Lakers’ roster an intriguing mix

The SIJHL regular season left the starting blocks last Friday night, with the Fort Frances Lakers leading the charge.
The Lakers earned a split of their opening two-game homestand—losing 4-3 to the Thunder Bay North Stars on Friday before dumping the expansion English River Miners 12-2 on Saturday.
While it is difficult to make too many sweeping judgements only two games in, a closer analysis of the Lakers’ roster to start the season reveals the potential for plenty of celebratory nights ahead—on the condition of a couple of fairly big “ifs” thrown in for good measure.
Let’s take a look at what the Lakers will bring to the table for the 2013-14 season—at least, the early version of the version of the Lakers (knowledgeable fans understand change is the only constant when it comes to a junior hockey team).
The Lakers lost their top four scorers from the regular season. So it will be vital for the likes of Patrick Sofer, Kevin Kurm (13 points in 13 playoff games), and Mason Meyer to put their veteran experience to good use around the net.
The Lipinski twins (Bryce and Lyndon) had solid seasons for the Portage Terriers of the MJHL last year and also will be counted on to ignite the attack.
Another key will be how the newcomers, who performed last season at the high school and Midget ‘AAA’ level, can translate their skills to the more challenging pace of the SIJHL.
Overall, the guess here is that the Lakers have the ability to score enough to keep them competitive most nights.
Whether that offensive talent is accompanied by defensive zone reliability remains to be seen.
The Lakers have to feel confident with a defence corps that features four 20-year-olds to start the season and two more slated to join that age bracket by mid-February.
Billy Grillo and Ben Smaha supplied some punch from the point in the pre-season while Cody Wickstrom and John Dora headline the returnees and should provide stability behind the blueline.
Tarryn Romyn is the only player on the roster listed as a defenceman and forward, so it’s still uncertain where he will play more.
If Lakers’ head coach Wayne Strachan has his way, the defence will generate plenty of production as he tries to emphasize a more active role in the offence for his posse of point men.
Playing a tough enough game in front of their own net and in the corners, on a consistent basis, may be this group’s biggest challenge.
Fort Frances cycled through five goalies last season. None of them are back, including playoff workhorse Talor Joseph and Tanner Hamilton, the team’s leader in wins during the regular season.
That means the door is wide open for either the physically-imposing Jordan Cartney, who stands 6’3” and weighs 200 pounds, or the whisper-quick Ryan Ferguson (5’6”, 145 pounds) to take the reins.
Both had their ups and downs in the pre-season, and the prediction is the No. 1 job won’t be filled until Strachan has seen a large enough regular-season sample size of both goalies.
With the three-time defending league champion and reigning Dudley Hewitt Cup titleholder Minnesota Wilderness having departed the SIJHL for the North American Hockey League, this year’s Bill Salonen Cup is more up for grabs than it has been in recent memory.
The Lakers should be a favourite to reach the top after making the SIJHL final the past two seasons, with the Thunder Bay North Stars (rated No. 13 in the pre-season CJHL rankings) appearing to be their most serious challenger.
But the perenially-contending Dryden Ice Dogs and the always-tough Minnesota Iron Rangers can’t be discounted, either.
The new-look Wisconsin Wilderness and the expansion English River Miners may look like longshots. But with both teams icing fresh rosters, they even could be surprise additions to the field of possible contenders.
This should mean a most intriguing and entertaining season for fans across the SIJHL.
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In other news, three SIJHL alumni cracked the roster for this year’s edition of the Lakehead University Thunderwolves men’s hockey team in Thunder Bay.
Ex-North Stars’ forwards Matt Kaarela (second in the SIJHL last year with 35 goals) and Adam Restoule (15 points in 16 games), along with former Dryden Ice Dogs’ forward Paul Thompson (35 points in 46 games), were three of eight first-year players to earn a spot on the team.