As he did last year, University of New Brunswick broadcaster David Kilfoil was nice enough to answer some questions for us about the Varsity Reds, who are coming to town for the third time in five years to face BC hockey in a season-opening tune up. These questions were asked before last night's UNB game, in which they topped the AHL's Portland Pirates 5-3, their first ever win over an AHL team - a sign that this might be the best UNB team yet. It should be an interesting test for BC tomorrow.
BCI: UNB is off to a strong start in CIS preseason play this season. What is the outlook for the team this year?
DK: While UNB has won three pre-season games so far, two were against the teams that didn't make the conference playoffs last year (or for several years in fact), St. Thomas University and Dalhousie University. Their win at home against McGill (normally ranked in the CIS top-ten) was legit, and actually a pretty chippy game for two teams who don't play each other during the season. A good test will be their game against the AHL Portland Pirates on Thursday, on their way to Boston.
There are some questions about the Varsity Reds this year, especially down the middle. Centre Cam Braes, who was tied for third in team points last season, finished his degree in three years and has turned pro. Braes was a monster player during the playoffs and the University Cup. As well, Dana Fraser, who transferred to UNB after Christmas for grad school after four years at the University of Prince Edward Island, caught fire with the V-Reds top line and scored 10 goals in 14 games. He's out of eligibility and now in a pro camp. Neither centre has really been replaced, yet. Also, fifth-year power forward Tyler Carroll (now in his second degree, Education) who played some centre last season for the first time, is still rehabbing from off-season should surgery.
The other question is nets. Both goalies are new; former pro Chris Carrozzi saw limited play last season and was the heir apparent for the #1 job this year but he elected to not return to school. Newbie Etienne Marcoux played a few games in the ECHL last year in his first pro gig before a season ending injury. Alex Dubeau is coming directly from Major Junior.
On the positive side, UNB had 13 new players last year, and nine of them are back this season. Their inexperience showed in the final game of the CIS University Cup versus Alberta last March; they should have learned a lot from that loss. So far UNB has only added two skaters to go along with the two new goalies, so this is now a relatively experienced team. I suspect we may see UNB playing Alberta in a rematch for the University Cup come March.
BCI: Who are some UNB players BC fans should keep an eye on Saturday night?
DK: There are several UNB players fans might appreciate. The "two Phil's", Maillet and Halley, are now in their third season and are the team's most potent offensive threat. While not big, they love to play the puck possession game and they will attempt to thread the needle in the slot. They played briefly together in Junior, but have become inseparable since enrolling at UNB. Jordan Murray was named the top defenceman in the AUS Conference last season. Jordan plays a complete game and loves to jump up in the rush (well, actually, all UNB d-men like to join the play). Murray and Maillet were also named CIS First Team All-Canadians. D-man Alex Wall plays more like a rover, and has arguably the best wheels in the AUS conference. He transferred to UNB last season for the MBA program, but was injured in the V-Reds' first regular season game and missed most of the season. D-man Randy Gazzola and forward Cameron Brace were both named to the AUS conference All-Rookie Team last year. Gazzola was also named to the All-Canadian All-Rookie team.
BCI: How would you describe UNB's playing style? Do you expect them to take a different approach than usual facing a highly skilled NCAA opponent?
DK: UNB plays a puck possession and puck pursuit game. Unlike many CIS teams, they rarely dump and chase, and they never, ever play the trap. As I've mentioned in the past, the V-Reds are considered a very quick team by CIS standards, which makes them about average speed by NCAA standards. The biggest difference I find when UNB plays in the States is the speed of the game; they don't have the edge they have against most Canadian opponents. The V-Reds play physical and finish their checks, but they don't play an intimidation game. They're just not big enough, and it is not the hockey program's style. They always try to bring their "A" game when playing NCAA teams, but sometimes that Thursday game against the Portland Pirates takes a lot out of them. About their only real weakness, by CIS standards, are their special teams. For some reason their power play has been only in the middle of the pack the last few years, with the penalty kill a bit better. Go figure.
BCI: BC and UNB have quite a bit of familiarity at this point - this will be 5 matchups in 6 years including two seasons in a row. Is it a coincidence that the schedules lined up again or are these teams making a concerted effort to play one another in preseason?
DK: UNB definitely makes a habit of playing BC. Gardiner MacDougall (who was the CIS Coach-of-the-Year last season) has tremendous respect for Jerry York, and the feeling appears to be mutual. Therefore it seems they are able to make date night work most seasons.
BCI: I have this crazy idea that this preseason series can be formalized with an annual awarding of that trophy UNB won in Fredericton when BC played up there in 2009. What do you say we each raise it with our respective schools?!
DK: The trophy BC played for in Fredericton a few years ago is the Pete Kelly Cup, awarded to the winner of UNB's annual New Year's tournament (which has become more of a two-game challenge cup.) I don't know if Gardiner would want to risk losing that trophy to BC, but I would love to see sort of challenge (maybe a two-four of local craft beer? Lobster? Poutine vs baked beans?). Last year York said that the Eagles would be returning to Fredericton "soon", so I hope they can work that out. Those were great games in a sold-out Aitken University Centre as you remember.
BCI: I know I asked about this last year, but what do you think the likelihood is of Canadian schools ever actually joining the NCAA, particularly in hockey? Or any other sort of cross-border collaboration on the hockey front? I know it's tricky because American and Canadian colleges recruit different kinds of players.
DK: I just can't see Canadian schools ever joining the NCAA for hockey. Div I is a development league; the CIS is a "second-chance" league where student-athletes take advantage of their education packages from Junior. The NCAA and Major Junior are huge competitors for stud players; the CIS and Junior hockey are partners. I do wish the NCAA would relax their "foreign travel" restrictions, and allow NCAA hockey teams to travel to Canada more than once every four years. It would be more fun for the Canadian fans, and allow the NCAA to market their product north of the border. A win-win in my book. Then we could have geographical neighbours, like Michigan and Windsor, play home and home exhibition games each year.
BCI: Last year, UNB was very competitive with BC, falling 6-4, How do you expect Saturday's game to play out?
DK: I suspect this year's game will be similar to last year's. If the V-Reds don't get too banged up versus Portland they should be competitive. UNB isn't as deep as last year, but more experienced. Plus, Gardiner usually has no problem getting his team "up" to play a NCAA team in their own barn. There's lots of pride on the line from UNB's perspective, and BC will of course have players making their debut in college hockey.
Thanks to David Kilfoil for taking the time to chat with us about the game; you can follow him at @DKilfoil on Twitter!