The Niagara Predators recognized their team leaders with their annual awards this week.
Leading the pack as Most Valuable Player is Niagara Falls native Anthony Tropea, the Preds’ regular season leader in both goals (27) and points (48).
“He came out early in the season as one of the better players on the team,” says head coach Kevin Taylor, “and he was consistent throughout the year with that. It wasn’t just his points, but also his work ethic and his desire to win. He has a competitive nature that rubs off on other people as well.”
Logan Baillie was named as the Most Sportsmanlike Player. The 18-year-old from Niagara Falls was one of only four returning players on the team this year, completing his second straight season on the blueline without being assessed a single penalty.
“He’s a quiet player on the ice,” Taylor says, “but in the room, he’s very different. With the boys, he was a guy who brought people together. He never complained, he was a coach’s dream.”
Rookie of the Year Nolan Wyers represented the Predators at the Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League’s rookie all-star game earlier this season. He finished fourth on the Predators in scoring, with 12 goals and 18 assists.
“Nick (Savoie) and Leo (Savin) also had great rookie years,” Taylor adds, “but when Wyers brought his A-game, he didn’t play like a rookie. He put up some great numbers. He has a lot of talent, and hopefully he will stick around with us.”
Nineteen-year-old Guy Manco edged Thomas McGrath for Most Improved Player.
“We saw him as a fifth or sixth defenceman at first,” Taylor says of Manco. “We’re now building our defensive core around him and Nick Savoie. He made some little adjustments in one–on-ones in practices and I don’t think he ever got beaten after that.”
Savoie earned recognition as the best defenceman on the team. Taylor points out how much the St. Catharines native elevated his game in the second half of the season, so much so that he became a mainstay on the power play. At 5’ 7” he played much bigger than his size.
Declan Fogarty, Niagara’s third highest scorer, received the Best Defensive Forward award.
“He was the guy we counted on for penalty kills,” Taylor explains. “He brought offensive scoring to the front end as well. He came out as one of the most important forwards on our team because he was so versatile.”
The final honour of the season, the Cayden Edwards Award, goes to goaltender Ryan Santini. Named for a former trainer of the team in honour of his late mother, the award goes to a graduating player who is held in high regard by his fellow players.
As the Predators’ number one goalie, Santini played in 19 games this season, winning six and losing 11, though many of those losses came against the top three teams in the league’s South Division. His goals-against average of 4.05 and 0.906 save percentage were inflated due to those challenges. He also missed six weeks of the season with a shoulder injury.
“Stats don’t always tell the whole story,” Santini says. “I think my season went well. Even though there were some losses, they were fun games. I’m thankful that the coaches trusted me enough to be in net in those types of games, and that the guys felt confident with me in those situations.”
He’s thankful for the friendships he made with his fellow Predators and hopes to keep in touch with many of them as he moves on. By press time, the 21-year-old will be on his way back home to Montreal.
Santini says it was a year for hockey but more importantly a year for growth. It was a challenging task to convince his parents to let him come to play in Niagara. It was a chance for him to be on his own for the first time and to find out exactly where he wants to go with his life.
Santini will be helping at a Montreal hockey camp with one of his former goalie coaches this summer, and hoping to catch on with a university or college team.
“As much as I love the sport, I’m not ready to play pro yet,” he says. “At this point, I’d rather go to school, get a good degree and start working. I hope I can play hockey somewhere, but school comes first.”
Other players graduating from this year’s roster include Tropea, Ethan Boyd, Askar Aimanbetov and Alexander Andrews. But there should be a good core of players sticking around to take the team to the next level.
The Predators finished the regular season with a record of 20-18-4, finishing fourth in the South. They beat St. George 2-1 in the first round of the playoffs, then lost to the first place North York Renegades in three straight in the semi-finals.
“I was happy with the season,” Taylor says, “but not happy with how it ended. We accomplished some team goals, our plus-minus dramatically improved and we have lots to build on for next year.”
Taylor will spend some of his time in the coming months scouting some new players to add to the 2023-2024 squad, to replace those who have aged out of the league.
“The difference this year is I know now what I have, and I know what I’m looking for,” he says. “I was new last year, but this year I’ll be more involved in selecting players, more picky. I’m looking to build a good, balanced team.”
He expects to hold the first open skates for players interested in earning a spot on the Predators some time in late April or early May, with more open skates scheduled throughout the summer.
Meanwhile, the Bradford Bulls knocked out the Durham Roadrunners in three straight to win the other GMHL South Division semi-final series. They begin the best-of-seven division final Wednesday, March 15 at home against North York.