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Friday, Sep. 21, 2018
Hard work and discipline can bridge the gap
by Randy Pascal

No one ever suggested to Laurentian Voyageurs men’s hockey coach Craig Duncanson that life in the East Division of the OUA would constitute a walk in the park. Despite finishing just one game below .500 last year, sporting a record of 11-12-5 (27 points), the L.U. lads would fare no better than eighth place in their ten team bracket.

While that was enough to earn a visit to the post-season, it wasn’t enough to avoid a first round playoff matchup with one of the OUA elite, ousted in a 2-0 series sweep by the McGill Redmen. And even though the next closest team was still six points ahead (UOIT Ridgebacks at 16-11-1), Duncanson is comfortable that he will enter the 2017-2018 campaign armed with the type of squad capable of bridging that gap in the standings.

“I believe in a league that has the kind of parity that we have, if we are the hardest working and disciplined team, we can get back to being over .500 and somewhere in the middle of the pack,” he said recently. “On paper, we are probably not as skilled as a lot of the other teams. I think we have a very smart, dedicated team.”

“What we have this year that is better than most years is an extremely mature and very much character room,” Duncanson continued. “This is a group that doesn’t need to see their names on the stat sheet to know they played a great game.”

There is no denying the Voyageurs are in the mix. Six losses came by just a single goal. So did three of their victories, with another five showing a goal differential of only two. “I think we have reason to be somewhat optimistic, but parity has found our league,” noted Duncanson. “I think the league is consistently improving, the talent level is getting consistently deeper.”

When the former OHL star and first round NHL draft pick talks of discipline, he refers not only of the need to avoid unnecessary penalties. It’s also about playing the type of hockey, in their own zone, that will keep the Voyageurs from allowing 104 goals against in 28 games, second worse in their division last year.

“We’ve played some very good defensive games, and we have outstanding goaltending,” suggested Duncanson. He remains steadfast that the numbers just noted are not an indictment of the Voyageurs’ last line of defence. “Joel (Vienneau) was one of the premier goalies, if not one of the top two goalies in our league, and he remains there,” said the coach. “I think anyone who has seen Joel play understands that it’s his net.”

The need for defensive efficiency is compounded when the flip side of that equation, the offensive production component, also places Laurentian in the bottom three of their division. “For us, scoring has always been at a premium,” said Duncanson. “We have a hard time generating goals. If that’s going to be who we are, then I think where we can really improve is making sure, with a handful of people, of being careful who we play them on the ice against, because they weren’t as good defensively.”

Interestingly enough, the man in charge is confident that a back-end corps that no longer includes stalwarts Vincent Llorca and Elliot Richardson can commit to the type of effort that is needed to offset top-end skill. A group that includes veterans Scott Pedersen, Jamie Forslund, David Chiarelli, Andrew Tessier, Kaden Ruest, Nicolas Thommen, Tyler Shaw and local newcomers Khadyn Butterfly and Tyler Cooper speaks to a unit that is not above bringing its collective lunch pail to the office, priding itself on the importance of team defence.

Laurentian will return half of the players who were bunched between 16 and 19 points last year, atop the team scoring stats, hopeful of even more offense from the likes of Richard Therrien (19), Dylan Fitze (17) and Brent Pedersen (16).

But the fact is they also need to see a bump up from Nicolas Dionne (12), Jacob Smith (8) and Caleb Apperson (6), as well as a return to health from local product Cray Roberge (5 points in 3 games). A seamless transition for newcomers Xavier Couture (73 pts in 60 games with Cumberland Grads) and Luke McCaw (50 in 61 GP with Ottawa Jr Senators) would also help in offsetting the loss of Nick Esposto and Darcy Haines.

Some fans might suggest that simply luring more ex-OHLers to the fold is a sure-fire road to prosperity. Duncanson, for his part, would disagree. “Some high level players that come out of the OHL and play in our league are absolutely more skilled and more talented,” he admitted.

“The drawback is that not all of them can fit in and fill a role on any team. There are some challenges, some stigmas for them to get over. They have to accept the fact that they are moving up a level and not all of them are going to be superstars. The leading scorer in our league last year (Aaron Armstrong – Ryerson) came out of Junior “C” hockey.”

Given the absence of any kind of affiliation process to allow OUA teams to call-up replacements for injured players and such, most teams, including Laurentian, will look to run with three goaltenders, nine defencemen and fifteen forwards. A total of 28 players saw action with the Voyageurs last year.

“Of the five lines and nine “D” that we have, anyone can replace you on any given night,” said Duncanson. “If we are the most disciplined, uniform team, playing what we feel is a good team game, then we can accomplish what any star-studded team can accomplish.”

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