There are a handful of new faces in the Surrey Eagles organization this season – both on the ice and behind the bench – but the goal, as always, remains the same.
Make the playoffs.
That target has eluded the BC Hockey League squad in recent years – the South Surrey squad hasn’t made the playoffs since making a first-round exit in the 2013/14 season, and has three last-place finishes since – but the team’s arrow pointed up last season, ever-so-slightly, despite not qualifying for the post-season. Last year, the Eagles finished with a record of 18-36-4-0 (win-loss-overtime loss-tie), which gave them more wins than the previous two seasons combined.
And this year, buoyed with a veteran roster and a new coach in Brandon West – former head coach Blaine Neufeld remains in the fold as general manager – the team is eyeing a long-awaited return to playoff form, even if the new bench boss tries not to look quite so far into the future.
“Our number-one goal is to make the playoffs. And if we do that, then we can reset and (set new goals),” West told Peace Arch News Tuesday.
The Eagles open the season tonight (Friday) hosting division rival Langley Rivermen at South Surrey Arena. Puck drops at 7 p.m. On Sunday at 4 p.m., the Birds will play their second game – against the Coquitlam Express.
“I’m not a guy who looks too far ahead on our schedule – we have a big enough job facing Langley Friday night, so we just want to focus on that, and if we’re 1-0 after that one, we’ll move on to the next one on Sunday,” said West, who joins the Eagles after three years as head coach of the Salmon Arm Silverbacks.
“We’re a one-game-at-a-time group, and we’ve stressed the importance of that to the guys through the exhibition schedule.”
West’s appointment as head coach was announced in May, and came on the heels of team president Chuck Westgard promising change in the organization; the team finished the year 16 points out of the playoff race, and with now-departed assistant coach Rick Lanz running the bench and Neufeld as GM.
But despite the coaching staff and front-office shakeup, there will be a handful of familiar faces on the ice for the Eagles, who will have a veteran-laden lineup to start the season. Though West told PAN Tuesday that the final roster was not yet finalized – “We’re still looking at a couple options – nothing is set in stone just yet” – the team is expected to start the year with a forward group that includes last year’s captain Jordan Robert, Desi Burgart, Semiahmoo Minor Hockey product Jeff Stewart, Nick Fea and Ty Westgard, who re-joined the team midway through last season from the Western Hockey League’s Victoria Royals.
Westgard won’t be the only forward with WHL experience either, as 20-year-old John Wesley has also returned to the fold from the major-junior ranks. The White Rock-born Wesley played 32 games for the Eagles in 2014/15, and another 19 two seasons ago, but has been with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants and Lethbridge Hurricanes in between BCHL stops.
West expects him to be a key cog in the team’s offensive this year, while also providing a boost to the team’s younger players.
“Absolutely, we’re going to lean on him. He’s a guy who has really taken off (in pre-season), and he’s been a key addition for us,” West said of the veteran sniper. “He’s very excited to be back for his 20-year-old season, and it shows every time he walks into our locker room and every time he steps out onto the ice.”
Another forward likely to be an integral part of the team is Connor Sundquist, who may be unfamiliar to Eagles’ fans but isn’t to West, who coached Sundquist for three years in Salmon Arm. Surrey acquired the 20-year-old Connecticut native last month for future considerations.
Earlier this summer, the team also acquired 20-year-old goaltender Alex Horawski, who played last season for the RBC Cup champion Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. He’ll pair with returning netminder Daniel Davidson between the pipes this season.
“We’ve added some key pieces to our lineup that I think are going to bring not just experience, but also a pedigree of success,” West said.
The team will have a handful of new faces on the blue-line as well, as the defensive corps have been adjusted from last year’s group. Last season, Surrey gave up 269 goals, which was second-worst in the BCHL, and the team routinely allowed 40-plus shots on net throughout the season.
In an effort to shore up that part of the roster, West said the team cast its recruiting net far and wide this summer.
Joining returnees Jackson Ross and Domenic Masellis – the latter of whom was a trade-deadline acquisition last season – are newcomers Derrick Johnson and Owen Norton, both from Ontario; Brendan Winslow from Washington; and Perry Winfree, a North Carolina native.
“We expanded our search into new areas so we can make our team better,” West said. “Our mandate is simple – if they’re going to make our team better, we’re going to take them.”
West expected his team’s enthusiasm in training camp and pre-season – from new and returning players alike – to carry over into the regular-season games this weekend.
“The tone and pace of training camp, I think that’s really what is going to fuel this group to start the season,” he said.
“Some of the guys who have been here for a few years now haven’t had that taste of the post-season… now, everyone is desperate for it, and eager to find some success.”