Prince George Spruce Kings head coach Dave Dupas is counting on seeing a lot of familiar faces in the team's locker room when training camp for the 2013-14 season opens in August.
"We've spent two years rebuilding," said Dupas. "We thought we had a team coming back from last year that was going to put us in the upper echelon but with the way things went in the off-season, we lost some guys to scholarship and, obviously we know what happened with the Fitzgeralds [triplets Leo, Myles and Gerry were traded to Victoria], we had to build from the ground up again because we only had five guys returning."
Despite the makeover, the Spruce Kings were able to claw their way into the B.C. Hockey League playoffs for a second consecutive season and, unlike the previous year when they wilted in four straight games in a best-of-seven series against the Merritt Centennials, the 2012-13 team went the distance in a best-of-five series with the Chilliwack Chiefs before bowing out.
"It's hard to rebuild a team from nothing and get yourself into the playoffs every year and that's what we've been able to do," said Dupas about leading his team to a third-place finish in the Mainland Division with a 25-22-1-8 record. "Hopefully with the way it goes this year we'll have at least half our team back so we'll have a good base to build on and pick and choose the guys that we want to come in here."
The Spruce Kings will lose four players to graduation - goalie Kirk Thompson, defenceman Trevor Esau, and forwards Coltyn Hansen and Shayne Morrissey. It's also conceivable defenceman Kevin Guiltinan (Harvard) and Cameron Lawson (Holy Cross) will opt to begin their NCAA careers. Both Guiltinan and Lawson are eligible to return to junior A hockey.
But, Dupas said he's expecting most of the other players to return for another season, including the line of Justin Rai, Chad Staley and Jeremiah Luedtke, penalty killer Bryant Christian and defenders Mark Begert, Karan Toor and Mitch Eden.
The Spruce Kings were the fifth lowest-scoring team in the BCHL last season, with just 170 goals in 56 games. West Kelowna led the league with 205 goals.
"We have some young guys coming up that we think will be able to put points on the board next year," said Dupas. "There's some talented young kids in our system here that are going to put up some numbers."
One of those talented kids is 16-year-old Braiden Epp, who joined the Spruce Kings for their playoff run, and scored his first BCHL goal in Wednesday's 5-2 loss in Chilliwack, after the Cariboo Cougars were eliminated from the BCMML playoffs.
"He's the type of kid that we're looking for here," said Dupas. "He's feisty. He's hard-working and his motor is always running. He's able to score goals and put up some points and he's not afraid. I think he's going to be a perfect Spruce King for us in the next few years."
Epp is one of a handful of Prince George natives the Spruce Kings should have on the roster for next season. Others include forwards Sean Landrey, Lyndon Martell and Jake LeBrun. Whitehorse native David Stephens has had ties in Prince George since playing for the Cariboo Cougars.
"Money-wise it's always good to have these guys around but it also brings the fans into the building," said Dupas. "People are able to watch these kids grow up and then are able to watch them in the junior ranks."
Dupas said he and the rest of the Spruce Kings coaching staff will be looking to fill the holes left by the graduating 20-year-olds, specifically an 18- or 19-year-old veteran goaltender to compete with sophomore Liam McLeod for the starting job next season, when the club holds its spring camp at the Coliseum, April 12-14.
"We're looking for those kids that are going to come in here and without us saying anything to them they'll compete hard every shift and go to the hard areas without being told," said Dupas. "The kind of guys that you just have to wind up, let go and they're going to play hard."
There were already more than 100 players signed up for the camp as of Friday.