Looking at the Neepawa Natives from a fresh perspective, Dwayne Kirkup doesn’t see a team that finished last in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League last season with a 13-40-7 record.
Instead, the Natives’ new bench boss sees a team that he believes has a chance to make the playoffs this season.
“I guess I’m like every other coach in the Manitoba junior league,” said Kirkup, who came to the Natives this season after four years with the Swan Valley Stampeders, where he went 124-97-24 and was the MJHL’s coach of the year in 2010. “I’m certainly trying to make the playoffs and I think that we have a very good opportunity to make the playoffs.”
Stoking Kirkup’s optimism is the return of the Natives’ top five scorers from last season in Derrick Brooks (24 goals, 17 assists, 41 points), Drake Lindsay (14-27-41), Brandonite Brayden Cuthbert (12-25-37), Landon Thompson (19-16-35) of MacGregor and Sam Briscoe (11-22-33), plus the addition of 19-year-old Henry Berger, who had 36 points in 40 games with Elliot Lake of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League last season.
“(Berger is) an offensive guy that can come in and play top-six minutes, so I think we’ve got depth in the front end and the focus through the whole recruiting process was to shore up the back end,” Kirkup said.
Davy Fisher and McCreary’s Matt Kohlman, who both saw some action with the Natives last season, are among the five goaltenders in camp, while Michael Gudmandson, a 20-year-old who spent some time with the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Humboldt Broncos last season, is also in the mix.
There will be major changes on the blue-line with captain Troy Hoban graduated and off to Arizona State University, although Lyndon Soper of Gladstone and Clayton Heinrichs of Brandon are both back. Jaxon Elmes and Ty Webber are rookies vying for spots after graduating from the Brandon Midget AAA Wheat Kings last season, while Sam Houston of Boissevain is also getting a look although he could still return to midget with the Southwest Cougars. Additionally, a trio of Americans have been brought in to bolster the blue-line in Pennsylvania’s Buddy Summers and Californians Brian Skillicorn and Nick Trefry.
After three straight years of finishing last in the Sher-Wood Division, really there is nowhere to go but up for the Natives. After his players’ performance in training camp and a week of pre-season games, Kirkup believes that’s exactly where the team is headed.
“I certainly remember coaching against this hockey club eight times last year but for me, I think everybody starts over at zero and I think I made that message very clear right off the bat; we all start over at zero and let’s make a good impression and let’s move forward,” said Kirkup, whose team split its first two pre-season games before hosting the Portage Terriers on Friday night. “I think all the players came to camp in shape; I think they’re ready to go. It’s a new season and I think they’re excited about what’s ahead.”
ONE-TIMERS: The Dauphin Kings have added 20-year-old C Michael Sofillas, a Winnipegger who has played the last three seasons with the Western Hockey League’s Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 7, 2013