the Rangers. He is eligible to sign a pro contract and leave the major junior ranks.
Manning’s departure would be a blow to the Bruins, and it makes Habscheid’s job more difficult not knowing whether he’s staying or going.
“If you’re not sure, you can’t make definitive moves,” Habscheid confirmed. “You have to err on the side of caution and keep numbers around.”
Until the Manning situation settles, Chilliwack is going with a seven man unit that includes incumbents Jeff Einhorn, Zach Habscheid, Mitch Topping and Tyler Stahl joined by newcomers Kade Pilton, Jesse Zgraggen and Jesse Pauls.
“Jesse (Zgraggen) is steady and a lot of times you don’t notice him, which can be a good thing for a D-man,” Habscheid said. “He just moves the puck, plays simple and plays within himself.”
Pauls is an interesting case.
The first Chilliwack native to ever wear Bruins colours in a regular season game, Pauls made 13 appearances last year before being re-assigned.
In the pre-season, the 18-year-old was utilized in a lot of situations.
“He came to camp with good fitness and earned the opportunity to start with us,” Habscheid said. “His focus seems to be good and he’s taken more pride in defensive play. We know how he is offensively, but his attitude has been good.”
Up front, Habscheid has a stable group of top six forwards with returnees Ryan Howse, Kevin Sundher, Roman Horak, Dylen McKinlay and Jamie Crooks.
Newcomer Robin Soudek can probably be included in that group, which might leave Chris Collins on the outside looking in.
Collins had an up-and-down rookie season, tallying nine goals and 32 points in 69 games last year.
He caught the attention of the National Hockey League’s Carolina Hurricanes, and received an invite to their prospects camp.
But it seems a fair question to ask, if he’s not playing an offensive role in the top six, where is he going to play?
“He’s a guy who can fit in a lot of spots, playing all three forward positions on any of the top lines, one through four,” Habscheid said. “He’s an 18-year-old guy who brings a lot of different things to the table. We’re not certain where he’ll play, but things have a way of working themselves out.”
Shayne Neigum should be a given in the bottom six. An over-ager, Neigum is the type of guy Habscheid loves, difficult to play against with a good two-way game. Youngsters Tim Traber and Brendan Persley could join him on an effective sandpaper line.
But the picture is unfocused as Habscheid tries to find the right fit in the bottom six.
Rookies Steven Hodges, Brandon Magee and Tanner Tabbe are also in the mix along with veteran Blair Wentworth.
“We want to see a third line that is difficult to play against, good defensively with some grit and a group you can put out in the last minute of a game,” Habscheid said. “The fourth line is usually where you give your young guys a start and let them work their way up or out.”
Habscheid has seen this team ranked anywhere from 13th in Canada (BMO CHL rankings) to 15th in their own league (The Hockey News).
But no one knows for sure how they’ll do until they face live bullets.
“We set out to win championships every year and we return a lot of guys, which is a plus,” Habscheid said. “Expectations are up and we’ve talked about raising the bar. We want to win, and that will be our goal every night.”
Chilliwack’s home opener is Oct. 2 versus Kamloops.