It’s been a tough season on the ice for the Neepawa Natives.
The Natives have managed only 13 wins through 57 games this season in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, but head coach Ken Brooks said while there have been some growing pains, there has also been some progress.
"You don’t rebuild overnight," Brooks said. "And to the guys’ credit, they could have easily called it quits a number of times and they all keep showing up and working hard."
The Natives have one of the youngest teams in the MJHL, often dressing only one-third of the league maximum of nine 20-year-olds. While the youth on the roster has hurt the team in the win column, many of the Natives’ young players have been given an opportunity to play increased minutes in a variety of roles, something that should only help them next year.
"If we can build on some of the blocks that we have this year, then you’re looking at a season where you have 25-30 wins and you’re in that mix for the playoffs," Brooks said.
Rookie Drake Lindsay leads the club with 41 points and, at just 17 years of age, will be expected to be a key offensive contributor moving forward. Brandon’s Brayden Cuthbert, who just turned 19, suffered through a 19-month layoff due to a concussion but has returned to the ice this season to chip in with 37 points in 51 games and still has two years of eligibility left. Neepawa’s Derrick Brooks and MacGregor’s Landon Thomson are second and fourth in scoring on the team and are both eligible to return, meaning the Natives should — provided their forwards come back — be able to score next season.
In goal, Brooks is comfortable with Davy Fisher moving forward after the team traded disgruntled veteran Corey Koop prior to the Jan. 10 deadline. Fisher, 18, is out for the season after learning he has a pelvic tilt, something that causes him to put excess stress on his groin. But Brooks said it’s a problem that is being fixed and expects him to take the starting job next year.
The back end might present the most glaring hole for the Natives. On defence, the Natives only stand to lose 20-year-old captain Troy Hoban, but it’s a unit that lacks the necessary size and physical presence to compete in the MJHL.
"We want to build from our back end out and we’d like to add a couple of big bodies back there," Brooks said. "If we could find that big, shutdown stud and a puck-moving defenceman to run the power play, it would sure help."
Defenceman Riley Pace, 19, will be one of the guys leaned on heavily next season for the Natives. He believes there is no reason the team can’t turn it around in 2013-14 with the group of veteran players that are eligible to return.
"You need your 20-year-olds as your base and then you can build around them," Pace said. "We didn’t have that this year and next year we have 10, so we’ll have to cut one down."
Off the ice, Neepawa’s players play a big role in the community, often spending time at schools and businesses in the area. On Sunday, the team held a ‘Skate with the Natives’ after their game with the Dauphin Kings, allowing kids to get a chance to get on the ice with their favorite players.
"A lot of the kids look up to us, which is nice," Pace said. "And we want to turn this team around and get everybody back in the rink."