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Revamped Sabers aim to avenge dismal WSHL campaign

 

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As the San Diego Sabers limped towards the finish line last season, general manager Jim Cavataio knew things had to change.

So Cavataio started jettisoning players prior to the Western States Hockey League (WSHL) trade deadline – which included a deal to ship his goaltender and son Brody to Ontario – with his sights set on a clean slate for 2016-17.

After an active trade deadline and offseason, all that remains from last year’s team that went 9-40-3 are two returning defensemen in Steven Jackson (pictured) and Keegan O’Brien. Armed with a new roster and a new head coach in former Whitefish bench boss Joakim Falt, Cavataio feels that he has the personnel to make some noise in the hard-fought Western Division.

“We went into the offseason looking to build an entire team,” said Cavataio. “Our focus was to work from the net out, but we wanted to target a wide range of players – everywhere from Canada to Sweden and the Czech Republic. We’ve got a diverse group, but it’s a group that we will be able to develop under Coach Falt in a way that will help us build a consistently competitive organization.

“Character wins championships and all the players we brought in are great kids from great families, and I think it’s going to be a whole new atmosphere in San Diego this season.”

A major part of rebuilding the Sabers – both on and off the ice – was bringing in Falt from Whitefish, Mont., where he guided the Wolverines to a 20-31-1 record and a first-round upset of Vancouver before falling in the Northwest Division semi-finals to the eventual league champions from Idaho. While Falt acknowledges that the Sabers will be a young team that is building for the future, he also believes that San Diego will be a lot more competitive than they were a season ago.

“The first thing is that you have to recognize the kind of guys you have on the ice,” said Falt. “I know we’re in good condition with our new players, but I also know that character wins hockey games, and those are the guys we’ve been recruiting this year. I’m really excited to get on the ice, and while I know this is a really tough division and we are a young team building for the future, I think we are still going to challenge teams.”

Regardless of the young talent Cavataio has brought in to San Diego, clawing back to respectability could be difficult in the most competitive division in the WSHL, a murderer’s row of teams that include the defending division champs from Long Beach, the top regular-season team from a year ago in 45-win Valencia, and the perennially talented Fresno Monsters.

Still, Cavataio likes what he has on the ice and in the locker room, and is committed to putting a winner on the ice in San Diego, one game at a time.

“There’s always pressure to win, but for us right now our goal is to get back into the playoffs,” said Cavataio, who watched a 15-win Sabers team sneak into the playoffs in 2014-15 and upset a heavily favored Long Beach squad. “Going into this season, we are shooting for a top-4 seed and hosting the first round of the playoffs here in San Diego. Anything can happen once you get into the postseason.

“Players come together and you rely so much more on your coaching staff at that point and I think heading into this new season that we have the players and the coach to get to that point and have success.”

Photo/Mark Mauno

– John B. Spigott