The Kamloops Blazers returned from a six game road trip to the eastern division of the WHL and returned with a 2-2-1-1 record, while overall they sit 9-3-1-1, with twenty points and a slim one point advantage over the Kootenay Ice. The Blazers do hold four games in hand over the Ice, however you need to win those games for it to make any difference. The Blazers were missing some key players in Jarrett Lukin, Conlan Seder, Colton Orr, Jared Aulin and Paul Brown for either all or some of the games, but Seder was the only defenseman missing, which doesn’t help explain why the Blazers were out shot on average, forty to twenty six on the six game trip. Kamloops will need to improve in this area as they face U.S. Division leading Spokane, the tough Prince George Cougars and intense rivals the Kelowna Rockets this week.
The Kootenay Ice are nipping at the Blazers heels with an 8-7-3 record, good for nineteen points and second place, albeit having played four more games then the Blazers. The record is still pretty impressive for the Ice however, as they have played without super playmaker Jarrett Stoll and standout goaltender Dan Blackburn. Stoll is out with a serious hand injury and Blackburn continues to play for the New York Rangers. The Ice also lost the services of import sniper Marek Svatos in an October 17 game against the Red Deer Rebels, but have gone an impressive four wins and two times in the six games since he went down. Import rookie Tomas Plihal has picked up the slack, scoring seven goals and picking up four helpers in the six games while Colin Sinclair (8 pts), Jason Jaffray(7 pts), Adam Taylor(8 pts) and Trevor Johnson have also made major contributions.
Kootenay’s defence has gone about their business without much fanfare, but the group led by veteran Cole Fischer and including Brennan Evans, Travor Johnson, Aaron Rome, Craig Weller and highly touted sophomore Andy Thompson have done a solid job in front of unproven goaltending. The group as a whole play good, gritty defensive hockey, but can also chip in offensively. The goaltending has to be a concern long term, however the Ice have been leaning on the youngster Bryan Bridges (doesn’t turn sixteen until Dec.27/01), whose 5-4-1 record, .886 save % and 2.50 GAA are solid for a fifteen year old kid. Newly acquired Toni Kolewaski could end up making second year man, Bryan Harvey expendable though, as Harvey’s 2-3-1, .856 save % and 3.75 GAA are less than spectacular and the veteran Kolewaski could be a nice fit if he can provide some leadership and consistent puck stopping for the Ice.
Some young players, like recently injured, but very talented Nigel Dawes, second year man Adam Taylor and Dale Mahovsky have been benefiting from the ice time gained with the veterans out of the line up and as the veterans return (Blackburn being a long shot), the experience the youngsters are gaining should provide depth to the Ice line up later in the season. With a healthy Stoll and Svatos, the Ice will be that much better, however if Dan Blackburn returns, this club could be a real force with the emergence of Plihal as a bonafide sniper and the rookies gaining valuable experience early in the season.
The Prince George Cougars, sitting in third at 7-5-2-1, good for seventeen points, have been the biggest surprise to this writer so far in the current season in that they are scoring more goals than most thought they would. Slick playmaker Blake Robson leads the way, but guys like Chris Faloon, Aaron Foster and Dan Baum are showing that the faith coach Ed Dempsey showed in them for the past couple of years is paying off. Add in the play of veteran tough guy Derek Halldorson (15 pts) who is off to a possible career year and the amazingly talented, but previously inconsistent Ken Davis (11 pts) and the always gritty Cougars have the look of a contender. The Cougars also just acquired Denny Johnston from the Medicine Hat Tigers for the big, but troubled Derek Boogaard. This deal sees the Cougars gaining some veteran leadership in Johnston and a guy who will contribute at both ends of the ice. Rookies Tyler Redenbach and import Michel Lukac should also contribute as they adjust to the league.
Defensively, the Cougars are led by Dan Hamhuis, a workhorse who was selected in the first round of the 2001 NHL Draft (12th overall by the Nashville Predators) and plays huge minutes for the Coug’s. Currently tied with Robson for the team scoring lead, Hamhuis is also a big hitter and solid in his own end of the rink. Solidifying the back end are overage Tim Wedderburn, sophomores Scott Lynch and Gary Gladue, Devin Wilson and rookies Jared Lang and James Cherewyk. Both Gladue and Lynch have blossomed after getting increased ice time toward the end of last season and the Cougar defence is better for it, however, the Coug’s are still giving up too many goals and could use another veteran guy back there to add some depth if they are serious about contending. In goal, nineteen year old Billy Thompson leads the way at 6-5-1, with a .896 save % and a GAA of 3.12. He’s a solid goaltender who will need to be good every night as this young defence gels.
All in all, the Cougar’s should be happy with their start as they are getting scoring from two guys they took a chance on, Ken Davis and Derek Halldorson. Davis, who as I said has always had the talent, but seemed unable to harness it in Medicine Hat and Portland, is off to a good start, while Halldorson, mainly regarded as a tough guy looks like he’s going to have a career year in points. The addition of Johnston should add some more offence and depth up front as the Cougars will look to score by committee more than relying on a couple snipers. If the Cougars are to win however, they will need to make sure Hamhuis has something left for the playoffs and use him more judiciously during the long season, because as Hamhuis goes, so will go the Cougars.
The Vancouver Giants sit in fourth at 4-9-0-1, good for nine points, still seem to be trying to get an identity. After going 3-3-0-1 in the first seven games of the season, the Giants have gone 1-6-0-0 in the last seven. Most of the early season losses were by one goal, however the last four have seen the Giants outscored 25-6. The Giants have been led offensively by nineteen year old rookie Jeremy Jackson with twelve points, but are sorely missing the offence of talented Czech winger Marian Havel, who after a good start has slowed somewhat, while fellow Czech Robin Kovar was injured in the first game of the season against the Kamloops Blazers and has yet to return. Captain Nick Marach, Darren Lynch, Scott Henkleman and defenders David Selthun and Mark Ardelan have provided mot of the other offence. The Giants traded speedy, but small Paul Deniset to the Prince Albert Raiders, opening one of the five overage spots the expansion club was allowed (all other teams are allowed three overage players) and filled it with tough and gritty Ryan Thomas, recently released by the Regina Pats. Thomas will add more character to the Giants line up and should create room for the skilled Havel, Jackson and Lynch to operate in.
Defensively, the Giants have had a tough go, losing overage defender Jeff Beatch to a broken leg and David Selthun to a three game suspension, both coinciding with the recent losing skid. Selthun is back which should help, but after Mark Ardelan and Andrew DeSousa, the Giants defensive talent gets young and and inexperienced fast. Rookies Kieran Block, Mark Ashton, Chris Stubel, Tyson Marsh and Jack Redlick have been on a steep learning curve with only three veteran defensemen in the line up and though there may be long nights in the short term, could be a good omen for the future. With Beatch on the shelf and about to miss a good chunk of the season, I wonder if the Giants might consider picking up Swift Current cast off Clay Thoring whos currently toiling in Tier II hockey and would be a solid addition to the youth laden back end in Vancouver. They would need to approach the league for approval as I don’t believe they can release Beatch while he’s injured and the other teams likely wouldn’t support it. As it stands now, Ardelan, Selthun and DeSousa better be saving their energy, as there will be some long nights on the Giant defence. The future looks good for the defence though, as Ardelan is only an ’83 birth date and Block, Marsh and Ashton look like they should improve with the skills the possess and the experience they will gain this season.
Goaltending has been the least of the Giants worries however, as Donald Choukalos has played very well behind a young, inexperienced defence. His numbers (4-7-0-1 record, 887 save % and 4.04 GAA) don’t sparkle, but you would be hard pressed to find anyone pointing the finger at the goaltender in Vancouver.
Overall, the Giants have been a competitive expansion team, but with the injury to Beatch, the lack of depth on defence has been exposed and the Giants will need to address that area in the short term. Offensively, the team should generate more goals as the players, assembled from an expansion draft and list system (teams are allowed to generate a fifty man protected list which includes their current roster), get to know what the other guy is going to do in a given circumstance. The acquisition of a character player like Ryan Thomas shows the Giants are trying to build a foundation built around hard work and grit, which should bode well for the future. It also appears, at least in the short term, that Vancouverites are backing the hockey club, as the Giants are averaging 6,137 fans a night and only one crowd so far below five thousand and it was 4,967. If they keep acquiring hard working, character players, the future should be bright for the first Vancouver area franchise since the Ernie “Punch” McLean New Westminster Bruins of lore.
The last place Kelowna Rockets at 3-9-1-1 with eight points, yes, you read that right, last place Kelowna Rockets appear to be a team without an identity. When Chuck Kobasew decided to leave Boston College and join the Rockets, hopes soared in Kelowna, but a contract problem with Tomas Oravec in his native Czechoslovakia and injuries to Bart Rushmer and Tomas Slovak, two key defenseman, has led to a slow start that doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Kobasew, a rookie scoring sensation in the NCAA last season appeared to be the ingredient that could put the West Division Regular Season Champions over the top this year. It seemed that Kobasew joining forces with an already talented group of forwards led by Rory McDade, Carsen Germyn, Kiel McLeod (recently injured) and Tomas Oravec would be tough to handle, even if there was some concern over the depth on defence and goaltending. Even with the afore mentioned contract problem with Oravec, something big seems missing in Kelowna. After an early three goal game, Kobasew has shown flashes of brilliance, but teams are able to check him into obscurity most nights, while Germyn, who leads the team in scoring with seventeen points, isn’t playing with his normal grit and feistiness. Kiel McLeod has played indifferently after a solid camp with the Columbus Blue Jackets and teams have treated Rory McDade like a target in a midway shooting game. Veterans Ryan Cuthbert and Cam Paddock have been the hardest working pair night in night out, but neither guy is a point producing machine. The Rockets in my opinion, lack that one player who can get the team going on those off nights. Travis Moen used to be that guy, but after getting a terrible beating in which he was jumped by the no longer in the league, Derek Parker and an end of the season thumping from Portlands Dustin Bauer that gave him another concussion, Travis hasn’t had the same jump or abrasiveness.
On the back end, the Rockets lost highly touted import Tomas Slovak to injury early in the season and Bart Rushmer to a concussion for four games early in October. With these two out of the line up, the defence gets thin a hurry, with only overage Joe Suderman, Richie Regehr and sophomore Josh Gorges having any WHL experience on defence. The Rockets have brought in some cast offs from other teams for a look, however nothing has changed. Second year man Brett Palin has filled in, but he played his rookie season the wing and is learning, while rookie Ryan Mayko is big, but still adjusting to the speed of the game in the WHL. I felt from the start that the Rockets, even with a healthy Rushmer and Slovak were weak on defence, with no depth and for one of those rare times it appears I was correct. Goaltending was also a concern, with the Rockets going with nineteen year old Jason Stone, who for all intents and purposes opened and closed the players bench door last season behind workhorse Kevin Swanson, while his back up this season has been sixteen year old rookie Josh Lepp. While Lepp comes with the “future star” label, it’s tough to be a starter in this league at sixteen, let alone on a team as defensively challenged as Kelowna’s currently is. Stone hasn’t been the problem either, when on most nights he deserves to be a star, no matter the score with all the rubber he sees. Kelowna needs to upgrade the defence in a big way.
The problem in Kelowna in my opinion is the lack of depth. With Oravec still in Europe and Kiel McLeod before his injury playing uninspired hockey, opposing teams have been able to set their sights on Kobasew, McDade and Germyn and shut them down, leaving little else in the way of offence. Add to it, the fact the Rockets don’t really have an imposing physical presence up front that can create room for the skill guys and it doesn’t look good. While defensively, the Rockets are even thinner, with only four guys playing with WHL experience. Making the situation even worse is the fact overage defenseman Joe Suderman is a veteran who in his previous three years hasn’t been used in pressure situations and Josh Gorges is a second year guy without much playing time under his belt. Gorges has played well, but he can’t carry the load when you lose guys like Slovak and Rushmer. Coach Marc Habscheid may take the fall for all this, however, he has done a great job in Kelowna, taking a sixth place club two years ago to a regular season pennant, but as they say, you can’t fire twenty four players. I hope the Rockets stay patient, try and deal for an experienced, stay at home defenseman (or two) and try and get some chemistry going, because with the talent the top four forwards have and the grit guys like Cuthbert and Paddock play with, it may only be one confidence building win away from turning around, but it still seems a run for a championship is unlikely because depth isn’t something you can trade for, it’s something you develop in your system.