WHITBOURNE, NL — The Trinity-Placentia I.J. Smith Home Hardware Flyers had a sold playoff run last season, falling a game short of advancing to the St. John's Junior Hockey League (SJJHL) championship series.
The Junior Flyers fell to the eventual league champions, the Southern Shore Breakers, in Game 7 by a score of 5-4. The Breakers notched the winner with 16 seconds remaining in regulation and managed to come back from a 3-1 series deficit by winning three straight games.
Long-time Flyers coach Eugene Hutchings ultimately felt good about the team's performance last season, and with a lot of returning players in the lineup, he's more than optimistic about what lies ahead for 2017-18.
"I think we had a very good year (last season)," Hutchings told The Compass. "I think this year we'll have an even better year, actually."
While the team from Whitbourne is without last season's leading scoring Conner Stevens (now too old to play in the league), it still has some noteworthy firepower.
Conal McNamara, a former MVP of the provincial major midget league, had a great first season with the Flyers in 2016-17, finishing second on the team in goals (16) and points (31) in the regular season and leading the way with 14 points in the playoffs. Lyndon Thorne, who was third on the team in goals (14) and points (30), is also back with the Flyers this season.
In last month's league draft, the Flyers picked up a good player from Ontario with the third overall selection, taking William Hickey. His brother, Daniel Hickey, plays in the SJJHL with the Conception Bay North Moor Frost Junior Stars.
"I thought Bay Roberts was going to take this young fella Hickey there, but they didn't," the coach said. "So we're very fortunate to get him. He's a good hockey player."
The Flyers have a 3-3 win-loss record as of this week, and their next game is Oct. 15 at home against the St. John's Capitals. Hickey collected three goals and a pair of assists in four games. McNamara is the team's points leader with four goals and six assists, while Tyler Whittle leads the way in goals with five.
"We're going to have to play smart hockey and work hard," Hutchings said. "We're a blue collar team — always have been."
Hutchings expects to see strong defensive play on the back end, with overage player Jonathan Pilgrim — a 6'4", 229 pound defenceman — and Jared Remedios leading the way. The coach looks forward to seeing more of Nova Scotia defender Nathan Ledrew, who only played four regular season games in 2016-17 but contributed significantly to last season's playoff run.
"We're pretty well off on defence," said Hutchings.
Third-year goalie Chris Smith appeared in only five regular season games last year, but he carried the team in the playoffs, appearing in all 11 games. Smith posted a 6-4 win-loss record in the playoffs and had a save percentage of .912. Hutchings confirmed he'd be their number one goaltender to start the season, with Adam March serving as Smith's backup.
While he's not anticipating to see the team at the top of regular season standings in 2017-18, the coach fully expects the Flyers to be competitive throughout the year and ready to challenge opponents come playoff time.
"I think we're going to have a very good season, and when the playoffs come … anything can happen in the playoffs."