Defenceman Eric Wieking (24) is one of just five Abbotsford Pilots regulars returning this season. The local junior B hockey club hosts its home opener on Friday at MSA Arena vs. the Aldergrove Kodiaks.

Defenceman Eric Wieking (24) is one of just five Abbotsford Pilots regulars returning this season. The local junior B hockey club hosts its home opener on Friday at MSA Arena vs. the Aldergrove Kodiaks.

With Keystone Cup on horizon, Pilots launch into PJHL regular season

The 2013-14 season will be unlike any other in Abbotsford Pilots history, but that doesn't change how Jim Cowden plans to approach it.

The 2013-14 season will be unlike any other in Abbotsford Pilots history, but that doesn’t change how Jim Cowden plans to approach it.

The local junior B hockey club is hosting the Keystone Cup, the Western Canadian championship tournament, at MSA Arena in April of 2014 – and are guaranteed a berth by virtue of their host status.

But Cowden, the Pilots’ longtime bench boss, isn’t looking that far ahead, nor can he afford to. He’s focused on putting the finishing touches on the roster and guiding the squad through a challenging slate of games to open the Pacific Junior Hockey League regular season, beginning this week.

“At this point, it’s way too early (to worry about the Keystone Cup),” Cowden asserted.

“You look at the group you’ve got, and you believe in that group and see where it goes. I’m hoping they can develop, and I think they will. I think we’ll be in pretty good shape.”

The Pilots have to retool the roster to a certain extent every year, but this season’s renovation is more extensive than usual, as only five regulars from last year’s squad are returning. The dearly departed include three of the Pilots’ top four scorers in 2012-13 in Adam Rossi, Michael Tebbutt and Brandon Daase, along with team captain Brett Kolins and goalie Aaron Oakley, the league MVP last season.

The core of returnees includes forwards Brady Lawlor, Colton Cowden and Joel Atkinson, and defencemen Ryan Parmar and Eric Wieking.

Parmar, the team’s top-scoring blueliner last year with 36 points in 40 games, will wear the captain’s C.

“He’s a leader – he’s vocal in the dressing room, he leads by example on the ice,” Cowden explained. “Everything he does, he does at a high pace. The kids respect him, and he’s a very mature individual as well.”

Cowden added to his veteran core via the trade route. In June, he swung a deal with the Fernie Ghostriders of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League, obtaining centre Braeden Monk and defenceman Simon Horlick in exchange for future considerations.

Monk, a Langley native, was a big-time scorer in Fernie last season, leading the team with 56 points (21 goals, 35 assists) in 50 games. Surrey product Horlick, meanwhile, will miss the first month of the season as he recovers from hip surgery, but Cowden believes he’ll be one of the best blueliners in the league upon his return.

“They’re both 20-year-olds, and they both wanted to play closer to home,” Cowden said. “It worked out well for us – we’re happy to get them, because they’re going to be real good players in our league.”

The Pilots also pulled the trigger on a trade with the Delta Ice Hawks, adding Mission native Kolten Grieve for future considerations. Grieve had stints with a trio of junior A clubs over the past two seasons, and averaged close to a point per game during his time with the Ice Hawks. Cowden plans to slot him on the left wing on the top forward line with Monk in the middle and Bradley Parker on the right wing. Parker split last season between the Pilots and the junior A Powell River Kings.

The Pilots are also welcoming back Jarrett Martin, a 20-year-old forward who spent two seasons with the club but departed last season to take his electrician training at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops. He’s back in the area doing his apprenticeship, and Cowden is excited to have the speedy, hard-working forward back in the fold.

In goal, the Pilots have Zachary Station, who served as Oakley’s backup last season, and Luke Stripp, who is moving up to junior B from the major midget ranks.

Cowden generally prefers to have a defined No. 1 netminder, but he’ll let the duo battle for playing time in the early going.

“They’re both good goalies, so we’ll see how that goes,” he said. “Probably at some point, we’ll have to make a decision. At the end of the day, that’s what you want to do.”

On Thursday, the Pilots open the regular season on the road vs. the Richmond Sockeyes (7 p.m., Richmond Arena). The Sockeyes won the Keystone Cup in 2013, following in the footsteps of the Pilots, who won it in 2012.

On Friday, the Abby club hosts its home opener, taking on their most hated division rival, the Aldergrove Kodiaks (7:30 p.m., MSA Arena). The two teams have battled for supremacy in the Harold Brittain Conference in recent years, and last spring, the Kodiaks eliminated the Pilots in the PJHL semifinals.