Looking to be the top dogs
It’s Memorial Cup or bust for the Niagara IceDogs this season.
From Day 1 of training camp, the organization has made no secret its mission this year is to become the champion of junior hockey in Canada.
“We have some unfinished business from my first year when we won the Eastern Conference and didn’t quite make it through the finals,” IceDogs captain Ben Jones said. “Everyone is hungry in there.
“We want to get five banners this year. That’s the plan.”
Niagara head coach Billy Burke concurs.
“We want to win everything. We want to win our division, the conference, the league and the Memorial Cup,” Burke said.
“We aren’t shy to say that’s the goal. We know it’s a very high goal — there are 60 teams in the CHL and we’re not the only team that has their sights set at the top — it’s going to be a ton of work but I think everyone is prepared for it and excited for it.”
Burke is well aware by publicly declaring the IceDogs are going for it all, they are also putting themselves under a microscope the minute something doesn’t go exactly as planned.
“When you have an older team and a team that is built to win, there is going to be pressure,” Burke said. “When you’re trying to win every night, there’s absolutely going to be pressure. It’s been mentioned a little bit, but we have a smart enough team that they understand it and have the mental strength to deal with it.
“If you look at our roster, it’s very veteran-heavy with guys who are proven they are very good players in this league. Of course we are going to set their pretty high for ourselves. We wouldn’t be doing the players any favours if we said home-ice advantage in the playoffs is a goal of ours.”
The IceDogs optimism is based on a deep and talented squad, starting in goal where Stephen Dhillon and Colton Incze have both proven they have the talent to be a starting goaltender in the OHL.
“It’s pretty special to have the two goalies here,” Burke said. “They’ll both play and they’re both great guys and teammates and they work well together
“It can be a problem, but it’s a great problem to have.”
Goalie Jukka Schotter, who played junior B in Welland last season, is also on the roster to start the season to provide insurance.
On defence, the IceDogs don’t have a true stud, but instead will relay on a solid group of defenders to get the job done.
“We don’t have that one star defenceman but we do have six or seven very solid OHL defencemen,” Burke said. “It’s going to be a little bit of defence by committee, similar to what it was last year.
“The whole group is back and a year older and they all look like they’ve made improvements over the summer.”
Up front, the IceDogs also have an abundance of veteran talent, led by centres Akil Thomas and Ben Jones.
Toss in sniper Kirill Maksimov, newcomer and Minnesota Wild draft pick Ivan Lodnia, and skillful sophomore Philip Tomasino, and the IceDogs shouldn’t have a problem putting the puck in the net.
“We have a lot of forward depth, (we have) 10 forwards who we feel would be top nine on a large portion of the teams in this league,” Burke said. “There will be internal competition, but I think that is good.”
Burke said the tentative plan is to build two lines around Thomas and Lodnia on one unit and Jones and Maksimov on the other.
The IceDogs are carrying Dhillon and defenceman Johnathon Schaefer as their overages to start the season. Teams are permitted three on their roster.
“We’ll wait and see and it’s there’s a need, we know we have that open OA spot,” Burke said.
The IceDogs open the regular season Sunday in Mississauga at 2 p.m. before visiting Peterborough Thursday, Sept. 27. Their first home game is Friday, Sept. 28 against Kingston.
Burke would love nothing more than to see the IceDogs get off to a strong start.
“It would be huge, it would be the goal and what we prepare for,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world if things don’t go well for us coming out of the gate, but anytime you can have a good start, it just starts the season on a good note and you’re not playing catch up.”
Forwards: Ben Jones, Ivan Lodnia, Jonah DeSimone, Kirill Maksimov, Oliver Castleman, Matthew Philip, Ian Martin, Philip Tomasino, Andrew Bruder, Akil Thomas, Kyen Sopa, Bradey Johnson, Jake Uberti.
Defence: Mason Howard, Johnathon Schaefer, Lleyton Moore, Liam Ham, Drew Hunter, Billy Constantinou, Daniel Bukac, Elijah Roberts.
Goaltenders: Stephen Dhillon, Colton Incze, Jukka Schotter.
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