2017-18 Pollock Division Season Preview: Mount Forest Patriots

The Mount Forest Patriots win their first Pollock Division, formerly Western Junior C, playoff championship in 21 seasons on March 19, 2017. (photo by Steve Sabourin)

An up and down season. A historic playoff comeback. A tragic loss, and a thrilling final. All these elements capped off a great 2016-17 campaign for the Mount Forest Patriots, ending with a championship 21 years in the making.

General Manager Rob Nixon stated heading into last year’s playoffs he felt his team were “consistently inconsistent.” The record of 17-17-2 certainly gave credence to the GM’s statement. But the playoffs would change that, particularly in the 2nd round, where the Patriots found themselves in a 3-0 hole to the juggernaut Mitchell Hawks, who boasted the Pollock Division’s top 3 scorers. Then, playoff magic occurred in the form of star MVP goalie Matt Oullette, clutch special teams, and a roster of players who may not have been the flashiest, but together formed a gritty and unyielding unit that went all the way for Mount Forest, grabbing their first title in 21 years. It was made even sweeter after losing long-time team staffer Cherie Noble, who was with the Pats over 20 years along with husband Mike and son Steven. The Pats dedicated the win to her after beating Walkerton in 7 games, with Nixon saying she was “a key part of the fabric of this organization.” The Patriots now prepare to defend their Pollock Division crown, and despite some key losses, they look primed to potentially do so.

On offense, the team will have a large returning cast from last year, led by leading scorer Michael Stefanelli, who put up 30 points in 29 games. While Stefanelli had a great points output, it’s all the little things he does on the ice that make him so effective. Especially in the Walkerton series, Stefanelli won draws, killed penalties, threw checks, and was a clutch goal scorer at times as well. Up front, he is the engine that drives the Patriots, but certainly one that isn’t one dimensional in any sense. Brendon Aitken will return after netting 28 points in 34 games, as will Blair Butchart who had a very impressive 19 points in just 16 games. Riley Cribbin, who only played 12 games but had 12 points, will return, as the team loses Ostop Mostowy and Jack Vautour who were both excellent in the playoffs. To even further offset those losses, the Patriots made a deal with Goderich to welcome hometown boy Jack Francis back into the fold. Francis had 23 points in 35 games for a struggling Flyers squad, so his addition will be a big boost for a very competent offense that’s better than the sum of their parts.

Defensively, the Patriots got some very good news as captain and elite blueliner Shawn Lantz will return for another season. Lantz has been brilliant for the Patriots, always getting loads of points and running their power play, notching 28 points in 35 games. His leadership, physicality and ability to be effective in all three zones makes him an anchor on the line. Dylan Brown is returning, as he became a key factor in the playoffs after a 9 point season under Lantz’s wing, and GM Rob Nixon says he’s looking for Brown to take another leap forward this year. Brown, despite always playing hard and physical, only accrued 10 penalty minutes all season in 34 games, a testament to his already steady and mature nature. Another hometown boy, Derek Acheson, will come back, as he put up 8 points in 31 games, and was a big shot blocker in the post season, logging big penalty kill minutes. Another big keep is veteran defender Kyle Hunter, who got 9 points but only played 25 games. He brings a calming presence to the Patriots D-zone, and can certainly pile up more points with more games this year. Nixon noted that young Evan Kuhl will also return, so the Patriots won’t be looking to many new faces to help defend their zone, which could certainly only help in a title defense. These guys have been there, done that.

In net is where the Patriots were hit with their biggest loss, as star goalie and Pollock Division MVP Mathieu Oullette has aged out. Last year, despite the team suffering some ups and downs in their consistency level, Oullette was brilliant, posting 15 wins, a .925 save percentage and a stout 2.65 GAA. He was even more heroic in the post season, making huge saves look easy in the historic comeback over Mitchell, and in the final against Walkerton, even stopping a breakaway from Hawks star forward Lauchlin Elder in the penultimate game. Despite losing Oullette, GM Rob Nixon isn’t too concerned about his crease situation. Though at the time of writing the Patriots aren’t totally sure who will start, young Tyler Reiner will return and push to prove he can be a number one. Reiner played 8 games last year, winning 2 while spelling off Oullette, and looked good against a lot of good players in tough situations, but it remains to be seen if he’s the man. Nixon says the team is trying out a number of goalies who look like they can compete for time, but the shoes, or skates rather, of Oullette will be tough ones to fill.

For more on the upcoming Mount Forest Patriots season, listen to the full length interview with Pats GM Rob Nixon: