Big names, big expectations
Esposito, Leffler, and Strueby look to lead Cougar's men's hockey team to glory
Players like Cody Esposito, Brett Leffler, and Matt Strueby are bringing their impressive resumes to the University of Regina Cougars men’s hockey team this season.
Will it be enough to help the team get back to the playoffs this season after missing them last year?
“We always expect to be there regardless of who we have,” said Cougars head coach Blaine Sautner. “Every season as a team, we want to win a championship. We’ve done quite well with our recruiting class. We’ve got a lot of size, skill, and chemistry.”
The Cougars open up a new Canada West season on Friday against the University of Saskatchewan Huskies. They play them on Saturday as well. Both games start at 7 p.m. at the Co-operators Centre.
Many of Regina’s big recruits this off-season enjoyed impressive junior stints. Esposito, a 6-3, 204 lb forward, played in 167 games in the Western Hockey League and finished off his career with the Dauphin Kings of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. Last season with the Kings, Esposito scored 23 goals and added 18 assists.
Both Leffler and Strueby enjoyed successful stints with the WHL’s Regina Pats. In Leffler’s 309 career games with the Pats, the 6-2, 195 lb forward had 75 goals and 76 assists. Strueby, a 6-2, 195 lb forward, had 70 goals and 57 assists during his four-year tenure with Regina.
New recruits joining Esposito, Leffler, and Strueby this season are former University of Manitoba Bisons forward Terrance Delaronde (6-2, 205 lb); Saskatchewan Junior Hockey’s Melville Millionaires forward Cody Gross (6-0, 187 lb); Lucas Isley (5-10, 175 lb), a forward for the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Bonnyville Pontiacs; SJHL’s Weyburn Red Wings forward Tyler Penny (5-10, 170 lb); Jordan Reeve (6-0, 190 lb), a Millionaires defenceman; and Red Wings goalie A.J. Whiffen (5-11, 195 lb).
A solid recruiting class was needed, said Sautner.
“It came at the right time,” he explained. “We had a big turnover – we graduated three guys and had four guys not come back because of academics. When you lose that many players, it sure changes the dynamic of your team.”
A big factor in landing these players was the Co-operators Centre, the new state-of-the-art facility in Regina that the Cougars will be playing their games in this season.
“Many players coming out of the WHL are used to those facilities,” noted Sautner. “These players get used to the way they were treated at that level. When these players are being recruited by someone, they want to get that same feeling. We are at a spot where players come to our rink and see how great of a facility it is. We’ve got a facility that allows us to treat our players the best.”
Though Regina got some solid recruits, they are still a young team and are playing in a very competitive conference. With so many new players, Sautner expects there to be some growing pains. Because of this, the team played six preseason games to gain more experience. They posted a record of 3-3-0.
“With the number of new guys we have we really had to focus on finding an identity,” Sautner noted. “We wanted to establish a pattern of hard work. Over the six games, there were times when we were bang on, working hard and moving our feet. Other times I thought we weren’t quite there. Establishing an identity is really an ongoing process.”
These extra games could pay off early for Regina. In the opening six games of the season, the Cougars play Saskatchewan four times and the University of Manitoba Bisons twice. Both teams were among the top three teams in the league last season.
“[Our season] doesn’t start off with what you would say is a favourable schedule,” Sautner noted. “We are playing two teams that I feel are the best in the league. If we can come out with a .500 record over those first six games we are going to set ourselves up to have a successful first half. Every game is going to be a playoff game for us.”
To get back to the playoffs this season, Regina will need to improve on offence. Players like Strueby and Leffler can only help improve a Cougars offence that is in desperate need of a kick start. In the 2009-10 campaign, Regina only averaged around two goals a game and failed to produce many shots on the opposing team.
“We are trying to continually put our guys in a position where they can score,” Sautner explained. “Making sure we are crashing the net, getting traffic in front, and getting rebounds will be important. Sometimes you’ve just got to put pucks on net. We’re going to need to pay the price to score goals.”
To help generate offence, Sautner and Cougar will actually be relying on the defence as well.
“Last year, we tried to open things up a little bit more in terms of scoring so we tried to get the defence more involved,” said Sautner. “It might have caused us to allow a few more goals against, but we think it is important to get guys involved. We are always trying to evolve and do what is best for the team.
“We will continue to do that this season.”
In net, there will be a lot of pressure on fifth-year Adam Ward. After sharing time with other goaltenders during his first four years with the club, Ward is now the man. The opportunity presented itself when Brant Hilton, one of the Cougars’ main goaltenders last season along with Ward, signed with the Mississippi RiverKings of the Central Hockey League.
Last season, Ward posed a record of 3-7, a 3.25 goals against average, and a .910 save percentage. He will be backed up by Shayne Barrie and Whiffen. Heading in the 2010-11 campaign, Sautner has faith in his starting goalie.
“He has been just outstanding for us during the preseason,” said Ward. “He has been really relaxed and focused in the games. This year might be a bit of a coming out for him. He’ll carry the load this season.”