Thunder Bay North Stars 2023-24 Season Preview

By Gary Moskalyk

Record: 27-20-4 61 PTS .565% 4th GF 179 GA 159 +20 PP 17.5% PK 83.6% Playoff Result: League Runner Up

Key Players Lost 2002: F Colby Feist 15-21-36, F Nikolas Campbell 17-18-35, D Matthew Halushak 11-22-33 131 PIMs, F Dylan Winsor 13-15-28, F RJ Dickie 9-16-25, D Dylan Bertrand 2-8-10, G Conner Lemieux 13-9-3 2.78 .927

Returning Players: G Keegan Marks, D Max Buffone, D Drew Caddo, D Sam Skillestad, D Garren Voisey, F William Demkiw, F Nolan Desjardins, F Easton Glousher, F Jared Lemieux, F EJ Paddington, F Dimitri Trahiotis, F Edison Weeks.

Goalies: Marks 14-7-1 2.94 .916 regular season/9-4-0 2.70 .923 playoffs, Ethan Barron 2 teams.

The Thunder Bay North Stars overcame a 3-1 series deficit against the Dryden Ice Dogs to advance to the SIJHL finals. They extended the Kam River Fighting Walleye to seven games before falling 5-4 in the winner-take-all. A surprising season for a 4th place team? Not to head coach Rob DeGagne.

“I don’t know if I was surprised. I was very happy,” said DeGagne at practice prior to two weekend exhibition games against Kam River. (Thunder Bay split: 5-3 win, 5-1 loss). “The kids played like they could play. They played a great series against Dryden, going into that building and winning three games there and taking the Walleye to seven games. We got healthy at the right time, fired on all eight cylinders, kids bought into the system, they believed in themselves. Was I surprised? I was really pleased that they played for each other.”

The weekend exhibitions against Kam River will pare the roster down to size.

“Just a matter of seeing them in game situations. It’s way different than practice. Some guys are great practice players but not so good game players. It’s a small sample size for some guys, they’re only going to get a couple of games. At the same time, the guys who are very good just jump off the page. You’re not looking at the high end guys, you’re looking at the middle to third, fourth liners.”

Camp started with upwards of 60 players in camp. 

“We’ve got some size, we’ve got some strength. Guys can skate, got some skill. It’s probably the best group of guys we’ve had since I’ve been here in the sense of at the beginning of the season,” said DeGagne, in his 8th season at the helm.

The Stars had eight players age out. 

“Every year it’s the same thing. You lose a guy like Halushak, or Campbell, or Feist. Every year the young guys get older,” said DeGagne. “They come along, they surprise you and they get better. That’s how it evolves. You’re 20-year-olds leave and your 19-year-olds are now your 20-year-olds. Hopefully they get their leadership from the year before and they can continue that.”

EJ Paddington notched a hat trick in Friday’s game to serve as a perfect example.

“We’ve got some good returning players. Some good leadership. You fill in here and there. Boy, all of a sudden you’ve got a nice team again.”

The North Stars played just the two exhibition games.

“Traditionally we haven’t had any,” said DeGagne prior to the games against Kam River. “Now we’re going to have a couple. Next year we’re going to have four. It’s a long season. How excited we are at the beginning to get going, at the end it can really drag on too. A month is a long time not to be in the regular season. That’s just the way we do it.”

The schedule went from 54 games to 49. The shift to fewer games and the addition of Kenora bringing the league to eight teams favours more weekend games.

DeGagne sees both sides of the coin.

“We’ll see if you can keep your roster a little healthier. A little extra time off during the weeks, gets you better practice time, more reps at practice. I’m more of a traditionalist. I’d like to play rather than practice. We’ll try it and see. Can’t knock it before you try it.”

“We’re excited. We’re excited to get going, play Friday and Saturday night, see what we have,” said DeGagne. “We’ve got a couple guys returning this weekend–Skillestad (Sam) and Weeks (Edison). We’re not going to put them in the line-up this weekend. Our goaltending looks very good (Marks and Barron). We’ve got some nice puck moving defensemen. We’re going to have to figure out where we’re going to get 250 goals. I think everybody has to figure that out. 

“We really like where we are at this point compared to any other year I’ve been here for sure.”  

The North Stars open the season with four games on the road against Sioux Lookout and Kenora before playing at home against Dryden on October 6th.