It’s still early in the preseason but at this point it looks as though, come September, the Elmira Sugar Kings are going to be a younger – and larger – squad than that of last season. With a number of key players graduating out of the system or moving on to other clubs, the Kings are slowly filling the ranks in preparation for next season’s campaign.
“We’re going to be young; we’re going to be really young this year. I think we’ll be competitive,” general manager Keith Stewart said in an interview this week.
Head coach Geoff Haddaway and assistant coaches Jim MacEachern and Kyle Campbell “are going to want them to be a really hard working team, so basically we’re going to be a pain in the ass to play against.”
With a number of returning players and new acquisitions the Kings are currently in full-out rebuilding mode, and places on the roster will have to be won in the coming weeks. A training camp is set for Aug. 24.
“Guys are going to have to work real hard,” said Stewart.
“We’re pretty excited because we know, in another year from now or whatever, we’re going to be real good with some of the guys that we’ve picked up.”
Climbing to the top of the standings in the early going isn’t expected as the Kings deal with the growing pains of a vastly changed lineup. Gone are some of last season’s key players: captain Patrick Shantz, speedy playmaker Brent Freeman, who notched a ninth place finish in the conference’s scoring leaders’ race with 30 goals and 46 assists; and forward Kyle McNeil, who joined the squad midway through the season and still managed to pick up 24 goals and 23 assists in 32 games. All graduated out of the system.
Blue liner Trent Brown is also leaving the Kings, having accepted an offer to join Lake Forrest College in Illinois. Goalie Jake Williams and forward Philip Teri are also currently courting other clubs.
Preparing to deal with these losses, the Kings were, however, surprised with the departure of newcomers Josh Ranalli and Kyle Blaney, whose quick and energetic play towards the end of the season signaled promise for a growing team. The two players have recently signed contracts with tier-two hockey teams.
“We thought Ranalli and Blaney both had pretty good years last year and we were hoping to have them back so they could expand on that, but they made the choice to jump to tier two, so we’ll see what happens,” explained Stewart.
“You just have to reload every year. You’ve got your work cut out for you every year scouting and things like that – plugging the holes.”
Despite the losses, the Kings will have some returning players such as defenceman Jeff Zippel and creative forward Mike Therrien on which to build the team. And a prospect camp held May 9-10 is already yielding some positive results: some 30 players out of a prospective 68 have been asked to return to the August camp. Management has already signed a handful of players.
Some of those acquisitions include two players coming from the Waterloo and Guelph Midget ranks and Tyson LeBlanc from the now-defunct Owen Sound Greys and former Kitchener Dutchmen netminder Matt Smith.
“It’s going to be pretty competitive,” said Stewart, describing what is to come of the August training camp. While the roster will, without a doubt, be vastly different from last year’s the coaching staff isn’t planning on tinkering with the Kings’ traditional penchant for speedy players and quick movement of the puck.
“We’re not going to change things up much; it will take these young guys we’re bringing some time to get adjusted. We’re pretty excited.”