General manager Matt Bardsley is confident his Kamloops Blazers can win a third consecutive B.C. Division title.
“I believe we can, for sure, 100 per cent,” Bardsley said. “We’re really happy with our group and staff, and to win back-to-back B.C. Division championships has created a bit of a culture with the group.”
The Blazers razed through the truncated 2021 Western Hockey League pandemic season, posting an 18-4 record despite injuries to several top players and the departure of top prospect Logan Stankoven, who played six games before leaving to help Canada win gold at the Under-18 World Hockey Championship in Texas.
We are the Champions and Simply the Best rang hollow in cavernous Sandman Centre as the Blazers hoisted the division championship trophy in front of empty seats on the final night of the season on May 12.
And, for the second consecutive year, a team built for a deep playoff run did not get the chance to experience post-season hockey, robbed of earned moments by COVID-19.
“I mean, it’s sad,” Blazers’ majority owner Tom Gaglardi told KTW. “It’s really frustrating that finally it’s our turn and we’ve got a team that’s capable of making it to the Memorial Cup and we don’t get the chance. But I’ve said it before, it is what is it. It’s a global pandemic. People have lost livelihoods. People have lost their lives. There is no point in feeling sorry for ourselves because we can’t play playoff hockey.”
Blazers’ head coach Shaun Clouston said he will have fond memories of a group that stayed together during an incredibly unique and challenging season.
“It would have been even better with fans and I believe that’s coming, but for two years in a row, we took it as far as we absolutely could and, eventually, there will be some banners hanging in the rafters,” Clouston said.
“Our entire group should be proud of what we were able to do to get through the winter, to stay together. That is what I’m going to remember the most.”
Kamloops is losing an impressive crop of players, including graduated overagers Montana Onyebuchi, Sean Strange and Orrin Centazzo, along with Connor Zary, who will begin his professional career next season, and Inaki Baragno, the Swiss import who is not likely to return for his 20-year-old campaign.
Brodi Stuart, who took a coaching role in 2021 after injury ruled him out for the season, has also aged out of junior hockey.
The departures do not wither Bardsley’s optimism for next season.
“I do believe we have a team that can contend for the [division] title, for sure,” he said.
Stankoven is unquestionably the biggest ticket up front, the hometown wunderkind who bagged seven goals in six games of WHL action before notching the game-winning marker for Canada in a 5-3 triumph over Russia in the U18 world championship gold-medal game.
What type of magic will he produce in his 18-year-old season? Human beings starved of group-setting electricity can’t wait to find out.
Gaglardi said the WHL may consider starting the 2021-2022 season later than normal in the fall if it means fans are allowed into buildings.
Stankoven, a potential Round 1 pick in this year’s NHL Draft, is not the only high-voltage returnee among the forwards.
The emergence of several key cogs was evident this past season, development made possible, in part, by holes in the lineup that formed in the absence of Zary and Centazzo, both of whom missed time due to injury, and Stankoven.
(Unless otherwise noted, all ages listed below represent eligibility years in 2020-2021).
“We weren’t sure what it was going to look like coming into the season, especially with our forward group,” Clouston said. “As the season went on, there were some real promising signs. Up front, there is definitely going to be some depth. There might be a hole or two the organization looks at, but there is lots of promise.”
Josh Pillar, 18, had a breakout season, leading the team in scoring with 29 points, including 11 goals, in 22 games.
A pair of 17-year-olds — Caedan Bankier and Matthew Seminoff — and 16-year-olds Connor Levis and Fraser Minten made the most of their opportunities and comprise part of the heart of an encouraging youth movement up front. Each of those players, along with 18-year-old Daylan Kuefler, will be in the top-six mix to start the next campaign.
Peyton McKenzie and Reese Belton, both 18, Dylan Sydor, 17, and Tye Spencer and Vaughn Watterodt, both 16, are expected to enter camp jostling for ice time in the bottom six.
The makeup of the lineup could change if the Blazers ink Grayden Slipec, the club’s 27th overall pick in the 2020 WHL Bantam Draft.
Some scouts touted Slipec, a 15-year-old forward from Surrey, as a top-10 talent in that draft, but his indecision on the WHL route saw him fall to Kamloops in Round 2.
“You always want what you consider your top players,” Bardsley said. “We feel he’s a very good player and we’d love to see him in Kamloops. We’re still going to be having conversations with him and his family to see where they’re at.”
Luke Korte, a 15-year-old forward from Saskatoon, signed with the Blazers in July and will show up to training camp looking to make an impression.
A life-altering injury to 19-year-old forward Kyrell Sopotyk, who was paralyzed in a snowboarding accident in January near Saskatoon, devastated the Blazers’ organization.
Onyebuchi, Centazzo and Zary held Sopotyk’s jersey front and centre during the team’s picture with the division championship trophy.
“Beyond thankful to be a part of this tremendous organization full of great teammates and staff,” Sopotyk tweeted. “Congrats on winning the B.C. Division. Wish I was there to celebrate with you guys.”
The back end needs shoring up in the off-season.
Bardsley will likely look to add veteran presence on a blue line that is losing stalwarts Onyebuchi, Strange and Baragano.
Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick Quinn Schmiemann, likely to return for his 20-year-old swan song, will be the backbone of the unit that includes several promising prospects.
“We do have real good players returning,” Clouston said. “When you graduate three of your top guys, there is always a concern. That’s just junior hockey. There is always turnover.”
Mats Lindgren, who will be 17 next season, showed in 2021 why Bardsley took a risk in 2019 by drafting the University of Michigan-committed D-man seventh overall.
The smooth-skating, elusive North Vancouverite sits with Schmiemann atop the Blazers’ defensive depth chart.
Ethan Brandwood, 18, Logan Bairos, 17, and Kaden Hammell, 15, round out the returnees.
“Overall, we still have some experience there,” Bardsley said. “I feel good about that and with the minutes they played and what they were able to accomplish.”
Bardsley is likely to have two vacant 20-year-old spots, along with two picks this summer in the CHL Import Draft.
“Matt has a plan,” Clouston said. “There has already been some deals in the off-season. Those things will be looked at.”
Defenceman Ryan Michael, the Langley product the Blazers nabbed in Round 3 of the 2020 bantam draft, signed with the club in August.
Dylan Garand is the man between the pipes for one more season.
The New York Rangers’ draft pick is among the top junior netminders in the country and is a good bet to start for Team Canada this winter at the World Junior Hockey Championship.
His absence in December and January will open the door for Dylan Ernst, whom the Blazers have been grooming to be the third consecutive Dylan to carry the torch beginning in 2022-2023, when Garand is expected to begin his pro career.
Dylan Ferguson was No. 1 in Kamloops prior to Garand.
“There is going to be an opportunity there for a stretch where Dylan Ernst will be the guy,” Bardsley said. “We want him to come in and challenge and push Dylan Garand.
“We saw good progress with Ernst throughout the year and there are things he knows he has to continue to work on.”
Ernst, 17, played in four games in 2021, posting a 3.00 goals-against average, .872 save percentage and 3-1 record.
“I saw lots of raw talent, lots of promise, a ton of potential and, just like the other positions we talked about, it’s getting yourself ready to take the next step,” Clouston said. “He’s going to get games. He’ll have his opportunity to shine.”