The Virden Oil Capitals are ready to open their 2020-2021 season.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought a premature end to the previous Manitoba Junior Hockey League campaign and delayed this season. The Oil Caps start with the Valleyview Co-op home opener on Oct. 9 against the Portage Terriers.
“I’m just looking forward to being able to play again and have a great last year here in Virden,” said fourth-year forward Jack Einarson, who last week was named co-captain along with third-year forward Brett Paddock. “The crowds are always the best in the league.”
The game comes after a 3-0 exhibition season, capped by a 5-4 win over Portage on the road last Friday. Head coach Tyson Ramsey, whose team went 32-23-3-2 last season, expects the Oil Caps will be very exciting to watch.
“We have good speed and our guys are very skilled,” the second-year Junior A bench boss said. “If we play the right way and look after our defensive responsibilities, we can create some good offence and I believe our forward group will be tough for other teams to handle.”
Up front, the Oil Caps have speed, skill and a “willingness to play a heavy game,” Ramsey said. Among the forwards who have moved on are Tristan Thompson and Sam Brunton, who were both traded in the last couple weeks, as well as Virden’s own Tanner Andrew (55 points last season), acquired by Winkler, and former captain and last season’s Co-MVP Kolten Kanaski. However, the Oil Caps return eight up front. This group included Hunter Cloutier, who tied with Kanaski for tops on the team in goals (29) and points (65) last season. As well, the team has back their fourth leading scorer in Einarson and the forwards who produced the sixth through 10th most points on the squad last season: Josh Belcher (44), Paddock (44), Dylan Halliday (34), Owen Blocker (31), and hometown product and Oils Caps Rookie of the Year Hunter Andrew (30). Colin Cook (six points) also returns.
The Oil Caps believe they are adding some talented youngsters to this group. Virden’s Braeden Lewis, 17, and 16-year-old Conor Geekie of Strathclair are prospects for the major junior Western Hockey League’s Swift Current Broncos and Winnipeg Ice, respectively. Geekie scored a hattrick in exhibition action against Portage. He had 18 goals and 35 points in 26 games for the U18 AAA Yellowhead Chiefs last season. Lewis captained the U18AAA Southwest Cougars and recorded 64 points, with 20 goals, in 46 games.
Ramsey said that fellow rookie forwards Roux Bazin and Tyler Thoendel “are very skilled guys that we feel will contribute right away.” Treherne’s Bazin, 17, scored 28 goals and posted 55 points in 47 games for the U18 AAA Pembina Valley Hawks. Captaining the U18 AAA Winnipeg Wild, Thoendel, 18, had 29 goals and 64 points in 42 games. Killarney’s Colten Miller, 18, of the Southwest Cougars and Winnipeg’s Branden Huminuk, 17, have been very good in camp, Ramsey said.
“We are very excited to see these guys start the season.”
Blue line stalwart Jayden Wojciechowski has aged out. Last season he led the team with 40 assists, was named the Oil Caps’ Top Defenceman, and shared MVP honours with Kanaski. However, Virden has plenty of experience on the backend with five D-men returning and they have added some promising new players.
“I really like our defence corps,” Ramsey said. “We have a good combination of skill and defenders that are going to make things hard on opposing forwards and get the puck up to our skilled group of forwards. Our returning guys are good players and good people and they will be good leaders for the younger blueliners that will start the season with us.”
Logan Rands was second on the squad last season in blueline points with 27 behind Wojciechowski’s 47. Manson’s Bray Rookes had 11 points and provided a physical presence – third on the team with 92 penalty minutes. Also, back on defence for Virden are Jackson Orr, Tyler Teasdale, and Nathan McInnis.
Newcomers Trevor Hunt and Sam Mitani “have both been very good in camp and we are looking forward to watching them continue to grow and develop with our group,” Ramsey said. Hartney’s Hunt racked up 49 points, with 24 goals, in 48 games for the U18 AAA Southwest Cougars. Mitani had 18 points last season for the U18 AAA Winnipeg Wild.
In net, Ramsey said the team is excited to have Kyle Kozma back for his second season – and first full campaign with the squad. The 19-year-old had a 2.96 goals against average in 24 games last season.
“He did some very good things in his rookie season and we expect him to take the next step and be one of the top goaltenders in the league,” Ramsey said.
Newcomer Ryley Gross will back him up. The 18-year-old had a 2.21 GAA and .929 save percentage in Canadian Sport School Play for Caronport’s Prairie Hockey Academy last season.
The Oil Caps have added Brett Braybrook as an assistant coach. The hometown product has coached at various levels, including leading the senior Virden Oil Kings and the Virden Collegiate Institute high school hockey team. Reid Gow and Derek LeBlanc return as assistant coaches. Ryan Potter will once again serve as the goaltending coach.
After opening the season on Friday, the Oil Caps tangle with the Terriers again at home on Sunday. Including the exhibition season, it will be the fourth straight time the teams have competed against each other. The squads then meet twice more in Portage – so six consecutive games versus each other – before Virden hosts Winkler on Oct. 23. Due to COVID-19, the schedule is arranged to minimize the number of teams playing each other over a short period of time.
“This new schedule creates a lot of mini-playoff series, which can be challenging because it will create a lot of hostility, but also teams will develop systems as they become more accustomed to each other,” Paddock said.
On Sept. 27, the Oil Caps swapped 19-year-old forward Sam Brunton to the South Shore Lumberjacks of the Maritime Hockey League for future considerations. The Lumberjacks are based in Bridgewater, N.S. on the LaHave River. As a rookie, Brunton posted two goals and four points in 38 games for Virden.
On Oct. 5, the Oil Caps swapped 19-year-old forward Tristan Thompson to the Selkirk Steelers for 16-year-old forward Jackson Sirrell and a 2021 third round MJHL bantam draft pick. Thompson played the last two seasons in Virden. He had 14 goals and 24 points in 47 games. As a 15-year-old, Sirrell posted five goals and nine points for his hometown Winnipeg Bruins AAA U18 squad.
On social media, the team thanked Brunton and Thompson for their commitment to the organization and wished them the best with their new teams.
Oil Caps 5, Terriers 4
Geekie netted a hattrick – including the game-winning goal – on Oct. 2 as Virden won on the road to wrap up its exhibition season.
Cloutier scored shorthanded to give the Oil Caps a 1-0 lead less than two minutes into the game. Less than 10 minutes later, Geekie lit the lamp for his first goal of the night. Portage’s Rhys Raeside made it a 2-1 game with 14:27 gone. On a powerplay, Brett Paddock pushed the lead back to two, 3-1, with less than 30 seconds left in the opening period.
The Terriers outscored the Oil Caps, 3-1, in the second period to tie the contest at 4-4. Geekie scored his second of the night in the frame. Kiam Calder, Tyler Can Deynze, and Naaman Hofer had Portage’s goals.
Geekie scored the game winner at the 8:57 mark in the third. Halliday recorded an assist on each of Geekie’s goals.
Kozma stopped 18 of the 22 shots he faced. Cole Johnston made 24 saves on 29 shots for Portage.