Full steam ahead for Espanola Express

Luke Bibby (9) and Josh Boucher (21) of the Espanola Express celebrate a first-period goal against the French River Rapids during NOJHL action at Noelville Community Centre on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. PHOTO BY BEN LEESON/THE SUDBURY STAR/POSTMEDIA NETWORK

NOJHL team has much of its roster built for 2021-22

Ben Leeson – The Sudbury Star
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There’s a lot of Northern Ontario flavour, along with a bit of southern seasoning, in what Espanola Express head coach/general manager Jason Rapcewicz hopes will be a recipe for success in the NOJHL this coming season.

A flurry of off-season signings, including some players from Sudbury, and a handful of trades will give the West Division squad a somewhat different look from the team that posted a 5-4-0-3 record during the COVID-shortened 2020-21 campaign.

“We are well underway — actually, we’re almost done,” said Rapcewicz, reached on Friday.

“We have a few guys going to OHL camps and we’re hoping that they’re going to be calling us with some good news, letting us know they’ve made their respective clubs, so we’re not necessarily expecting them to come back, and we have also had some guys move on to the U.S., but I feel with our new signings this year, we have been able to upgrade at a couple of positions and I think we’ll be a little bit stronger than last year. It was tough to gauge last year with no contact, but just looking at it player for player, what we have lost and what we have brought in, I think we have done a decent job upgrading. We’re going to be a solid team this year.”

New signings include a pair of Sudbury skaters, 2004-born forwards Brayden Lafrance and Ryan Rubic, from the Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves.

“We always try to go local first, and local for us is Northern Ontario, Sudbury if we can,” Rapcewicz said. “It’s difficult to compete, with French River and Rayside and us, there’s only so many players to go around, but we have been fortunate enough to land a couple of quality hockey players in those two and I think they’re going to come in and add an element of sandpaper that maybe we were lacking in years past.

“They’re only 2004-born players, so I think there’s great upside to both of them and I expect some quality hockey out of those two this year.”

He’s also high on 2005-born defenceman Owen Harris and forward Ty McHutchion, products of the Brantford 99ers minor hockey system, and 2004 forward Kyle Caron, a Cambridge Hawks grad and the cousin of former Sudbury Wolves defenceman Phil Caron — all of whom, in Rapcewicz’s opinion, should make smooth transitions to the NOJHL.

His roster could change even more depending on how many OHL draft picks stick with their clubs come fall. Defenceman Josh Kavanagh should have a good opportunity to remain with the rebuilding Peterborough Petes, after signing with them and even playing in a few games in 2019-20. Espanola’s group of major-junior prospects also includes forwards Luke Bibby (Owen Sound), Devon Savignac (North Bay) and Cameron Walker (Kingston) and defenceman Lucas Littlejohn (Niagara).

Also leaving Espanola this off-season were Cole Delarosbil, traded to his hometown Soo Thunderbirds, and Hanmer native Bradley Brunet, another Niagara IceDogs prospect, dealt to the Haliburton County Huskies of the Ontario Junior Hockey League.

“We had no intention of trading Bradley out, but I guess they sat down as a family with their advisor, looked at what their path needs to be, and they felt this was a step in the right direction for him,” Rapcewicz said. “I have always said to players the route you have may not be mine, but we’ll support you in any way we can and help facilitate and try to contribute to your success, and this was what they felt was the best situation, so we came up with a deal with Haliburton and we moved him down there.

“He’s a great kid and they’re a great family, and we wish him all the best and all the success in the world.”

Such departures should only mean more opportunity for younger players, as well as the three 2001-born veterans the Express acquired in a rare three-player deal with the Kam River Fighting Walleye of the Superior International Junior Hockey League: Defencemen Caleb Resch and Zachary Fulton and forward Ben Couvier.

Rapcewicz compared Resch to former Express standout Mattais Salem, the reigning NOJHL defenceman of the year and best overall team player.

“He’s an offensive-minded defenceman who is going to be able to quarterback our power play,” Espanola’s coach and GM said.

“I wanted to add some experience. Last year, we were fairly young on defence. We had some really good hockey players, but any time you can add a veteran player who has multiple years of junior experience, that’s a big piece of the puzzle and it was well worth going out and picking him up.”

Rapcewicz also believes he got great value with Couvier, whom he described as a big-bodied, physical power forward who can make room for younger, skilled linemates, and Fulton, a steady, stay-at-home blueliner.

“With so many unknowns with the backlog of ’03, ’04 and ’05 players with OHL teams this year, it could be difficult to wait, so I figured if we could go ahead and pick up some veteran presence, that would help us.”

He believes those new arrivals will only compliment the veteran core led by winger Josh Boucher, a Lively native and Espanola’s captain, who is expected to return for 2021-22.

Rapcewicz’s priorities for the rest of the summer include the addition of a defenceman capable of playing on one of his two top pairings, as well as a high-end forward.

“That’s what I’d really like to do, but defencemen are hard to come by right now and nobody really wants to give anything up right now up front. It’s still early, though, and a lot of guys are going to become available come mid- to the end of September, early October. I’d like to have it done by the end of July, so we know what we’e got, but we’ll be patient and make sure we find the right pieces.”