All signs point to the Kamloops Blazers being one of the hottest teams in the circuit this season.
Standing atop the WHL’s B.C. Division with 86 points when play paused last year, the Blazers will look to carry forward that success into the new campaign that sees the squad sit sixth in the preseason edition of the Kia CHL Top-10 Rankings.
Backed by newfound Calgary Flames first-round pick Connor Zary, the 2019-20 WHL Western Conference First Team All-Star reached new heights last season in which he finished fifth in the league-wide scoring race and second on the Blazers after notching 86 points counting 38 goals and 48 assists through 57 contests.
The Saskatoon native, whose playing style was likened to that of a Swiss Army knife by Flames general manager and WHL graduate Brad Treliving, will once again be looked toward to push the pace offensively in Kamloops this season, particularly following the graduation of outgoing captain Zane Franklin who wrapped up his final year with a team-leading 91 points.
For Zary, the opportunities don’t stop there, as his year will also include an initial showing at Flames’ training camp as well as a potential spot with Team Canada at the 2021 World Juniors in Edmonton and a chance at redemption after being among the final cuts a year ago.
“I want to be on that team and I want to be a difference-maker,” said Zary, one of 42 CHL talents headed to Canada’s selection camp alongside Kamloops teammate Dylan Garand, per Wes Gilbertson of the Calgary Sun. “It kind of comes down to how adaptable and versatile you can be to playing different positions and playing where you’re not comfortable and doing what it takes to grind out a game or just work as hard as you can … For me, I think that works in my favour just being the type of player that is very adaptable and can play anywhere on the ice.”
Chosen 24th overall in the 2020 NHL Draft, Zary is the first Blazer to be selected in the opening round since blue-liner Keaton Ellerby 13 years prior. A projected second- or third-round candidate in Central Scouting’s initial assessment, Zary’s trajectory is one teammate Logan Stankoven now hopes to mimic after the soon-to-be sophomore and fifth-overall selection from the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft was earmarked in the same category of Players to Watch ahead of the 2021 NHL Draft.
Through 59 appearances last season, Stankoven ranked sixth among all first-year skaters with 48 points while his 29 goals tied Winnipeg’s Michal Teply for top spot league-wide. The Kamloops native now looks to build on his early career success as he shifts into a greater offensive role for the coming campaign.
“I don’t like to be a cocky human being, but having that confidence and swagger that I am good enough to potentially be a first rounder or an A-rated prospect is something I really strive toward,” the 2019-20 WHL Rookie of the Year finalist told Marty Hastings of Kamloops This Week. “That just brings out the hunger in me and makes me want to prove myself to, hopefully, move up in those rankings and just skyrocket.
“Zary was in the exact same spot last year. He really used that as motivation and that’s something I want to do, as well, to prove myself and show them who I am as a player and person.”
Alongside Zary, Stankoven rounds out an impressive forward core in Kamloops that also counts returning left-wing Orrin Centazzo who finished third in team scoring last season with 81 points in 63 games.
Meanwhile, on the defensive side the Blazers will have a new look following the graduation of veteran rearguard Max Martin, whose exit brings added opportunity for the likes of 19-year-old Tampa Bay Lightning up-and-comer Quinn Schmiemann, one of three NHL drafted prospects on the Blazers alongside Zary and Garand.
Through 60 appearances last season, Schmiemann notched a steady 37 points, while 2020-21 will see him take on a leadership role on the back end as the team introduces new talents like Swedish-born blue-liner Viktor Persson, a 2020 seventh-round selection of the Vancouver Canucks and the club’s top pick from the 2020 CHL Import Draft.
“We believe (Persson) has all the qualities we look for in (a) defenceman,” said Blazers general manager Matt Bardsley. “His mobility, vision, puck skills, and compete level will be a nice addition to our defence and we look forward to helping him maximize his development.”
Of course, any team with its sights set on a championship needs strength in the blue paint and the Blazers have that in spades in Garand, a 2020 fourth-round draft choice of the New York Rangers. The Victoria, B.C., native was among the league leaders in all goaltending categories last season including wins (28), save percentage (.921), and goals-against average (2.21), and is a strong candidate to carry that play forward into the new campaign.
Demonstrably solid throughout the lineup, the Blazers will soon turn their attention to returning CHL supremacy to Kamloops for the first time since 1995 in a journey that begins with the WHL’s Return to Play in January.