With three wins in the team’s first four games of the hockey season, it’s safe to say the Saanich Braves are off to a strong start.
The Braves are first in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League’s South division with a 3-1 record.
Yes, it’s early, but with the league’s leading scorer wearing the captaincy, and WHL and BCHL prospects returning to fight for ice time, there are reasons to be optimistic, says head coach Brad Cook.
The Braves return to the ice Friday night, as they host the Nanaimo Buccaneers, 6:30 p.m. at Pearkes Arena.
“It’s normal for this time of the year to have new faces, but it’s an adjustment period that can cost you too,” Cook said. “You hope you can find the chemistry and gel as quick as possible.”
Coming into the Braves lineup this week are last year’s goalie Riley Mathieson (returning from the BCHL Vernon Vipers), defenceman Rowan Lougheed, acquired by trade from the Campbell River Storm, and a pair of WHL returnees, Quinton Waitzner from the Swift Current Broncos and Ted Brennan from the Kelowna Rockets.
Mathieson’s arrival brings the Braves solid depth in net as Bryce Schiebel earned the first two wins.
Cook is hoping the new blood can keep the early season fire stoked, but admits it can put himself in a tough spot making the final decisions on who gets to play.
“It is hard but my first responsibility is to put a competitive team on the ice,” Cook said. “When Jr. A guys come back, the room gets full, you make tough decisions, it comes with the territory.”
The Braves rolled to first with a pair of opening-weekend wins over the Peninsula Panthers, 5-3 and 3-2 in overtime, a 4-1 loss to the Victoria Cougars, and a come-from-behind 8-7 win over the Campbell River Storm on Saturday.
There is no doubt that this year’s Braves are built around the return of Nick Guerra, this year’s captain.
The 20-year-old winger was a Spectrum Community School grad who started junior hockey with the Braves in 2012. He was a point-per-game player when he left and played most of the past 2.5 seasons with the Nanaimo Clippers and Prince George Spruce Kings. Rather than fight for an overage spot this year, he’s happy to take a leadership role on the Braves. With a league leading eight goals and 13 points in his first four games, it’s safe to say Guerra is off to a good start.
“I think it should be a good year, we have a good core of local guys I grew up playing with,” Guerra said. “Really, we had a good season when I started here as a 16-year-old, and it’s just been a couple of unlucky years in between.”
The pressure for Cook is to build a team around Guerra. So far, Guerra has thrived with 18-year-old Dale McCabe at centre, as the latter is second in league scoring with 10 points.
“Guerra will have a big presence in every facet, with leadership, scoring, and defensively,” Cook said. “His hockey IQ allows him to play in every single situation. Hopefully we can have the supporting cast step up around him.”
So far, Guerra and McCabe have found consistency on a line with Drew Coughlin while the Braves have secondary scoring from fourth-year centre Scott Henderson, who already has three goals.
Ten of this year’s Saanich Braves are Spectrum Hockey Academy grads including Guerra and Coughlin.