The pieces seem to exist for the Ridge Meadows Flames to take yet another step forward this junior B hockey season.
Only time will tell if they fit properly.
The Flames made strides last season when they qualified for the Pacific Junior Hockey League playoffs with a mediocre 16-21-2-5 record.
A third place finish in the Harold Brittain Conference standings followed by a five-game loss to the Aldergrove Kodiaks in their best-of-seven opening round playoff series wasn't cause for a ticker-tape parade along Lougheed Highway.
However, put in context, it was a quantum leap from the previous season.
In 2011/12, the Flames finished out of the PJHL playoff picture with a terrible 11-32-0-1 mark.
The 16-point improvement and resulting playoff berth is reason for optimism heading into this season.
The man tasked with keeping the Flames on an upward trend is Jamie Fiset, who replaced Tavis Eaton as Flames head coach in February 2012.
At the time of the change behind the bench, Fiset was the team's assistant coach.
Looking ahead, Fiset isn't satisfied with simply making the playoffs.
"This year is the year that we're hoping to see continued growth," he said. "We still think we're one more year away from really putting all the pieces together, but we're pretty optimistic. This year we're going to surprise people. We might be a little bit slow out of the gate but this will be a team that, as the year progresses... we're going to get better and better."
If the Flames manage to qualify for the post-season, Fiset believes they have the ability to "do some damage."
"I'm hoping that by Christmastime, we'll be firing on all cylinders," Fiset said. "We've really worked hard to assemble a good, quality group of young men who like being around each other but also like pushing each other to do better. Our practices so far have been quite strong - really good pace."
Speaking of pace, the Flames will be built on speed, according to their coach.
"We're going to be fast," Fiset said.
A teacher at Langley Secondary School, Fiset as of last week had 12 players signed, including a handful from south of the Fraser River.
Five Langley skaters are with the Flames as they prepare for their regular season home opener at Planet Ice on Friday, Sept. 13 (the locals are hosting the Grandview Steelers with a 7:30 p.m. opening faceoff).
They include defenceman Nicholas Coltura and Cam Alder and forwards Brandon Inwood, Jordan Gracie, and Lucas Vampa.
Alder, a left-shooting defenceman who played midget AAA in Langley last season, is one of many Flames rookies set to make their first foray into junior hockey.
"I play a simple game, fast, with simple plays," Alder said. "Just get it out our end and let the forwards do the rest." He hopes to stick with the Flames throughout this season and try junior A hockey next year. Key returnees include Coltura (two goals, 12 assists in 2012/13) and forwards Travis Oddy (32 points in 42 games during the previous campaign), Marco Ballarin (14 goals last season), and Clayton Lake.
"We're building around our 95s," Fiset said, referring to Flames who were born in 1995. "Our 18 year olds. We only have six 19 and 20 year olds coming back, so we're definitely going to be younger."
With a number of rookies in the lineup, the Flames could need some time to acclimatize themselves to a new season.
"With that comes some rookie growing pains," Fiset said. "We haven't had a chance yet to ice a complete roster in exhibition. We've only been dressing two veteran players and three or four rookies on top of that, so it's mainly just been prospects playing."
With the campaign just around the corner, Fiset, who doubles as the Flames' general manager, continues to try to bolster his lineup.
On Aug. 26 the Flames acquired 18-year-old forward Maclean Hewitt from the Kodiaks in exchange for future considerations.
A Maple Ridge resident, Hewitt joined the Kodiaks last season and notched 17 goals in 36 regular season games in his rookie campaign.
Hewitt still has three years of junior eligibility remaining.
Whether Hewitt will remain a Flame for the next three seasons is up in the air because the world of junior B hockey has many moving parts, with players routinely getting called up to the junior A and even major junior ranks.
Fiset realizes this comes with the territory.
"That's what has happened pretty much the entire month of August," he said. "I had 18 guys away over the past couple of weeks at junior A or Western Hockey League camps, so it's been very difficult for us to nail down a roster."
Most of the Flames' roster players are back with the team now. "We're hoping to get more and more of our newly signed guys and our veteran players on the ice together for exhibition games," he said.
Fiset said one of the best ways to recruit new players is to move players on to higher ranks.
"That's a real easy recruiting tool," he said. "Or if players like being on your team and they want to stick around even though they have other options, that's also an easy recruiting tool."
Another draw for potential Flames: the amount of fan support the team has been receiving as of late at its home rink, Planet Ice.
"Our exhibition games... were basically the same-sized crowd as what we got in the playoffs," Fiset said. "I would say we are in the top third in the league in terms of fan support, so we're pretty grateful for that."
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