The Virden Oil Capitals were a smash hit with fans in their inaugural season, regularly packing more than 1,000 of them into Tundra Oil & Gas Place for home games.
Head coach and general manager Troy Leslie hopes to reward that support this season by putting together a playoff team for the Virden faithful.
After bringing in a franchise that had made a surprise run to the Manitoba Junior Hockey League final the previous season as the Winnipeg Saints, Virden was in the hunt for a playoff spot for a good portion of 2012-13, but opted to sacrifice the potential of more wins last season for two things: getting younger and adding more Westman talent.
Among their moves, the Oil Capitals traded Jon Gaudet, who was leading the MJHL in scoring at the time, to the Dauphin Kings in November. Virden slid down the standings, finishing fifth in the Sher-Wood Division with an 18-34-8 record, but Leslie expects the team to rise again this season.
“We definitely want to be a playoff team this year and again we’ve still got lots of guys left in camp, so there’s still some decisions to be made here yet as well,” said Leslie, whose team is 3-3 in pre-season play after Wednesday’s 4-3 home win over the Selkirk Steelers. “But we feel good about our start. We had a good rookie game against Portage and we’re very happy with how we’ve played so far in all our exhibition games.”
The Oil Capitals traded their top returning scorer, Sean Collins, during the off-season but have their next eight leading scorers from last season back in the fold. Those eight players only had between 20 and 30 points apiece, with forward Kolby Woods (17 goals, 13 assists) and defenceman Jordan Greig (nine goals, 19 assists) of Souris leading the way, but all were either 17 or 18 years old last season and Leslie expects improvement with the extra year of development.
The team has also added a number of players with Junior A experience, including Melita’s Lucas Oliver (Minot Minotauros, North American league), Brandonite Austin Lewis (Dryden Ice Dogs, Superior International), defenceman Cole Hamblin (Portage Terriers, MJHL) and Belarus national junior team member Arty Kalashnikov (Nipawin, Saskatchewan Junior).
“We’d kind of win a game, lose two, win a game, lose two last year, so we want to be a more consistent team, string some wins together and be a little bit harder to play against,” Leslie said. “I think we’ve added some guys to make us a bit tougher in our own end and we feel that with everybody being a year older and a year stronger, plus some of the new guys that we’ve added, some of our bigger forwards, we’ll be able to battle in those hard areas and get to the net.”
Among the rookies in Oil Capitals camp are Tanner Lewis of Virden and Sheldon Kowalchuk of Souris, who both played for the Southwest Midget AAA Cougars last season, and Jake Dudar and Mack Hardy, who helped the Winnipeg Wild win the Manitoba Midget AAA title.
It appears that the team has lost 17-year-old goaltender Ty Edmonds to the Western Hockey League’s Prince George Cougars, but 19-year-old Kyler Beckett returns, with 18-year-old Brandonite Justin Holder and Matt Verrault, a 20-year-old who played Junior B last season, also in the mix.
All told, Leslie hopes the changes and the extra year of maturity for the returning players are enough to turn around a team that lost 18 one-goal games last season.
“Last year when we got beat in some of those close games, we felt like maybe we shot ourselves in the foot a bit,” he said, “and we just want to make sure that we eliminate those little errors that cost us last year.”
ONE-TIMERS: An ill-fated booze cruise forced the cancellation of Wednesday’s exhibition game between the Swan Valley Stampeders and the SJHL’s Flin Flon Bombers. The Stampeders’ way to the game was blocked after a semi-trailer full of beer overturned and caused the closure of Highway 10.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 12, 2013