#BetweenTheSheets: New Teams Hit the Ice in Oakville

The 2015 #StuSellsOakville kicks off today

The World Curling Tour opens the season with a bang this weekend in Oakville, Ontario for the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard. This event, once known as the Ontario Curling Tour (OCT) Championships, has been an active mainstay on the World Curling Tour since 2013. If you are on twitter, follow the hashtag #StuSellsOakville and see just how popular this event is with the players. It truly seems to be a nice icebreaker for the season.

Having said that, not all teams playing this weekend will be hitting the ice for the first time. The men’s circuit kicked off a few weeks ago. Brad Gushue and company return to Canada fresh off a runner-up finish in Uiseong, Korea in mid-August. Many of the top European teams, including current World Champion Nik Edin, just wrapped up the Baden Masters in Switzerland last weekend. These teams could have a slight advantage over their competitors having already put some ice under their sliders.

On the flip side, this will be not only the first competition for many teams this season but the first chance to play together competitively as a team. We will see many new line-ups in Oakville. With all the off-season moves, discussed in my season preview HERE, how will these new teams adjust to their new dynamic? Will some teams move to the front of the pack and gel quickly? Will any of these newly formed teams struggle? A few teams, with new line ups this season, to keep an eye on this weekend include:

1) Greg Balsdon
2) John Epping
3) Mark Kean
4) Travis Fanset
5) Chris Plys
6) William Lyburn

1) Chelsea Carey
2) Alison Flaxey
3) Stephanie Lawton
4) Kelsey Roque

Will one of these teams end up winning the tankard event? I am not sure I would go that far. Will they be competitive battling through the gruelling triple-elimination knock-out format? Sure. Either way, these are just a few of the newly formed teams I will be keeping a close eye this weekend to see how the players adjust.

A strong trend has been established on the tour over the past few years where teams who want to take their game play to the next level realize they need to travel and play as many events as possible against the best competition possible. Many tour events in Canada are seeing a strong increase in international teams registered. In fact, take Team Edin as a perfect example. When looking at their tour schedule, they began play last weekend in Switzerland. They leave Europe for action this weekend and will remain in Canada until the end of November when they return to European soil for the European Championships in Denmark.

That is 9 straight events…over 3 months….all far away from family, friends and loved ones. And you thought being a professional curler, and two-time World Champion, on tour was easy?

Before we dive into the predictions for the #StuSellsOakville event, I want to use this space as a weekly update on team rankings. Each week #TwineTime will provide my own version of curling power rankings, showcasing the top 5 men’s and women’s teams on tour. As this is really the first big weekend of play, these rankings will be considered my pre-season rankings. Teams can move up, or drop down, the power rankings depending on their play on the ice. The current Order of Merit ranking for each team is in parenthesis.

Nik Edin (3)
Mike McEwen (1)
Brad Gushue (4)
Brad Jacobs (2)
Steve Laycock (5)

Alina Paetz (5)
Jennifer Jones (1)
Eve Muirhead (2)
Val Sweeting (3)
Rachel Homan (4)

As can be expected, the current World Champions lead the pre-season power rankings. Team Edin and Team Paetz went out on top last season and until they are beaten, they deserve the respect of being ranked at the top. Entering this weekend’s action, you will notice a few of the #TwineTime power ranking teams not in Oakville, including defending champions Team McEwen, 2012 and 2013 champions Team Jacobs, Team Muirhead and Team Sweeting. This does not mean their ranking spots are protected though! Just because a team takes a “bye” week doesn’t mean they are safe from moving up or down.

There will be a strong international contingent in Oakville as well this year. Of the 32 women’s teams competing, 15 will be from outside Canada. For the men’s draw, 7 of the 28 teams entered are international. The ice in Oakville has not been kind to international teams mind you. On the men’s side of history, no team outside Canada has won the tankard….actually no team outside Canada has even made the final. In fact, up until last year’s win by Mike McEwen, no team outside Ontario had laid claim to the trophy. On the women’s side, last year saw an international breakout. Last year was the first time we saw an all-international final. The 2014 final turned out to be a battle of Switzerland with Silvana Tirinzoni defeating Alina Paetz. Prior to 2014, Erika Brown representing the USA was the only non-Canadian winner (2012).

Ok, onto the action this weekend. Here are the teams you should expect to win, the teams who could win and the teams who could flat out flip a rock and provide a great underdog story. For clarification, a team can only be considered a dark horse team if they are ranked outside the top 20 on the Order of Merit.

The Favourites
Nik Edin (4) – The defending world champions seemed to have picked up this season with the same manner they closed down last season…as winners! They took on a solid field in Switzerland and came away the Baden Masters Champions. Skip Nik Edin recently celebrated his 30th birthday over the summer and with age comes wisdom perhaps. This team is just getting stronger and will be a threat in every event they enter this year. The goal is back-to-back World Championships….and right now….I wouldn’t bet against them.

Alina Paetz (5) – The world champions are here and are looking to continue their winning ways. I think this team will also come into Oakville with a bit to prove. Many are still calling their world championship performance last year perhaps a fluke. I would disagree given their domination of Jennifer Jones in each game they played. They were finalists last year and can beat any team in the world. The only thing different this year from last is they will not be flying under the radar now. But I think they can handle the pressure!

Watch Out For:
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Brad Gushue (2) – Team Goo is coming off a strong start to their season in Korea. Would they have liked to leave Asia with a tournament title, of course! But the important thing is getting time on the ice, throwing rocks in a competition and getting positive results leading into the season. This team is coming off a disappointing (by their standards) 4th place finish at the Brier last year in Calgary and will be hungry to prove they are the best in Canada. The results on tour sure support this claim.

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 12.57.54 PMRachel Homan (4) – Looking for a team with strong fire in their bellies? Enter Team Homan! This team is coming off a disappointing 3rd place finish at the Scotties and will want to start their season off with a bang. Being based out of Ottawa, this team should still see strong pro-Ontario support behind them every time they hit the ice. Rachel always seems to be in competitive mode and after having their Canadian title ripped away from her last year, I expect to see an even more driven and determined Homan squad this season.

The Dark Horse:

Greg Balsdon (22) – This is one of the new teams on tour this year and one that could make some noise early. Balsdon is well known for his noteworthy 2013 Ontario Tankard Championship win, putting a halt to the eight-year winning streak of Glenn Howard. Last season proved to be less successful and, after a disappointing Ontario Tankard performance, the team decided to break up. This didn’t stop the 37-year old though. He aligned himself with one of the bright dark horse stories on tour last season, Don Bowser, and formed a new team. I wouldn’t call them a threat to take home the championship given the stronger, more experienced and more united teams they will face but they do have a realistic shot at qualification.

Stephanie Lawton (34) – The new Team Green? After years of success on tour and back-to-back Scotties 4th place finishes, we see a change to the Lawton team this season. Third Sherry Anderson has moved on in taking a less demanding curling season for 2015/16. Skip Step Lawton still has high hopes of an Olympic bid and has brought in previous SK challenger Trish Paulson as third. Paulson is a former SK and Canadian junior champion. Sherri Singler and Marliese Kasner return to the team, making this team one of the most experienced even with a small line-up shake. The first event as a new team can always be a bit challenging (ask Val Sweeting and Andrea Crawford last year) but these 4 players are familiar with one another. They have played against one another numerous times over the year, especially at Saskatchewan Scotties. I think this move will be a strong one and the Lawton team should continue to be a threat as the season progresses.

It is prediction time! Time for #TwineTime to put on full display picks for who will qualify and who will win this weekend’s #StuSellsOakville event. Remember, this is a triple knockout event with A, B and C qualifiers making the championship playoffs. Here you go:

Qualifiers: Team Gushue, Team Edin, Team Laycock, Team Koe, Team Murdoch, Team Casey, Team Cotter, Team Epping
Championship: Team Gushue def. Team Laycock – Goo continues his winning ways and extracts some revenge on #TeamOranj for last year’s Brier bronze medal match. Gushue will also be looking to build momentum heading into the first Grand Slam of Curling event of the year the following weekend in the home province of Newfoundland & Labrador.

Qualifiers: Team J. Jones, Team Homan, Team Sweeting, Team Paetz, Team Carey, Team Sidorova, Team Tirinzoni, Team Lawton
Championship: Team Homan def. Team Sweeting – The rivalry between these teams started last year with Joanne Courtney jumping ship to Team Homan. Sweeting returned the favour by winning more on tour and returning to the Scotties final. This is year two though in this storied history and while the drama of last season off the ice should stay in the past, the competitive fire both teams have towards winning and beating one another will only continue. This may just be the best rivalry in women’s curling!
There you have stoners and rock heads. A quick overview of what to expect on the ice in Oakville. If you are in Oakville this weekend, I highly recommend getting down and checking out the action. This is a world class field. Cheer on your favourite teams and even go celebrate with them in the beer gardens after. Tell them #TwineTime sent you….they won’t know who that is but I still love the support.

James Runge

Spark Sports Analyst