Pairs with chemistry will anchor forward lines in the Serge Lajoie Era.
The Kamloops Blazers’ head coach is searching for dynamic duos to deploy, while aiming to earmark players who can be complementary to those harmonic couples — ideal third wheels, if you like.
“There are some pairings starting to emerge,” Lajoie said. “With Jermaine [Loewen] still in [NHL] camp, depending on where he fits in, who he might mesh with, that might kind of mix things up a little bit, but I like where we are heading.”
Orrin Centazzo, 18, and Connor Zary, who turns 17 on Sept. 25, have played regularly at centre throughout training camp and pre-season and have both found suitable sidekicks.
Brodi Stuart, entering his 18-year-old season as one of the team’s brightest prospects, has been clicking with Centazzo, who was acquired by the Blazers last season in a blockbuster deadline deal with the Everett Silvertips.
“Serge has kept us together at practice so far and we like it,” said Stuart, who had 16 goals and 38 points in 70 games last season and is comfortable on either wing. “Hopefully, we can continue that going forward.”
Zary, who had 29 points, 11 of them goals, in 68 games as a 16-year-old in 2017-2018, has been paired with 20-year-old Luc Smith, who last season had career-highs in goals (21), assists (23) and points (44).
Smith, listed as a centre, has been playing on the right wing.
Versatility will be looked upon highly by Lajoie.
“I’ve also had [Kobe] Mohr and [Zane] Franklin together, but even when I say those three pairs, there’s still some interchangeability within that, and that’s what I’m encouraged with,” Lajoie said.
Mohr, 19, was traded to Kamloops from Edmonton in May in a deal that sent 20-year-old Quinn Benjafield the other way. Franklin, 19, was acquired from Lethbridge in July in an exchange that sent 18-year-old Jackson Shepard to the Hurricanes.
Franklin quickly reinforced his reputation — energy-bringing pest who can contribute offensively — in training camp this summer and has shown leadership qualities.
The three mentioned pairings are more examples of Lajoie’s blueprint for success up front than established duos that will stick, but it does seem like the Blazers’ bench boss wants to waste little time in uncovering tantalizing twosomes.
“I’m not one to commit early, but I’m definitely not one to constantly throw different lineups to start a game,” Lajoie said. “I always start with trying to find chemistry between two guys. That’s kind of been the mindset through training camp and the exhibition games.”
Lajoie went on to list a few players he called “singles.”
“[Kyrell] Sopotyk, he can move up and down in your lineup and complement any of those pairings,” Lajoie said. “You have a [Martin] Lang, who should really view himself as a pure shooter. If he’ll elevate his play away from the puck, then I think he’s going be a really good complementary player. Jermaine can fit in anywhere, with his style of play.”
Loewen, 20, was the Blazers’ MVP last season, finishing with 36 goals and 64 points in 66 games.
Sopotyk and Lang, both entering their 17-year-old campaigns, are unproven at the WHL level, but both are rookie prospects who have potential to improve the perception of the Blazers’ forward group.
“It’ll take some confidence to play in this league, compared to midget, but it’ll come along,” said Sopotyk, the 5-foot-10, 176-pound left-shot from Aberdeen, Sask. “I like to play in the offensive zone. Anything in the offensive zone is lots of fun to me.”
Sopotyk displayed fantastic scoring touch playing for the Prince Albert Mintos in the top-tier Saskatchewan midget league. He had 42 goals in 42 games as a 15-year-old in 2016-2017 and notched 10 goals in nine playoff games last season.
Lang, the 5-foot-10, 171-pound Czech Republic import, was the 12th overall pick in the 2018 CHL Import Draft and comes touted as a European sniper.
Whether they adapt quickly to the WHL remains to be seen.
Jerzy Orchard, 17, and Josh Pillar, 16, will be looking to push their way into the lineup in their rookie seasons.
“When it comes to Sopotyk and Orchard, I keep saying, you earn your confidence through preparation, through hard practices, and that’s where they have to continue to focus,” said Lajoie, noting some of his charges will be asked to play away from their preferred positions.
“Sopotyk has shown that he’s been able to complement any line and is quite reliable defensively and he’s only going to improve in that area. Jerzy needs to play with more confidence. I see that he has the ability. He has to recognize that. But I see that he’s trending in the right direction.”
Travis Walton, 19, and 18-year-olds Ryley Appelt and Carson Denomie represent a good portion of the Blazers’ bulk, sizeable forwards who must be hard to play against if they want to increase their minutes.
There is no doubt offensive production is an area of concern for the Blazers, who scored 212 goals in 72 games last season, third-least in the WHL. Moose Jaw led the league with 326 goals.
This season’s forward group might have potential to improve that statistic, but it is largely unproven at this level.
Those who want to play key roles will have to impress their new head coach. It appears working hard is a smart way to do that.
“They have to apply themselves at practice,” Lajoie said. “That’s not just the first- or second-year players. We‘re just not playing at the pace I feel we need to be playing at to be successful.”
Part 1 — Lajoie takes reins
Part 2 — Blazers like depth in net
Part 3 — How's the blue line?