Lakers good bet to repeat as champs

This year’s RBC Cup national junior ‘A’ hockey championship still is being contested out in Vernon, B.C.
But that doesn’t mean it’s too much of a stretch to look ahead one year and envision the Fort Frances Lakers being part of that post-season party.
The Lakers captured their first-ever SIJHL title earlier this spring and made it to the semi-final of the Dudley Hewitt Cup (Central Canadian junior ‘A’ championship) in Wellington, Ont. before falling to the eventual champion Toronto Lakeshore Patriots.
While there are no guarantees in life, and especially in sports, a look ahead to next year’s potential roster offers great promise for at least a repeat of this year’s achievements—and possibly more.
That, of course, would be helped greatly if the Lakers can handle the financial obstacles and wind up hosting the 2015 Dudley Hewitt Cup, which appears to be theirs if they want it.
Losing over-age players after each season (six in the case of this year’s Lakers) always makes the general manager’s job difficult as he tries to fill the gaps.
But getting top-calibre players to come to Fort Frances would be helped immensely by the notion that signing on the dotted line means automatically moving within one step of the 2015 RBC Cup, which is set for a mere five hours away from here in Portage la Prairie, Man.
Roster moves always are a possibility between now and the team’s main training camp in August.
But for now, here’s how things shape up at forward, defence, and in goal for the 2014-15 Lakers:
•Losses—Lyndon Lipinski, Bryce Lipinski, and Patrick Sofer
•Potential returnees—Lucas DeBenedet, Mason Meyer, Kevin Kurm, Miles Nolan, Brent Aiken, Donovan Cousineau, Hunter Leishman, Bryson Jasper, Ryan McQueen, Cam Gobeil, and Colton Spicer
When a team has the chance of returning 11-of-14 forwards, that’s the recipe for continued—and likely improved—success.
Of course, those departing are no bit players. Lyndon Lipinski was an SIJHL second-team all-star who was second on the team and third in the league in points (91).
The Grande Prairie, Alta. native also was tied for second in the league in power-play goals (13) and third in game-winning goals (six).
And his two-way play made him an integral part of the league’s most dangerous trio, the “DLM” Line.
His twin brother, Bryce, was fourth on the team in points (51) and was a key man both killing penalties and in the face-off circle, who provided plenty of energy despite his smaller stature (5’6”, 160 pounds).
Sofer, who missed eight games with a shoulder injury, fell out of favour after being captain for most of the season and wound up handing the ‘C’ over to Cody Wickstrom before the start of the Bill Salonen Cup final.
But the Chicago native—who recently signed with the Aurora (Ill.) University Spartans for this fall—still provided good offensive numbers from the third line (34 points in 48 games), which won’t be easily replaced.
Now the good news, which lies rooted in the idea that the other two members of the Lakers’ highest-scoring line this season return for another campaign.
The International Falls-based duo of Lucas DeBenedet and Mason Meyer may be the subject of some tantalizing college offers after both put up outstanding statistics throughout the season.
But Meyer already has hinted he is leaning towards returning to the Lakers—and that may be enough of a persuading argument to get DeBenedet, his former Falls Broncos’ linemate, back in the fold, too.
If that happens, the Lakers will have back a first-team all-star duo that features the league’s scoring champion in DeBenedet (league-high 48 goals and 112 points) and the SIJHL’s fourth-highest scorer in Meyer (90 points, including seven-game winning goals and 13 power-play goals).
That’s not to mention the “KAN” Line of Kurm, Aiken, and Nolan, which tore it up during the playoffs, with Nolan earning post-season MVP honours after leading the circuit in goals (10) and points (15).
It will be interesting to see who Lakers’ general manager and head coach Wayne Strachan slots in beside DeBenedet and Meyer in the absence of Lyndon Lipinski.
The most offensively-gifted of the possible remaining returnees is Spicer, who returned to the squad after being traded unceremoniously following an incident at practice during the 2013 playoffs.
But while Spicer showed well in his return here this season (15 points in 12 games), a season-ending injury makes his status uncertain heading into this fall.
Cousineau (23 points in 26 games) also might be a possibility as his playoff linemates (Bryce Lipinski and Sofer) both have moved on.
The fourth line of Leishman, Jasper, and McQueen provided good effort and some scoring acumen during the playoffs.
But with Leishman perhaps ready to move up the depth chart heading into his third season, and Jasper a former second-liner with the team earlier in the year before being dealt away and then re-acquired, chances are the trio probably won’t stay intact.
Gobeil (eight points in 43 games), who only saw action in two playoff games, will also be champing at the bit for more playing time next season.
•Losses—Cody Wickstrom, Riley Daly, and Tanner Fricke
•Potential returnees—Kyle Lipinski, Cam Jackson, John Dora, and Aaron Wesley-Chisel
The void is significantly greater on the back end, with Strachan likely to make recruiting blueliners a top priority after losing three players who collected a combined 97 points this past season.
Wickstrom took over the captaincy near the end of an inspirational year that saw him miss the first 13 games with ulcerative colitis before returning to tie Fricke as the second-highest scoring defenceman in the SIJHL (38 points in 43 games).
That earned him a nod as a finalist for the league’s top blueliner and a spot on the SIJHL’s first all-star team.
Replacing the Marquette, Mich. native will be a difficult task for Strachan.
Fricke also notched 38 points and, while at times inconsistent, grew his all-around game as the season wore on.
Daly, brought in during the pre-season in a trade with the Minnesota Iron Rangers, provided rock-solid defence while also making a decent offensive contribution (21 points in 52 games).
Jackson, who had game-winning goals in Games 5 and 6 of the SIJHL final to help the Lakers erase a 3-1 series deficit against Minnesota, notched 14 points in 23 games and would be key in compensating for the loss of Wickstrom, Fricke, and Daly.
Kyle Lipinski, armed with a wicked one-timer and quick feet, also would help the Lakers’ defence corps, although one wonders if he will return for another year with both his older brothers now headed elsewhere.
Dora, meanwhile, provides a big-body presence and some offensive touch (17 points in 38 games), although he battled injuries for much of the season.
Wesley-Chisel was injured before the playoffs and then couldn’t get back in the lineup.
But he showed versatility in being able to move up to a forward position when called upon, and finished with 12 points in 43 games.
As such, it will be interesting to see how he handles an increase in playing time and responsibilities should that come about.
•Potential returnees—Jordan Cartney, Devin Tappenden, and Ryan Ferguson
It’s a problem any head coach would love to have, but it certainly will be one for Strachan to figure out what to do with his abundance of skilled netminders.
Cartney won an early-season battle with Ferguson and went on to lead the SIJHL in wins (24), GAA (2.48), and save percentage (.911).
The Calgary product also was selected a second-team all-star and was a finalist for the league’s top goalie award.
But in the middle of all that, along came Tappenden in a deadline deal with the Burlington Cougars of the OJHL.
All the Markham, Ont. native did was go 11-3 with a 2.26 GAA and .922 save percentage, including posting 10-straight wins to end the regular season.
He also was chosen the second star-of-the-month for February in the entire CJHL.
But after a 5-1 beginning to the playoffs, Tappenden lost three-straight to Minnesota in the SIJHL final, with Cartney coming back to win the final three games of the series.
Cartney also started every game in the Dudley Hewitt Cup while being named the Lakers’ player-of-the-game twice.
So which of the two gets the No. 1 job next year? And where does Ferguson, a former Muskie, fit in after putting in one of the best statistical seasons (10-1-0-1) of any No. 3 goalie in junior history?
Sorting out that puzzle, while keeping his masked men content, may be Strachan’s toughest assignment of all next season.