NORTH CALDWELL, NJ — As the 2019 season rapidly approaches, the West Essex High School ice hockey team is ready for a new challenge as the Knights move up to the McGinnis Division.

“[McGinnis] is a much tougher schedule this year,” said head coach Marc Gregory. “We were a good team last year, so we may not be too different, but our schedule is a lot tougher this year, so we’re going to be battling every game.”

In net, senior goaltender Jason Albrecht will return as the Knights’ key piece. Albrecht was exceptional last year with 404 saves and 14 victories. The performance earned him First Team All-League honors.

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“[Albrecht] has a lot to live up to, but he’s had a good preseason and he’s ready for it,” said Gregory.

Leading the Knights defensively are senior captains Connor Hapward and Dylan Huff, who combined for 10 goals and 31 assists last season. The tandem provides different skill sets, according to their coach.

“They are a great combination the two of them because [Huff] is more the stay-at-home, solid, defensive-minded defenseman who rarely gets beat, and [Hapward] is a dual threat who can stop you defensively and put the puck in the net for us as well,” said Gregory.

Having the two key defensemen head up what could be the strongest unit for the Knights is regarded as a pacifier of sorts for the squad.

“Defensively, everybody’s back,” said Gregory. “That’s a good thing, and it kind of makes us feel secure.”

On the offensive end, fellow senior captains Jack Santoro and Dom Sedicino will spearhead the unit. The seniors combined for 21 goals and 20 assists last year with the lion share coming from Santoro, who notched 18 goals by himself.

“I wasn’t quite sure how much better [Santoro] could be for us, but the offseason and the preseason so far he’s looked really good,” said Gregory.

Having lost a key number of seniors on the attack last season, the Knights will expect to get key contributions from a host of newer faces.

Sophomores Gil Prial, Rocco Garcia and Nick Trabb will join senior Jake Lewicki in seeing significant time to make up for lost production from the 2019 senior class.

“We’re looking for them to step up this year as well,” said Gregory.

In the last week leading up to Sunday’s opening match against Livingston School, the Knights continued to work on the nuances to their game.

“There’s tons to work on still every day,” said Gregory. “We’re still trying to get certain systems down, chemistry between lines and finding out who’s going to play where…There’s lots to work on all year long; it’s just a matter of finding the right chemistry with guys each day that we practice.”