Mac Engel can feel tension building around the Cats' cage.
It comes with not having job security.
Even though he stood guard for the Prince George Cougars in 49 of the 72 games last season and he's one of only two 20-year-old players now on the team, Engel knows he still has to prove himself to win back his position as the team's starting goalie.
"No spot is safe here," said Engel. "You have to come in here and work just as hard as the young guys to try to make the team. We didn't have the year we wanted last year so everybody is battling for every spot, overager or 16-year-old."
Engel said he skated this summer with some of the pros at home in Red Deer to keep his focus on hockey. Having faced 1,265 shots last season in 49 games last season for the Cougars, he's already well-conditioned for the season ahead of him.
"Lots of shots isn't a bad thing for a goalie and even with a young D-corps that won't be a problem for us," said Engel, who started the season last year with the Spokane Chiefs. "Most of the guys have a few years under their belts now and they can play with any guys in this league. A lot of our guys worked really hard over the summer and changed their game and the way they play and excelled a lot. I think we'll have a solid year and go a long way."
The Cougars lost their two biggest defencemen, Daniel Gibb and Dallas Ehrhardt, both of whom graduated the junior ranks, but Engel is encouraged to see at least one looming replacement via the import draft -- six-foot-six 237-pound Slovakian native Martin Bobos.
"Just watching him play his first scrimmage, he's very good, very physical, he moves the puck well and has good sight of the ice and I don't think the language barrier will be a factor for him either," said Engel.
Brett Zarowny has youth on his side at age 18 and as a rookie last season played in 31 games for the Cougars, despite missing three weeks in January with a concussion. The native of Edmonton was one of nine goalies auditioning for playing time when camp began on Friday.
"Every training camp there are always battles for spots and especially this year, with not making playoffs, we have two spots wide open," said Zarowny. "So even though I made the team last year I have to earn my spot just like any other rookie and I don't want to just be a backup this year, I want to be the go-to guy who plays a lot of games. I know I have to put work into that and it all starts here in training camp."
Only the Vancouver Giants finished with a worse record than the Cougars did in 2012-13 but Zarowny says it won't be long before this year's edition of his team obliterates that painful memory.
"I think we have a lot of potential to do some great things as a team this year and we're all real hungry," said Zarowny. "We have some guys who haven't made playoffs in a couple years and I think once we get to the playoffs we can really make some noise."
The Cougars invited nine goalies to camp, including Engel, Zarowny, Ty Edmonds of Winnipeg, Matt Kustra of Yorkton, Sask., Travis Ridgen of Winnipeg, Liam Giroux of Qualicum Beach, Kye Steinke of Regina, Tavin Grant of Burnaby and Jackson Granrude of Swift Current, Sask.
After Sunday's cuts, just Engel, Zarowny, Edmonds and Kustra remain in the hunt for the two positions. All four played in Monday's Black-White intrasquad game.
Edmonds, who played two periods of a game against Victoria for the Cougars last year as a 16 year old, has impressed the Cats' brass, picking up where he left off last season in the 26 games he played in the Manitoba Junior League for the Virdin Oil Capitals. This is Edmonds' third training camp with the Cougars, who drafted him in 2011. He was the last goalie the Cougars cut last year.
"From what I've heard it's big step from the MJHL to the WHL but I feel like I'm ready," said Edmonds. "Being with the team now for a couple weeks I know what the team is about and what Mark [Holick] and Dallas [Thompson] want for the team. I just have to listen to the coaches and play my game. I've been very happy with how I've started camp off."