LEWISTON — Not so long ago, and nearly every fall like clockwork, St. Dominic Academy coaches would select one of the hockey team's more versatile and dependable forwards, sit him down and break to him the news that he would continue his career with the Saints as a defenseman.
"All of a sudden we're getting some depth on the back end that we didn't necessarily have before," current St. Dom's coach Steve Ouellette said. "It used to be we'd have to convert a forward to 'D.' Now we're reaching the point where we're not doing that."
In fact, quite the opposite for the Saints, who this year had that same conversation with three-year defender Will Desmarais.
"Fortunately he used to play forward, before he came to us," Ouellette said. "Four years ago, he converted to defense. So we had the opportunity to put him up front this year."
Across the ice at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee, in the Lewiston High School locker room, the staff hasn't yet had to move anyone from their natural position.
For a long time, Lewiston had one of the deepest pools of large, strong-skating, hard-hitting defenders in Maine — along with a stable of goaltending talent, and the Blue Devils biggest worry was always, "Who's going to score some goals?"
In some years, they had both. But when it was one or the other, traditionally, the blue line and goal cage came first.
This year, with a large number of returning players, the majority of those who've seen time with the varsity team are forwards.
"The depth, it's huge for us this year," Lewiston forward Matt Poulin said. "It's something that adds consistency, we can roll three lines without have to worry about our third line getting caught in trouble, and that helps the first and second lines get some rest if they need it during the game."
At St. Dom's, the strength of the team's defense begins between the pipes. Going on three years, the Saints have turned to seniors Austin Christopher and Grant Carrier to stop the majority of pucks thrown at their cage. Both are all-state caliber keepers.
"At times it's a blessing, and at times it's a tough problem to have," Ouellette said. "You have to give them each quality time and you have to give them each time to develop, and you want to make sure they each get enough big games. That's the tough part about it, but it's also nice to have that insurance policy."
Neither goaltender is too worried about playing time.
"It's good to have the experience of the guys who played last year," Carrier said. "Austin is a good partner for me, so if one of us isn't playing well, we can take rests and only play half a season. By the end of the season, some goalies get tired, and we'll have that rest."
"It gives us a lot of confidence to know that teams can expect a great game out of either one of us," Christopher said.
For the goalies, the fact that they are in an essential time share helps push them even harder to get better, to the full benefit of the team.
"It's all about competing, and we're both very competitive," Carrier said. "That just makes all of our goalies better. We've had five or six goalies practicing with us just in the past week, and we're all developing each other, we all want to play in those big games and all push each other."
On the blue line, most of the Saints' experience is still young, with the exception of senior Zack DeBlois. But age aside, the group is talented, which allowed Ouellette to move Desmarais.
"This year's different, we have a lot more depth on defense," Desmarais said. "We haven't really had a lot of guys on defense, but this year a lot of guys can play defense pretty well, a lot of guys worked in the offseason, and we needed more forwards."
And having Carrier and Christopher adds a second layer of protection.
"It makes it a lot easier," Desmarais said. "I'm a lot more comfortable having younger defensemen with two strong goaltenders."
Many of the Saints' forwards are also young, and adding Desmarais to the mix will fill a need while adding another dimension to the team's offensive dynamic.
"You usually don't get the opportunity to move a big guy like that in front of the net, that other teams can't move," Ouellette said. "With Will, we have that luxury there."
Desmarais joins sophomore Brad Berube and fellow senior Kyle Holtet as the only forwards who scored more than a goal last season for the Saints.
Trying to get through the Saints' defense and put the puck behind Grant or Christopher with accuracy will be a problem with which most of their opponents will struggle this season. Lewiston has the corps of forwards that could pose one of the more serious threats St. Dom's will face this season, and an offensive-minded defender to accompany that attack.
"When you have a team that has experienced defense like St. Dom's, and you have a team with returning forwards with that experience, it makes it that much more challenging, and I think the more challenging it is, the more fun it is out there," Poulin said.
Poulin and Evan Gosselin join Kyle Lemelin as legitimate first-line threats, and seniors Cam Marquis, Bryan Hall and Tanner Hubbard add senior leadership through the second trio.
"I think we have some skilled players up front who have had some varsity experience," Lewiston coach Jamie Belleau said. "We're hoping to be able to generate some scoring up front."
Aside from Patrick DeBlois, who had the third-most points on the team a year ago, on the blue line, the Devils are short on varsity experience with the remainder of the unit — Ethan Melvin, Max Bolduc, Nick Perreault and Joey Frechette.
But Belleau said that even that group might be flying under the radar a bit.
"I think we have some very good puck-carrying defensemen," Belleau said. "More than one, which we really haven't had over the years. Ultimately, at the end of the year, our defense is really going to complement our offense."
Part of that will be playing with a mutual level of trust.
"No matter who you have on defense or what they have for experience, you've still got to trust them," Poulin said. "When you build that trust and confidence, it takes a load off your shoulders."
Lewiston also returns a pair of goaltenders in Brian Wigant and Evan Bourassa. And then there is the tradition that is Lewiston hockey, which can play with the minds of some of the younger, less-experienced players on the team.
"We don't look at it as, 'We're a traditional team, we're supposed to be good,'" Lemelin said. "We look at it as, every year we want to get better, we want to always be the top team, not always be the traditional, good Lewiston. We want to be the team that other teams look out for. I know in the past couple years, (Thornton Academy) has kind of taken that over, but we really, really want to get that back. We don't just want to be a top contender, we want to be the top team."
If Lewiston is going to be successful, it will be with its offensive depth leading the way.
If it's rival St. Dom's that gains the upper hand this season, the blue line and goalies will be the focal point.
Times are a'changing. Like clockwork.
"Just a few years ago, (Lewiston was) very deep on defense, a lot of experience, always a lot of size," Ouellette said. "And they had their great goaltending. Now it's kind of a little different, and we're in the opposite role. It's kind of unique and puts a twist on the whole thing. It will be exciting."