Maturing Isles aim for top two in South Division

With their first preseason exhibition game set for this Sunday in Nanaimo, the Kerry Park Islanders took to the ice earlier this week.

With their first preseason exhibition game set for this Sunday in Nanaimo, the Kerry Park Islanders took to the ice earlier this week for training camp at Kerry Park Arena.

A few faces were missing as camp opened, but Islanders owner Mark Osmond was optimistic about his team’s chances in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League this season.

“We have a lot of returning players,” he said. “I’m liking our team this year.”

The Isles have a handful of players who will attend junior A camps right now: Lynden Eddy and offseason acquisition Dawson Haines with the Cowichan Valley Capitals, Taylor Armbruster with the Alberni Valley Bulldogs, and Leighton Williams with the Coquitlam Express. Haines is a product of Cowichan Valley Minor Hockey who was drafted by the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors in 2013 and spent last season with the Castlegar Rebels of the Kootenay junior B league.

“We could lose players to junior A, which would bite us,” Osmond said. “But at the same time that would be good for our program.”

The team has already lost star forward Braedan Cross to the Nipawin Hawks of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. Cross played the last three years with the Islanders, recording 133 points in 115 games, including a team-high 61 points in 48 contests last season.

Only two players — forwards Matt Osmond and Cody Short — aged out after the 2014/15 campaign, so unless several others move up to junior A, this year’s team should bear a strong resemblance to last year’s.

“We probably won’t have a lot spots to fill,” at camp.

The Isles have 24 forwards battling for an expected 14 spots and an astounding nine goalies contending for two spots. Pickings are relatively slim on defence, but the Isles should be fine if their core from last season comes back.

There are two 15-year-old forwards in camp: Samson McLean and Isaac Tonkin-Palmer, both members of the bantam Kerry Park team that went to provincials last year. Although it’s highly unlikely either one will crack the roster full time, Osmond hopes to see them frequently as affiliates.

“Maybe we’ll get them for a year before they head off to junior A or the WHL,” the owner said.

Head coach Dale Purinton will be back behind the bench once again, with Aaron Spotts joining the staff along with returning assistants Trevor Hynes, Robert Davison and Rob Webb.

Osmond’s immediate goal is to beat the Victoria Cougars for the first time since he bought the Isles in late 2012. The Isles will get their first chance to do that when they open regular season against the Cougars in Victoria on Sept. 10.

His goal for the season is to compete with the Cougars for the South Division title.

“I’d like to see us in the top two [in the division],” he said. “Victoria is going to load up. I thought they might struggle because of all the guys they lost, but they’ve made a push to host the Cyclone Taylor Cup [Western Canadian championships], so they get a bye into that tournament and they’ve been doing some recruiting.”

The Isles haven’t finished higher than fourth since they moved to the South Division in 2011/12, but Osmond feels good about this year.

“Our team is maturing,” he said. “We’ve been building to get to this point. I expect us to be in the top two.”

The Isles will play their first two exhibition games on the road, visiting the Nanaimo Buccaneers this Sunday, followed the first half of a home-and-home series against the Peninsula Panthers on Aug. 28. On Aug. 29, they host the Panthers in their exhibition finale.