With six 20-year-olds in the lineup, Coquitlam Express head coach Patrick Sexton believes the team has a potent mix of experience and youthful exuberance to improve on last season's fourth-place finish in the BC Hockey League’s Coastal division.
And with four of those senior players in key defensive positions, extending the post-season beyond last year's disappointing loss in five games to the Chilliwack Chiefs in the first round is more than achievable.
Key to Coquitlam's maturity in its own zone is the return of third-year goalie Adam Manji, who won 18 of his 37 starts last season and had a 2.99 goals against average before he was felled by an injury late in the campaign.
Sexton said Manji's development to becoming a steadying leader sets a good example for the team’s other two goalies, Eric Young and Ethan Simcoe, who are both rookies.
"He was that younger goalie once upon a time," he said. "It's a good opportunity for him to kind of give back and teach those younger guys and show them how to be a good pro."
In front of Manji, returning 20-year-old defensemen Luke Vardy and Michael Rubin will be joined by Tanner Attew, who comes to the Express after two seasons with the Langley Rivermen.
Sexton said having mature players on the back end will be good for a roster that includes 12 rookies, nine of them forwards. Not only will it allow them to build confidence to push play in the offensive zone, the older players will keep them accountable.
"Sometimes it means having the hard conversations," Sexton said.
After a busy summer for the league that included its withdrawal from Hockey Canada to operate independently, Sexton came into training camp with a lot on his plate.
Rosters have been expanded to 25 players, plus an additional player if a team is carrying a third goaltender. Teams can also sign up to two players from outside North America.
But they're no longer able to forge affiliate agreements with teams that play in leagues that are sanctioned by Hockey Canada.
That means the Express, and other BCHL teams, have had to create their own feeder teams where U18 players can continue to develop and play for the chance to get called up to the parent club.
Sexton said the changes have brought a new energy as more players will have an opportunity to advance their careers or earn scholarships to post-secondary programs.
"Players from different countries get to experience life in a new country, but also on the flip side, our players get to see different cultures and customs as they get to know them," Sexton said.
After a slow start to last season in which the Express lost its first three games before ripping off five straight wins on the road, Sexton is looking for this year’s team to hit the ice flying.
"You can't win a championship at the beginning of the year, but you can certainly hurt your chances of finishing as high as possible in the standings if you don’t start out strong."
The Express opens its 2023-24 regular season schedule on Friday, Sept. 22, 7 p.m. when it hosts the Alberni Valley Bulldogs at the Poirier Sports and Leisure Centre. Saturday, Sept. 23, also at 7 p.m., the Surrey Eagles will visit Poirier.