Wall coach Mike Dianora said his team is in rebuilding mode after graduating a pair of All-Shore first team selections in defenseman Tom Panico and goaltender Troy Klahre among the 28 players the program has lost to the collegiate ranks over the last two years.
But that rebuilding process tends to be smoother when one of your returning starters happens to be the Shore Conference’s leading scorer.
Junior center Jeff Morgan exploded onto NJSIAA ice hockey scene last year by churning out an 82-point effort that included 39 goals and 43 assists, as the Crimson Knights went 18-7-3, including an 8-1-1 Class B South record that earned them the division crown.
Contrary to Dianora’s assessment, his offensive anchor and team leader isn’t convinced.
“I think we can prove people wrong,” Morgan said with a confident conviction. “We have the players, we have the talent, we just need to play like we’re capable of. If we can do that, anything can happen.”
With a decorated senior class fronting the Knights a year ago, the leadership role was never in doubt. But, the roster turnover facing Wall this season has left room for growth and new core of captains to emerge with Morgan at the epicenter.
“We’ll definitely miss those guys,” Morgan said, “But we have guys now like Pat Judge, Jake Henderson, Ryan Waddell, Alex Wuestneck and myself who will have to step up and are ready to step up and lead. … I’ve wanted to lead this team for a long time.”
Wuestneck returns as the Knights second-leading scorer behind Morgan, after having 17 goals and 17 assists last season, while Waddell is coming off a season that included 11 goals and 16 assists.
Judge and Henderson have the largest skates to fill. Judge, who recorded eight goals and 16 assists in 2012-13, will takeover for Panico as Wall’s top defenseman,. Henderson is slated to replace Klahre between the pipes after playing in only three games last year, though he did record a .956 save percentage.
As far as what Morgan has preached to his teammates to prepare for this season, the junior has taken queues from former New Jersey Devils captain, and current Minnesota Wild star, Zach Parise.
“Though I am a guy who likes to go out and lead by example, I am trying to focus on being more vocal,” he said. “But what I’ve been trying to stress to these guys is that we have to outwork everyone every night. If we put in the work good things will happen.”
Wall looks to repeat as the Class B South champion this season, but will have to compete with Point Boro (15-7-2, 8-2-0), which returns such offensive dynamos as Steven Kovaleski (49 goals, 30 assists) and Owen Herrington (19 goals, 24 assists). The Knights and Panthers will meet for the first time on Dec. 13 at the Ocean Ice Palace. Puck drop is scheduled for 5:10 p.m.