Jim Cowden approaches building projects with the enthusiasm of a youngster opening a new box of Lego, and that’s a great thing for the Abbotsford Pilots.
This season, perhaps more than any other in recent memory, the local junior B hockey club is undergoing an extreme roster makeover.
Seven of the Pilots’ top 10 scorers from last season’s team which finished second at the Western Canadian Championship, and both of their goalies, are departed – either graduating from junior eligibility or moving on to higher levels of hockey.
Cowden, the Pilots’ longtime head coach, has a full complement of forwards, but just five defencemen and one goalie signed as the team embarks on the Pacific Junior Hockey League regular season this week.
But he’s OK with that, preferring to wait until Western Hockey League and junior A teams make their cuts and filling out his roster at that point.
And at the end of the day, it’s hard to imagine the Pilots won’t be where they always seem to be in the spring – contending for the PJHL title.
“We never rebuild, we just retool,” Cowden said.
“I’m not going to panic – I’ll start with one goalie, I don’t want to have to cut a kid two weeks later. I have a couple things in the fire, but you’ve got to wait until players come down from junior A and the WHL.
“We’ll be OK at the end of the day.”
The 2014-15 edition of the Pilots will be led by veteran forward Brady Lawlor, who will wear the captain’s C. He boasts a rare ability to generate offence (17 goals and 16 assists in 42 games last season) and play with a truculent edge (165 penalty minutes, third-most in the PJHL).
“He’s got good leadership, and he took a little bit of it on last year,” Cowden said. “He’s a competitor, and he’s vocal and good in the dressing room.”
Lawlor will be joined up front by the likes of returnees Kolten Grieve (21 goals, 31 assists for 52 points last season) and Colton Cowden (12-10-22), and new acquisitions Devan Vander Wyk and Mitchell Plevy, both of whom played junior A last year.
Kellan Lavallee and Joel Balzer anchor the defence, while Jacob Crawford is the man in the crease.
Crawford, who played for the Port Moody Panthers last season, was outstanding on Wednesday as the Pilots opened the regular season with a 3-2 overtime win on the road over the defending league champion Aldergrove Kodiaks. He made 51 saves en route to first star honours, with Devon Becker notching the OT winner.
“We’re very happy with him,” Cowden said of Crawford. “His technique is good, he’s very quick, he tracks the puck well.”
The Pilots’ home opener is tonight against the Delta Ice Hawks (7:30 p.m., MSA Arena).