As the team prepares for its second season in the Pacific Junior Hockey League, White Rock Whalers head coach Jason Rogers has one pretty straightforward objective for his team: get better.
The junior ‘B’ squad opened its regular-season schedule Thursday, on the road against the Richmond Sockeyes, but has been on the ice for weeks, preparing for a year in which they’ll look to improve on their inaugural-season record of 14-28-0-2 (win-loss-tie-overtime loss).
Rogers hopes a year of maturity from his team’s returnees, as well as contributions from a slew of newcomers, is enough to improve upon that mark.
“It’s guarded optimism, I’d say. Definitely some excitement,” he said.
“We feel like we’re in a good spot right now. The areas that we needed to improve on, I think we’ve ticked most of the boxes (in the offseason). There’s still one or two things we’d like to improve on and look at, but that’s part of junior hockey – waiting for the dust to settle (as players get cut and move down from other levels).
“There’s things we can do to make changes as the year goes on.”
Though the Whalers lost twice as many games as they won last season, the team’s Year 1 win-loss record – a respectable one for any expansion team – was a bit deceiving. They were on the fringes of a playoff berth for a good portion of the year, until a late-season swoon caused them to drop to the bottom of the PJHL’s Tom Shaw Conference.
A few roster decisions were still left to be made when Rogers spoke to Peace Arch News Tuesday, though he figured the team would be close to a 50/50 split between new players and returnees.
“Some (more established) teams… might have a little bit less (turnover), but we’re only in Year 2, so we don’t quite have that same pipeline of players yet,” Rogers said.
“That’s not a complaint, it’s just the reality of it, and we’re really happy with who’s back and happy with our new additions, too.”
The returning players are highlighted by goaltender Jonathan Holloway – who played 12 games in White Rock last season after being acquired from the North Vancouver Wolfpack – as well as the Newson brothers, Calder and Cam.
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Calder, a 20-year-old forward, will serve as the team’s captain this season, while the younger sibling, Cam, recently returned from the Western Hockey League’s Spokane Chiefs.
The young blue-liner was a key member of last year’s Whalers despite being just 16 years old – he tallied 20 points in 36 games – and Rogers admits he did not expect to see the teen back in the team’s green-and-white sweater this season.
At the conclusion of White Rock’s season last spring, Newson moved up to play with the BC Hockey League’s Powell River Kings during the playoffs, but this summer chose to give the WHL route a try.
“Quite honestly, I didn’t expect to see him. I feel for him. It was my understanding that he had a real good camp (in Spokane), and I don’t quite understand how he’s not playing at that level – and that’s not a criticism of him,” Rogers said.
“When we did our depth chart for the season, we didn’t have him in there, but he’s a great addition to our team, no doubt about it.”
Rogers said the team will need to see improvement from all the team’s veterans if they are to reach their goal of a playoff berth.
“Returning guys have to take the next step. That’s a general comment – there’s nobody in particular I would single out,” he explained. “Whether that means more offence, or more consistency or creativity – whatever form it takes, the reality is that there just needs to be more of it (this season).”
Though there will be plenty of young talent in the lineup when the team hits the ice, at least a few of the rookies will have at least a little bit of junior experience, Rogers points out. Defencemen Bryce Margetson, 17, and Josten Hu, 18, played a handful of games with White Rock last season, while forward Chris Fortems played two games with the BCHL’s Surrey Eagles as an affiliate player.
“Whenever you can add some high-end skill, it’s good. We have some high expectations for guys like (Zach) Sherwin, Fortems and Margetson,” Rogers said.
“They’re going to get plenty of opportunities, as 2002-born players, to play a significant role and generate offence.”
After the Whalers’ season-opening road tilt in Richmond, the team will return to the Semiahmoo Peninsula for its home opener Saturday against the Surrey Knights. Puck drop for that game is 7:30 p.m. at Centennial Arena.
The team hits the road again for the next few weeks and won’t play a second home game at Centennial Arena until Sept. 21 against Aldergrove.