Connor Zary, Ryley Appelt, Kyrell Sopotyk and Ryan Hughes are among Kamloops Blazers’ forwards who missed games over the last few months, either recovering from injuries or spending time with select teams.
Youth emerged in the veterans’ stead.
Whether getting off the goal-scoring schneid, dropping mitts in a brawl or earning minutes alongside top players, Matthew Seminoff and Caedan Bankier, both 16, and Reese Belton and Daylan Kuefler, both 17, have enjoyed morale-boosting moments.
“At times, early in the season, on our Saskatchewan trip, when they had to step up and play in bigger roles, maybe they weren’t quite as prepared as they thought they needed to be,” Blazers’ assistant coach Cory Clouston said.
“They learned from that. The second time around, where we’ve had some injuries and holes to fill, they’ve been much more prepared.”
Kamloops product Logan Stankoven, 16, is already a regular in the lineup, tied for second among WHL rookies in goals, with 17, and seventh in points, with 28, in 40 games.
Belton tallied his first WHL goal last Friday, a power-play marker that mercifully ended scoring in a 12-3 shellacking of the Tri-City Americans at Sandman Centre.
“That’s literally the only thing I felt when I scored, just a sigh of relief,” said Belton, a Winnipeg product who facetimed his mom after the contest.
“Thank god this is finally over. It does feel pretty good.
“There is way more opportunity when guys like that are out. You never hope for that, but when the opportunity comes, you’ve got to take advantage of it.”
Of the fledgling forwards not named Stankoven, Bankier is the top scorer, with 11 points, including three goals, in 38 games.
He was also among pugilists when the Blazers and Rockets engaged in fight night at Prospera Place earlier this month.
“It shows that you’re not going to put up with anything and everyone is willing to fight for each other, especially in that brawl,” Bankier said, referencing the line-brawl donnybrook that featured younger Kamloops fighters throwing against older Rockets.
“We weren’t going to let one man get beat up out there. That’s been our mentality all year — stick together and it will all work out.”
Clouston said those moments are important, but noted consistency is likely a better indicator of development.
“It can happen quickly, but if it happens overnight or instantly, it’s kind of a false confidence,” he said. “You have a sustained confidence by putting in the work, understanding your role, understanding systems and believing in yourself.
“If you do that and you have a bit of a bad game, you’re not just going to drop right off in your confidence. And if you have a good game, it’s not going to skyrocket.”
Kuefler notched a goal last week against the hometown Spokane Chiefs and added two assists last weekend in the Tri-City romps.
The Blazers lambasted the Ams 9-0 on Saturday. Belton doubled his career goal total that night.
Seminoff, who lit the lamp and added an assist last week in Spokane, was the hero on Nov. 15, with the game-winning goal in a 1-0 triumph over the visiting Prince George Cougars.
“We got the challenge to step up and I think all of us young guys did a pretty good job of filling the roles,” said Seminoff, who has three goals and nine points in 34 games.
“We’re kind of back on that fourth-line role now, back to doing our jobs and doing what got us there.”
The vets have returned, with Kamloops boasting an eight-game winning streak heading into a pair of tilts this weekend against the Cougars in Prince George.
Ice will be tougher to come by for the less experienced Blazers, but they should be more prepared to take advantage when their shoulders are tapped.
“The confidence has improved and come a long way,” Clouston said.
“They’re understanding their roles and what they need to do to be successful.”
Kamloops remains seventh in CHL top 10 rankings, its perfect 4-0 stretch last week not enough to move up the board.
“I know there are some pretty good teams on the list,” Belton said.
“I think we should have moved up maybe one, maybe even two spots. If we keep winning, there is no way we won’t keep moving up.”
The Ottawa 67’s are No. 1, one spot ahead of Don Hay and the Portland Winterhawks.