Kamloops Blazers Season Preview

(Last year’s stats in parenthesis)

Roster Breakdown: The Blazers roster currently sits at 24 players (2 goaltenders, 8 defensemen and 14 forwards). The roster includes 12 players selected in the WHL Bantam Draft, eight players from the free agent list, three players via trade, and one player selected from the CHL Import Draft. The roster breakdown by region includes eight players from Alberta, five from B.C., five from Saskatchewan, three from Manitoba, one from the USA, one from the Czech Republic, and one from Switzerland. There are 17 WHL veterans on the roster and seven WHL rookies. Four of those rookies spent time with the Blazers throughout the regular season and playoffs last season.

Key Returnees: F Brendan Ranford, F Dylan Willick, F Jordan DePape, F JC Lipon, F Colin Smith, F Tim Bozon, D Tyler Hansen, D Marek Hrbas, G Cole Cheveldave

Key Losses: F Chase Schaber, F Brandon Herrod, D Bronson Maschmeyer, D Austin Madaisky

New Faces: Forward Rob Trzonkowski (1+8=9) was acquired from the Calgary Hitmen over the summer. The 18-year-old brings some size up front standing 6’2” and 200lbs. 17-year-old forwards Aaron Macklin (Free Agent List) and Brayden Gelsinger (Free Agent List) are both new up front. Mitch Friesen (4th round, 2011) also adds to the forward group. The 6’3” 16-year-old was among the top scorers in the B.C. Major Midget League last season with 56 points in 40 games. On defence, the Blazers add 17-year-olds Josh Connolly and Ryan Rehill. Rehill is a big rugged stay-at-home defenseman, while Connolly is an offensively gifted rearguard. Jordan Thomson will also be a regular on defence. The 16-year-old played four games with the Blazers as a 15-year-old and notched his first WHL goal. Thomson is a dynamic player who will impress with his passion and work ethic. 

Who to Watch: Defenseman Josh Connolly has tremendous poise and offensive potential. The 17-year-old will have his ups and downs, but will be an entertaining player to watch. He missed most of last season due to a concussion, but managed to put up 15 points in only 12 games in Midget last season. If all goes well, the young defenseman may find himself as the Blazers power play quarterback and possibly selected in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Joining Connolly on defense is 16-year-old Jordan Thomson. Thomson was the Blazers highest selection ever in the WHL Bantam Draft at 4th overall in 2011. Although he won’t be heavily counted on by the Blazers, Thomson will be sure to earn his ice time and will be a fun player to watch over the coming years.

Up front 16-year-old Mitch Friesen is a virtual unknown to most. He finished 6th in scoring in the B.C. Major Midget League last season and continues to grow. The now 6’3” forward is expected to play in a limited role this season as most 16-year-olds do. When Friesen gets the opportunity to move into a bigger role, watch for him to flourish.

Behind the Bench: The Blazers go into the season with consistency behind the bench. Guy Charron returns for his third full season as the team’s Head Coach. Veteran coach Dave Hunchak has returned as the team’s Associate Coach working side-by-side with Charron. Ed Patterson is into his second season as a part-time Assistant Coach and Mike Needham starts his second season as the team’s Skills Coach. Both Patterson and Needham are former Blazers and both bring NHL experience to the coaching staff. Goaltender Coach Dan De Palma returns for a fourth season with the Blazers.

Forwards: The Kamloops Blazers forward crop is arguably among the best in the WHL. The team consists of a strong core of forwards including the line of Colin Smith (35+50=85), JC Lipon (19+46=65) and Tim Bozon (36+35=71) which combined for 90 goals and 221 points last season. Three 20-year-olds make up another line as Brendan Ranford (40+52=92), Jordan DePape (6+8=14), and Dylan Willick (28+26=54) have been playing together throughout the preseason. DePape is out for redemption after missing all but 14 games last season due to injury. All six of the players have proven they are point a game players with Ranford, Smith and Bozon finishing one, two, three in team scoring last season. Add into the picture third-year forward Chase Souto and 17-year-old forwards Matt Needham (12+22=34) and Cole Ully (9+11=20) and you’ve got a strong top three lines. Don’t count out 18-year-olds Aspen Sterzer (5+13=18) and Rob Trzonkowski (1+8=9) who can skate and be a pain to play against. Add in rookies Brayden Gelsinger, Aaron Macklin and Mitch Friesen, and the Blazers boast a quick and experienced group of forwards.

Overall, the Blazers have the capability of scoring even more goals this season. If the forwards stay healthy and disciplined, the Blazers will be a fun team to watch.

Defenseman: The hockey club is returning five WHL veterans and will have three rookies to start the season. A pair of 19-year-old defenseman will lead the way as Tyler Hansen (1+21=22) and Marek Hrbas (1+24=25) will provide two different dynamics to the back-end. Hansen was among the league leaders in +/- last season and will be looked upon to shut down the opposition’s top players. Hrbas is expected to play in all situations including both the power play and penalty kill. A trio of 18-year-olds will be expected to step up their game this season led by third-year rearguard Brady Gaudet (1+15=16). Along with Gaudet, Tyler Bell (1+11=12) and Landon Cross (1+5=6) are both into their second seasons and will need to be dependable for the Blazers this season. Josh Connolly and Jordan Thomson (1+0=1) will both get plenty of opportunities this season. Both defensemen have a ton of upside, but will be eased into the line-up. 17-year-old Ryan Rehill will need to mimic his game to Tyler Hansen as a stay-at-home defender.

Overall, the Blazers will need to play good defence by committee. There are no stalwarts on the back end, but as a group a lot of experience was gained last season through the regular season and the playoffs. The wild card on the back-end will be 20-year-old Austin Madaisky (13+37=50). Madaisky is signed by the Columbus Blue Jackets and is expected to open up the season with their AHL affiliate Springfield Falcons. If and when Madaisky comes back will be the question mark. The addition of Madaisky will improve the back-end, but the Blazers will be left with a difficult decision to get down to three 20-year-olds.    

Goaltenders: For the first time in a while, the Blazers have some experience and stability between the pipes. Cole Cheveldave (34-11-2-3, 2.62, and .909) is expected to make a bulk of the starts after suiting up for 55 games last season and finishing with a 34-11-2-3 record. The 19-year-old was a second team Western Conference All-Star last season. Cheveldave will be expected to put up similar numbers this season. He will be joined in goal by 18-year-old Taran Kozun. Kozun spent some time with the Blazers during the start of the regular season and in the playoffs last season. Overall, the Blazers are strong in goal and should be for the next few years.

Prognosis: The Blazers made some significant strides last season winning the B.C. Division for the first time since 2001-02, and winning a playoff series for the first time since 1998-99. The expectations have risen as the hockey club will be expected to contend for the Division and Conference once again. A thrilling best-of-seven second round loss to the Portland Winterhawks has left the Blazers thirsty for more. Expect an exciting season with the Blazers pushing to be among the best teams in the WHL.  

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