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Kamloops Blazers will return stronger and hungrier next year

Stick raise
Returning almost all of a young team next year, the Kamloops Blazers are a promising bunch heading into the 2019-20 WHL season. (via Eric Thompson)

Wednesday's locker cleanout marked the end of another thrilling Kamloops Blazers season, one where the team rallied down the stretch to make the WHL playoffs for just the third time in the last six years. 

But after falling in the first round to the Victoria Royals in six games, the excitement for next season is already building.

While a couple of Blazers will turn their attention to U18 World Championships, and three more graduating players focus on their next steps in life, most will head into the offseason with a focus on how they can help this team take the next step. 

Can they win a playoff series? Can they reclaim the B.C. Division for the first time since 2012? 

Could they even crash a Memorial Cup that the rival Kelowna Rockets are slated to host next year?

Perhaps that's getting carried away. But certainly, general manager Matt Bardsley saw some things he liked in his first year at the helm of the Blazers.

"All year long we were a bit up and down," he says. "For most of the season we were trying to figure out what we needed to do to be more consistent. Towards the end was when we found that consistency. It would've been great if we could've done it at the beginning of the year, but at the end I thought we had real good traction leading into the playoffs which was exciting for the community and the fans. I thought the fans were great all year long regardless but then during the run there, they really came it out and it was really exciting."

"I thought we had a lot of positives. Individually players improved their game; some players still need some more improvement but some of them towards the end of the season really started to show that growth which is really exciting because now they can have a good summer of training and keep that momentum going for the start of next season."

Statistically, this year's Blazers didn't finish drastically different from the 2017-18 version that missed the playoffs by 13 points.

 

Yet the way they closed out the regular season, collecting 11 of a possible 12 points in must-win games then beating Kelowna in a one-game tiebreaker, has created a different feel around town, especially when you look at the players who helped carry them down the stretch. 

Connor Zary was red-hot to close the year, scoring 21 points over his last 15 games. Not only was the 17-year-old scoring in bunches, but his goals were coming at crucial moments in huge games. 

"It's exciting getting this experience down the stretch, pushing for a playoff spot and then getting some playoff experience in the first round," he says. "I think it will really help us. Moving forward, we have a young, talented team still and with a little more experience this time coming in next year, it's going to be really exciting hockey."

Zary wasn't the only one to make big strides this year. If the end of the season was any indication, Kamloops looks to be sitting on a bevy of talented forwards. 

Rookie Kyrell Sopotyk had seven goals over his final 12 games. Import winger Martin Lang led all rookie Blazers in scoring this season with 33 points, while Josh Pillar had a solid first year with 22 points. Even 2018 first round pick Logan Stankoven managed to appear in 14 games (including playoffs), getting valuable reps for next year.

"I found the big difference was speed," says Stankoven comparing the WHL to major midget (where he scored 101 points in 38 games). "Obviously, the guys are bigger, more mature and stronger out here for sure. Over the summer, I've got to put in the work. I know what it takes to be one of the top players in the league and to maybe have success like some of the guys like Zary. I want to strive to be like them in a few years."

IMG_0931It will be almost six months until the Sandman Centre is rocking for hockey again. (via Eric Thompson)
That's just the youngest players. Guys like Orrin Centazzo (51 points) and Brodi Stuart (38 points) will also be back in the fall, along with the team's leading scorer Zane Franklin (68 points), who Bardsley acquired in a trade last summer. In fact, captain Jermaine Loewen is the only forward not eligible to return next year.

"You put all that together and I think we're going to have a really strong forward group with a lot of depth," says Bardsley. "You know, we can just roll lines and not have to rely on two lines. We're going to be really deep up front and I'm excited about that."

Along with a potentially deep offence, the Blazers have some promise in net for next year. Though Dylan Ferguson is moving on, Dylan Garand showed he could carry the load of a starter for a few weeks in March. 

"Playing seven games in 11 days or so, I kind of learned what it's like to be the starter," he says. "How you have to mentally push when you're tired, the physical toll games take on you, how to rest and recover properly so you can get the most energy and play to the best of your ability when you do play again." 

Garand had .902 save percentage in 27 games this season, but the way he played down the stretch, posting a .943 save percentage over the final seven games sold the front office on him starting next year. Along with Rayce Ramsay, Bardsley says he likes the look of their crease going forward.

"We have confidence in Dylan. He showed that down the stretch, he showed that all year long." says Kamloops GM. "When Fergie got hurt and Dylan had to go in and play in a tough situation where it was pretty much elimination games the rest of the stretch, he was excellent. We're absolutely confident, I know his teammates are confident in him going forward next year. And Ramsay had a really good season in Humboldt, pretty much earned a starter role there when we reassigned him and was able to get them in the playoffs. 

Both are quality goaltenders and excellent human beings. As much as we want good hockey players, we want good people as well, so we're excited to have both Dylan and Rayce as our tandem next year."

Even on defence, where the Blazers looked overmatched at times this year, Bardsley saw a lot of growth. 

"We probably had some players that were playing in higher slots than maybe they were ready for, but that's what we had and in the end, they learned a lot and developed," he says. "That's a position where we graduate Jeff Faith but pretty much return all of our defenceman next year. And I think because of all the experience they got this year – and again, they had some challenges – but they played as hard as they could, they did some really good things. They're all going to be a year older, a year more experienced, so I think our defence is going to be better next year because of it."

Next season is Connor Zary's NHL draft year and if his game keeps improving, he should hear his name called early. (via Eric Thompson)

 

The Blazers GM won't be content though. Even though the league's new trade restrictions basically reduced the market to 18-year-old players and up, Bardsley says if there's a player he thinks will fit with this team, he'll look to add them before the season. Kamloops has three picks in the top 30 of this year's WHL Bantam Draft. 

As for behind the bench, Bardsley says the plan is for all the coaching staff to return as well. Head coach Serge Lajoie guided the team to the playoffs in his first season at the WHL level, but after the team hired Darryl Sydor as a full-time assistant in the spring, there were rumblings he could be a head coach of the team soon. The coaching staff will undergo reviews this week. 

"He brings a championship mentality," says Garand of his head coach. "He was a winner in U Sports with (the University of Alberta) so he knows what it takes to win a championship and how hard it is. He's instilled that in us a little bit, that mindset. Understanding that coming to the rink every day is a grind and working hard is a grind and if you do it, things will pay off. And I think we saw that, all that work we put in paid off in those final seven games. He's a great influence for our younger guys and a great coach." 

Speaking of grinds, the summer will be one for Blazers fans as they'll have to go through the next five months without hockey at the Sandman Centre. But just know, as anxious as the city is for the return of hockey, this young team craves it even more.

"I think next year is going to be huge for us," says Zary. "Getting to the first round this year just made us hungrier for next year and wanting to go even farther."




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Eric Thompson

About the Author: Eric Thompson

It's 2019 and Eric Thompson still gets paid to write about news. What a world we live in!
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