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BRAMPTON, Ont. – The Brampton Battalion faces a familiar foe when it embarks on its 15th Ontario Hockey League season at 7:30 p.m. Friday against the visiting Niagara IceDogs.
Niagara, which hosts the Erie Otters on Thursday night, eliminated the Battalion in four straight games in the second playoff round last spring.
“I think we’ve got the pieces in place to take a step forward from where we were last year,” said Stan Butler, Battalion director of hockey operations and head coach.
“I think our team defence is going to be a big strength for us again this year. We’ve had the same core group on the back end heading into our third straight year.”
Matt Rabideau, the club’s hockey assistant and director of player development, shares Butler’s opinion.
“We’re really strong in our defensive areas,” said Rabideau. “We’re in really good shape to keep pucks out of our net with the guys we have here.”
With defenceman Kyle Wood having been assigned to the junior A Orangeville Flyers, the Battalion features 23 players on the opening roster, including eight entering their first full OHL seasons. Left winger Blake Clarke and right winger Mike Amadio, the club’s first- and second-round picks in the 2012 OHL Priority Selection respectively, are among that group. Wood, the third-round pick, won’t be far away, said Butler.
“We’re starting him playing in Orangeville, but he’s going to stay with the team here and practise with us. We want to make sure he gets the development that he needs as a 16-year-old defenceman.”
The Troops already have developed cohesiveness both on and off the ice, winning four of five exhibition games. Rabideau said he feels the situation with respect to locked-out National Hockey League camps has helped accelerate the process.
“I think that guys not leaving for NHL camps has helped,” said Rabideau. “When we’re playing these clubs, what you see now will look the same in the regular season, and it’s helped build confidence. It’s been huge for the younger guys to be around our veterans for the full preseason as well.”
The Battalion, with 16 players who saw action with the club in 2011-12, enters the campaign with seven defencemen in Cameron Wind, Zach Bell, Dylan Blujus, Marcus McIvor, Spencer Abraham, Brenden Miller and Mark Raycroft. A sixth-round choice in the 2011 OHL Priority Selection, Raycroft is the only rookie on the blue line.
All but five of the 14 Battalion forwards saw action with the club last year. Left winger Nick Paul and right winger Mathew Santos could join Clarke and Amadio in their OHL debuts Friday night.
Centre Nicholas Foglia, who played three years with the Ottawa 67’s before being acquired for goaltender Keegan Wilson in a June 1 trade, also is set to make his regular-season Battalion debut. Bolton resident Foglia scored nine goals and earned eight assists for 17 points in 66 games last year.
Right winger Mitch Amante and centre Brennan Feasey will play their first full seasons with the Troops. Amante appeared in two games last year, while Feasey played in three after his rights were acquired from the Windsor Spitfires.
Wind and left winger Derek Froats, who played 23 games with the Battalion last year after joining the club in a trade with the Kingston Frontenacs, are the overagers. There is one overage spot open.
Only three returning forwards scored more than 10 goals last season. Winger Barclay Goodrow contributed 26, while left winger Brandon Robinson had 15 and centre Patrik Machac 14.
“We didn’t generate a lot of offence last year and we’ll need to find a way to do it this year,” noted Butler. “A lot of our young guys coming in are highly skilled kids, and they’ll bring the skill level of the team up.”
Other forwards are right winger Matt MacLeod, left winger Connor Jarvis and centre Jamie Lewis.
The goaltenders are Matej Machovsky and rookie Jake Smith. Smith, 17, was a ninth-round pick in the 2011 OHL Priority Selection. He played last season with Orangeville, compiling a won-lost-extended record of 6-5-0 in 17 appearances. He had a goals-against average of 3.23 and a .908 save percentage.
“Smith is a smaller goaltender, but he’s very athletic,” said Butler.
Czech import Machovsky, splitting crease time last season with Wilson, appeared in 42 games and posted a record of 24-13-4 with a GAA of 2.36 and a save percentage of .902. He had five shutouts.
Leadership figures to be an important element in the early going. The departures of Sam Carrick, Ian Watters and Philip Lane has created opportunity for others.
“What you hope for when picking the leaders is that they will show you who they are,” said Butler. “It’s an ongoing process that goes along with team-building.”
The Battalion, which finished fourth in the Eastern Conference and third in the Central Division last season with a record of 36-22-10, was swept by Niagara in a conference semifinal.
“You hope that the guys who were here last year were left with a bad taste in their mouths,” said Rabideau. “We’re opening up against the team that put us out, so it’s easy to get fired up and ready to go.”