For the past few years, the hockey talent from Sault Ste Marie has been the standard by which all other 2004-born Northern Ontario "AAA" players have been measured.
Trevor Blanchard believes that will change this year.
"I really do consider our team is the favourite going into this year," said Blanchard, returning for his second year as head coach of the Nickel City Minor Bantam "AAA" Sons (he coached the Major Peewee AAA Sons last year).
"I know that's a bold statement, but our staff is really happy with the changes we've made, and where we have come from last year." In complete fairness to the Saultites, the minor bantam year now offers the local crew a one-time opportunity to substantially close the gap, as this is the age when the NCHA (Nickel City Hockey Association) and SMHA (Sudbury Minor Hockey Association) teams combine forces, icing just a singular entry into the NOHL.
But with a core that is returning from the Major Peewee "AAA" Sons squad from one year ago - Blanchard noted that there are six new players, in total - the former OHLer turned coach sensed the moment to leapfrog the Sault was potentially near, regardless of the amalgamation of talent.
"I think we were really close last year," he said. "We ended up beating them and tying them, and giving them a really decent playoff series." If the Sons are to unseat the Soo Minor Bantam "AAA" Thunder, the players who have already had a chance to understand the message and systems that Blanchard is preaching will have to lead the charge.
"It was all a big improvement - the playing style, how you move the puck, the coaching," said forward Vincent Lavoie, now in his second year with the team. "We were learning a lot of different plays, more complex, that would be more effective against the other teams."
Given that Blanchard already has experience coaching in the junior ranks within the NOJHL, it's small wonder that the priorities he is conveying fall very much in line with what is heard at the higher levels of hockey.
"Our coach would always put defence ahead of offense," said Lavoie. "Obviously, you don't want to get scored on, but you still need to put points up, so you need to take care of your defensive zone and then you go to offense."
"Because I'm a winger, my defensive play on the boards is key," he added. "You want to look for the pass from the defence and try and send it to the center on the breakout, and do what we do from there."
As one of the teens who is already accustomed to the teachings of Blanchard, Lavoie sees the value of quickly assimilating the newcomers to the team. "First, I want to get them more into us, get them more involved with all of the guys that have been here for longer," he said.
"After that, let the coaches do the coaching." Teammate Cameron Shanks is going through that process for the second time now, having started with the team as a member of the 2015-2016 Minor Peewee "AAA" Sons. He starts the new campaign already excited about the progress that was made one year ago.
"We can move the puck faster, we learned to see guys better, make better passes, find the open space, stuff like that," he said. There is little doubt that coach Blanchard can be demanding, though Shanks feels at this age, he and his teammates understand full well exactly where he is coming from.
"He approached us from the standpoint that we need to get better, that you can never be as good as you should be," said Shanks. "We have to keep taking steps. If he calls you out, you have to think that you must be doing something wrong and you need to improve that, correct it."
From the sounds of things, he listened well. "Cameron Shanks is the one guy that stands out as the guy who ended up surprising our entire staff," Blanchard admitted. "His second half was probably, by far, the best of anyone."
"He brings a physical presence, he's got a big frame, he's a right shot that plays power forward and has a very deceptive speed to him with a nice lengthy stride. We've said that if we ever had to pick a guy to take a penalty shot, he's the guy."
"He's got that poise to him, going in, and he's got a rocket of a shot," Blanchard continued. "He shoots as hard as an OHL player already. We've gotten a lot out of him, but I'm excited to get more."
In fact, Blanchard is excited with pretty much every aspect of his team. "We're bringing back a healthy chunk of kids from last year that I had a full year with," he said. "I got to know tendencies, what made some of them tick, areas of improvement."
"The nice thing this year is with the amalgamation, I was able to bring in some kids from Sudbury, and another kid from the island. We're definitely going to have a different look to us."
"I think we're going to have a lot more offensive flair, bringing in (Samuel) Assinewai, (Dominik) Godin, (Pierson) Sobush from Sudbury, all top end players that we keyed on last year," stated Blanchard.
"Our back end got stronger, and between the pipes, we bring back Noah Beaulne, whose been a rock at this age group for a while, and we get Joshua Stagg from Sudbury, their #1 goalie from last year."
"With two #1 goalies, it's going to be nice to see them challenge themselves." Throw in the steadying blueline presence of Wilson Farrow, and a balance of lineup that offers a little bit of everything, and one can sense the optimism that Blanchard sees in his team.
Rounding out the 2017-2018 Minor Bantam "AAA" Sons roster are Carissa Baron, Noah Brazier, Liam Bridgeman, Brayden Lafrance, Hayden Radey, Scooter Rienguette, Carson Shawana, Marco Vallilée and Mathew Vehkala.