TORONTO — Josh Lawrence had a plan laid out — play junior-A hockey as a 16-year-old, then go to the NCAA in 2020.
It didn't take him very long to change his mind, though, once he saw what the Saint John Sea Dogs had envisioned for him instead.
"They showed me a really good development plan," Lawrence said ahead of the 2018-19 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season.
"How the team looks like now, how they want it to be and to develop me as a star player ... it's really appealing. It was really hard not to go."
Lawrence, from Fredericton, N.B., thought he would be flying west to join the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League for the upcoming season. Instead he'll be part of a young Sea Dogs roster that's in the early stages of an overhaul under president and general manager Trevor Georgie.
"For him to buy into the vision of being part of something special right in his backyard was critical," said Georgie. "It was conveying the vision, communicating about what we are building here in Saint John.
After winning the President Cup in 2016-17 for the third time in seven seasons, and bottoming out last year to miss the playoffs, the Sea Dogs enter the 2018-19 season as one of the youngest teams in the entire country.
Georgie had a summer draft that included three of the top 15 picks, selecting defencemen with his first two — William Villeneuve No. 2 and Jeremy Poirier No. 8 — while Lawrence was taken 15th overall.
Lawrence, listed at five-foot-seven and 164 pounds, was the top-ranked 15-year-old from the Maritimes and sixth overall by QMJHL Central Scouting, but fell in the draft and became a potential steal for Saint John because of his previous commitment to Boston University.
"It was kind of weird. I wanted to go as high as I could but at the end of the day Saint John was a perfect team to be drafted to," said Lawrence. "So close to home and a reputation of being such a good organization."
The QMJHL season officially begins Thursday when the league-champion Acadie-Bathurst Titan host the Moncton Wildcats. Saint John's first game is Friday at home against the Halifax Mooseheads.
So much turnover has happened in two seasons for the Sea Dogs that veteran goaltender Alex D'Orio is the only remaining skater from Saint John's Memorial Cup run in 2016.
He's all-in on the rebuild, and someone Georgie is relying on to help be a leader on and off the ice.
"Alex, we believe, is the best goalie in the Q this year. He embraces the leadership role," said Georgie. "Some nights last year Alex made 60 saves. He'll keep games close, he'll let our young D-core know that if they make a mistake big brother Alex is between the pipes to bail them out."
"I think a goalie can control the game and that's fun," said D'Orio, from Pittsburgh Penguins training camp. "I'll go with 60 (shots against) because 15 has downtime, doing nothing other than watching the game."
Georgie says that over 50 per cent of the team's roster this season will be 17 or younger. That also includes 2018 draft picks Brady Burns (No. 29) up front and blue liner Charlie DesRoches (No. 32), as well as import-draft picks Filip Prikryl (No. 53) of the Czech Republic and Maxim Cajkovic of Slovakia, who was the first overall pick.
"We're not counting on one player to be the man, we want to put the onus on our young nucleus," said Georgie.
"It's all about what this group can do three or four years from now. Our goal is to make the playoffs but we aren't deviating away from the blueprint. We will win and lose with 16 and 17 year olds. If that gets us in the playoffs, great."
Lawrence spent the past two seasons in the United States playing for the South Kent Selects Academy in Connecticut. Last year he led the midget triple-A travelling team with 27 goals and 83 points in 49 games.
He's ready to build from the ground up with Saint John.
"It's really exciting, we have a great group of guys, management is super great and young and want to do well," said Lawrence. "It's very energetic."
Kyle Cicerella, The Canadian Press