The new North Stars coaching staff is well aware of the numerous player losses from last season, but they're confident they have the right players to fill those holes.
Gone are Coby Downs, Connor Logan, Ben Allen, Reed Delainey, Jared Blaquire and Keaton Holinaty, who finished first, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh in team scoring, respectively, in 2016-17.
"We lost quite a bit of fire power last year but we've got some pretty solid players all the way through our forward lineup and our 'D' lineup as well," North Stars assistant coach Boyd Wakelin said on Tuesday afternoon. "I think our biggest strength is just depth throughout the entire lineup.
"You've heard us talk about the leadership group that's left over from last year. The accountability that we see the players hold themselves to, it's really good to see. If we can keep their work ethic up, then that's going to take care of maybe any holes that can potentially arise. But we haven't seen any glaring [holes] yet through the exhibition season."
The North Stars went 4-3 in a busy pre-season schedule that saw them play seven times in eight days.
But the results of the pre-season aren't what matter. The roster construction is what matters.
Currently, the North Stars have 16 forwards, seven defenceman, and three goaltenders, after Austin Wieler was traded to Yorkton for a draft pick, and defencemen Jayden Cantre and Dune Wald were released. That means they still have a couple cuts to make before opening night on Friday against Kindersley.
One question for the forward group this year is undoubtedly who is going to provide secondary scoring behind Layne Young.
"We've got some good new faces and we've also got guys that are going to be stepping into bigger roles that were on the team last year," Wakelin said. "We think all four lines should be able to produce. Of course, you can't expect Layne Young to score two or three goals a night, so we're going to have to put the onus on the guys to step up and really score by committee this year.
"I don't really want to put the pressure on any [specific] guys right now...I think we should wait and see before we start calling guys out and let them prove it to us that they want to be that secondary scoring."
On the blueline, the top-pairing of Levi Kleiboer and Cody Spagrud will lead the way, and they have big shoes to fill in graduated leaders Kendall Fransoo and Connor Sych. Kleiboer and Spagrud are likely to play a ton of minutes this year.
They each played on the North Stars as 17-year-olds two seasons ago and even each dressed for several playoff games the year before. Last season, Kleiboer had 32 points in 55 games from the backend while Spagrud had 20, including five goals. Kleiboer's 32 points were ninth-best among defenceman in the SJHL.
"They're just two unbelievable young men," Wakelin said. "Their leadership qualities are second to none. And then you look at their ability on the ice: the way they use their sticks in the d-zone, [how] they're smart at taking pucks away and getting pucks up ice and joining the rush at the proper time."
Behind that pairing is a pair of returning Connors in Conor Jensen and Connor Manegre.
Beyond those veterans, it's unclear who takes up the remaining spots but Wakelin said he and head coach Brandon Heck like what they've seen.
"We're pretty steady all through our top-six right now," Wakelin said. "We're pretty happy with it."
After compiling a 27-3 regular season record last season and going 9-0 in the playoffs to help capture the Canalta Cup, hometown native Taryn Kotchorek returns in goal, and will likely carry a heavy workload.
Exactly how many games he'll play remains unanswered.
"He's going to get a chance at the start of the year to take the ball and run with it," Wakelin said of the 20-year-old who was nominated for goaltender of the year last season. "He's going to have to perform but we have no doubt in our mind that he's going to be able to do that...His focus and his leadership qualities, are, again, unbelievable."
The backup goaltending position has not been determined yet, as both Kolby Matthews and Austin Prior were still with the team as of Tuesday.
As far what this team's potential is, Wakelin said "the sky is the limit."
He added that as a first-year coaching staff, they aren't trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to a coaching style.
"We're going to build on what they had last year and try to put our stamp on it," Wakelin said. "It's just letting the guys play their game and be creative and not turn them into robots. We're basically just here to guide them and make sure that we're getting the best out of them each day.
"We're going to try to have that stingy defence but our defence also isn't as big as last year...[so] we're going to play defence by having our good, puck-moving d-men not leaving the puck in our zone. They're going to be getting the puck up and out of our zone as quick as possible...Quick transition. We've got a really good skating team."
With no clear-cut favourite heading into this season, the North Stars are likely right in the middle of the pack, and it's reasonable to assume they can compete for a division title.
All the regular season action begins this Friday, Sept. 15 with the first North Stars game against Kindersley hitting the airwaves at 7:15 p.m. on 93.3 the Rock with the pre-game show.
On Twitter: @NathanKanter11
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