Thursday, October 11, 2012

Your 2012-2013 UNB Varsity Reds

With the AUS regular season kicking off tomorrow night I figure now is as good time as any to look at how the 2012-2013 edition of the Varsity Reds shape up, specifically compared to last year's AUS Championship squad that posted a 20-5-3 regular season record and a perfect 5-0 playoff record. It marked the V-Reds 5th straight 20+ win season and 2nd straight AUS Championship.

GOALTENDERS

Returning Players: Travis Fullerton (5th year, 11-0-1 with 1.67 GAA and 0.909 save percentage in 13 games last season), Dan LaCosta (5th year, 8-3-1 with 2.49 GAA and 0.898 save percentage in 15 games)
Arrivals: None
Departures: None

Analysis: Fullerton and LaCosta both return for their 5th, and final, year of eligibility and will both be looking to bounce back after injury plagued seasons.

Fullerton, who is perhaps the most underrated goalie in the entire nation, battled various ailments through the year but still led the AUS in GAA by a wide margin and did not lose a game in regulation until the University Cup semi-finals against Western, his 20th start of the season. Even though he has already led the V-Reds to two national championships many still argue that he is the product of the team in front of him. However, as many Saint John Sea Dogs fans will attest to, all Fullerton does is win and he will no doubt be counted on to carry the bulk of the load between the pipes once again. Maybe this will finally be the year the best goalie in UNB history gets the due he deserves.

LaCosta is coming off of an up and down year in which he played more than he probably should have as injuries to Fullerton forced him to start many games even though he was less than 100%. As a result it never really seemed the former NHL'er was able to get comfortable and into a groove. Despite that he still finished 2nd in the AUS in GAA. If his stellar performance against Maine last weekend - maybe his best in a UNB uniform - is any indication a full year of good health should make LaCosta one of the best back-up goalies in the CIS.

Verdict: Slight upgrade due to the reasonable assumption both goalies will remain healthier this season.

FORWARDS

Returning Players: Chris Culligan (8g + 22a in 27 GP), Tyler Carroll (15g + 11a in 27 GP), Thomas Nesbitt (8g + 13a in 27 GP), Nick MacNeil (6g + 10a in 23 GP), Antoine Houde-Caron (7g + 6a in 28 GP), Taylor MacDougall (3g + 9a in 25 GP), Matt Fillier (2g + 7a in 28 GP), Daine Todd (5g + 2a in 20 GP), Geordie Wudrick (2g + 4a in 12 GP), Stefan Salituro (1g + 3a in 6 GP), Luke Lynes (2g in 6 GP)

Arrivals: Bryce Swan (10g + 15a in 26 GP with St. FX of AUS), Colby Pridham ( 14g + 16a in 28 GP with SMU of AUS), Cam Braes (41G + 40a in 74 GP for Lethbridge and Moose Jaw of WHL), Cameron Critchlow (21g + 29a in 50 GP for Halifax of QMJHL)

Departures: Kyle Bailey (16g + 17a in 28 GP), Dion Campbell (8g + 9a in 28 GP), Shayne Wiebe (5g + 7a in 11 GP), Jordan Clendenning (6g + 5a in 15 GP), Jeff Lee (2g + 4a in 15 GP)

Analysis: The V-Reds enter the season without their top scorer from last season but on paper one could argue that this year's offense will be better and deeper than the one that led the AUS with 4.29 goals per game last year.

Obviously UNB will never be able to replace the leadership and passion that Kyle Bailey brought to the program for the last five years but just looking at the stat sheet it is reasonable to assume his production will be matched by 5th year transfer student, and former SMU captain, Colby Pridham, who should slide seamlessly into Bailey's second line centre role.

Jordan Clendenning is another key loss that extends far beyond what he brings on the ice. An alternate captain last season Clendenning showed flashes of being a solid top-6 player while at UNB but, unfortunately, battled a number of knee injuries during his 4 year career. As a result he probably never quite produced at the level many fans thought he would when he was recruited after posting seasons of 58, 51, and 76 points in his last 3 years of junior. Newcomer Bryce Swan, also an alternate captain last year (with St. FX), should more than offset Clendenning's offence.

Towards the end of the season it appeared UNB had found their number one line of the future with Culligan centering Carroll and Wiebe. However, with Wiebe unexpectedly leaving after only half a season there was an opening on the top unit. Enter Cam Braes. Like Wiebe, Braes is a former 40 goal scorer out of the WHL and if his impressive pre-season is a preview of things to come the V-Reds should employ one of the top lines in the AUS, if not CIS. Expect to see Braes, Culligan, and Carroll all over the score sheet this season.

Another unexpected departure was the solid, if not spectacular, Dion Campbell, who decided to focus on academics this year. I expect Critchlow to be able to fill Campbell's role this season - a good bottom-6 player who can play on one of the top two lines without missing a beat if needed.

Jeff Lee also decided not to return. A solid depth player who was never afraid to drive hard to the net, something I for one would like to see the V-Reds do more often, Lee seen his playing time decrease as the season went on to the point where he was a healthy scratch more often than not by the time the playoffs rolled around. Considering this he should be rather easily replaceable.

It would not be unreasonable to expect veteran players such as Chris Culligan, Nick MacNeil, and Matt Fillier to have their best seasons in a V-Reds uniform as well as 2nd year players Tyler Carroll and Thomas Nesbitt to improve on their solid rookie years. Fellow sophomores Taylor MacDougall, Antoine Houde-Caron, Geordie Wudrick are all talented enough to put up decent point totals. Stefan Salituro only played 6 regular season games last year due to UNB's depth but showed plenty of promise. Count me as someone who hopes to see him in the line-up more regularly this season.

Verdict: Slight upgrade due to new recruits being more than capable of filling the holes left by departing players and expected improvements of younger players.

DEFENCEMEN

Returning Players: Daine Todd (5g + 2a in 20 GP), Marc-Antoine Desnoyers (1g + 5a in 27 GP), Ben Wright (5a in 16 GP), Ben Shutron (4a in 17 GP), Josh Kidd (1g + 2a in 14 GP), Chad Denny (1g in 8 GP)

Arrivals: Adrian Robertson (10g + 28a in 52 GP for Windsor and Sarnia of OHL)

Departures: Jonathan Harty (7g + 20a in 26 GP), Luke Gallant (5g + 21a in 27 GP), Bretton Stamler (8g + 12a in 20 GP), Spencer Corcoran (1g + 2a in 19 GP)

Analysis: Anytime you lose the top three scoring defencemen in the conference, who are all veterans and former all-stars, it is undoubtedly a huge loss. Veteran swing/utility man Spencer Corcoran, an underrated member of the V-Reds for the previous three season, also decided not to return. Trying to replace that kind of production and depth in one offseason would be almost impossible but UNB tried, recruiting the steady Bretton Stamler-like Adrian Robertson out of the OHL and offensively-minded Mikael Tam out of the QMJHL, but when Tam jumped at a pro opportunity it all of a sudden makes UNB's 'D' corps very questionable and a far cry from the unit that has led the AUS in fewest goals against in each of the last 5 seasons. To help make up for these losses Daine Todd will make the transition from forward to defence and the early returns are positive.

No question, the biggest key for the Varsity Reds this season will be the health of their defence. The fact that Marc-Antoine Desnoyers is the only returnee who played over 17 games at 'D' is not exactly encouraging, though. Ben Wright and Josh Kidd both seem to have a hard time staying healthy for a full season (and have each already missed exhibition games this year), Todd has had a number of injuries to his shoulders in his career, Ben Shutron was well on his way to becoming one of the best blue-liners in the country in his rookie year in 2009-2010 but hasn't gotten back to that level after suffering a broken femur at the beginning of his 2nd year, and Chad Denny missed some time last year. However, if injuries do strike I fully expect to see some reinforcements added during the Christmas break in preparation for the stretch run.

Now, having said that, IF (and it is a big if) everyone can remain relatively healthy this group has a chance of being one of the better units in the nation offensively. They probably won't have 3 guys put up 20+ points but they could have more balanced production from 1 to 7, with all 6 returning players having a realistic chance of far surpassing their totals from last year. Todd is obviously very offensively-gifted, as evidenced by the 28 points he posted as a forward in 2009-2010, and could be the leading scorer among the d-men thanks to his nifty stick handling and puck skills. Expect to see him jump into the play often, ala Jonathan Harty, and see plenty of time on the power play. Desnoyers and Shutron should also get lots of opportunities with the man advantage and eclipsing the 10 points they accumulated between them last year should not be too difficult. Shutron had 27 points in his rookie season but it could be argued that since his injury he has not received the playing time necessary to get back to that level, only playing 17 games last year. That shouldn't be an issue this year. Perhaps the two most intriguing defencemen are former NHL draft picks Denny and Kidd, who are a goalies worst nightmare as they both possess rocket shots from the point that I hope to see utilized plenty this season. Denny's strong pre-season play leaves me hopeful of a big season ahead, and he should help pick up most of the slack in terms of delivering thunderous hits created by the departure of Harty. Kidd has shown flashes of being a solid offensive defenceman with some good rushes from time to time and is capable of being a difference-maker in the AUS, but he will need to show more consistency. Wright and Robertson are both known as being more defensive-minded but should still be able to pick up some points here and there.

Defensively speaking this unit probably won't be as good as recent years. Stamler was a rock in his own end, Gallant was more offensive-minded but still solid in the defensive zone, and Harty, while often finding himself out of position after making a big hit or joining the rush early in his career, improved by leaps and bounds at picking his spots throughout his career and turned into one of UNB's more reliable and trusted defenders. As mentioned above Wright and Robertson are both defense-first players, but we need to remember that Robertson, although solid, is a rookie and it would be unreasonable to expect him to make the transition from the CHL to the AUS without a few growing pains in the early going. The others, I would argue, are more offensive oriented and are not shy at jumping up into the rush. As a result I expect more running around in their own end as well as more shots and odd-man rushes against UNB than in recent years.

Verdict: Slight downgrade, but with the potential to remain about the same with good health and guys playing to their potential.

Final Verdict: Slight upgrade overall. The Varsity Reds might not have as much depth this year in terms of number of players, but I feel that the team they put on the ice every night 1 to 20 will be a touch deeper, and more talented, than last season's squad. I can't foresee them experiencing the number of injuries they had last year, especially to the goalies, so assuming even reasonable health I think the V-Reds will have a record just a bit better than last year's 20-5-3 mark.

Prediction: 22-5-1, 1st in AUS

All photos courtesy Brian Smith Photography