There’s no question two of the brightest beacons in an otherwise dismal 2015-16 Western Hockey League campaign for the Kootenay Ice shone directly on 19-year-old forwards Matt Alfaro and Zak Zborosky.
With the departure of the likes of Sam Reinhart, Tim Bozon, Austin Vetterl, Levi Cable, and eventually Luke Philp, roles rapidly rose for both Alfaro and Zborosky this season.
Though it may have taken some time for the pair to adjust to a new way of life under head coach Luke Pierce, they quickly turned the corner and made the most of the added responsibility and opportunity.
With the focus shifting to next season, the duo will need to be even better if they hope to help the Kootenay Ice get back to the playoff race.
“They’re ready for this to be a new challenge and a new identity,” Pierce said. “They want to be the guys who bring that in and help reinforce it. They’re going to have to both realize and understand the sacrifice for the betterment of our group.
“They’re both guys who want to play and they want to play a ton every night, but we need them to teach some of our other players the right things to do — habits and all that stuff, which at times may take away from their production, but will help us as a team to win more hockey games.
“If you want to win games, you’ve got to change some things. I think they fully understand and realize that.”
Zborosky, a 6-foot, 174-pound native of Regina, struck 32 times and managed 68 points over 58 games to lead the Ice in scoring, while logging massive minutes at even strength and on both the power play and penalty kill.
Originally a fifth-round pick (105th) at the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft, Zborosky’s totals, which included 36 assists, all represented career highs.
For Alfaro, a 6-foot-2, 194-pound native of Calgary who spent the bulk of the season as Zborosky’s pivot man, the 2015-16 campaign was also one of career measures.
The third-year centre eclipsed the 20-goal plateau and added 26 assists for 48 points in 65 games.
“Statistics-wise, I think me and Matt actually had a pretty good year,” Zborosky said. “Being those guys this year and being the same guys — the go-to guys to score goals — next year we’ll have more experience and it should be good.”
Pretty much every given night saw Alfaro and Zborosky match up against other teams’ top units — tasked not only with providing offense for the goal-starved Kootenay Ice, but also challenged with shutting down the opposition’s most dangerous threats.
Zborosky was named Team MVP for his efforts, while Alfaro was crowned Most Underrated Player.
“Wyatt [Hoflin] won it last year and [Jaedon] Descheneau the year before, so obviously it’s pretty special to get an award,” Alfaro said. “It’s nice to get recognized.”
The two linemates also made their way into the team’s Three Stars of the Year, behind Hoflin.
With overage defenceman Tanner Lishchynsky and Hoflin trotting off into the sunset having played their final days of junior hockey, Alfaro and Zborosky represent the only returning overagers heading into the 2016-17 campaign.
Like Lishchynsky and Hoflin did this season, Alfaro and Zborosky will now be tasked with leading a young Kootenay Ice club when the 2016-17 season fires up this fall.
“It’s going to be weird being a 20-year-old,” Alfaro said. “I know I’ve got to be a big leader both in the dressing room and on and off the ice. I’m looking forward to that.”
After registering a franchise record for fewest wins in a season (12), there’s no question the year was a tough one for Alfaro, Zborosky and the Ice, but there were moments of promise that suggest better days might soon come as early as this fall.
“Don’t get down on ourselves,” Alfaro said of the biggest lesson his club needs to take away from this season. “At the beginning of the year, when we had that big losing streak, it was all just steamrolling and a snowball effect of losing.”
The snowball effect led to the second-lowest point total (31) in Kootenay Ice franchise history as the club missed the post-season for the first time since 1997-98.
“It’s obviously something that doesn’t sit well in your stomach,” Zborosky said. “Making the playoffs is what you basically want to do with the season.
“We’ve just got to learn to be more consistent in everything we do as a team, whether that’s warmups, workouts, practice and take all that and put it into the game.”
With 10 first-year players and a rookie coaching staff having worked one year of WHL routine into their repertoire, there’s nowhere to go but up after finishing 12-53-6-1 and deep the league’s cellar.
“We’re going to be young, so it’s hard to tell now, but I want to make the playoffs,” Alfaro said. “As a 20-year-old, you want to be in the playoff picture. You want to keep the season going as long as possible. That’s the goal for us.”