Victoria Cougars forward Dom Kolbeins celebrates a shorthanded goal against Kerry Park in Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League playoff action last season. The Cougars, who open their regular season at home in Esquimalt on Sept. 7, lost all but five players from last year’s roster to graduation and promotion, including Kolbeins, who is playing at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri this season. Don Denton/Black Press

Victoria Cougars’ system tested this season with just five players back

Junior B hockey season gets underway in Esquimalt on Sept. 7

As a seven-time Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League playoff champion, eight-time regular season champ and 2007 B.C. champion, the Victoria Cougars have a reputation for putting very competitive teams on the ice.

Last year’s Island playoff championship runners-up to Campbell River – the Storm won the super-close series with a 4-3 overtime win in game 7 in Esquimalt – the Cougars had a veteran roster built to challenge for a provincial title.

This season is a different story, as the defending South Division champions are in a rebuilding mode with just five players back from the 2016-17 campaign.

Second-year Cougars head coach Suneil Karod, whose squad hits the ice at Archie Browning Sports Centre for their home and season opener Thursday (Sept. 7 at 7 p.m.) against the Comox Valley Glacier Kings, knows he’ll have his work cut out for him. He likes the initial look of the team.

“I think we’ll be deep up front. We might not have as much top-end talent as we’ve had in the past, but we’ll have four solid lines,” he said.

The returning forwards are Akila Sato-Gaudreau (17 goals, 17 assists last season), Kyle Wade (9-7) and Liam Kinshella (2-2), while defencemen Shane Kime (0-10) and Carl Ewert (0-6) are back on the blueline.

More players might have been back, but four former Cougars are expected to stick with Junior A clubs this season, Karod said, which is the rate of progression the Victoria club wants to see.

“That’s kind of a change I’ve made since taking over last year, we want to be a little bit younger and develop players for Junior A,” he said, noting last year’s team had a veteran forward group but all rookie defencemen. “It’s nice to win a championship and that kind of stuff, but it’s also important to move guys off to the next level.”

While the newcomers come from various organizations and are gradually learning “Cougars hockey,” Karod said, one key acquisition is goaltender Patrick Ostermann. He’s a 20-year-old veteran of the Kootenay International Junior B League who played in Creston last season and was signed to give Victoria a number 1 starter. “We brought Connor [McKillop] in as a local backup, to kind of learn from [Ostermann] and gain experience.”

The returnees are being counted upon to instill in the new players the work ethic and expectations involved with being part of this successful organization. Kinshella, who has been named team captain, will be among those leaders.

“He knows how to be a Cougar, he’s a good Cougar, even in his personal life,” Karod said. “As captain you act as an extension of the coaches, especially when they aren’t in the room.”

Sato-Gaudreau, Wade and Ewart will be among the assistant captains this season, a role the Cougars coaches try to move around to give more players a chance to lead.

That leadership and the ability to pick a team up has become even more important in recent years in the VIJHL, as the parity has grown.

“In our league there’s no easy games, no nights off,” Karod said. “Every game is a battle and a struggle, which is better for our league … Any team in this league, any time you write them off, that’s when you get burned.”

Looking around the South Division, Westshore should have most of last year’s roster back this season, while Kerry Park, which edged the Wolves for third place last season, has more than half returning. On the other hand, Saanich (second last year), Peninsula (fifth) and the Cougars have each seen a lot of turnover.

Following the home opener, the Cougars head up to Courtenay on Sept. 9 to play the back end of their home-and-home series against the Kings.

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