Fred Harbinson is making the most of a rare lengthy off-season triggered by a stunning six-game series defeat to the Cowichan Valley Capitals in the first round of the BCHL playoffs.
The Penticton Vees president, GM and head coach has made a series of signings and trades to help ensure Penticton’s junior-A hockey season continues deep into the spring as it did for the vast majority of Harbinson’s first 10 seasons at the helm.
“We’re not going to sit around and cry about what happened,” said Harbinson, who lost in the first round for the first time in his coaching career. “You’re not going to win every year, but you want to contend … be in the hunt. Some things last year were out of our control, some things were in our control. We’ve been busy … as we should be, to make sure we take care (of the latter).”
The Vees are in the process of finalizing a couple of key moves this week which would leave them essentially with a set roster for the start of training camp Monday, Aug. 19 in Penticton.
“We’re pretty close considering it’s only the (first week of June),” said Harbinson. “I really like how we stack up at every position, and the fact we have a bit of everything with the speed, skill, size and grit.”
GOALTENDING: The Vees lose graduating veteran standout Jack LaFontaine but are well stocked with second-year man Derek Krall and top recruit Yaniv Perets, who was the top goalie in the National Collegiate Development Conference and led the Boston Jr. Bruins to the league championship.
DEFENCE: The Vees are in great shape on the blueline with returning veterans Conner Hutchison, Evan McIntyre, Jonathan Smart and Carson Kosobud, along with top recruits Scott Gilowski and 6’ 6” Cade Webber.
The Vees are close to bringing in another top 20-year-old, 6’ 4” defenceman, Harbinson said.
The return of the speedster Hutchison is pivotal after he was limited to 22 games due to injury in his rookie season.
“I really like our blend of size, speed, skill and experience back there,” said Harbinson.
FORWARD: Harbinson has been busy bolstering the forward ranks.
He has quality returnees in David Silye, Lukas Sillinger, Jack Barnes and Jackson Niedermayer, and secured premier young recruits Tristan Amonte, Danny Weight and Liam Malmquist.
Earlier this week, the Vees acquired proven scorer Alex DiPaolo from the Coquitlam Express for future considerations.
On Wednesday, the Vees acquired the rights to 20-year-old centre Colton Kalezic from the Toronto Patriots of the Ontario Junior Hockey League (see separate story).
The Vees are also hoping to land 1999-born centre Jay O’Brien, who was a 2018 first-round, 19th overall pick of the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers.
The gritty, two-way pivot, who played at Providence College last season, met with the Vees earlier this week.
“We should know fairly soon,” said Harbinson. “It would make us incredibly deep down the middle with four top centres (Silye, Kalezic and Weight the other three) all capable of playing wing if necessary.”
The Vees are also waiting on a commitment from winger Will Dineen, the son of former NHL star Kevin Dineen. Dineen impressed at the Vees Spring Camp two weeks ago.
Overall, the Vees are already at five 20-year-olds and may soon find themselves with seven – and some decisions to make – if O’Brien and the unnamed defenceman join the team. Krall, Smart, Kosobud, Silye and Kalezic are the 20-year-olds currently signed.
“There is going to be some competition … we might have one more guy than we’re allowed to keep,” the coach said.
The Vees are likely to part ways with two forwards - 20-year-old Cassidy Bowes and 17-year-old Cole Shepard.
Kelowna product Bowes is coming off a tough, injury-plagued season and the Vees already anticipate having to do some juggling with the 20-year-olds.
“We haven’t made a decision yet but we’ve been communicating with Cassidy and will try to do what’s best for him and the team,” said Harbinson.
Shepard is looking at some different options, one being playing in the Western Hockey League. Harbinson said the Vees would likely trade his rights if he decides to return to the BCHL.
One forward in flux in 19-year-old Drew Elser. He missed practically the entire year with injuries, ultimately succumbing to a concussion and broken jaw.
“He’s a gritty kid and we sure could have used him at the end of last season,” said Harbinson. “He’s leaning towards giving it another shot but where we sit with our import spots plays into it, too.”
BCHL teams are allowed six U.S. imports. The Vees are fortunate to have several players with dual citizenships.
The Spring Camp May 25-26 in Penticton was another big success.
“We identified a lot of good players and offered a lot of (affiliated player) spots for the coming season,” said Harbinson.
LEADERSHIP: Harbinson plans to wait until closer to the regular season before naming a captain.
“We’ll have a new leadership group,” said Harbinson. “We need a bit of a fresh start.”
In the past two seasons, the Vees practice of naming a captain early backfired as first Grant Cruikshank and then last year Massimo Rizzo missed training camp and several games due to injuries.
“We’ve got a good idea of the direction we want to go, but we’re going to wait a bit,” said Harbinson.
STAFF CHANGES: Off the ice, it’s been a busy few months for the Vees as well.
Assistant coach Jason Becker departed to become head coach of the midget prep team at St. George’s School in Vancouver, and was replaced by former Vees captain Patrick Sexton.
Sexton led the Vees to a BCHL championship and to the RBC Cup semifinals in 2015. Matt Fraser returns as the other assistant coach.
Assistant GM Steve Cocker left to accept the new position of executive director of the BCHL, with director of hockey operations Adam West taking on Cocker’s duties.
“It’s an awesome opportunity for Steve,” said Harbinson. “He’s a smart hockey guy. Adam will do a terrific job with his new role.”
Harbinson was delighted to bring Sexton back into the fold.
“He knows what it takes to win here and he will bring a lot of energy to the program,” said Harbinson. “He’s a knowledgeable guy who grew up in an NHL family. He’s a young, intense guy who can relate to the players at this level.”
Also, the league held its annual general meeting in Penticton last week. While there are no major rule changes in store for the 2019-20 season, Harbinson said there is “lots of exciting stuff” going on with the BCHL.
“This league is in great hands now with Chris Hebb (in his second year) as commissioner,” said Harbinson. “Everything is run so professionally. He is doing a terrific job.”
Harbinson said there are still some “tweaks” being done to the schedule, which should be released in the next week or so.
The Vees did finalize their pre-season slate of games.
Penticton visits West Kelowna on Aug. 21 and Merritt Aug. 23, then host Merritt Aug. 24 and West Kelowna Aug. 28.
The Vees will welcome the RBC Cup national champion Brooks Bandits (from Alberta) to the South Okanagan Events Centre for exhibition games Aug. 30 and 31.