The University of Toronto Varsity Blues men’s hockey team head into the new Ontario University Athletics season with a confidence only tempered by a single question mark – offence.
Head coach Darren Lowe starts his 16th season at the helm of the club with a group that proved last year to be as stingy as any in the OUA (the team’s 79 regular-season goals against were fourth best in the league).
The Blues’ trick will be to find more offence than their mediocre 89 regular-season goals from a season ago, without four of their top-five point producers from 2011-12.
“It is really going to be scoring by committee,” Lowe said to the Toronto Observer while sitting in the rafters of Varsity Arena.
“We’re going to miss the guys that have graduated, but at the same time I think we’ve got guys that are very capable of doing very well.”
Kyle Ventura, a fourth-year right-winger from Toronto, is the one player remaining out of that group of five after scoring 15 goals and 24 points in 25 games last year.
The 25 year-old knows what his job will be, but has no illusions concerning the graduation of the likes of Byron Elliot, a 35-point man and current member of the minor professional Cincinnati Cyclones (ECHL).
“Those guys are a severe loss,” Ventura said.
“I wouldn’t say it’s pressure [for me to carry the offensive load], but so far on this team my role is to score goals. Hopefully I can do that, but if there are some games that I don’t, I know there are other guys that can fill that role.”
Even with an offence that was anemic at times, the Blues still finished fourth last season in a highly competitive Eastern Conference.
Their efforts earned them home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs against Carleton, but they blew a two-goal lead in the deciding third game of the series in Toronto and were eliminated.
Goaltender Garrett Sheehan, who platooned with freshman Brett Willows last year, is very optimistic about this season’s group.
“We should make a good run,” Sheehan said cheerfully while sporting a painful looking left black eye.
“Last year we finished fourth and I really think we can improve on that. We’ll take it one game at a time, and kind of feel out the start of the season, but I think this could be a good year.”
The Cremona, Alta., native was superb last season, posting a .914 save percentage in the regular season, and increased that by eight points in the playoffs.
Sheehan and partner Willows, a 22 year-old native of Rivers, Man., who posted a .913 save percentage, are the undisputed strength of the team.
The only problem that the two give Lowe is who to start.
“It’s real tough because there are only 28 games [in the OUA] regular season and I know both of them are real competitive guys that want to play all the time,” Lowe said with a chuckle.
“Because they’re both so good, we’re going to have them sharing the net again like we did last year. It’s a real good mix with the two guys, and they both handle the puck real well.”
Seven recruits were brought in to the team this year including Andrew Doyle, the 6-foot-2 former captain of the Tier II Junior ‘A’ Ontario Junior Hockey League champion Stouffville Spirit.
Lowe is confident yet cautious regarding the new group of freshmen.
“I’m excited for all of them right now,” he said.
“We believe that all of them are going to be positive contributors to the team, it’s all a matter of how quickly they can adjust to the OUA.”
Both Lowe and Sheehan are confident that the Varsity Blues can be a top-three team in the conference, and with their elite goaltending, a defence corps that only lost one player, and a more than reasonable schedule, that goal is certainly possible.
The Blues open their regular season on Oct. 12 in Kingston to take on the Royal Military College Paladins.
Go! varsity Blues…..