Head coaches in the WHL have unique challenges to face in this truncated 2021 season, which will get underway for B.C. Division clubs on March 26.
Kamloops Blazers’ bench boss Shaun Clouston is preparing to navigate a pre-season that will be without a legitimate training camp and exhibition games, absent a host of teaching moments and evaluation time that would accompany the lead up to a traditional campaign.
Clouston will also be tasked with developing a philosophy for a season that is not likely to culminate with playoffs, a schedule that will include 24 games if uninterrupted by positive COVID-19 tests.
The Blazers will not be on the ice for team activities until after March 17, when players will undergo a second test for the virus.
Clouston is expecting to have six or seven days of practice before the season begins and will be relying heavily on veteran players to take on more prominent teaching roles.
“The pace, the structure, the energy — that’s going to be key,” Clouston said.
“Really cue those guys up and say, ‘Remember where we want to get to, remember how we want to play,’ so that in practice today, we’re pitching in and helping out. If we set the bar high, if we’re a great example, if we’re encouraging, we can all really work to get on the same page in the next few days. That’s going to be the biggest challenge.”
The roster includes six 16-year-old players — forwards Tye Spencer, Connor Levis, Fraser Minten and Vaughn Watterodt, defenceman Mats Lindgren and goaltender Dylan Ernst.
Forwards Logan Stankoven, Matthew Seminoff and Caedan Bankier and defenceman Logan Bairos make up the 17-year-old contingent.
The 18-year-olds are forwards Josh Pillar, Peyton McKenzie, Daylan Kuefler and Reese Belton, defenceman Ethan Brandwood and goaltender Dylan Garand.
“There were times where it was tough because you live your whole life playing hockey and that was taken away from you for just about a year,” Kuefler said. “It was really important for our team to stay close. We had lots of Zoom calls, stayed in contact and that was huge for staying motivated and close as a team.”
Defencemen Inaki Baragano and Quinn Schmiemann and forward Connor Zary are the 19-year-old trio.
Rearguards Sean Strange and Montana Onyebuchi and forward Orrin Centazzo are returning for their overage campaigns.
Everyone has something to play for from an individual standpoint, whether it’s a pro contract, NHL Draft position, favour among brass for the future or any of the carrots that typically dangle throughout a major-junior season.
What has changed is the time frame in which players have to showcase themselves.
Clouston does not plan to let that significantly alter the way he approaches deployment.
“Your top guys, quite often your older guys, are accepting and taking on more responsibility, with your younger guys slotting in where they eventually deserve to be,” Clouston said. “We were really fortunate last year and that will be the goal again — can we create four lines that we can get on the ice consistently?”
The division champions crowned after a 24-game season are not likely to carry much clout from a historical standpoint.
Clouston pointed out there are other ways to measure team success.
“It’s nice to look at the stat book and the record books and those types of thing, but really, that’s all they are,” Clouston said. “They are just a figure, a number, and there will be a little asterisk this year, but to me, it’s really about the experience.
“It’s an experience that the vast majority of the people in the world who have regular jobs, they just don’t get. They don’t get to be part of that team where you’re all doing everything you possibly can together to create success.
“The competitive nature of the players and coaches will take over and this will be a really great experience.”