Garrett James Photography

Winds of change swirling as Express begin rebuild

 

Express fans will see a lot of new faces when they return to the Poirier Sports and Leisure Complex – which looks like it will happen this fall. Changes have occurred on and off the ice, making this off-season a tumultuous and busy one for the club.

Former Express vice president Dave McLellan is no longer with the club. Head coach and general manager Jason Fortier was replaced by Dan Cioffi last April. He was replaced on an interim basis by Adam Nugent-Hopkins in March.

Fortier coached in Texas this past season, while Cioffi left the team citing family reasons during the pause before the pod season. Operations Manager Kimberly Osborne resigned four days before the pod season began. In addition, numerous holes in the Express roster will need to be addressed as well.

New faces in new places

Tali Campbell succeeds McLellan as Express vice president and general manager after the team’s successful 2019-20 season. The former GM of the Nanaimo Clippers took the Express’s reigns in October 2020 and has done pretty much a bit of everything. Finding a new home to host a pod season and doing team laundry to afford training staff a day off has only been part of his job description so far.

Not drawing fans, regardless of their position in the standings, has always been a stumbling block for the club in both Coquitlam and Burnaby. Campbell is a huge proponent of changing the Express culture in his short tenure with the club.

“We are building what I feel is something special. The culture we are building is based on respect, accountability, and community. We want to make sure everyone who wears an Express jersey understands the importance of these key things,” he said.

Campbell, 26, notes these three points of culture will be used on the ice, off the ice, and in everyday settings for Express players to achieve success. “I want to make sure every Tri-Cities resident knows who the Express is and what we mean to the community.”

A new head coach

On May 12, the Express named Brandon Shaw its new head coach and assistant GM. Shaw joins Coquitlam in his first head coaching role after serving as an assistant coach in both Alberni Valley and Merritt.

Tri-City News reporter Mario Bartel wrote that Shaw is someone Campbell has had his eye on for a while, noting a shift in culture around the sport. “Relating to players is a lot different now,” Campbell told Bartel. “We’re more connected to our feelings. Mental health has to be a priority and the new-style coaches understand that.”

Being only 26-years-old himself, Shaw has the tools and knowledge to instill this new culture into his players.

A new assistant coach

Two days after bringing Shaw aboard, the Express announced the hiring of Jeff Wagner as their new associate coach and director of scouting. Wagner joins the club following a three-year stint as head coach and general manager of the Fernie Ghostriders of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League. Prior to that, he was an assistant coach with the Creston Valley Thundercats, also of the KIJHL.

In a news release announcing Wagner’s hiring, Campbell says he checked a lot of boxes. “Jeff’s recruiting ability, his organization skills, his approach to coaching, and his drive to succeed are all things we knew we wanted.”

Campbell is excited to have Shaw and Wagner behind the bench for the Express. “Both guys, although young in age, bring a wealth of experience to our club. Both have proven track records of moving players onto the next level while building (their) organizations up.”

Roster questions

With the pod season over and the sprint to the start of the new season starting, the Express does have some serious opportunities to address in its roster.

Following last season, goaltender Jack Watson, who led the Express to a series sweep over the Langley Rivermen, left the club. He is off to play college hockey at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute this fall.

Joe Howe was traded to the Grande Prairie Storm of the Alberta Junior Hockey League to get in some playing time before heading off to Cornell University on an NCAA scholarship. Howe posted a respectable 7-3 season with a very good 2.27 goals-against-average with the Storm.

The netminding for the Express took a dip during the pod season. Dylan Kruss posted a 5-7-2 record during the pod with a .882 save percentage. The Thornhill, ON native finished with an inflated goals-against average of 4.36.

Nanaimo, BC product Jaden Little didn’t fare much better in a smaller sample size of games played. Little compiled a 1-4-1 record with a .854 save percentage and an even higher 4.84 goals-against-average.

Heading into the 2021-22 season, starting goaltending is definitely something that has to be addressed for the Express to have any hope of making the playoffs in the very strong coastal conference

Scoring is the biggest question mark for the Express heading into next season. The top four scorers from the pod season aren’t returning to the club.

Tyler Schleppe, who led the team in scoring, and Keeton Oakley, the second-place scorer, and the pod’s top rookie, were on loan from the Langley Rivermen. Third place scorer and alternate captain Ryan Tattle is off to UConn on an NCAA scholarship. Sam Marit, who finished fourth on the team in scoring, aged out of the BCHL and junior hockey.

The pressure is on to recruit well

Losing the top four scorers from a club is devastating in any season, let alone one coming on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic. Campbell, Shaw, and crew definitely have their work cut out for them when it comes to recruiting this summer.

There is definitely some work for the front office and coaching staff to do in this off-season to retool the Express into a playoff contender.

Here is hoping for a successful recruiting season in all areas of the organization and fans can return to a successful 2021-22 season, which is the 20th year of the Coquitlam Express and the 60th season for the BCHL.