‘Definitely’ a work in progress Defending MJHL champion Portage Terriers are Canada's No. 7-ranked junior A team, but GM-coach Blake Spiller is still dealing with a few surprises
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/11/2019 (1313 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Blake Spiller, the head coach of the Portage Terriers, doesn’t need to make a special effort to discuss roster changes with his GM.
He can have that conversation in private, and no one else needs to be there.
“I think everybody’s roster is always a work in progress, but ours is definitely a work in progress,” says Spiller, who’s in the midst of his 15th season as the head coach and GM of the defending Manitoba Junior Hockey League champions.
“We started off good and won some games that our goaltending was a big part of. I think our record was 8-0 and it was a little bit flattering for our team, (based) on the way we were playing.
“Then we lost one, won a couple and lost four in a row here. The four games we lost were by one goal and in three of them we outshot the other team 2-1. We’re playing OK, but we’re not where we need to be even though we had a lot of guys return. Hopefully, those guys will get back to their game.”
Entering Friday’s action, the Terriers were 11-4-1-0 and tied for top spot in the league with the upstart Waywayseecappo Wolverines, but if it sounds like Spiller is getting anxious, he has his reasons.
The Terriers will stage the national junior A hockey championship tournament, recently re-christened the Centennial Cup (scheduled for May 9-17) and Spiller is dedicated to repeating the team’s successful run to a national title when Stride Place last hosted the event in 2015.
Portage was awarded the 2020 tournament more than a year ago and Spiller has been recruiting and moulding his roster in preparation ever since.
“We know that no one’s really set in stone on this team until the (trade) deadline,” says veteran left-winger Kolton Shindle, who is tied with Joey Moffatt for the team lead with 16 points in 16 games.
“I think it’s a bit of pressure every night, knowing we have to be at our best or you could be out the door on any given day. It’s good motivation for everyone in the room.”
Some of Spiller’s longer-term plans have gone awry.
“We’re hoping to make some moves and it’ll have to be the right fit. Hopefully the GM can tweak it a little bit.” – Head coach Blake Spiller
Several trades involving future considerations fell flat when those players went on to earn roster spots in the Western Hockey League and USHL this fall. In addition, three key veterans from last season’s ANAVET Cup champs — namely forwards Reilly Funk (Youngstown, USHL), Jay Buchholz (Minot, NAHL) and Orca Wiesblatt (Calgary, WHL) — elected to move on to other leagues.
“We made some deals last season to set us up for this season and, I mean, it is what it is, but a lot of those guys are playing at higher levels — and good for them,” says Spiller, who wouldn’t reveal the names of the players whose rights he acquired.
“We were hoping and counting on them being here and (they’re not). But that’s the way it goes sometimes.”
The Terriers, currently rated the No. 7 junior A club in Canada, remain a deep and talented squad with 14 returnees from last year. A defence corps led by the duos of Caelan McPhee and Owen Murray and ex-WHLer Sam Huston and fourth-year man Cody Thompson could be the MJHL’s best, while the goaltending tandem of newcomer Cole Johnston and incumbent Nathan Moore has been very dependable.
Murray, who’s major-junior rights are owned by the Winnipeg Ice, could be a regular in the WHL this season; so far he’s chosen to focus on the U.S. college route.
“He’s keeping his options open and I know the Western League could be an option next year but there’s a lot of colleges that have been talking to him,” says Spiller.
So far, the overall production of his forward group is what has Spiller the most concerned.
Most encouraging has been the work of a newly formed trio of centre Mackenzie Belinski, acquired in an off-season trade from Neepawa, Shindle and right-winger Reece Henry. The line is coming off a 10-point outing in Wednesday’s 5-2 triumph over the Natives while newcomer Logan Christensen, an overage centre with 251 regular-season WHL games under his belt, and Moffatt, the club’s top scorer in 2018-19, are also being counted on for major contributions.
Belinski, Henry and Shindle seem to have developed a good bond.
“(Henry) and I play a puck-possession game so we have the puck a lot and Belinski is one of the fastest skaters in the league,” says Shindle, whose father Garth tended goal for the Terriers in the mid-’90s. “With him adding some speed we can get the puck down the ice pretty quick. It’s worked out well.”
What the future holds for the Terriers’ roster is uncertain. Spiller the coach is eager to see what happens.
“We’re hoping to make some moves and it’ll have to be the right fit,” he says. “Hopefully the GM can tweak it a little bit.”
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.