Matt Bardsley’s stock received another boost when Connor Levis signed with the Kamloops Blazers, a decision announced on Tuesday during a Zoom call.
The Blazers’ general manager, along with director of player personnel Robbie Sandland, is establishing a reputation for selecting players at the WHL Bantam Draft who are not committed to playing in the league — and getting them signed.
Mats Lindgren, picked seventh overall by Kamloops at the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft, and Levis, nabbed 20th overall, were verbally committed to the NCAA Division 1 University of Michigan Wolverines at the time of the draft.
The picks were courageous as Bardsley, running his first draft that year after being hired by the Blazers in June of 2018, was surely aware of what happened in 2016, when his terminated predecessor Stu MacGregor used the 15th overall pick on forward Massimo Rizzo, who seems likely to never play for Kamloops.
“I think you’re taking more of a chance if you don’t take those players,” said Bardsley, who spent nearly 20 years in the Portland Winterhawks’ organization before coming to Kamloops. “Now you’re taking a chance that you may not be the top team or you’re not willing to give yourself the best chance.”
Blazers’ owner Tom Gaglardi was on the Zoom call on Tuesday.
“I see a bit of the Portland attitude in Matt, spending 19 years in that organization where they were all known for being fantastic recruiters,” Gaglardi said. “They were not afraid to take the best players available and then rely on the strengths of the league and their program to do the talking and get players committed.
“If you look around the league historically, the best teams have taken those chances.”
When Lindgren signed with Kamloops last June, Levis did not follow.
One year had passed since the 2019 bantam draft, when Levis was selected by the Muskegon Lumberjacks in the USHL Futures Draft in May, indicating he may be keeping his NCAA options open.
Bardsley and company remained steadfast in their strategy when the 2020 bantam draft rolled around.
Among their selections were Kaden Hammell (19th overall), Grayden Slipec (27th overall) and Kai Matthew (107th overall).
Some pundits suggested Hammell dropped in the draft because he was not fully committed to the WHL, but he signed last month with the Blazers.
Slipec remains unsigned and undecided on his future and Matthew is committed to playing for the University of Denver. Both players would likely have been picked earlier in the draft if they were certain to play in the WHL.
“As far as job security, I was hired to do a job and I still believe in our decisions,” said Bardsley, named the Western Conference executive of the year for 2019-2020. “Even if Lindgren and Levis hadn’t signed or were still making decisions, I still believe in those picks.
“I can understand if ownership was upset with me because we were just making selections without even doing our research, but I’m proud of our scouting staff. They build relationships, do homework.”
Levis, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound, right-shot forward from Vancouver, racked up 12 goals and 26 points in 33 games for Vancouver-based St. George’s School in 2019-2020, a 15-year-old toiling in the under-18 midget prep league.
“I committed to Michigan two years ago and it was important to me to respect and honour the commitment they made to me,” said Levis, who turns 16 in October. “I knew there had to be a very compelling reason for me to de-commit and join another organization. Kamloops became very compelling.”
Bardsley had plenty to work with to make his case.
The Blazers won the B.C. Division championship in the truncated 2019-2020 campaign and boasted a prolific offensive squad under first-year head coach Shaun Clouston, the team built, in part, by MacGregor and former director of player personnel Matt Recchi.
Player and team awards from the WHL followed, honouring both on- and off-ice accomplishments. Both Connor Zary and Dylan Garand are expected to be selected in this year’s NHL Draft.
Should there be a 2020-2021 WHL season, Kamloops will be among favourites to repeat as division winners. There is also a strong crop of younger players, led by 17-year-old top prospect Logan Stankoven, that has potential to contribute to sustained success.
Levis has family in the Tournament Capital, including two aunts, an uncle, cousins and a grandma. He played with Gaglardi’s son, Bennett, for St. George’s in 2018-2019.
Friendly nudges to sign came from Levis’ friends, current Blazers who include 2003-born Stankoven, Matthew Seminoff and Caedan Bankier, and 2004-born Lindgren, Tye Spencer, Fraser Minten and Dylan Ernst.
A brief stint practising with the team in January left Levis feeling tied to the organization.
Bardsley noted there were about 50 players age 16 who toiled in the WHL last season, a number he could reference when talking to Levis about his development next season.
All of the above helped Levis make his decision, but there was more that resonated.
“Everything wasn’t just all about hockey,” Levis said. “I think Matt’s one of the nicest people I’ve met in hockey. He wished my mom happy birthday and thanked my sister after I signed.
“Robbie has been extremely supportive. Throughout the past few years, he’s come to almost every one of my games. I’ve talked with him after all the games and he gave me such amazing advice.”
Levis still wasn’t ready to sign in January when offered the opportunity.
“I’m a big believer in the relationships,” Bardsley said. “In hockey, in life, it’s important. You stay in constant communication. It doesn’t have to be that every time we have a call, it’s about, ‘What do you think?’ or, ‘Have you made a decision?’
“Sometimes, it’s just casual conversations, checking in and talking to them and seeing how it’s going. It doesn’t always just have to be business.”
Levis is represented by The Sports Corporation agents Gerry Johannson and Scott Bonner.
“Teams that are well-run, they can always accept a little bit more risk,” Johannson said.
“In our business, you appreciate teams that aren’t afraid of a little risk because they believe in their program.
“With Connor, it was exactly that. He was serious about his options. They knew that when they drafted him. It requires patience and a lot of confidence, which Matt has.”
Bardsley got the call last Friday, the good news that allowed him to add Levis’ name to the board in his office on which his projected teams for the next three years are posted.
That board and Bardsley’s job security would have a different feel if the top three picks from his first two bantam drafts went elsewhere.
But they didn’t.
“There are going to be some times where maybe they decide this is not the place for them, but I would 100 per cent do this again,” Bardsley said.
“The elite players, they’re always going to have options. You have to believe in your program.”