Story by Brock Ormond

The Wellington Dukes are looking to reach the top of the Ontario Junior Hockey League again in 2022-23.

After the club won its 11th division title since it joined the OJHL in 1998, Wellington hit a roadblock in the shortened 2022 Buckland Cup playoffs, falling in two games to the Cobourg Cougars.

Despite the disappointment in the spring, head coach and general manager Derek Smith said the team’s resolve after an average start was something to build off going into the new campaign.

“We started off, I think it was eight and eight, and we ended up winning the division,” Smith said. “I think our record after the (COVID-19) shutdown was something like 24-3, so we were happy with the way the regular season ended.”

“It’s about building the proper habits in the culture and making sure that, from day one, we’re ready to keep building throughout the year and hopefully we don’t peak too early. Our goal is to just keep grinding and working out and having fun throughout the season.

The Dukes are getting a pair of 66-point players back in captain Jacob Vreugdenhil and David Campbell, along with a group of fellow returnees in Corbin Roach, Will Mitchell, Alex Case, and Creo Solomon looking to take the next step in their careers.

Smith gave Vreugdenhil high praise for putting the work in over the offseason with Belleville Senators trainer Jeremy Benoit and Tom Crowhurst at Momentus Athletics to be the best leader possible.

“He ended up Top 10 in league scoring and we’re expecting him to take even more strides this year – and not just on the points side of things,” he said.

“He’s a guy that competes and he brings his work ethic to the ice every single day and in the gym. He’s a great example for not just our younger guys, but for everybody in the organization.”

Vreugdenhil, along with Campbell and new acquisitions Ryan Smith, Stirling native Lucas Lapalm, Edward Moskowitz and Connor Paronuzzi are expected to carry the offensive load left by last season’s league goal-scoring leader Emmet Pierce.

On the blueline, Wellington lost 51-point rearguard Jonathan Balah to the NCAA, but Smith pointed to overager Julien Jacob and young phenom Graeme McCauley as being capable of filling his shoes.

In net, Smith touted the duo of 18-year-old returnee Ethan Morrow and new 19-year-old prep school signee Jacob Osborne as potentially the best goaltending pairing in the league this year.

The former Dukes captain and NHLer stated Morrow was a picture of someone who carried himself like a four-year veteran at 17 last season.

“He was mature in the net, he was structurally sound and he gave us a chance to win every night,” Smith stated. “His numbers reflected how good he was.”

As for Osborne, he put in a sterling performance at a showcase tournament in Toronto during the summer after being scouted intensely for the past couple years, allowing just one goal to help his team claim the championship.

“He comes as advertised. He’s got a great work ethic, he’s a big body and he’s fit in very nicely here,” said Smith. “No matter who’s in the net, they’re going to push each other and they’re going to work to get better.”

Smith concluded by emphasizing team discipline as an important aspect of the team this season, especially playing in such a tight East Division.

The Dukes are set to open their 33rd season with back-to-back games this weekend, starting with the home opener on Friday against the Lindsay Muskies at 7:30 p.m.