A week of training camp and a single exhibition game gave Sudbury Wolves fans a glimpse of an OHL team with potential, if not yet a lot of the structure head coach Craig Duncanson would like to have in place by the time of their season opener on Oct. 8.
But while Duncanson and his staff have indeed taken the opportunity during their first full week of practice to begin implementing their systems, they have also been careful not to stifle the creativity of a squad that had eight different goal scorers in an exhibition win over the Soo Greyhounds on Sept. 5, and whose overall skill level has more than impressed the veteran bench boss.
“Probably much like a lot of teams right now, I feel very positive about what we have,” said Duncanson, who took over head-coaching duties this off-season, after eight straight years at the helm of Laurentian University’s men’s team. “We have quite a collection of young players and I think they’re extremely skilled. We have yet to see the rest of the league yet, but we’re excited. We have two experienced, big goaltenders who look real sharp and we’re really happy with our team. There’s a lot of skill, a lot of talent and they showed well in our game in Sault Ste. Marie, they capitalized on their chances and finished. We’re looking forward to a few more exhibition games and to learning a bit more every day.”
Part of that learning will surely involve tightening up the Pack’s defensive play, after overage goaltender Mitchell Weeks was forced to make 43 saves in his team’s exhibition opener, but Duncanson said those changes will result more from repetition than from some sweeping systemic overhaul.
“We talk about systems, we talk about structure, and there are certain things we want to do, certain ways we want to support each other, but we’re focusing on good habits,” he explained. “If you have good habits, it’s easier to have good structure, both in the defensive zone and attacking, pushing the pace, and the guys have been very responsive.”
While familiarizing themselves with the players’ on-ice inclinations, Duncanson and associate coaches Darryl Moxam and Zack Stortini have also had the chance to learn about their personalities and, perhaps, their potential as leaders in the Wolves’ dressing room.
To that end, team-building activities, such as a retreat at Mountain Cove Lodge on Lake Panache this past weekend, have been invaluable.
“I’m real impressed,” Duncanson said. “They’re a fantastic group of young men and most, if not all of them, seem to be mature beyond their years, which makes it challenging for us, just to remember that they’re teenagers. It has been really refreshing.”
With some of the candidates to make up Duncanson’s leadership group now away at NHL rookie camps — Landon McCallum with St. Louis, Chase Stillman with New Jersey and Jack Thompson with Tampa Bay — the head coach was in no rush to hand out letters this week.
“The onus is on all of them to act like leaders,” Duncanson said. “I don’t care if you have been here one week or five years, each man should, in his own way, be a bit of a leader, to take the role that serves our team the best, and I think all of them have shown a little bit of that. Coming down to the end, we will make a decision about who is going to represent the leadership group, which includes all of them.”
While aforementioned pro prospects are still away, he added, they should stay focused on making their respective NHL teams, rather than on the roles they’ll play upon returning to Sudbury.
“They have gone to these camps to set themselves up to make a living at the game,” Duncanson said. “This is their time to go and do what they have to do for themselves.
“When they get back here, they’re best served by us winning more hockey games, to give them their next ticket back to the National Hockey League. We’ll have to wait to see if they come back and if they go and make such an impression that they don’t, well then all the better for them.”
Sudbury continued to carry 26 players on its pre-season roster this week, including signed forwards McCallum, Stillman, Alex Assadourian, Gio Biondi, Nick DeGrazia, Kocha Delic, Michael Derbidge, David Goyette, Evan Konyen, Ethan Larmand, Kosta Manikis, Quentin Musty, Hayden Simpson and Ryan Smith, defencemen Andre Anania, Will Bishop, Nolan Collins, Josh Hoover, Nathan Ribau, Payton Robinson, Liam Ross and Jack Thompson and goalies Weeks and Jonathan Lemaire.
Unsigned forwards Cole Crowder and Owen Perala also remained with the Wolves ahead of their next exhibition contest, a home game against the Peterborough Petes this coming Friday at 7:05 p.m.