North Okanagan Knights’ head coach Kris Mallette had pretty much assumed a new No. 1 netminder would be at the top of his to-do list for the coming Kootenay International Junior Hockey League season.
However, Dustin Nikkel is set to return to the Knights’ crease after he was unable to crack the BCHL Salmon Arm SilverBacks’ lineup at training camp last week.
“I was quite surprised,” said Mallette, who watched the 1993-born Nikkel at the camp, and felt he gave SilverBacks’ returnee Adam Clark a solid battle for the backup role behind starter Colin Dzijacky.
“He played very well in Salmon Arm. I’ve never seen him as focussed as he is right now. ”
Whether Nikkel remains with North Okanagan for the entire season is another question. Mallette wouldn’t be surprised to see him earn a mid-season call-up to a BCHL club, similar to Kamloops Storm netminder Lynden Stanwood, who joined the Trail Smoke Eaters last year.
Mallette has also liked what he has seen through a pair of preseason games, include a 7-1 win over the Chase Heat last Friday, followed by a 6-2 win over the Kelowna Chiefs Tuesday.
Vernon’s Colton Thibault led the Knights with a four-point night against Chase, while Mat Lambert, another Vernon product, collected four goals against Kelowna.
“The kid (Thibault) is going to be a very good player,” said Mallette. “He is AP’d (call-up) with West Kelowna and Rylan (Ferster, Warriors’ head coach) really likes him.”
Of Lambert, he added: “He gets himself into the good areas and is very opportunistic, and he’s got some finish.”
Other local products joining the Knights this year include Mac Ferner, the son of former Vipers’ head coach Mark, Enderby’s Connor Richards and Morgan Johnson, a WHL draft pick of the Prince George Cougars.
Along with Nikkel, North Okanagan boasts a returning corps of forwards Steve Pantazopoulos, and Brett Hawrys, and d-men Nathan Brown and Josh Klein.
Mallette is waiting to see whether forwards Derek Andrews and Ben Greenaway stick with their Junior A teams. He traded Vernon netminder Aaron Brandoli to Kevin Kraus’s Revelstoke Grizzlies in exchange for future considerations Monday.
“I like our makeup,” he said. “Give us a month to get going, and if we get our guys back from Junior A and other camps, we could be extremely competitive.
North Okanagan open the regular season next Friday in Sicamous against the Eagles. Their home opener is a Sunday 2 p.m. matinee on Sept. 16 against the Spokane Braves at Nor-Val Sports Centre.