Montana Onyebuchi fought his way into hearts of Kamloops Blazers’ fans last season, both literally and figuratively, showing a penchant for pugilism and a flamboyant fearlessness.
Now 18 and motivated to be selected in the 2019 NHL Draft, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound right-shot from Dugald, Man., is among four defencemen who seem safe bets to play regular minutes this season.
Nolan Kneen, a right-shot 19-year-old, Luke Zazula, a left-shot 18-year-old, and Jonas Sillanpaa, a left-shot 17-year-old, are also in that category.
Expectations for Kneen, the highest bantam-draft pick in Blazers’ history, were high when he was selected third overall in 2014, but patience has been required for those with interest in his development.
The 2017-2018 campaign, in which he set career-highs in goals (seven), points (37) and penalty minutes (75), was Kneen’s best to date.
He spent the summer training off-ice near his home in Duncan and on-ice in Campbell River and Nanaimo, knowing he will be counted on to assume a leadership role, with last year’s elder-statesmen defenders, Joe Gatenby and Brady Reagan, having aged out of junior hockey.
“It’s going to be a big step and I’ve been waiting for it for a long time,” said Kneen, who stands six feet, weighs 187 pounds and plays a physical game.
I’m sort of looking to continue with the steps I was taking last year, not so much points-wise, but with having an all-around game, with little things in the defensive zone and positioning.”
Zazula, diminutive at 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds, showed flashes of his potential last season, at his best when hounding opponents in the defensive zone and moving the puck quickly up ice.
More will be expected of the Langley product in his 18-year-old campaign. What to expect of Finnish import Sillanpaa is uncertain, but it’s no leap of faith to suggest his game will be much different than Zazula’s.
For starters, he is 6-foot-6 and 187 pounds. Early signs suggest Sillanpaa, from Espoo, is not afraid to make his big frame an asset, with physical play seemingly among his attributes.
Sillanpaa must adjust to a smaller ice surface and culture shock (neither of the European imports, the other being Czech forward Martin Lang, have a great grasp of the English language), but Blazers’ head coach Serge Lajoie expects the sizeable D-man to be a quick study.
“For a defenceman, we use dots as kind of our landmarks,” said Lajoie, a former blue liner. “Jonas is used to playing on the big ice, so that’s going to be a bit of an adjustment.”
Jostling behind Kneen, Onyebuchi, Zazula and Sillinpaa are Sean Strange and Devan Harrison, both left-shot 18-year-olds, and Tylor Ludwar, a right-shot 19-year-old.
Strange, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound Saanich product, earned a roster spot after training camp and pre-season in 2017, but did not draw big minutes in 52 regular-season games, finishing the campaign with eight points, all assists.
He did enough to earn an invite to the Colorado Avalanche’s development camp, which began this week. The experience should bode well on his quest to see more ice in 2018-2019.
Onyebuchi is the other Blazers’ D-man attending pro camp this week. He left for the Tampa Bay Lightning’s development camp on Wednesday.
Ludwar, from Regina, is 6-foot-1, 205 pounds and started his WHL career in 2016-2017 as a defenceman, but spent much of last season adjusting to a new role as a forward.
Four right-shot and six left-shot defencemen remain on the roster, an imbalance that may help right-shot Ludwar’s chances of making a bigger impact this season.
Schmiemann, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound native of Wilcox, Sask., and Harrison, the Dysart, Sask., product who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 182 pounds, are part of the left-shot log jam.
“You come to the rink and you put your head down and work as hard as you can,” Schmiemann said. “That’s all you can do. Hopefully, things work out for you. I feel like I’m ready to take the next step here.”
Trevor Thurston, a left-shot Delta product who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 177 pounds, and Ethan Brandwood, a right-shot Victoria native who stands six feet and weighs 157 pounds, are both 16 and likely to spend the season developing in the midget ranks.
“We’ve got lots of D-men that are fighting for spots,” Kneen said.
“It’s a competitive group right now. It’s a lot of fun to see.”