Logan Stankoven leaned against the wall outside the Kamloops Blazers’ dressing room after a heartbreaking loss to the Seattle Thunderbirds in Game 7 of the Western Conference final.
He fought back tears while looking for answers.
“Being up 3-2 and to lose the last two games, it’s disappointing,” said Stankoven, who had 104 points in 59 regular season games in 2021-2022 and tacked on 17 goals and 31 points in 17 post-season contests.
“I wasn’t able to contribute the way I wanted to [Seattle shut down Kamloops’ top line in games 4 through 7]. At a loss for words right now. I thought we had the group that could have done something special this year.”
The Blazers claimed their third consecutive B.C. Division banner, fell one victory shy of reaching the WHL final for the first time since 1999 and iced a high-octane team that produced a bevy of individual award winners.
Stankoven, in his 18-year-old campaign, became the first Blazer since Jarome Iginla in 1996 to claim WHL Player of the Year honours and was also named Most Sportsmanlike Player of the Year.
Dylan Garand cemented his position among franchise greats in the crease by nabbing the Goalie of the Year award. He led the league in wins (34) and posted a .925 save percentage and 2.16 goals-against average.
Connor Levis was named Scholastic Player of the Year.
Each player would gladly trade in those awards for the Memorial Cup — a trophy returnees will get another shot at next year when Kamloops hosts the national major junior hockey championship tournament.
KTW will look ahead to position groups for 2022-2023 (and address Connor Bedard trade talk), but first a few comments from Blazers’ head coach and general manager Shaun Clouston.
He spoke for about 25 minutes on Sunday and talked at length about the importance of ignoring narratives that perhaps infiltrated his club’s mental shield.
“The narrative that we could have won, but we ran into a hot goaltender or we’re a younger group,” said Clouston, adding both T-Birds’ netminder Thomas Milic and Garand were formidable in the series. “Seattle is slightly younger than us, as a team. There is a bit of a size narrative. I guess [6-foot-9 Seattle forward Matthew] Rempe tilts that a little bit, but we’re a big hockey team. If you went through it and did the size comparison, there is very little difference in height and weight.”
Clouston said rigorous off-season work, mental toughness and a relentless will to win are key to getting over the hump next season.
“You don’t win your final game at this level unless you’ve really pushed and got to your maximum potential,” said Clouston, noting he saw tremendous growth in his club this past season.
“That is a really big challenge. For most regular people, that is not necessary. It’s not required. It’s not something most 17-, 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds even necessarily think about. It’s just not part of their life.
"In this league, with the opportunity that we have in front of us as individuals and as a team, that’s what’s necessary. I don’t think we got there. It’s not a negative in the least. We made huge improvements.”
On Sunday morning, Clouston said he is operating under the assumption New York Rangers’ prospect Garand will ply his talents professionally next season, “unless there was any information that was presented to us at some point in the next month that indicated otherwise. That would have a big effect on how we’re approaching it.”
The Blazers expected Garand to move on from junior hockey after his 19-year-old campaign, but there has been speculation on whether the addition of the 2023 Memorial Cup might change plans.
Garand all but confirmed on Sunday afternoon his time in Kamloops has come to an end.
“Yeah, definitely planning to play pro next season,” Garand told KTW. “I think myself and the Rangers are kind of on the same page a little bit there, that it’s time for me to move on. I’m unbelievably grateful for my time in Kamloops. A huge part of that is [Blazers’ goaltending coach] Dan De Palma. He’s my best friend now, someone I’ll have for the rest of my life. Just the City of Kamloops, it was unbelievable playing there. I consider it my home now.”
Dylan Ernst, who is entering his 18-year-old campaign, has been groomed to take over from Garand since the Blazers drafted him 28th overall in the 2019 WHL Prospects Draft.
The Weyburn, Sask., product posted a 14-8-2 record, .900 save percentage and 2.95 goals-against average in 2021-2022. Ernst is pegged 30th among North American goaltenders in NHL Central Scouting rankings ahead of the 2022 NHL Draft.
“Erny took some really big steps this year,” Clouston said. “He proved he does have that potential and that capability. He’s not in the same part of his development going into his 18-year-old year that Garand was. There are some questions. They’re not negative. There is nothing negative about his development.
“For a lot of goaltenders, I would even say the majority in juniors, it takes until they’re 19 or 20 to really hit their prime. Goaltending is the most important position.”
Clouston was asked if adding an older goaltender might be on the to-do list.
“It’s something we are definitely discussing and seriously looking at,” he said. “It’s the same process. Who is available in our league and potentially available in the import draft? You’ve got 19- and 20-year-olds in both categories.”
The CHL Import Draft is slated for July 1. The Blazers have two slots available for import players.
“Does it help having the Memorial Cup?” Clouston said of the quest to bring in talented Europeans. “I think there is the potential. For an agency, when they look at it, they have to believe this is an opportunity for their clients to play on a good team, with the opportunity to compete in the post-season and for the Memorial Cup.”
Jesse Sanche, a 16-year-old netminder from Kamloops, signed with the Blazers in December.
Stankoven highlights a tantalizing group up front that is loaded with NHL picks and prospects.
“It’s real strong,” Clouston said. “We potentially return the bulk of that group. The top of that group, the top scorers, the top contributors, have the potential to come back and play.”
Eligible to return for their 20-year-old campaigns are Reese Belton, Ethan Rowland, Daylan Kuefler and Drew Englot.
Kuefler seems a lock after a 38-goal (including eight game-winners), 59-point campaign that thrust him into the NHL Draft conversation.
Englot proved to be an astute trade deadline acquisition and brought great value in the post-season, asserting himself as a sizeable nuisance who can contribute offensively.
Eligible to return for their 19-year-old seasons, along with Stankoven, are NHL Draft prospect Matthew Seminoff, Minnesota Wild prospect Caedan Bankier, Kamloops product Dylan Sydor and Kobe Verbicky.
Fraser Minten was among the club’s top post-season performers and flaunted a knack for showing up in big moments.
The 2022 NHL Draft prospect from Yaletown is eligible to return for his 18-year-old campaign, along with Levis [NHL Draft eligible in 2023], who racked up 42 points, including 16 goals, in 68 games, and Nathan MacPherson-Ridgewell, who had one assist in 27 games.
Emmitt Finnie is entering his 17-year-old campaign.
Ashton Tait, who turns 16 in July, 17-year-old Luke Korte and 16-year-old Conner Radke have signed with the Blazers and will be jostling for roster spots during training camp.
Hockey fans in Kamloops are dreaming of the mega-deal to rule them all.
Is it possible phenom forward Connor Bedard — perhaps the most heralded prospect since Connor McDavid — could be traded to Kamloops from the Regina Pats in time for his NHL Draft season and the Blazers’ run at the Memorial Cup?
“A lot of times, it’s just speculation,” Clouston said when asked if Bedard might have interest in leaving Regina. “That’s potentially what it is. Regina is a real first-class organization. I’ve known [Pats’ GM and head coach] John Paddock for a number of years. Connor Bedard has had a real impressive career in Regina, with Hockey Canada, from Regina, the last two years. That’s the first part of that. They’ve got a great organization and great people there.
“If, for some reason, he was somehow at some point available, then, of course, he’s one of the best in the world, not only in his age group, but in junior hockey. It would be something we would have high interest [in]. I just think it’s really early and it’s mostly speculation right now.”
Clouston has work to do on the back end, which will be without top-pairing stalwart Quinn Schmiemann and Vancouver Canucks’ prospect Viktor Persson, both of whom have aged out of junior hockey.
The club will look to add veteran presence to the group that includes Schmiemann’s top-pair partner Ethan Brandwood, who is entering his overage season.
Logan Bairos impressed team brass in 2021-2022 and is expected to be a key cog on the blue line during his 19-year-old campaign, along with NHL Draft prospect Mats Lindgren, who is heading into his 18-year-old campaign.
Kaden Hammell proved he belonged in the WHL as a 16-year-old and showed promising development ahead of his 17-year-old season. Rylan Pearce and Ryan Michael are in the same age group.
Harrison Brunicke, who signed with Kamloops in February and is entering his 16-year-old season, is a noteworthy prospect on defence.
Each player who cracks the roster will earn the right to be part of one of the most intriguing seasons in franchise history.
“The final step is the emotional, mental strength to be able to do the things you’ve taken the strides in relentlessly, shift after shift, without the dips,” Clouston said. “There was probably a small handful of dips that end up being where the difference could have been made and the series [against Seattle] could have went the other way.
“It’s not normal. Winning isn’t normal. To have the challenge, the pressures of performing, of getting it done, it’s a big feat. The summer is really important.”
The captain is ready for the challenge.
“You know what? Things went wrong. You have to learn from your mistakes,” Stankoven said. “For us, next year, being able to host the Memorial Cup, it’s going to be huge. We don’t want to be the team that just gets to host it. We want to make sure that we win our way all the way to the Memorial Cup and show everybody we have a really good team and deserve to be there.”