It’s still only pre-season, but Kanata Stallions assistant coach Dustin Dorken likes what he sees.
Kanata’s new stable of players have a spring in their step and can cross the ice much faster than last year’s team, he said.
“Guys are just moving the puck a lot faster,” he said. “We got the guns to be more of a puck-possession team. I think we got a much more skilled team.”
This is the second season for head coach Corey Foster and his staff at the helm.
Last year, the Stallions competed in the Fred Page Cup, by virtue of hosting the annual eastern Canadian junior hockey tournament, which included the winners of the Quebec Junior AAA Hockey League, the Central Canada Hockey League (CCHL), the Maritime Hockey League and the host team.
The Stallions failed to earn a playoff spot in the 2013 CCHL playoffs, finishing the season with a 28-34 record, placing ninth in the 12-team league, and missing out on the post-season by four points.
In 2012-13, the team played a tough defense-first type of game, relying on turnovers and the play of goaltender Brandon Lane.
“This kid was ridiculous,” said Dorken. “He’d steal games.”
Lane won’t be back this year, after accepting a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1 scholarship to play for Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, Penn.
Competing for his old job are Braydon St. Germain, Ian Donnan and Noel Skinner, a pickup from Nova Scotia.
“The job’s up for grabs,” said Dorken. “He’s definitely got big skates to fill, for whoever’s going to take the No. 1 job.”
The Stallions were forced to reload this season after an exodus of 20-year-old players including Curtis Watson - the best defenceman in the league, according to Dorken, and the team’s top line: Fabian Walsh, centre, and wingers Joe Breslin and Brandon Petrie.
The return of centre Derian Plouffe, the team’s top-scoring forward last season, who racked up 35 goals and 33 assists last season, will help, said Dorken.
Nic LaBurn, a power forward now playing his second year in a Stallions’ uniform, hopes to step into a top-six slot.
“He’d sooner go over guys than around them,” said Dorken.
LaBurn scored 13 goals and 14 assists and had 48 penalty minutes in 60 games in 2012-13.
Meanwhile, general manager Lou Nistico has been busy filling in the team’s gaps, signing a slew of players from the United States and Canada, including J.P. Langlois, a fast puck-moving defenceman who last year played for Northwoods School in Lake Placid, N.Y.
“We’ve been chasing him since March and he finally signed in May,” said Dorken. “We needed some offence. We only had one offensive defenceman last year and we struggled to score.”
Langlois will be joined on the Stallions’ blueline by Trent Yule, who also played at Northwoods School last season.
Langlois and Yule are expected to be workhorses for the Stallions, playing on both the power play and penalty kill.
“I move the puck pretty well,” said Langlois. “I skate well. I think I can put in a lot of minutes.”
The team also expects to have a good crop of rookies, selected in the 2012 CJHL entry draft, including winger Ben Fanjoy, an Ottawa 67’s prospect, defenceman Kris Mylarri and winger Ian Johnston, an Oshawa Generals draft pick.
The speed of the new players will allow the team to transition from a “lunch-pail gang” brand of hockey to more of a puck-possession style of play, said Dorken.
“We would like to score more off the rush,” he said.
The Stallions hope team speed and skill will translate into improved play on the power play and penalty kill.
Last season, Kanata’s power play ranked among the league worst, while its penalty kill was middle of the pack.
“Last year, we didn’t have the guys to move the puck fast,” said Dorken.
Improved team speed will allow the Stallions to adopt a more aggressive style of play, he added.
“I’m not a big fan of sitting back,” he said.
Dorken said the Stallions are looking to make the top five in the league during regular season, qualifying the team for the playoffs.
The Stallions will open the season by hosting the Hawkesbury Hawks on Aug. 31, starting at 7 p.m., during the annual CCHL Showcase held at the Bell Sensplex.
The showcase features all 12 CCHL clubs playing two regular season games in Kanata on the Aug. 31 to Sept. 2 weekend.
The Stallions season is scheduled to run from Aug. 31 to March 4, with regular home games at the Kanata Recreation Complex on Tuesday nights, starting at 7:30 p.m., in addition to the occasional games on Friday nights and on the weekend.
Kanata will host the Gloucester Rangers for the team’s first home game at the recreation complex on Sept. 10.