How do you follow up a year where your team came one game from the promised land? If you’re the Bombers, you keep several of your best players, recruit heavily and keep eyes on the prize.
The Bombers have no shortage of offence coming into the season, with five players who cracked 30 points coming back – forwards Jaxon Martens, Jaeden Mercier, Cole Duperreault and Jeremi Tremblay, as well as defender Reece Richmond. Kylynn Olafson and Matt Egan had impressive training camps, with both likely to take top-six spots on this year’s team.
The team has given the captain’s C to Lucas Fry, who was the team’s best defensive defenceman last season, with the assistant captain’s “A”s going to Duperreault and Mercier, who have started the year on each other’s line.
No other authority than SJHL commissioner Kyle McIntyre himself said he expects Mercier to contend for the league scoring lead this season, while Duperreault started hot, scoring all four of the Bombers’ opening weekend goals.
Bomber head coach and general manager Mike Reagan has been impressed with the play and composure of his returning players, stating that all have filled the roles he had originally pencilled them in for.
“They’ve all done what we expected them to,” Reagan said of the returnees and leadership group.
“I think that Martens coming back and having a full year with us and understanding our expectations and how to play like a Bomber was very valuable for him. Mercier has done what I fully expected after full years. I think Duperreault has had a fantastic offseason and looks poised to build off the success he had last season. Our four defencemen look like veteran defencemen - Cole Tanchuk looks like a 20-year-old out there and it's so nice that he's only 18. Guys like Olafson and Egan have really elevated their games and become much stronger and more competent.”
Reagan is looking, as always, for players who “play like a Bomber” - he explains that he looks for players who compete hard, are willing to work hard to get better and possess a certain character mould.
“I always tell guys that not everybody has the ability to be a Flin Flon Bomber. It takes a special individual to be one,” Reagan said.
The news isn’t all good, though. Four key pillars of last year’s league finalist team are gone for this year – captain Zak Smith and MVP goalie Cal Schell have aged out, while SJHL defenceman of the year Xavier Lapointe and the mammoth Drew Kuzma have headed south for NCAA puck. Also gone is Jacob Vockler, who has stayed in South Dakota and joined the NAHL’s Aberdeen Wings, along with a pile of other key players from last year’s team, like USports-bound grads Rylan Thiessen and Cole Vardy, Gabriel Shipper and depth players like Mason Kaspick, Matt Raymond and Brett Wieschorster.
To replace those pillars, in came a smattering of defenders, offensive in nature like Lorenzo Bono and Cheechoo Lathlin and shutdown players like Aiden Chow and Dryden Jeannot, along with four returnees - Richmond, vice-grip D Fry, ex-WHLer Cory King and budding star Cole Tanchuk. The forward core sees players like Kaden Kohle, who brings in almost 200 games of WHL experience, Minnesota high school star Brent Gulenchyn, prep school stars Liam Bridger and Mason Hartley, promising Quebecois Alexi Sylvestre and the youngest addition, 16-year-old local boy Joey Lies, coming in to aid.
“Gulenchyn and Bridger have definitely earned their spot on the team. Them and Sylvestre, those three guys up front have definitely earned spots in the lineup,” said Reagan.
“On the backend, Lathlin, Bono and Chow are guys who I think really came along and continued to get better. Jeannot has continued to get better too and he’s in a different situation because he was with us for the majority of the playoffs last year and learned our systems.”
Reagan said the team will build on their youth, while he keeps an eye on which players become available as the season progresses.
“I think that’s a work in progress. I think it depends on the young guys, if they’ve got the capabilities,” said the coach.
“We know from last year that having six of our seven defencemen being veteran guys, how important that was. We’ll see how the young guys progress and we’ll make adjustments accordingly. I think you don’t want to box yourself in with making decisions too early, but the nice thing is that the talent is there - now, you just have to be patient as a coach and let the process play out with guys learning the systems and how we want to play.”
Questions still exist in net, where the Bombers will go into the season with a pairing of ex-Nipawin Hawk Harmon Laser-Hume and 2005-born Kenneth Marquart – Laser-Hume was stuck with a basement-dwelling Hawks squad last year and had shabby stats, but despite that, Reagan says he’s found his man, saying the numbers don’t tell the full story on Laser-Hume.
“I’m very happy with what I see out of him so far. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but he reminds me a bit of [former Bomber goalie] PJ Musico in the style he plays - he’s aggressive, he’s athletic, he competes real hard, he plays the puck well and I like the energy he brings there,” said Reagan.
“I think he’s stabilized the crease a bit where he brings confidence to the net. I think our young guys don’t feel as much pressure. There’s always something to be said about experience.’
The goalie started his Bomber career with a shutout in the home opener, before being handed a loss from his former team Saturday night.
“The one thing people don’t understand about Laser-Hume is that in Nipawin, a lot of nights, he was getting shell-shocked. That can be a really good thing for a goaltender - for him to still have a .900 save percentage speaks to the calibre of goaltending that he can provide,” said Reagan.
“With a veteran D core in front of him and a team with the experience we have, you would think those numbers are only going to get better… he’s the starter as of right now. We like what we see so far.”
Forward Jeremi Tremblay also missed the entire training camp and preseason due to injury - while the Sacred Heart Univ. commit has been in Flin Flon and travelled with the team, he has not yet played. Reagan said that the skilled forward is likely to make his season debut later this month.
“We feel that he'll be cleared for next week. He's very close to being cleared,” Reagan said in a conversation before the team's home opener last week.
“If it was the playoffs, he would be playing Friday night [in the home opener].”
Reagan has made no secret of his desire to build a team throughout the season – new players are likely to join as the year progresses, but the coach is unwilling to reveal just what aces are up his sleeve. At a time when Bomber faithful are almost desperate for a title – the city’s last remaining mine has closed and this spring will mark the 30-year anniversary of the Bombers’ last championship – the time is as good as ever.
“I think we’re going to be an extremely hard-working team, we’re going to be a motivated team. We’re going to be different than we were last year, there’s no question about it, but every year, you have to find different ways of winning,” Reagan said.
“We’re looking for guys who have a real high compete level and who will bring a lot of energy.”