Augustana Vikings refocused and reloaded for run at ACAC title
University of Alberta-Augustana Vikings hockey coach Blaine Gusdal draws up a drill during their first skate of the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference season at the Recreation Centre in Camrose on Sept. 1. The team is looking to rebound from a frustrating exit to the NAIT Ooks in the playoffs last year. Josh Aldrich/ Camrose Canadian
The University of Alberta-Augustana Vikings hockey team was not happy with how their Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference season ended last year.
Another loss to the NAIT Ooks in the post season after an uneven regular season left them out of their top two seeds was not how they envisioned their campaign going. It was a missed opportunity that head coach Blaine Gusdal was motivated to fix this summer.
The biggest position under fire was his group of forwards that was inconsistent at best last year.
“We’re quietly optimistic, I feel our program has something to prove after last season,” said Gusdal. “I thought we were solid last season but we didn’t achieve our number one goal. It’s our goal again to be better and to be in the mix come the end of March.”
He went out and brought in the likes of Ryan Groom, Jordan McTaggert, Cody Young, and Dillan McCombie.
The recruitment of new weapons up front was a message delivered loud and clear to some of the returning veterans, like Lukas Biensch. The Marsden, Sask. forward managed to finish with 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists) in 26 games.
“Obviously, offence is a big part of the game, hopefully they can chip in a couple and we can be more of a threat that way,” he said.
The Vikings lost seven key players to their roster from last year to graduation with Ryan Procyshyn, Scott Swiston, Connor McLaughlin, Beau Taylor, Dylan Coupal, Boyd Wakelin and Jeff Lorenz all aging out.
However, it creates opportunity for returning players to take on a bigger role within the team.
One of those players is Evan Warmington who had 18 points (5-13-18) in 24 games last season.
“We lost some key pieces from last year, but they taught us the ropes,” said the fourth-year senior. “There’s been a lot of guys that will definitely be able to step in and fill some leadership roles.”
Leadership and character is going to be key to this team moving forward and those traits were prioritized for Gusdal with recruits like McCombie, McTaggert and Groom.
“I’m expecting that we’re going to be known for our maturity this year,” said Gusdal. “I think that’s where we fell short last year. Just in our approach, at this level you have to have a mature approach to everything you do on a daily basis. I’m hoping we learned some lessons from last season and that we’re better able to deal with adversity this season and be better.”
With Coupal and Procyshyn’s graduation, there was also a couple of holes that opened up on the back end.
Former Camrose Kodiak blue-liner Joe Tambasco slides into one of those spots as a potential power play quarterback. The other spot is up for grabs with returning players like Joe Olson and Joren Johnson looking for more playing time and 21-year-old rookie Taylor Armbruster looking to carve out his own role on the team.
Armbruster spent his junior career bouncing from one end of the country to another, playing for six different teams from B.C. to Ontario. During his travels he has played against a few of his new teammates, including Olson and Zachary Kercz. The six-foot-three, 200-pound stay at home defenceman is hoping his odyssey has stopped for at least the next few years.
“I’ve been all over the place, a suitcase, so it’s nice to come here. Hopefully I can settle down and get some experience,” he said. “To prepare I’ve done a lot of skating, a lot of training, off-ice is critical. I’m just trying to get my speed up because this is going to be a fast league.”
The one area of the roster that did not require any tweaking was between the pipes as the Vikings return arguably the best trio of goalies in the ACAC with team MVP Curtis Skip, Zach deGraves and fifth year senior Harry Fredeman all back. Together, they combined to allow 70 goals in 28 games, tied for second best in the ACAC with NAIT, MacEwan University was first at 60 goals allowed. Skip’s .927 save percentage was second best in the league, and he was stingier in the playoffs with a .950 mark.
That depth is already being tested, however, as Fredeman broke his thumb in the first ice session of the season.
“With the size and the depth that we have on our back end, the big focal point I will put on that is to protect our goaltenders,” said Gusdal.
“Make sure that our goaltenders can see pucks, make sure that our goaltenders can make the first save and not having to deal with second and third opportunities because the defencemen are doing their job.”
The Vikings will get a chance to see how the pieces fit together this weekend when they travel to Athabasca for an exhibition tournament, playing NAIT on Saturday at 2 p.m. and the University of Alberta Golden Bears at 2 p.m. on Sunday.