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Lakers coach sees improvement
Outscored 15-6 in their final three games, the Penticton Lakers concluded their final season in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League with an 11-35-1-5 record.
On a road trip that started against the Columbia Valley Rockies (5-4 overtime loss), then went to Golden (4-0 loss) and finished in Revelstoke (6-2 loss), Lakers coach Robert Dirk said his team played hard.
“You can’t play three games in three nights with 13 guys and expect to win,” said Dirk.
It was a forgettable season for the Okanagan Hockey Academy-owned Lakers from the get-go. They won just three of their first 10 games. It didn’t help that four players had suspensions to serve from the previous season. Some veteran players chose to play elsewhere and one player quit after just six games. They also dealt with several injuries and a season-ending suspension to Kale Erickson, who at the time led the Lakers in scoring with 23 points in 27 games. They went 4-14-0-3 without Erickson and Philip Cameron finished as the top scorer with 24 points in 51 games. He was one player who stepped up as a leader after Erickson was done. He was the go-to-guy.
When Dirk traded former captain J.R. Krolik to the Castlegar Rebels to give him an opportunity to win, it was another defenceman who filled that void.
“Reilly O’Connor became the heart-beat of the team,” said Dirk, adding that the five-foot-10, 165-pound blue-liner, who became captain, should be playing junior A.
Offensively, it was rookie Joey DiCaire, 17, who racked up the most points in the second half with six goals and 14 points. Dirk said DiCaire’s game really improved since he was finding his way in the KIJHL.
“The league was probably better than he expected but he became a solid two-way guy, one of my most trust-worthy players,” said Dirk of the Burnaby product. “I was really happy with Joey’s play.”
Where Dirk saw the biggest improvement in DiCaire’s game was mentally.
“When players become confident, they play better,” he said. “They know they can compete and have success. He realized he can play in this league and play pretty well.”
DiCaire joined the Lakers from the Okanagan Hockey Academy prep team the year before. The difference between the two leagues to DiCaire is in the speed and strength.
“Players are a lot stronger in the junior B league,” said DiCaire, whose favourite player is Pavel Datsyuk because of how he handles the puck and plays.
Confidence handling the puck came once DiCaire got comfortable and found his game and how to play. He considers himself a good defensive player who can chip in offensively. With some hard work, Dirk told DiCaire he’s capable of playing at the junior A level.
Other players who impressed Dirk are defencemen Brandon Schaber and Matthew Billingsley, who he described as unheralded. He said they came a long way from the start.
“I’m very happy with their progress this season,” said Dirk. “Given the opportunity, they possibly could play junior A as well.”
Others with the skill to make the jump to junior A are Cameron, Nick Landry, who will skate with the Victoria Grizzlies during spring break, Sebastian Barrette, an affiliate with Salmon Arm and Michael Winnitoy, who has played a game with the Penticton Vees. Dirk said Winnitoy is with the defending RBC Cup champs for the rest of the season. As long as he plays well with the team, Dirk sees him earning a spot with the BCHL club next season.
Laker numbers: In their 52 games, they fought 12 times, led by Erickson and Landry with four each. Krolik and Jonah Boston had two, while Michael Pond, Matt Hill and Tyler Wagner had one each. The Lakers had the lowest offense in the league scoring 101 goals, while allowing 182. They were also shutout 12 times. O’Connor was their highest scoring defenceman with seven goals and 24 points. Goalie Niall McGregor had the most wins with seven, while Joel Wilson had the best goals against average at 2.63 and save percentage at .923 in 15 games before suffering a season-ending injury.