Kamloops was expected to be strong this season two seasons, but such is the nature of major junior hockey. The patience shown by management during those seasons, allowing the young guns to gain experience, sees it paying off early this season as the Kamloops Blazers currently hold the top spot in the division with a 7-1 record good for fourteen points. While the Prince George Cougars, who have played two more games, are only two points in arrears with twelve points from a 5-3-1-1 record (the extra “1” coming from an overtime loss for those not familiar with the WHL’s points format). The Blazers have compiled there record against all sub five hundred hockey clubs, except for their lone loss, which came at the hands of a Lethbridge Hurricanes hockey club that invaded Kamloops with a six game win streak and left with the streak at seven.
The Blazers are about to test their mettle however, as starting Friday night in Saskatoon against the hometown Blades, the Blazers will play six games in nine nights on their longest road trip of the season. While most of the eastern clubs are sub-five hundred, the six game in nine nights will take it’s toll, with the biggest test likely to come at the end of the trip against the high flying Swift Current Broncos. The Blazers leave with some positive signs emerging from the last three games played however, as they cut down their shots allowed by an average of about ten per game, going from just over thirty five shots a night to about twenty five. Kamloops has the ability to come at teams in waves with the offensive fire power they boast, so a commitment to defence can only spell trouble for the opposition.
With the likes of last years CHL Rookie of the Year, Scottie Upshall and slick playmaker Jared Aulin leading the attack, teams will not only need to control these two, but emerging stalwarts in Jarret Lukin, Eric Christensen, Josh Bonar and Mark Rooneem will need to be controlled. Veteran leadership was acquired in former Seattle Thunderbird Keegan McAvoy, who is not only showing the grit that was expected, but also is creating a lot of opportunities on offence. The rest of the forward group contribute grit, toughness and a solid work ethic, with the likes of Derek Krestnaovich, Ryan Annesly, new import Alex Shelkunov and the rough and tumble pair of Colton Orr and Cam McCaffrey. Feisty and skilled second year man Paul Brown is currently sidelined rehabbing a broken ankle, but should add even more grit and offence to an already deep hockey club.
Defensively the Blazers are developing some cohesiveness as a unit and it shows in the drastic reduction in shots allowed. Fourth year man Aaron Gionet, first round NHL draft pick Shaone Morrison (Boston Bruins), overager Tyler Sloan, seventeen year old Conlan Seder and the much improved sophomore Nikita Korovkin anchor a defence that seems to be improving like a fine wine. Add Tyler Boldt (currently recovering from mononucleosis) and the surprisingly steady play of sixteen year old rookie Josh Pokol and the Blazers look solid. Some and I would agree with the assessment, believe the Blazers might want to add an experienced defenseman to the group who can provide leadership and grit, however with the good start, Blazer management can afford to sit back and see what comes available, without having to rush a deal that might not be a good fit in the long run. Currently the Blazers have a pretty good mix of guys who can move the puck in Morrison and Sloan, are solid in their own end with the current group, but another veteran defenseman with a physical presence on the backend might be the final piece of the puzzle.
In goal, the Blazers are solid with Davis Parley (19) and Steve Belanger(18). While Parley played the bulk of games last season, most believed the Blazers would be even stronger this year with Belanger having a year under his belt and so far it looks good. After a less than spectacular training camp, Belanger has started the season 4-0, with a GAA of 2.25 and a save percentage of .926, showing the athleticism and quickness on a regular basis so far this year that he displayed on occasion last season. Davis Parley has been no slouch either, going 3-1, with a GAA of 2.76 and a save percentage of .913 while looking more poised and confident. Many people, myself included have wondered aloud if the Blazers will be able to keep the two guys happy, as both could be starters in their own right, however at this point everyone involved seems to be saying the right things and if it stays that way, the Blazers have arguably the best tandem in the league which is what you need if you have visions of a Memorial Cup dancing in your head.
It will be interesting to see where the Blazers sit after this extended road trip. I’m predicting a four win and two loss record that should see them still sitting atop the division when they return.