LEWISTON – Lewiston Maineiacs’ head coach and general manager Clem Jodoin sat back in his office chair, his hands clasped together and resting on the top of his head.

A grin, seemingly from ear to ear, developed as he spoke.

“Monday night,” he said. “Monday night will be fun.”

While many people are still hoping to squeeze in another month of beaches, convertibles and sunbathing, Jodoin and his staff are ready to play some hockey. Starting Monday night, they get their wish. For the fourth time, the Lewiston Maineiacs are ready to open up training camp at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee.

“It’s all about who is going to perform, who is going to impress us,” said Jodoin. “This is what we’re looking for.”

Fifty-five hockey players – some from as far away as Calgary – will suit up this week, hoping to become one of the 23 members of the 2006-07 Maineiacs.

And it’s going to be tough.

“There’s depth everywhere,” said Jodoin. “Even at goalie there’s depth, with young kids pushing up. At defense, everybody will be pushing hard. It’s a very interesting and good thing when we can sit back and say, ‘We can be patient, we have depth everywhere for the next two or three years.'”

Between the pipes

Leading the charge is returning netminder Jonathan Bernier, who this summer was selected 11th overall by the Los Angeles Kings in the National Hockey League draft. Bernier, the team’s No. 1 netminder last season, was 27-26 with a 2.70 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage.

“I just have to come back here and not think about being drafted now,” said Bernier. “It’s still pretty nice to know that you’re the No. 1 goalie, but I also know I have to help carry the team all year. That’s part of my job.”

After Bernier, though, there is going to be a battle for the No. 2 spot. Travis Fullerton, who played 17 games last season and posted a 9-8 record, will be 19. There have been rumbling that he wants more ice time, but he will be hard-pressed to find that time in Lewiston. Also returning from last year’s camp are Marc-Andre Perron and Marc-Andre Sauve.

The Maineiacs drafted three goaltenders at this year’s draft, and all three, including Portland native Nick Broadwater, plan to attend camp.

Line of defense

The battle for a spot on the Maineiacs’ blue line should be the fiercest since the team’s inception. Nineteen-year-old Chad Denny leads the way. An Atlanta draft selection, Denny had 27 assists and 47 points from the blue line last year.

Denny is one of five defensemen who logged minutes with the Maineiacs last season, but all of them will be challenged by a deep crop of rookies, led by Patrick Cusack, one of the Maineiacs’ two first-round picks last summer, and Tom Michalik, an 18-year-old from Andover, Mass.

“This is one of the deepest lineup that’s ever been in Lewiston,” said Denny. “Everybody’s going to have to work hard and be the player they are. Everyone here at camp is here for a reason.”

Offensive clout

Another deep crop of players appears on offense. Mathieu Aubin, the team’s leading scorer last year, has signed a professional contract with the Montreal Canadiens, but his linemate and last year’s captain, Marc-Andre Cliche, is back.

“We have around 13 veterans coming back,” said Cliche. “We made some good picks at the draft, too. The big thing we (Cliche and Jodoin) talked about is bringing the young kids around, showing them what the league is like, how hard you have to work to get there.”

The Maineiacs have invited nearly 30 forwards to camp, and Jodoin is ready to start picking through them.

“It took us three years,” said Jodoin. “It took three years of being patient and working with the kids. It took three years, and compared to all of the other organizations, we didn’t make that many trades. We tried to raise them, raise the players, raise the kids and be patient. In the long run, it will pay off.”

Keys to the season

Many questions followed the Maineiacs through much of last year’s campaign. Among them, scoring presence and grit appeared the more popular issues.

“We had more points last year than we had two years ago, by almost 80 points total,” said Jodoin. “We had more depth in our nucleus. Instead of having just two guys dominant, we had more depth.”

Jodoin started listing through players, comparing one season to the next.

“Denny, from nine points to 26,” explained Jodoin. “Mathieu Aubin – 19 here, 42, then last year, over 100. I like to see the curve. You see a (Eric) Castonguay, 32 to 65. How many will he have this year? Maybe 90. I like to play with those numbers.”

As for grit, Jodoin answered that question, too, saying his team isn’t about to back down from a challenge, but plans on picking its spots properly.

“We had speed last year,” said Jodoin. “It’s nice to watch a hockey game with a team that can skate. I don’t want to watch a beer league, I want to watch a league with athletes, who can skate and show me their skills. We have that team, but we also have some grit.”

Jodoin again took to the lists. In all, he rattled off eight players who are now at or near 200 pounds, all of whom, Jodoin said, also have speed.

“We’re not a small team,” said Jodoin. “We can take care of ourselves, but we need to stay disciplined.”

Meanwhile, Jodoin also expect his veterans to step up and lead, even more so than they have in the past.

“In my mind, it’s not about how good the team is,” Jodoin said. “If your leaders are not stepping up to the plate, forget about it.”

The schedule

Jodoin and his staff will sift through the dozens of players in the coming week, whittling down the roster to playing size. In the meantime, though, he plans to keep as many players as possible for as long as possible.

“We’ll see who wants to make it, we’ll see who’s going to rise to the occasion. Intersquad is one thing, but after that, exhibition games are another thing. We’ll get to see the kids on two different levels.”

The team will participate in four days of practices this week, starting Monday at 8 a.m. for goaltenders. The team will play intersquad games Monday through Wednesday at 7 p.m.

On Friday, the Maineiacs will split into two squads. One will travel to Saint John for a preseason game with the Sea Dogs. The other half will stay home, and host the other half of the Sea Dogs at the Colisee. The teams will travel again Saturday, and square off again in the same format.

The longer the staff gets to look at the players, Jodoin said, the better its final decisions will be.

“There are 23 spots open, so let’s watch the players and make the decisions,” said Jodoin. “If you don’t perform, you’re out. I don’t know them, I don’t know what they bring yet. If I’m making my team right away, I’m wrong. I have to go in with an open mind and look around first.”

He’ll get his first look Monday morning.

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