Home Opener Weekend!

The Grande Prairie Storm feel they will be a much-improved team this year . . . and so does the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

At least that is the impression one would get after reading the AJHL North Division preview as the Storm open the regular season against the defending North Division champion Fort McMurray Oil Barons Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Revolution Arena.

“The Storm are heading into the season as a much-improved team from 2017,” says Liam Horrobin, who wrote the division preview for the AJHL. “With key players returning and the acquisition of numerous players with major junior hockey experience, Grande Prairie is looking to continue to push themselves up the North Division standings.”

Former QMJHL forward Edouard Michaud has been the spearhead of the charge after an excellent pre-season including a hat-trick against North Division champion Whitecourt Wolverines.

“With Michaud  in the lineup and star forward Michael Clarke, the Storm could one of the most threatening offences in the North,” says Horrobin.

Last season the Storm finished with 146 goals – seventh best in the eight-team North.

Horrobin, and many others, feel that is going to change in a big way this year.

“The Storm's biggest strength will be their offence,” says Horrobin. “They already have Michael Clarke – 62 PTS in 60 GP – who was their only consistent offensive weapon in 2017. Parker Smyth started to find his groove after they acquired him from the Spruce Grove Saints – 25 PTS in 29 GP.

“Based on their preseason performances, neither Michaud and Justin Bernier (acquired from the Princeville Titans in a trade) have found it difficult to adjust to the AJHL style. You can even add Dallas Comeau into that mix. He is a returning player who finished second on the team in scoring – 30 PTS in 60 GP. With the offence they have this team could find themselves in the top half of the division.”

Offence starts with good defence and it appears the Storm will improve there as well.

“On the back end, Grande Prairie has been looking to improve in any way they can after leaking goals last season – finishing with the most goals against in the North,” Horrobin says. “They have brought in Christopher Lanouette, a ‘97 born defenceman who has experience playing in the QMJHL. Grande Prairie will also have Tyrell Boucher, Carter Wolski, and Walker Cote returning.

“The goaltending situation will be much different than the one we saw last season. Charles-Olivier Levesque – former Rimouski Oceanic netminder – and Ethan Slobodzian will stand as the Storm's last line of defence in hope that they can bring that goals against number down.”

The Storm will be looking to take another step in the playoffs this year after finishing seventh (15-38-7) and making it to the playoffs for the first time in several years.

Graduating players include Dolan Bjornson, Brenden Montgomery and Adam Wilson while those acquired in trades include Christopher Lanoutette (Terrebonne Cobres), Michaud and Bernier.

Head coach Matt Keillor is expecting  a big year for his troops.

“We all want really big things, and a lot of the guys are hungry for wins,“ Keillor told the Daily Herald Tribune. “This city should be excited.”

He says many of these guys have history with the team.

“Some of these guys are second generation, like (captain Landon) Vollman and the Cote (Cruz and Walker) brothers. They watched their brothers win and be successful,” he said.

“They lived through this and now this is their turn to make something happen.”

Keillor says the coaching staff are happy right now with the line-up, but that “anything could happen” on a game-by-game basis.

“These guys will stay on their toes, because on any given night, some guys can become a healthy scratch and others can get put in the line-up,” he said.

Before Saturday`s game there will be a tailgate party featuring $5 for brats and beer.

Sunday the team hosts the Oil Barons again at 2 p.m.