May 23, 2018 02:37 PM
Sizing up last year’s mercurial run, fans of the New Westminster Salmonbellies are hoping for a chance to see redemption in 2018.
The Western Lacrosse Association’s playoff champs rode a rollercoaster last fall, capturing the league title and beating Peterborough in the first two games of the Mann Cup final before a four-game losing skid put the season, and dream, on ice.
Getting back to that national championship will depend on a lot of things yet to be determined, but the one that is guaranteed is the motivation.
“You know that the guys, especially having a 2-0 lead at home, they are (motivated),” remarked New West president and general manager Dan Richardson. “It just feeds the want to take that next step. Whether it’s at home or away; I know it’s been a long time since a (western) team has won back east, but it’s not impossible. It can be done.”
Whoever emerges from the WLA playoffs come August will trek eastward to face the Ontario champs on their own soil this summer.
New West looks at the regular season, which kicks off Thursday, 7:30 p.m. at Queen’s Park Arena against Maple Ridge, as more than a tune-up. The necessity of thriving and surviving the weekly battles in a league etched in parity will be key to any of those playoff and Mann plans.
While change abounds, beginning with the staff of new head coach Rory McDade and assistants Ian Paterson, Darren McEwen and Curtis Palidwor, familiarity will be a part of the picture, too. Two veterans returning after separate sabbaticals – sniper Jordan McBride, and defender Brendan Ranford – are additions that know their way around Queen’s Park.
McBride, who prior to taking a year off as part of his firefighting training requirements, had been one of the team's more potent sticks. Ranford, meanwhile, pushed his hockey career to the American Hockey League outposts in Tucson and San Antonio, pursuing a shot at The Show.
“(McBride's) a New West guy who’s been with us for years. He’s got a fantastic shot, he’s got great moves in front of the net and he’ll go to the dirty areas. We missed him last year in our Mann Cup run,” said the GM. Ranford, meanwhile, will take on some of those gritty duties that Ian Hawksbee, longtime defensive stalwart who hung up the gloves last fall.
"(Ranford) will eat up a lot of those minutes. He’s a firecracker out there on the loose ball and he’s a leader on and off the floor. We’re excited to add him on the backend."
Early in the off-season New West addressed a need for a full-time faceoff specialist by signing Tyrel Hamer-Jackson. The team also completed another sibling pairing – joining the Goodwins and Mydskes -- with the acquisition this week of Jason Jones from Burnaby, surrendering the team’s top pick in the past draft, Nick Jensen, as well as a second rounder and fifth in 2019. Jason joins brother Mitch on the attack.
Adding another shrewd offensive shot was on the 'want' list partly due to the uncertainty surrounding the availability of Philadelphia-based Kevin Crowley, who may come available if the Canadian Lacrosse Association nixes the worlds in July, and injury to Joel McCready.
Jones, meanwhile, will team with sibling Mitch and fellow Delta product Logan Schuss to form one of the more dynamic lines.
Mitch Jones enjoyed a career season in his second year with New West, tallying 31 goals and 31 assists over 17 regular season games. The 26-year-old would up the ante in the playoffs and Mann series, sniping 37 more goals and 57 more assists to make the year’s grand total an incredible 156 points.
While the younger Jones stirred the drink offensively, the squad had a number of players chip in during a topsy-turvy season where first place was still a possibility right until the final week. Richardson said finding more balance on the attack was a major goal this past winter, producing the return of McBride and deal with Burnaby for Jones.
“We just felt we needed to shore up our left side, even with (Mark) Negrin and (Alberta import Lyndon) Bunio in the picture,” said Richardson. “(Jason Jones) brings a wealth of experience, knows Mitch and Logan and has consistently put up 40 to 50 points a season.”
During training camp Jensen carved out a spot in the New West lineup but was the price to pay for a top-line talent, Richardson noted.
On the backline, it all begins with the tandem of Alexis Buque and Tye Belanger, who form a great one-two punch behind defensive leaders like captain Curtis Hodgson, Mike Messenger, Brett and Reid Mydske, Ranford and second-year import Tony Tremblay.
As a bonus, Justin Goodwin is expected to get clearance with his medical training in Cleveland to play a handful of games, providing another abrasive element to the lineup during the year.
“It’s a very quick, agile defence and (can) push the ball up the floor, but it’s going to help our goaltenders. The old adage of defence winning championships – we are very happy with what we have in our goaltending and defence,” said Richardson.
As well as Hawksbee, the defence will be without steady contributors Shayne Bennett and Clay Richardson.
Considering the degree of parity in the league, where the top four teams were separated by just four points, and improving prospects for lowly Langley and Nanaimo, nothing can be taken for granted, said Richardson.
“Some teams back east are loading up,” he said, referring to Peterborough luring Corey Small from Victoria, “but I always tell our guys that the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox don’t win it every year. Teams find a way, other teams find a way, either through team chemistry and good coaching, systems, to win. It’s not always the team with the most money and the biggest chips that win. I just feel that there’s a sense we left some stuff on the table and we need to finish that.”
The season opens May 24 with Maple Ridge visiting Queen’s Park Arena (7:30 p.m.). On May 31 the Nanaimo Timbermen come to town.
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