The Norman Northstars head into this weekend's season-opening three-game road trip uncertain about how the team will perform with only one exhibition match to make predictions from, but it's nothing compared to the uncertainty of last season, says Dustin Levesque, now in his second year as the team's head coach.
"It's a bit of a feeling-out process to see where you stand with your league," says Levesque, who took a team with a dozen 15-year-olds into the first road trip last year and fell 8-1 to the Eastman Selects before coming back with a shootout loss and a win in the final two games of the opening weekend. "This year we're trying to have them even more prepared off the start, not knowing what we're going to be up against."
The Northstars season begins with games against the Yellowhead Chiefs, Parkland Rangers and Southwest Cougars this year.
"It'll be a good mix of a couple different teams in the league that we get to see and kind of give us a feel for where we might stand as the year goes on," Levesque says.
The games will be the first in a Northstars uniform for Zach Garrett of Creighton, Sask., who spent last season as a member of the Notre Dame Hounds in Saskatchewan.
"I know everyone here,” says Garrett, 17. “I've pretty much been playing with these guys my whole life so it's pretty nice to be with people that you know. Playing against these guys and now playing with them, learning new things about them stuff like that, it's pretty nice."
Garrett is one of three 17-year-olds - along with Jameson Scott from Cross Lake and Thompson's Brady Laycock - seeing their first action with the Northstars, something Levesque thinks will have a calming influence on the many players who have one year of experience under their belt but are still only 16 years old.
“That’s going to help us a lot,” Levesque says. “They're first-year guys but they've been playing three years in midget so they've got that patience. They've got a lot of poise with the puck."
One of the returning 16-year-olds is Wabowden's Eddie Bayer, who led the team with 25 goals in his rookie season. He says the feeling around the team isn't a lot different from last year. Personally, though, he comes into this season with greater expectations.
"It feels much different," says Bayer. "It's kind of a pressure situation because I put up that many goals last season. I want to kind of top that this season. My whole life, I guess, I've put the puck in the net, that was basically my job for the team but coming into AAA I didn't really think I was going to score as many as I did."
The Northstars defence has gotten significantly younger, adding three 15-year-olds to replace graduating players, so the players and coaches are happy to have Justin Paulic back for another season between the pipes.
"It's good to know that he's back there," says Bayer, while Levesque counts Paulic's reliability as a bonus for team morale.
"That first save, you can count on him almost 99 per cent of the time it's not going to go in if he can see it," the coach says. "That's nice to have that confidence back there."
The Northstars also have the luxury of a second goaltender, Aaron Vallance, who spent time with the team last season when Paulic was sick and away at the Canada Winter Games.
"So he's been practising with us for a season,” says Levesque. “He did really well in tryouts and he looks good so far."
In the rookie department, the team is a far cry from last year, when about half the team were first-year midgets.
"Now we only have three and everybody else is 16 and we have five 17-year-olds now so it's a lot more mature roster and those guys who were 15 have grown a lot with all that experience and the 17-year-olds bring in even a bit more calm," says Levesque. "There's not all the pressure like the 15-year-olds had last year. They were thrown in. Those 15-year-olds were playing and playing a lot of minutes where now we can slowly bring in Jordy [Valentino] and Aaron [Beauchamp] and Rick [Frechette] and get them up to speed if they're not ready for it yet and slowly give them that ice time."
Bayer says nailing down systems and getting all the players on the same page has been a longer process this year than last, and he notes that the Northstars won't have the element os surprise working on their side like they did last season.
"We've got to bear down and actually think about what we're doing and hopefully get better," he said.
Garrett also says chemistry is hard to develop without being in game situations.
"We played that one scrimmage," he says. "We played pretty good, we did a couple of system and stuff like that but you could tell we're new still getting the chemistry together and stuff like that."
Personally, he hopes to just continue playing his game, one he admits doesn't involve a lot of time with the puck.
"I just go out there and get the puck and pass it around to guys that need to score and get one off my skate or something," Garrett says. "I don't like handling the puck. I just pass it."
The coach likes what he's seen as far as the players' attitudes towards preseason.
"The intensity's up from last year so that's nice to see," Levesque says.
He also admits starting on the road can be a good thing.
"You wouldn't mind playing at home but it's sure nice to figure things out on the road first," Levesque says. "With the way last year went for them, I don't expect the same at all from this year's team, but definitely you wouldn't like that to happen at home."