MEDICINE HAT, AB — Tigers head coach & GM Shaun Clouston is in a position many general managers would gladly chuck aside if they had the choice.
Last year, Clouston welcomed five returning overage players to training camp, understanding he would need to let go of two. This time around, he's facing potentially nine returners looking to play their final WHL season in the Gas City.
And the list is nothing short of impressive.
Up front, forwards Zach Fischer, Mark Rassell and John Dahlstrom each capped the 30 goal mark last year (Dahlstrom as a rookie). On the blue line, sizable Latvian Kristians Rubins, slick play maker Ty Schultz, newly acquired Jordan Henderson and longtime veteran Brad Forrest are all coming off impressive campaigns.
Clouston has his work cut out for him this off season. Many scenarios argue in favour of keeping each of these players.
But perhaps the biggest question mark lies in the blue paint. Nick Schneider and Michael Bullion are both entering their overage seasons as well.
"I think there's a few things that have to fall into place or happen before we make final decisions there," said Clouston. "As the summer goes on, we'll evaluate our situation and try to do what's best for our 20's."
Schneider began the 2016/17 campaign as the bonafide starter, but several factors including fatigue and lack of confidence lead to a lot of bench time near the end of the year. Michael Bullion, acquired New Year's Day, was brought in to put some wind back in Schneider's sails. But rather than creating a strong tandem, he took over the starter position permanently by the end of March. He started and lasted all 11 playoff games, while taking the crease in 10 of the last 11 regular season matches.
It's clear Clouston is taking a direct approach at tackling a relatively unstable goalie situation over the last couple seasons. The Tigers were the first and only team to select a netminder in the opening round of the 2017 Bantam Draft, plucking Garin Bjorklund.
"Darren Kruger and the staff did a real good job of putting their (draft) list together," continued Clouston. "We identified Bjorklund as a guy who could be available, might be available, in and around where we picked... We felt that he could be an impact guy."
Overage pressure was somewhat relieved after pulling the trigger on a blockbuster trade with Regina, sending 20 year old Matt Bradley to the Pats in exchange for 18 year old goalie Jordan Hollett.
"We have had to, over the past few years, acquire goaltenders to get us through seasons. And we've done that again here this time," added Clouston on the need to acquire a young, talented goaltender. "The exciting thing for me is that he's a '99. So it's not a one year deal. It could be a two year deal. If it's a two year deal that means he's been outstanding for us."
Hollett could last as long as three seasons. His 20 year old campaign would fall alongside James Hamblin, Gary Haden, Cameron MacPhee, and Tyler Preziuso.
"We'll spend some time and get to Jordan a little bit," said Clouston. "The plan is to sit down with him and his parents and really get a bit better feel."
Although the future is shaping up favorably for Clouston and the rest of the Tigers, it's a guarantee many players from last year won't be returning. Who exactly, is anyone's guess.
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