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Retooled V-Reds aim for third straight championship

After a summer full of changes, UNB’s Varsity Reds men’s hockey team has a new look and is preparing for the challenge of chasing their third consecutive national championship; this year will also mark their second straight season hosting the University Cup.

As the V-Reds hoisted the University Cup on March 19 after a 5-3 victory over the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, it was already known that it would be the last time many of the players would share the ice together. The months since have seen the departures of several key players, including top scoring forward Philippe Maillet and top defenceman Jordan Murray, both of whom left to sign professional contracts.

Maillet, the 2016-17 U-Sport Player of the Year, finished his university career with 166 points in 101 regular season games before signing a one year contract with the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League on March 27.

Murray put up 40 total points over 30 games played in his final season with the V-Reds and was named U-Sports Defenceman of the Year for the second consecutive season; in April, he signed a two year contract with the Belleville Senators, the AHL affiliate for the Ottawa Senators.

In total, the team lost four of its top five scorers from last season.

Constant roster turnover is a simple fact of life in university sports, and losing key players to professional teams is often the price paid for success in men’s varsity hockey. The 2016-17 Varsity Reds were, by all accounts, a historically great team.

Jeremy Mehan, a writer for UNBhockeyfans.com, has been following the Varsity Reds closely since he began attending UNB in 2002. In an interview with The Brunswickan, he said the 2016-17 edition of the team was one of the best he has seen since becoming a fan, and is possibly one of the best teams in the program’s illustrious history.

“They led the entire country in goals scored, fewest goals allowed, power play percentage, shots per game, fewest shots allowed per game, and were second in penalty killing percentage. In previous seasons, they might have been at or near the top in some of those categories, but had others where they were middle of the pack, so to finish at the top in all of them in one year is very impressive.”

While Mehan still expects the 2017-18 edition of the Varsity Reds to be among the top teams in the country, he realizes they have an uphill battle to replace stars like Maillet and Murray.

“[Maillet] had arguably the most decorated season in program history last year, as he was named the AUS MVP, a first team All-Canadian, U Sports Player of the Year, University Cup MVP and BLG Award winner as the top male university athlete in the country.”

“You can’t just replace a player like Philippe Maillet,” he added. “Those types of players certainly don’t come around every year.”

However, V-Reds head coach Gardiner MacDougall has met this challenge head-on by bringing in what appears to be a strong class of new recruits for the 2017-18 season.

Headlining the recruitment class is 20 year old centre Tyler Boland, formerly of the Rimouski Oceanic of the QMJHL. A native of St. John’s, Newfoundland, Boland developed into a dynamic offensive force in his final season at the major junior level, leading the Oceanic with 48 goals and 103 total points in 68 games, and finishing second in the entire league in both categories.

Prior to committing to UNB, Boland received an invitation from the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets to attend their upcoming rookie camp.

MacDougall spoke about the skillset Boland will bring to the team in a press release announcing the addition, saying, “He’s improved every season in the Quebec League, something we like to see in players, and he has a knack to score and create offence.”

In addition to Boland, winger Hayden Hodgson of Windsor, Ontario also looks to be a key member of the 2017 recruiting class. Hodgson spent last season with the Saginaw Spirit of the OHL, where he led his team with 38 goals and 66 points in 67 games.

Hodgson’s former Spirit teammate Kris Bennett will also be joining the Varsity Reds in the upcoming season. The 21 year old Bennett notched 25 goals and 26 assists with Saginaw last season while leading the team in penalty minutes.

To help fill the void left by the departures of both Murray and fellow defenceman Matt Petgrave, UNB has also brought in two blueliners from the QMJHL: Olivier LeBlanc and Tristan Pomerleau.

LeBlanc is a former 7th round draft pick of the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets. Last season, he served as captain of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles while leading all defencemen on his team with 43 points in 58 games; Pomerleau spent the last three seasons as captain of the Victoriaville Tigres.

Despite the apparent strength of the incoming recruiting class, Mehan believes expectations for the rookies should be tempered due to the challenges that come with transitioning to a new level of hockey; he believes if the V-Reds are going to win their third straight national championship, it will be largely on the back of returning veterans looking to take on a bigger role.

“When you lose top players like UNB has this summer, you hope you can fill many of those vacated spots with guys who are already on the roster and ready to step up and take on a bigger role,” said Mehan, listing Stephen Anderson, Chris Caissy and Cameron Brace as players who could be poised for increased roles in the coming season.

UNB is set to host the U-Cup finals for the second straight season in March. If the Varsity Reds are able to win the national championship again this season, they will become the first men’s hockey team since 1980 to win three consecutive University Cup titles.

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