PERTH might have suffered some blows on the eve of the 2017 WAFL season in terms of injuries and departures, but coach Earl Spalding has every reason to be excited and expecting further improvement with his young brigade coming through.
The Demons showed improvement in 2017 winning seven games including a purple patch between Rounds 12 and 16 winning four of five before losing four straight to fall out of finals contention.
It was an improvement on previous seasons and now despite the loss of some key players and injuries to others, there's good reason for optimism about further growth with the Demons in 2017.
From last year's team, Perth has lost captain Dene White, former AFL ruckman Angus Graham, and experienced wingman Brett Wolfenden with Zac Fisher and Matthew Taylor entering the AFL.
Potential recruits back to the club from the AFL Tendai Mzungu and Clem Smith haven’t quite eventuated either for various reasons. Injuries to Jared Bell, Cody Leggett, Lachlan Dennis, Lennon Marlin, Kristian Cary and Jarrad Irons will delay their starts to the season.
There is plenty of good news to offset all that, though, with the Demons welcoming back another local product Brant Colledge from West Coast.
Defenders Clayton Giblett (East Perth) and Brad McPhail (South Fremantle) also add some depth and size down back while former Peel Thunder running backman Devin McFarlane could prove a more than handy recruit.
Former Swan Districts big man Nelson Ansey is another late arrival and could prove handy.
New captain Clint Jones along Butcher Medallist Michael Sinclair, Sandover Medallist Aidan Tropiano along with Spencer White, Liam McKenna, Julian Jacobs, Brent Latch, Brent Edmonds, Sam Garstone and Christian Eyres form a good core group.
It's the young players that will get their chances that is most exciting for Spalding, though, including Cody Ninyette, Corey Byrne, Clint Chivers, Zach Hill, Jayden Johnstone, Chris Leonard, Anton Scotney, Gordon Narrier, Joseph Ugle and Cody Kickett who he won't be afraid to throw in the deep end.
"We have lost quite a bit of experience but some of the kids coming in are really exciting. They might take a while but we are going to be patient with them because we know if we are, and they can get to where we think they can, they are going to be pretty exciting," Spalding told wafl.com.au.
"With kids coming up, it gives you the opportunity to mould them the way you want them to play and they aren’t broken toys as such who have their own traits. It allows you to have an impact on how you want them to play so it's going to be interesting to see it unfold.
"I don’t want to overstate it, but there are some exciting kids here. They will make mistakes at times and it might frustrate our supporters, but when it clicks there is going to be some very exciting times ahead."
Spalding was relatively pleased with the growth shown by the Demons last year and knew it was going to take some time to become a finals contender from where the group was coming from when he took over ahead of the 2015 season.
"It's hard to judge success and it's always gauged against expectation, and last year I think we exceeded expectations in my mind. We were coming from quite a fair way back, so you can't expect to jump up from nowhere and succeed straightaway if you want to build for sustained success," he said.
"It's about taking those baby steps to be really competitive in games, and we were probably a chance to win 80 per cent of our games deep into the last quarter.
"Youth probably cost us some wins as much as anything as well as a lack of confidence, but the fact we were in them for so long was pleasing and we had some big wins. We beat Subi in terrible conditions who are a big-bodied side and it showed what happens if you put the effort in."
Perth's season begins Saturday against Swan Districts at Steel Blue Oval. Spalding hopes the Demons can take some confidence out of their impressive pre-season win over West Perth in their last hit out.
"It's hard to know if you are ever ready for it really and we have a few guys injured who we'd like to be playing, but I'm sure we're not alone with that," Spalding said.
"We've got five or six guys who won't be ready for Round 1 but the kids showed last week against West Perth that there's some depth of talent at the club. Some of it is pretty raw but those kids will get an opportunity and we'll see how we go.
"It's good to win to get your confidence up especially after we were so poor the week before against Peel when quite a few people were scratching their heads and questioning where we're going.
"It all turned around last weekend with a good pressure game and we moved the ball as well as we have. Everything got a tick in the right box and that gives us a bit of confidence they should be up and about now for Round 1."
Perth has good reason to expect a big season from Colledge as he returns from his time in the AFL with the Eagles. Capable of playing through the middle and up forward, he is a smooth mover with good skills.
"I'm a big wrap on him. He didn’t have a great year last year by his high standards, but he still contributed and the year before he was unbelievable. We know what we are getting back to the club and he loves Perth, and he has fitted right back in with the playing group," he said.
"He has had his shoulder issue which we hope will be right for Round 1 and he might be a bit underdone, but we know the value of him out there with his experience, big body and he uses the ball pretty well.
"He does give us the option of playing him forward if we need him to as well as playing through the middle where he'll definitely play chunks."
Perth desperately needed to add some depth and size to its defence and that's where the arrival of Giblett from the Royals and McPhail from the Bulldogs will be crucial to give some support to Latch who battled manfully last year as well.
"Clayton has been fantastic down back. He takes that No. 1 forward from the opposition and defends him, and then we can use our more creative defenders to give us that rebound run which we saw work against West Perth," Spalding said.
"Brad didn’t have a great game down at Peel so we pushed him back against West Perth and he was very good. He's going to be a really solid defender for us so if we get some good rebound run around him, he can take the key guys. He will come back in at some stage during the year and we are looking forward to that."
Former St Kilda big man Spencer White showed how dangerous he could be up forward kicking 12 goals in his last five games last year after battle an ankle injury.
Garstone showed good signs too as a forward target and Spalding is looking forward that combination and developing, and with getting a full season out of White.
"Having a fit Spencer White is really important for our forward-line and Sam Garstone has taken another step forward in his development so he is going to be an exciting player for us as well," he said.
"When Spencer came over he obviously had the ankle injury from surgery at the end of 2015 and couldn’t do a lot of work on it. Then when he started working he got stress fractures and he had a really frustrating year.
"But when he kicked five in that first half against Swans it showed us what we've got and he can be a bit frustrating at times, but he's a really likeable guy and will be hard to play on. We think we can put together a dangerous forward-line and we showed that with 22 goals against West Perth even though it was only a practice match."
Clem Smith had committed to return after his time in the AFL with Carlton but that hasn’t eventuated. Spalding won't rule out his return at some point but Graham's time as a WAFL ruckman is over.
"Clem's not at the club anymore but the door is always open for him. He has to understand the work that he needs to do to get to the level that we all know he can play at. Hopefully he will make that decision to come back at some stage but that's where it's at really," Spalding said.
"Angus has gone back to Melbourne. I had a good chat to him the other week and his head and heart just aren’t in it.
"Whilst it's disappointing it's better he makes that decision now instead of trying to play and giving little effort. He is going to be a hole in the team that's for sure but Eyresy gets the chance to step up and I still have a great deal of faith in him playing that role and giving us the contest that we need."
Eyres will now be the man that the Demons look to as their No. 1 ruckman and Spalding hopes he can stay healthy. He will be able to get some support potentially from former West Perth ruckman Tim Sutherland while the likes of Nelson Ansey, White and Garstone can pinch-hit.
"He (Eyres) is a physio so a lot of it might have to do with self-diagnosis, but he is a good fella and works hard. He does have a streak of aggression in him but we have to keep poking it to find it at times. When he's playing his best footy he can be a handful," he said.
"Nelson has a bit of work to do after not doing a pre-season, but he is already showing glimpses at training that he can certainly play and can be a handful at whichever end he ends up playing. He adds some depth to our talls which is always important to be a successful team."
Spalding is also happy with the coaching group he has around him coming into 2017 particularly the arrival of former Hawthorn and East Perth left-footer Garry Moss.
"Mossy has been huge for us coming in with a modern footy brain and he has been working on our defensive mechanisms," Spalding said.
"We've wanted to do that and Mossy has shown an easier way of doing that to the group which has been fantastic. We've got Chance (Bateman) too and we are getting some modern voices into the playing group which is great for the young guys."