On Saturday, the UBC Thunderbirds men’s hockey team captured the Captain’s Cup, finishing a strong pre-season with a record of 5-0. The Captain’s Cup Tournament, first established in 2017, promotes university hockey in the Lower Mainland while allowing teams to prepare for the season ahead.
UBC’s roster has had plenty of turnover since they last suited up to play games. With 16 first-year players, the team is the youngest it has been in decades. Despite going undefeated in the pre-season, the club is already going through growing pains, and in this article, I will offer grades for the team’s offence, defence and goaltending.
There is no question that the new offensive additions to the team are incredibly skilled, but the transition from junior hockey to university hockey can be difficult. The new T-Birds are beginning their university careers coming off a final season in junior where they were among the oldest and strongest players in their league. Now, they are adjusting to being rookies again. It will take time for them to find their game. In the pre-season, UBC’s head coach Sven Butenschön said there were times when his team was “trying to play a skill game, without working hard enough, or gritty enough,” and observed that they are “just not good enough to do that.” When the players adjusted to the coach’s game plan, UBC was a force to be reckoned with. Butenschön is also adapting to a fresh team, but has been impressed with the new additions on offence, noting that “[they have all] been phenomenal.”
Fourth-year forwards Matt Revel, Austin Glover and team captain Tyler Sandhu provide veteran leadership on offence, and will have big roles in the team’s success on and off the ice this season.
The T-Birds special teams were the least of their problems in the pre-season. UBC operated at 30 per cent on the powerplay over the course of five games. With the man advantage, the team generated good chances, but often threw the puck away under pressure. As the players become more familiar and comfortable, with Butenschön’s systems, the powerplay will become even more effective. At the other end, UBC was solid when down a man, killing 86 per cent of penalties in the tournament. The biggest reason for this success was the incredible shot blocking of the penalty killers, constantly keeping the puck to the outside and limiting second chance opportunities.
The T-Birds’ defence was excellent in the pre-season. They seamlessly transitioned the play from defence to offence, despite the occasional wild pass in zone jump. This can likely be attributed to the introduction of a new break out, with the young additions still learning where their teammates will be. In contrast to UBC’s forwards, the defencemen were a steady physical presence that their opponents took note of.
First-year defenceman Matt Leduc always made himself known with his body first mentality. This was extremely effective one-on-one, but when the opponents came with numbers, he found himself stuck on a few occasions causing an odd-man rush. These instances declined consistently throughout the tournament, showing how perceptive and ready to learn the rookie is. Richmond native Shaun Dosanjh is the only fourth-year defenceman on the club this season and will act as a reliable role model for the younger defenders hoping to stay in the league for as long as he has.
The T-Birds’ coaching staff should be confident they can get solid goaltending no matter who is thrown into the net this season.
Fourth-year goaltender Rylan Toth didn’t see much ice time in the pre-season, but there is no question he is the number one goalie this year. Toth captured the starting job in the 2018/19 season and hasn’t looked back. The Saskatoon native has been one of the most consistent regular season goalies over the past two seasons, truly coming to life in the playoffs. Toth was a major reason the underdog T-Birds were headed to the University Cup before the tournament was cancelled due to COVID-19.
Dorrin Luding and Ethan Anders will challenge each other all season for the role of backup. Despite Anders seeing most of the pre-season action, I feel Luding pulled ahead on the depth chart. The Prince George native bounced around the Western Hockey League (WHL) before finishing his junior career with the Winkler Flyers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. He only saw one full game of action in the tournament, but he made the most of the opportunity, showcasing his stunning athleticism. His competitive style will benefit him greatly this year as he will have to work hard for every start.
Anders and Luding are listed as the same height, but Anders carries himself bigger due to his positional style. He spent the entirety of his junior career with the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL and will be looking to return to the stellar goaltending he exhibited early in his career. If Anders can improve his tracking and stay composed, he has a solid chance of finding his game this year. He rounds out an impressive triage of goaltenders who will command the T-Birds’ crease this season.
Challenges are inevitable this year. However, with the team’s veterans stepping into influential roles, Butenschön is more than prepared to handle the task. With such a young group, there are bound to be surprises, and as the season progresses, I am confident the Thunderbirds will find their identity and be able to compete with the best in the league.