Training camp is over and most of the Kamloops Blazers’ roster spots have been nailed down by returning players.
“There’s a spot or two or three, really,” Blazers’ head coach and general manager Shaun Clouston said on Monday, Sept. 13, a day after the conclusion of the club’s four-day training camp.
“A lot of returning forwards, but room at 12 or 13 and if we wanted to carry 14. There are some spots and definitely some competition as to where players will start and where they end up in the lineup.”
The jostling for position will take place throughout the pre-season schedule, with five games on the slate, including one on Friday, Sept. 17, against the Prince George Cougars, a 7 p.m. start at Sandman Centre. (Fans will return to the rink).
Seven Blazers are toiling this week at NHL training camps — forwards Logan Stankoven (Dallas Stars), Daylan Kuefler (Arizona Coyotes), Josh Pillar (Minnesota Wild) and Caedan Bankier (Minnesota Wild), defencemen Quinn Schmiemann (Philadelphia Flyers) and Swedish import Viktor Persson (Vancouver Canucks) and goaltender Dylan Garand (New York Rangers).
Dylan Sydor, 18, Tye Spencer and Vaughn Watterodt, both 17, and 16-year-old Luke Korte are expected to push each other throughout the exhibition slate at the bottom end of the lineup.
“Last year, coming into the team on the fourth line, you’ve got to wear that, know your role, get pucks deep, get off the ice and let the other guys go to work,” said Sydor, who tallied one goal and six points in 15 games last season, his rookie year in the WHL.
“This year, just looking to build off that. I’m just happy to accept my role, wherever I am.”
At the top end of the lineup, in descending order of age, are 20-year-old Nick McCarry, 19-year-olds Pillar, Kuefler and Reese Belton, 18-year-olds Stankoven, Matthew Seminoff and Caedan Bankier and 17-year-olds Connor Levis and Fraser Minten.
Stankoven is unquestionably the biggest ticket, the hometown wunderkind who bagged seven goals in six games of WHL action last season before notching the game-winning marker for Canada in a 5-3 triumph over Russia in the U18 world championship gold-medal game.
Pillar had a breakout season in 2020-2021, leading the team in scoring with 29 points, including 11 goals, in 22 games. He was drafted into the NHL in July by the Minnesota Wild, along with Bankier. The Dallas Stars drafted Stankoven.
Seminoff, Bankier, Levis and Minten (read more about his training camp exploits) made the most of their opportunities last season and comprise part of the heart of an encouraging youth movement up front.
Belton and McCarry were among standouts at camp on the weekend.
The Blazers nabbed Roman Makarov, a 6-foot-5, 214-pound left shot from Engels, Russia, on June 30 in the CHL Import Draft.
He is not expected to be in Kamloops in time for the regular season and may not play in the WHL at all in 2021-2022.
“It’s really a COVID situation,” Clouston said. “The Sputnik [vaccine] doesn’t work over here, so they were looking at other options. We were really having discussions with the agent and player and looking at all the options and then, at some point, things just changed. If he wants to come, we’ve got a spot for him. There’s the vaccine, the visa ... we’ll see where it goes.”
Grayden Slipec and Kai Matthew, picked by the Blazers 27th overall and 107th overall in the 2020 WHL Bantam Draft, respectively, are expected to play junior A hockey this season.
NHL draftees Persson and Schmiemann, both 20, along with Mats Lindgren, 17, are likely to anchor the Blazers’ blue line in 2021-2022.
Smooth-skating Lindgren, the seventh overall pick in the 2019 bantam draft, was a regular in the rotation last season as a 16-year-old and enters his NHL Draft year as an intriguing prospect.
“For me, I don’t think it’s too much pressure right now,” said Lindgren, whose father, also named Mats, played parts of seven seasons in the NHL.
“I’m focusing on myself and my own craft. I don’t try to worry about what other people think. I’m putting in the work and I think I’m on the right track.”
Rounding out the top six are 19-year-old Ethan Brandwood, 18-year-old Logan Bairos and 16-year-old Kaden Hammell, the 19th overall pick in the 2020 bantam draft.
Ryan Michael and Rylan Pearce, both 16, are fighting for roster spots.
Garand is the man between the pipes for one more season.
The New York Rangers’ draft pick is among the top junior netminders in the country and is a good bet to start for Team Canada this winter at the World Junior Hockey Championship.
His absence in December and January will open the door for Dylan Ernst, whom the Blazers have been grooming to be the third consecutive Dylan to carry the torch beginning in 2022-2023, when Garand is expected to begin his pro career.
Ernst will see plenty of exhibition action, while Garand is away at Rangers’ camp.
“It gives me a lot of opportunity to get better and get more games in,” said Ernst, a 17-year-old net minder from Weyburn, Sask. “More games will help me a lot.