Hockey season may be several months away, but with a number of holes to fill in his lineup, hockey Axemen head coach Darren Burns is already hard at work.
The Axemen lost seven players from their 2013-2014 roster to graduation – goalie Evan Mosher, defencemen Cullen Morin, Chris Owens and Leo Jenner, and forwards Joe Gaynor, Dustin Ekelman and K.C. Brown. Burns found himself with another hole to fill when defenceman Colin Archer learned he had been accepted into medical school in Alberta.
After what he described as a deeper off-season for recruits than a year ago, Burns said eight players have committed to attend Acadia and join the Axemen roster this fall.
With a fairly young roster, “the next two years, we aren’t as likely to lose as many players,” Burns said. “This was a crucial recruiting year,” which coincided with a larger number of recruits being available.
In identifying potential recruits, “we first look to add character and skill." If the players have size and speed, too, that’s a bonus.
“We needed to address creating more offence up front," he said, as well as the loss of a player like Owens, an offensive catalyst on the blueline.
Burns believes that in the eight recruits – four forwards, three defencemen and a goalie – he has both replaced his departing players and improved his team.
The goalie is Robert Steeves, a Moncton native who most recently played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the Gatineau Olympiques.
“He’s a great positional goalie. We’re pretty excited to add him to our roster," Burns said.
“Some of our guys have played against (Steeves) in the Q. Because of his work ethic and determination, we feel he will continue to improve.”
Steeves joins Brandon Glover, who made the AUHC all-rookie team a year ago, leaving Acadia in great shape in goal for the foreseeable future.
On defence, Burns added Middleton native Steve Woodworth as well as Matt Pufahl and Dan Poliziani. Woodworth played his major junior career with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, and this past season, served as their captain.
“We’re ecstatic to have a Valley guy,” Burns said. “(Woodworth's) a great leader, and a good shut-down defenceman who keeps the game simple. We feel he’ll fit perfectly into our style of play.”
Pufahl, formerly of the Western Hockey League's Everett Silvertips, ended 2013-2014 with Lake Erie in the American Hockey League.
“(He's) a high scoring defenceman, a highly skilled big kid (six foot, three inches and 210 pounds) with a tremendous defensive upside who skates well. We expect him to have a real impact.”
Poliziani formerly played with the Ontario Hockey League's Guelph Storm, and spent last season with the Truro Bearcats of the Maritime Hockey League, where he was the playoff MVP.
“He has great foot speed, and is a good skater and an excellent passer,” Burns said. “He’s very mobile and moves the puck well, and his offensive skills have come out more this past season.”
Woodworth, Pufahl and Poliziani will join returning defencemen Travis Gibbons, Geoff Schemitsch and Chris Buonomo, with Tyler Ferry and Travis Randell both able to play both forward and defence, “which gives us some flexibility,” Burns said.
In particular, Pufahl is “a kid who has the skills and poise to have a huge impact on our blueline. He has a great offensive upside, but plays solid 'D' as well.”
Up front, Burns was looking to add scoring.
"We had a lot of timely scoring last season, but we weren’t a really offensive team up front. We need to be able to create offence, to take pressure off our top line.”
Zach Franko finished this past season with the WHL's Kootenay Ice after three-and-a-half seasons with the Kelowna Rockets.
“He’s highly skilled, and sees the ice really well,” Burns said. “He’s a really good skater and will add a lot of skill to our lineup.”
Sam Fioretti, a former captain of the Moose Jaw Warriors, was the Canadian Hockey League’s Humanitarian of the Year for 2013-2014. Burns called him “another highly skilled forward, a real good playmaker who sees the ice very well.”
Franko and Fioretti, Burns said, ”are going to get an opportunity to come in here and log some big offensive minutes for us. We’ve lost four or five key guys on our power play, and both these players are likely to help there, too.”
Remy Giftopolous, formerly of the OHL Windsor Spitfires, is “a big (six foot, two inch and 203 pound), strong power centre, and a real high character kid. He’s a good skater, and has good hands for a big guy. He’ll be a guy who can play against other teams’ top lines.”
Boston Leier comes to Acadia from the Regina Pats, where his coach was former Axemen player and assistant coach Malcolm Cameron. Leier is “a prototypical power forward, a tremendous leader, extremely well respected, a gritty forward who always works hard.” At five foot, 11 inches and 185 pounds, “he’ll add size to our lineup, and skill as well.”
'A lot of variety'
The Axemen have added "a lot of variety in our forward recruits,” Burns said.
“I believe all four of these guys will be able to have an impact offensively.”
Leier and Giftopolous “are players used to playing against other teams’ top offensive lines and shutting them down, but they will also create offense because of their determination and high hockey IQ.”
Even though “size and toughness is important for some of the smaller rinks on the road, it’s also important for us to play a fast game with our Olympic ice surface.”
Franko and Fioretti, he said, are both skilled, offensive players. Bringing in so many potentially impact forwards “will allow us to maybe use Randell and Ferry more on defence. They’re invaluable players in that they can play both.”