Take a chunk out of any team’s roster, and it is bound to struggle.
At least initially.
So that is what Huntington Beach High’s ice hockey team did.
After losing a third of their roster, the Oilers went through growing pains in dropping their first five games of the season.
The slow start did not mean that all was lost, a message that the team’s leaders were surely preaching in light of the early skid.
For certain, it was a frustrating time for assistant captains Andrew and Evan Stapleton, both of which have served the Oilers well in their three-year stints with the club.
“I don’t like losing,” said Andrew, the elder of the two brothers. “When I lose, the rest of my day is ruined, sometimes the week. I just don’t like losing at all. It was kind of frustrating at the beginning of the season.”
The 18-year-old senior defenseman emerged as one of the team’s core players in his junior year. He was one vote shy of donning the symbolic “A” on his jersey that season.
With his place solidified among the team hierarchy, there must have been those who wondered what he would do to break the team out of its slump.
Use his last game as a perfect example of what he can do and what he has done for a team that desperately needed his contributions. The two-way blue-liner produced two goals and an assist in his team’s come-from-behind victory over Beckman on Saturday.
Huntington Beach trailed, 3-1, entering the third period, but three unanswered goals lifted the Oilers past the Patriots, 4-3.
Andrew drew a power-play assist on the Oilers’ second goal, which was scored by captain Cole Kennedy. Four minutes later, the offensive defenseman tied the score on another man-advantage.
“I like the power play,” Andrew said. “We have our best shooters out there. We all move the puck around. My brother’s a good passer. He always sets me up on the point. That’s definitely my favorite time of the game.”
Tommy Lang netted the go-ahead marker just 7:44 into the period, and the Oilers’ rapid rally was complete.
Obligations elsewhere prevent the Stapletons from being at every game. Andrew is a deliveryman for Perry’s Pizza, and Evan plays club hockey for the California Wave 16AA team.
Nevertheless, the brothers’ importance to the team could not be more apparent.
Andrew has appeared in nine of the team’s 11 games this season. He went without a point in his first three contests, but he has recorded at least one point in each of the last six games that he has suited up for Huntington Beach.
“Andrew is a great player,” Oilers assistant coach Bob Bayer said. “Leader on the ice, take charge. If something needs to get done, he seems to be the guy. He really has a lot of talent. He has great stick skills.”
Asked to compare and contrast the brothers, Bayer said that Andrew is the more vocal of the two and offers a little more finesse. That is anything but a knock on Evan, whom Bayer likened to a coach’s dream.
“He’s a model player,” Bayer said of Evan. “If we had to pick a player that we’d all like to be like — great kid, hard worker, does everything as perfectly as he can — [he is it].”
“I tell the kids, ‘Hey look, here’s a guy, he was the leading goal-scorer last year.’ So guess what, this year he is the leading scorer. Great kid. Great speed. He does everything to the best of his ability, and it shows.”
Evan is the younger brother by 18 months. The junior winger has seven goals this year.
In the 2015-16 campaign, Evan had 16 goals to lead a team that finished atop the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League’s Junior Varsity Division standings with an 11-1-2 record.
Huntington Beach jumped up to the Varsity Division 3 level this season. The team is 3-7-1-0, but it has notched all four wins over the past six games.
The turnaround began with an overtime victory against Los Alamitos on Oct. 22. Evan scored twice in a four-goal third period for Huntington Beach. His second goal tied the game, 5-5, with 3:09 remaining.
In the overtime, Andrew potted the game-winner, a strong showing of just how important the Stapletons are to the vitality of the Huntington Beach program.
The dynamic duo is forging ahead together. Both have a team-high nine points this season. Andrew has four goals and five assists. Evan has seven goals and two assists.
The Stapleton brothers are averaging a point per game, and each has recorded a game-winning goal. Evan’s came in a 5-2 victory over Woodbridge on Nov. 19.
Although they tend to let their performance speak for itself, the Stapletons embrace the duties of their leadership roles.
“It’s just been an opportunity for me to improve my leadership skills, so I really like it a lot,” Evan said. “Usually, I give advice to the younger kids during the game.”
The Stapletons’ roots in the sport, like many in the state, began in roller hockey. High school hockey, which first was made available at JSerra in 2008, continues to be seen as a privilege, especially with the high cost of playing club.
“I think it’s really cool that the Ducks started this league,” Andrew said. “A lot of schools have high school teams now. A lot of people can’t afford club, and this is their only option. I think that’s really cool.”
Last week’s win against Beckman (15 points) came against a team that the Oilers (11 points) trail directly in the standings. With just four games remaining, the team has been playing as if it is now or never to hit its stride.
Andrew admitted that most of the team probably was unaware that every team makes the playoffs in a seeded, single-elimination tournament at year’s end.
Hopefully for the Oilers, the knowledge of that fact will not detract from their sense of urgency as they make a push to avoid the higher seeds in the first round.
“We don’t talk about that stuff,” Bayer said of the automatic postseason berth. “We want to get into the best position that we can. We want to push for a playoff spot. You want to keep the kids on edge a bit. Every game, every period, every goal matters.”