CANMORE – The Canmore Eagles, right in the middle of a playoff hunt, are ready to fly forward into the new year.
The Junior A hockey club is hanging tough in fifth place (13-18-6) in the south standings despite struggling in the first half of the season with a constant stream of player injuries, lack of scoring depth, and the team's head coach missing from the bench.
However, Andrew Milne, head coach and general manager, is optimistic moving into 2022 especially with some healthy veterans returning to the line-up.
"I think the hockey club is trending in the right direction," said Milne. "We have guys who haven't produced to where they would like to be, let alone where I like them to be, so we're starting to see some guys start to produce at greater levels. It's been a process to get there, but short-term goals, we need to score more goals."
The Eagles have scored 96 goals in 37 games this season and are one of four AJHL teams that haven't cracked triple digits yet.
Special teams have been a sore point for the Eagles all season as well.
At 14 per cent, the Eagles currently are at the bottom of the AJHL on the power play and hovering around 75 per cent on the penalty kill, which is 13th in the league.
Milne said the scoring troubles are from several outlets, noting injuries, player fatigue, and a tough recruitment process has hindered the Eagles.
One year ago, Milne was punished by the league for speaking to media about a COVID-19 outbreak on the team. The AJHL handed down a $1,000 fine and 15-game suspension, which started this season. Assistant coaches Kyle McLaughlin and Bryan Arneson took over the role in Milne's absence.
Three months after the 2020-21 season was paused, the AJHL announced a restart in March, but the Eagles chose to opt-out for reasons such as finding billets.
"Obviously with COVID, it put us all in a tough spot and us opting out to join the season or whatever that was last year, at the time, was a very difficult decision and I stand by it right now that we made the decision for the organization and its long term success," said Milne. "I think that was a smart move by our board of directors and set up us for success not only this year, but for years to come."
Special teams and scoring were noticeable right from the start, but injuries added a new layer of difficulties.
The Eagles have relied heavily on rookie goalie Andreai Proctor-Ramirez between the pipes this season, who's 11-11-5 with a .904 save percentage. Milne praised Proctor-Ramirez and backup goalie Matthew Malin (2-7-1) for their efforts.
But the coach expects the Eagles, which are on a two-game winning streak, to be hungry following the Christmas break.
"We're right in the hunt. We're right in the middle of the pack with the injuries and everything else," said Milne. "Looking around that group of 20 year olds and some older guys we're going to lean on them a bit more. Taking into consideration that maybe we didn't have the best start to the season, they're going to be really excited to have a good second half."
Before the new year, some healthy bodies are expected to be back practicing and potentially in the lineup for the final home game of 2021, including captain Lane Paddison, ex-WHL'er Evan Waldie, defenceman Dylan Bidyk, and forwards Jack McKeown and Sam McPeak.
The Eagles close out 2021 at home against AJHL's newest team the Blackfalds Bulldogs. The Eagles currently hold a 3-2 season series edge against the Bulldogs. Puck drop is at 7 p.m.