Anticipation is high for the Napanee Raiders as they prepare to embark on their 2023-24 PJHL Junior C season, starting Sept. 15 at 7:30 p.m. with a home game against the Campbellford Rebels.
Coming off a first place finish followed by a first round playoff exit, last year’s Raiders club gave a glimpse of what this group can be, while also showing its construction wasn’t yet complete. This year was always intended target for this group to fully ‘arrive’. The Toronto Maple Leafs had their Shana-Plan, this is the final year of the Hager-Plan (our coined term, not his)-that being Raider head coach Ben Hagerman, in conjunction with GM Adam Bramburger.
“We’ve built this team basically since COVID,” said Hagerman. “It’s been kind of a work of the last three years I would say. And we’ve made some additions and tinkering along the way for sure. I’m not going to sit here and say the expectation is to win every single game, but I think we probably have a chance to do that most nights, unless we hit a real tough injury bug. We should be in every game every night. We just want to be a team that comes out and works real hard and executes some of the things that we have planned to put into place.”
Last year’s club was expected to be competitive with some growing pains along the way. Though early on they certainly looked ready for prime time, kicking off the year with 16 consecutive wins.
“Probably the number that most people remember about last season was the 16-0 start,” said Hagerman. “But it was actually something like a 25-2 start because I think we lost two in the last week of November and then we went on another run of eight in a row. When you start a season you don’t intend to basically lose two games in the first four months. (Goalie) Bailey Maracle was hot at the time. We were getting timely goals. There were a lot of one-goal games in that run. A lot of tight games and maybe a few games that we didn’t deserve to win. I’m not putting any expectations on this group to go on that run to start the year.”
Much of last year’s group returns, with another year of experience under their belt.
“There wasn’t a lot of spots on our team, but the spots we did have to fill, we’re quite pleased with how that’s came together,” said Hagerman. “A lot of local talent involved in our recruitment this offseason just by virtue of hitting a little sweet spot in some of our birth years where we’re producing some nice, local talent, and then we were able to acquire a couple of Jr. A defencemen that are going to make an immediate impact in the lineup.”
Those blue liners include Jackson Barnes from the Nepean Raiders and Erik MacNiel. Local players include Carter Hartwick, Connor Brooks, Spencer Cranley, Reid Lambert, Marshall McFarland and Cole Campbell.
Though he likes the look of his roster, Hagerman knows the rest of the league have been busy re-tooling as well.
“It was an incredibly deep division last year, said Hagerman. “The Port Hope team that beat us (in the playoffs last spring) was a fourth place team on paper but they only lost less than a handful of games from Christmas on. In any other year they probably would have finished second. They did a lot of work at the deadline to improve that team, which was well done by them. It just proved how good this division was. We think they’re going to be real strong again. Amherstview’s done a lot of work with acquiring a lot of local talent from Kingston, mostly the GK Gaels program. Frankford is a well-run program and they’ve done a lot of work acquiring good young talent from the Quinte Red Devils U18 program and working close with the Trenton Golden Hawks. We know what’s out there. Campbellford is going to be much improved.”
Prior to getting the season underway the Raiders will play two final tune-up games, the first tonight at the SPC when they welcome the Frankford Huskies. Puck drop is 7:30 p.m. On Saturday they travel to the Duncan McDonald Memorial Gardens in Trenton to play the Huskies again. Puck drop is 6:50 p.m.