When the Elmira Sugar Kings 2011/2012 season opened back on Sept. 9 there was a buzz in the air as fans packed the Dan Snyder Arena to watch the Sutherland Cup Champions collect their rings and watch their championship banner rise to the rafters.
The players didn’t disappoint, either, and the team went on to defeat the visiting Owen Sound Greys 5-2 in that game, eventually stringing together a team-record 14 straight wins to start the year.
Not bad for a team with a completely rebuilt defence, a new head coach, and a new general manager.
The team ultimately fell far short of their goal of defending the Cherrey Cup and Sutherland Cup, as they bowed out to Stratford in a hard-fought six-game semi-final series that ended on Mar. 26, with injuries and undisciplined play the primary culprits in their early exit.
“It was a tale of two seasons,” said head coach Dean DeSilva earlier this week. “On paper, we probably had the most talented team, and we definitely had the oldest team in the league, and at times that was our nemesis.”
The Kings took a different approach this season, moving away from the traditional dump-and-chase Sugar King hockey fans are familiar with to adopt a more skilled game with a veteran lineup of forwards in order to compete in what they knew would be a very competitive Midwestern Conference.
To put the competitiveness of their season into perspective, the Sugar Kings set a team record for wins in a season with 40 (eclipsing the previous record of 38) and points in a season with 82 (previous record was 81) yet they still only finished third in the conference.
The team carried eight 20-year-olds on the roster: six forwards, defenceman and team captain Colton Wolfe-Sabo, and goaltender Nick Horrigan, yet they had one of the youngest defensive units in the league, leading to some questions as to how management decided to assemble their lineup.
The January trade of all-star first-year defender Craig Johnson to Listowel for forward Brett Catto epitomized that mentality.
“People may ask why we played all these older players. It was a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation,” said DeSilva. “What we looked at as coaches is we wanted to ice the most experienced lineup that we possibly could.”
DeSilva said that the team is expecting all eligible players to return next season, meaning the Kings will have a strong core of returning defenders, led by veteran Clayton Greer, but the forwards are going to be decimated by the loss of the top two lines of players.
Michael Hasson, Brett Priestap, Scott Nagy, Brad Kraus, Lukas Baleshta, Riley Sonnenburg and Andrew Smith are all gone next season, along with their 155 combined goals – or 65 per cent of the Kings’ total offense from last year.
“That’s a huge amount of offence, and yes, I’ve actually got a blueprint and a plan in place for next year,” said DeSilva.
Add the fact that their captain and starting goaltender are gone as well, it is clear that more than a few players are going to have to step up next season.
DeSilva’s plan involves a return to the more traditional style of Sugar Kings hockey of banging, grinding and fighting for every inch on the ice, as well as a heavier reliance on players like Cass Frey and Clayton Greer to lead the way.
In goal, it will be nearly impossible to replace Nick Horrigan, who is graduating from Junior B this season, but DeSilva said the job will be backup goalie Justis Husak’s to lose come training camp, and that the transition should be made easier by greater experience on the blueline.
The work to execute that blueprint begins in earnest next month when the Kings will hold their spring rookie training camp May 12-13 in Cambridge. The camp will be for players hoping to move up from the minor hockey ranks as well as the Junior D and C levels of hockey, and no returning Kings players will be on the ice that weekend.
“What I’m looking for there is work ethic and their compete level. What I like to look for is their attitude and how they react after they get checked – do they continue to battle? What’s their body language?” said DeSilva.
Registration forms for the spring camp are available on the Sugar Kings website, elmirakings.pointstreaksites.com.