Heading into the regular season, Bombers head coach and general manager Mike Reagan had a unique problem - one he hadn’t faced in his long career behind the team’s bench.
Reagan, for the first time in his tenure with the team, had too many quality forwards.
“It’s never been this hard for me,” he said.
“I'll be honest with you. It is probably the toughest year to get down to numbers for us, because we feel that there's so many good players here and they’re so close, that making the right decisions on the last couple has been real difficult,”
In a conversation just days before the team’s home opener Sept. 13, Reagan wasn’t sure who’d make the cut, and who wouldn’t. He said the team had 18 forwards left and not enough space to fit them all.
“These six players could very easily play on one of our top four lines,” he said, adding the team’s exhibition schedule - which included five games in six days - played a role in the issue.
“Typically, for one of the games, we would have our opening day lineup playing. We didn’t do that once because there were so many decisions to be made. It’s been a bit of a different year in how we went through the process.”
The Bombers went winless through those five exhibition matchups, but Reagan didn’t put much stock in those results. He said the team has gone undefeated through the preseason before, but when it came time for league champs to be crowned, those wins meant nothing.
“It’s certainly nice to win games in regulation, but we’ve looked at this as more finding what our team is,” Reagan said.
While the exact makeup of the team’s forward core wasn’t entirely known at the time of writing, some of the decisions were easy. Cutting down from six lines of forwards to 15 players was the tricky part.
The Bombers headed into the season with a small number of returnees from last year’s offensively gifted squad. Five forwards (Matt Flodell, Caleb Franklin, Donavan Houle-Villeneuve, Billy Klymchuk and Reid Robertson), four defencemen (Mason Martin, Jack Michell, Ryder Richmond and Jaxon White) and goalie Jacob Delorme have returned. Some players eligible to come back, including forwards Alec Cokley and Chrystopher Collin and defender Vaughan Bamford, have chosen to leave the team as of training camp.
With prominent spots in the lineup gone, the Bombers will rely this season on a mix of veterans, wildcards and prospects to flesh out the lineup. Some new, intriguing faces from the east could play big roles.
Three forwards with experience in the QMJHL have arrived at training camp with the team, each bringing different offensive pedigree. The group is led by Cole Rafuse, who played a vital role in the Bombers’ offence during preseason appearances. A former second-round pick in the QMJHL bantam draft, Rafuse joined the Bombers at camp after playing four seasons of major junior, winning a QMJHL title and a Memorial Cup in 2017 with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. Last season, Rafuse scoring 16 goals and 31 points in 66 games, but was an overage forward on a rebuilding with youth this season. Left off the Acadie-Bathurst roster, Rafuse headed west to find a new start. Along with Rafuse came his former teammate, forward Brandon Cianflone. The 18-year-old winger played 35 games with Acadie-Bathurst last season, tallying three points.
Perhaps the most mysterious of the three is 20-year-old forward Alec Malo. Last season, Malo played in Quebec’s junior A league with the Montreal-Est Rangers, putting up eye-popping numbers - 26 goals, 58 assists and 84 points in only 47 regular games. The Bombers acquired the forward in a deal with Les Rangers for a player development fee.
Malo was acquired late in camp and was supposed to be in the lineup for the Bombers’ now cancelled second game against the OCN Blizzard. Before the home opener, Malo hadn’t played a game - exhibition or otherwise - as a Bomber.
Malo, who played a season of major junior in the QMJHL as a teen, is a friend of current Bomber Donavan Houle-Villeneuve. Reagan first encountered Malo while scouting in Montreal at the same tournament where he spotted Houle-Villeneuve.
“We tried to convince him to come three years ago, and he chose to go major junior and played a full season there. This summer, he trained for the full season with Donavan and worked with Donavan - they’re really good friends.”
While most players come to junior A for a chance at scholarships with American schools, Malo can’t - his year in the Q makes him ineligible in the NCAA. Instead, Malo hopes to jump the college ranks completely and head to Europe to play professionally next season.
“He's very serious about going over to Europe next year to play pro, and he felt that coming out west would be the best opportunity for him to grow as a player and be better prepared for going over there,” Reagan said.
“When we got the news, we were very interested. We think he’s a player who’s going not only make our powerplay better, but also our first line better.”
Returnee Houle-Villeneuve has showed flashes of promise with the Bombers over the past two seasons. The Montreal-born forward turned up his offence last year, going from 21 points in his first season in Flin Flon to 46, doubling his number of assists and nearly tripling his goals scored.
Not to be outdone are the Haygarths, Chase and Easton, 2000-born twin brothers originally from Lloydminister, Alta. The pair were acquired in a deal that sent forward Vincent Nardone west from the Bombers. The surname “Haygarth” may sound familiar to Bomber fans, for good reason - the players not only have relatives in Flin Flon, but they are also related to former Bomber forward Brody Haygarth.
The Bombers had some question marks in the crease - namely around who would be the team’s backup. The team entered the season with only Delorme returning, having dealt team playoff MVP Gabriel Waked to B.C.
Five contenders come to camp to fill the vacant spot. Out of the contenders, the last man standing was J.P Mella. Originally from Stamford, Conn., Mella played for the same famed Shattuck-Saint Mary’s midget program in Minnesota that produced NHL stars like Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, Zach Parise and Jonathan Toews.
Few open spots remain on the Bombers’ defence, which was bolstered by the return of 18-year-old Jack Michell. Acquired last season in a trade with the Estevan Bruins, Michell played well as a young defenceman with the Bombers. After a try at training camp with the Prince George Cougars of the WHL, Michell returned to Flin Flon and will likely contend for a top pairing spot.
In the mix for regular playing time will be two 19-year-old defencemen from the Iowa Wild midget program, Jack Craycroft and Adam Victorino. Craycroft, who is 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, plays a more controlling defensive game, while Victorino, a 5-foot-9, 185 pound defender from Fairbanks, Alaska, brings more offence and speed to the lineup. Victorino will hope to be the latest in a recent tradition of Bombers from the 49th State, preceded by a trio of Calvon Boots, Ethan Daniels and Caleb Moretz. Each of the three played two seasons with the Bombers, with Boots and Moretz ending their time with NCAA Division I scholarships.
Seeing new faces coming from Quebec, Connecticut, Iowa and Alaska may leave many Bomber fans confused. Reagan assured that each player was well scouted before coming to camp.
“I'm pretty familiar with these players before we bring them in. My expectations for them are typically what they are. There's not a lot of players these days that come in, that you don't really know a lot about,” he said.