With 25 games down and 15 to go, the end of the Jr. A Niagara Predators’ 2022-23 season is quickly approaching.
With time running out, the Predators are fighting to move up from sixth place in the Greater Metro Hockey League’s south division.
They have a ways to go but Predators’ president and owner Robert Turnbull has high hopes for his young team.
“I’ve always said once December has ended you really see what you have as a team,” said Turnbull.
“I think the way the younger players are developing, I’m really pleased, and our returning players have been playing very well and our new players that have joined the team are going to give a lot more strength down the finishing run.”
Featuring a roster of young players new to junior hockey, the Predators have struggled compared to their 2021-22 season which saw them dominate most teams and finish third in their division.
“I had an older team last year. Our goals for and our goals against were drastically different from this year. We had a lot of experience on the team last year.”
Turnbull also notes a difference physically in the two teams.
“We were bigger on the back end, we were stronger on defence last year, but again, the way the guys are coming along, I’m very pleased. It’s tough to play against some of the bigger teams.”
Turnbull cites the challenge his team faces playing against larger, rougher opponents but he credits his players with not backing down in the face of physical intimidation.
“Our strength is our speed and if they don’t utilize their speed or at least play up to their potential then there’s going to be games where you’re going to shake your head. But I believe that we will be in a position to compete against anybody,” he said.
Right now Niagara is not far behind the fifth-place St. George Ravens, who have bested them in three of four games but only by a narrow margin.
The fourth-place Tottenham Thunder have six points on the Predators but also a 0-2 record against them with 8-1 and 7-1 losses to Niagara.
Meanwhile the top three teams in the division – the North York Renegades, Durham Roadrunners and Bradford Bulls – seem to be playing in a league of their own with a substantial lead on every one else.
Turnbull chalks this up to the teams having had more favourable schedules – playing weaker teams throughout the first half of the season.
“If you look at Durham and the Bulls and the Renegades, they have had a much better schedule than we have had,” he said.
Though Niagara has lost all its games against the top three teams, Turnbull still gives his team credit for their performance.
“Against the top teams, they’ve played very well. Two against North York Renegades and one against Durham they could have won. In the one game, the Renegades had to come back to tie it up to win in overtime.”
With no further games against the Renegades and just two against both Durham and Bradford, Niagara will spend the rest of the season playing mostly lower-tier teams or at least teams with which they have a better record.
Turnbull said this is promising for Niagara “on paper” but is not getting too far ahead of himself. He does think his team has certain advantages over others going forward, in particular that they have allowed all their players ice time.
“Other teams’ top players are out there all the time, meanwhile their third and fourth lines did not get the opportunity to play,” he said. “Some of these teams are going to play with two lines, we don’t. Our program is about playing all four lines.”
He credits head coach Kevin Taylor and assistant coaches Connor Shipton and Greg Wilson with doing a “phenomenal job” mixing up lines and ensuring every player gains game experience.
“So kudos to them. Everything that I try to do behind the bench they’re doing as good or better.”
Going forward, Turnbull remains cautiously optimistic and hopes his team will finish the regular season with a good run.
“On my wish list, I’d like to see us come out with at least 10 wins. I know it’s going to be difficult but I believe they can do it.”
The Predators take on the Bradford Bulls in their first game of 2023 this Friday, Jan. 6, at 7:30 p.m. at the Meridian Credit Union arena.