New-look Alberni Valley Bulldogs hit ice

Bulldogs coach looks to goaltenders to fill in the gaps this season.

Victoria Grizzlies forward Tyler Welsh gets past the Alberni Valley Bulldogs’ defence but can’t bang the puck home behind rookie ’Dogs’ goaltender Derek Krall

When the Alberni Valley Bulldogs hit the ice for their first regular-season game Sept. 9 at Frank Crane Arena in Nanaimo, the team will have a new look.

Gone are the 20-year-olds that had a significant presence on last year’s roster, and gone are most of the defencemen—leaving head coach Kevin Willison with some interesting challenges.

Willison played most of his rookies on Saturday night for the first home exhibition game of the season, which the Bulldogs lost 5–0. The loss didn’t have Willison too concerned.

“The first games in exhibition we’ve played the young guns. The first game we didn’t play any veterans in Victoria,” he said. “We’re still feeling our way, looking at the younger guys. Saturday, Victoria had a couple of rookies up front…and played with their two top goaltenders. They’re ahead of us in the exhibition season.”

Willison played goaltenders John Hawthorne (1998) and Derek Krall (1999) to get a look at them, but says vets Brody Claeys and Carson Schamerhorn will be back come regular season.

“We’ll get Brody in some games this week and get him ready to start the season,” says Willison. “I really think Brody is going to be, if not the top goaltender, then one of the top goaltenders on the Island. He’s going to get a lot of work this year.”

Willison is banking on his goaltenders to be solid because the blueline is a bit of an unknown entity right now.

“That’s where our focus is, trying to strengthen our D-core,” he said. “There’s a number of players that have gone on to play elsewhere; good defencemen are hard to find.”

Willison has already started his search, earlier this week signing five-foot-10, 165-pound blueliner Jake Wilhelm for the 2016-17 season. Wilhelm, from Victoria, captained the South Island Royals of the BC Major Midget League, scoring 24 points (eight goals, 16 assists) in 38 games.

Wilhelm played two games with the Bulldogs last year as an affiliate player (AP).

The ’Dogs also signed forwards Braydon Nelson (5’9”, 160 lbs.) of Duncan, who scored 34 points (13 goals, 21 assists) with the Pacific Coast Hockey Academy last year. Joining him is Kyle Kaufmann, a 6’1”, 175-lbs. forward from West Vancouver who played last season for the North Vancouver Giants of the BC Major Midget League and scored 41 points (12 goals, 29 assists) in 37 games.

Bulldogs fans saw Kaufmann play as an AP in seven games with the team last year.

“All of these players were with us at some point last season and gained valuable experience as affiliate players,” says Willison. “We are very excited to work with this group over the next few seasons and help them grow into elite players.”

As for the veterans, Willison will look to Jordan Sandhu, Tristan Bukovec and Quinn Syrydiuk for leadership both on and off the ice.

And he predicts some line stability among forwards once the team plays its exhibition game in Oceanside on Saturday.

Willison played most of his vets on Tuesday night against the Clippers and they won 6–3.

“We have to have everything locked in by Sept. 9,” he added.

ICE CHIPS…The Bulldogs conclude their exhibition season with a pair of games this weekend. They host Cowichan Capitals on Friday, Sept. 2 at 7 p.m. at Weyerhaeuser Arena. On Saturday, Sept. 3 they host Powell River Kings, but will play the game at Oceanside Arena in Parksville at 2 p.m…The Bulldogs’ regular season opens Sept. 9 on the road in Nanaimo against the Clippers…Their first home game is Sept. 16, when the Clippers come to Port Alberni.

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