While the green light hasn’t been given by provincial health officials to resume play in the BC Hockey League, Nanaimo Clippers head coach Darren Naylor has seen all he needs to from his hockey club.
The Clippers enjoyed a solid extended pre-season schedule, going 11-5, and culminated by clinching the Island Cup after dumping their arch-rival Victoria Grizzlies.
Even though play has been halted, Naylor’s team is raring to go after the extended training camp.
“It served its purpose, it brought the team together. We have a lot of new players who came in, so this extended time gave us a chance to watch a lot of the newer guys we weren’t too familiar with and also see their progression and development take place in an exhibition schedule.”
“It’s not the same as the regular season, but it’s given a lot of the new guys to gel, learn the system, and get 10-14 games under their belts. I am happy about our record and not complaining about how that has gone.”
While the Clippers are one of the sure-fire teams to contend for the Fred Page Cup, Naylor noted the team’s ability to rebound quickly after losing five key defensemen from last season’s squad which captured an Island Division title.
The highlights from the 2020 Island Cup final! The final score: Clippers 5 – Grizzlies 4 pic.twitter.com/YHHQG0ZJVZ
— Nanaimo Clippers (@ClippersHockey) November 18, 2020
“I like the way we have come in and competed, it took us a couple of games to buy into our defense-first structure. So it took a while to get used to the systems we play, but for the most part, the guys have really bought in. I think in the last four or five games we didn’t give up more than two goals very often so it’s working.”
Shoot to score
However, Naylor is particularly impressed with third-year player Sean Donaldson.
“He’s become that elite top-five forward in the league we envisioned when we picked him up a couple of years ago, so he has taken some good steps. A guy like Washe doesn’t put up a lot of points, but you ask any team on the Island who they would like to have on their team, it would be him,” Naylor described.
“I think a guy like Kovich had a lot of pressure put on him about whether or not he would get drafted. It didn’t happen, but I expect him to shoot off like a rocket here when the season gets going.”
Another one of Naylor’s prized acquisitions is 19-year-old blueliner Michael Palandra, who came over from the Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Brantford 99ers. He posted 28 points in 51 games to go along with 91 penalty minutes last season.
“He was coming from a couple of programs where his teams were too structured and he got away with bad habits. It took him a while, but over the last five or six games you saw that he is going to become a real elite defenseman.”
While a team’s best players need to be the best performers night in and night out, the Clippers bench boss is confident someone like Brody Waters can fly under the radar and enjoy some success.
“He’s a big kid who has grown a little bit. He is still a little bit clumsy, but once he gets his body in tune and fills out to about six-foot-three and gets better on his edges, he will be a really good player for us too.”
Nanaimo continued to wheel and deal while pre-season play was ongoing. The Clippers dealt 18-year-old forward Tyler Schleppe to the Langley Rivermen for forward Tristan Fraser and also acquired blueliner Moe Acee from the Alberni Valley Bulldogs.
The Clippers have acquired Moe Acee from the @AVBulldogs for future considerations.
— Nanaimo Clippers (@ClippersHockey) November 6, 2020
Naylor is excited about what the fresh faces bring to the table.
“With Acee, we had to rebuild our blueline and he is a guy we played against last year and this year. When you play against certain teams, you like certain guys. He has a decent skill set and competes really hard. He is big and tough and I felt we needed that. We needed a guy who doesn’t lose a lot of board battles, can chip in offensively and play some big minutes.”
“On the Schleppe one, it is basically an upgrade. Tyler was a decent player for us but Tristan is a real elite player who will be a top-six guy for us. As we have had a hard time putting the puck in the net, he has a tremendous skill set and is a super-fast skater who knows how to score.”
With the exhibition season lasting two months, the question is, would Naylor like to see a similar pre-season format in future years?
“In the future, I don’t know if I would like to see such a long exhibition season, but I think it’s okay to start the season in the middle of October. I wouldn’t mind seeing camp begin a little later because I think that is a better time to start hockey.”