The Estevan Bears will lean on a strong returning corps to lead the charge as they begin their 18U Saskatchewan Male AAA Hockey League season Thursday night against the visiting Yorkton Maulers.

Nine players are back for a second full season with the team: goalie Kaden Perron, defencemen Cutter Knight and Jase Konecsni, and forwards Cade Cole, Tristan Grohs, Blaze Gutzke, Kole Keen, Carter Onrait, and Carter Tuplin.

First-year head coach Ryan Pilon said the team's success will be heavily influenced by their ability to step up as veterans in the league.

"We're only going to be as good as our top players, and guys like Keen and Gutzke and Onrait, those guys are going to have to carry a bigger role than they have in prior years. So I think it's a challenge for them. But they've shown that they've put in the work this offseason, so they're rearing, ready to go."

The Bears went 14-23-7 last season, good for 10th of 12 teams in the league. It was also the first full season for the team, as the COVID-19 pandemic all but eliminated the 2020-21 campaign.

Pilon said he hopes the team can get its first taste of postseason hockey.

"With me coming in my first year, that's one of the goals for our team. I thought with the players, watching the team last year, with the returning guys this year, it's a good core group. It's something we're pushing our players to build a winning mentality."

The Bears split their four exhibition games. Yorkton beat them 5-1 on September 10 in Estevan. The Bears won 4-1 in Yorkton on September 11. This past weekend, the Bears lost a 4-1 decision to the Team Sask on Saturday before beating the Notre Dame Hounds 5-2 on Sunday.

Pilon felt the team played a strong game against Team Sask, and carried that momentum into the win over the Hounds.

"I thought we had a very good game on Saturday against those top kids on the big ice surface in Wilcox. It was good to see a measuring stick for our boys. And it just bled right into Sunday's game, and they played very well and scored some goals so that was nice to see."

Like most teams from minor to professional ranks, speed will be a major focus for the Bears.

"We want to play fast and we want to play smart. Puck control is a big thing for me, and not chasing the game. We want to control games. And with 'D' corps, and our forwards, I think that's something that we'll see a lot during this season. Just exciting hockey.

Puck drop is at 7 p.m. Thursday at Affinity Place.