Kamloops Blazers Re-Tooling Speeding Ahead on Schedule

By Glen Crichton

After a disappointing four games to one defeat to the Calgary Hitmen in the last years Western Hockey League Final, the Blazers went to work to
re-tool a hockey club laden with nineteen year old players. Lost to the club this season through graduation or a jump to pro hockey were Kyle Calder
(Chicago), Mike Brown (Vancouver), Stephen Gainey (Dallas), Kenric Exner (St.Louis), Jordon Flodell (released, briefly in ECHL, now with Lethbridge
Hurricanes of WHL), David Haun (unknown), Ty Jones (Chicago), Robin Regehr (Calgary), Kyle Kos (Tampa Bay), Ajay Baines(ECHL), Donnie
Kinney (ECHL), and Chris St. Croix (Calgary). Eleven of the twelve players were vital cogs in the Blazers run to the League Final and if the Blazers
were to even be competitve this year would need to be replaced in one way or another. With a strong draft record most pundits knew the Blazers
would bring in some talented youngsters from the ’98 draft, get more production from some of last years role players and make a trade or two to
achieve this. So far so good! The Blazers have iced a line up that most agree is one of the fastest teams seen in a while. As a group this team was built
to play a high tempo, tenacious forechecking game and for the most part it has been a success. Even when losing the Blazers are more often than not
out chancing and outshooting their opponents.

Returning up front to the Blazers were a solid group of seventeen and eighteen year olds, a year older and wiser, led by flashy Russian
Konstantin Panov, who appears so far to be a grittier version of last years player, but with the same game breaking ability and dangerously quick shot
and equally as dangerous speed. Not to be outdone, last years fastest skater Paul Deniset is back with seemingly another gear to his arsenal and even
more tenacity. Jonathan Hobson and Steve Shrum, though not as fast out of the blocks, are equally as elusive with their slick puckhandling skills and
ability to fight through checks even with their short stature. Super pest Anton Borodkin is as pesky as ever and is combining this aggravating style
with more finish around the net, needing only a little more puck luck to have more than the four goals he’s currently sitting with. Brett Draney and
Gable Gross are also on pace to seriously upgrade their production from a year ago and this can only help the Blazers to achieve their pre season goal
of playing better than five hundred hockey even with the loss of twelve graduating players.

On defence, the Blazers are led by nineteen year old defenceman and new team captain, Micki Dupont. Underrated and overlooked in the draft
because of his size, 5’10, 180, Dupont is second in scoring for defencemen with 41 points and brings a load of grit, 71 PIM’s, and leadership to a
young defence. Coach Evason’s new up-tempo game has certainly agreed with Dupont. Overager Kevin Mackie has been solid, yet unspectacular,
overcoming a slow start to be the steady, reliable defenceman the Blazers were looking for. Second year defenceman Chad Starling (19), has battled
injuries and is currently out with a concussion. The 6’6″ Starling has been steady when in the line up, but will help the Blazers more if he can pick up
his physical play when he returns as the Blazers are a smaller team and could use a punishing physical presence on the back end, which Chad can
supply with his big frame. Highly regarded seventeen year old rookie Shaonne Morrisonn has logged a lot of ice time for a young defenceman and his
offensive ability seems to improve with every game, not to mention the much improved positional play in his own end. Shaonne looks like a solid
defenceman for years to come and as his confidence has grown, so has his physical play, which should get Shaonne a long look 2001 draft. Second
year defenceman Aaron Gionet (17) has been a rock on the defence, not a flashy player by any stretch of the imagination, but Aaron punishes
opposition forwards along the wall and in front of his net on a regular basis. Aaron’s name is heard game in and game out by NHL and opposing
teams scouts as a guy who plays it tough every night and is far from a pleasure to be on the ice against. A couple of rookie defenceman round out the
Blazers defensive core, Mike Munro (18) and Blaine Depper (18). Munro struggled to get in the line up to start the season, but his play has improved
with every game and he know appears to be a mainstay of the defence. Depper has struggled to find regular playing time and will need to take
advantage of his opportunities when presented if he hopes to get into the line up on a more frequent basis.

Newcomers to the Blazers line up include Jordan Walker,20, (acquired in trade with Red Deer Rebels for future considerations) and Grant
McCune (trade with Prince Albert for Kyle Bruce, 16, and future considerations). An overage spot became available when last years record setting
goaltender, Kenric Exner (WHL record Season GAA 2.34), was kept in the St.Louis Blues organization after a strong camp. The Blazers filled that spot
with Walker, an offensive player with good playmaking skills and the ability to score. Walker has 24 points in 27 games and has scored the majority of
his points with the Blazers since being acquired from Red Deer on Oct.15 of this year. A worthy acquisition to say the least and he certainly has been
a calming influence, as well as a leader since coming to Kamloops. Goaltender Grant McCune has also been a solid acquisition, putting up a 4-0-2
record with a 9.02 save percentage. The guy is a vocal goaltender who’s leadership in his own end and and in the dressing room has been most
welcome with the young defence. McCune plays the angles well and as of yet, has not let in the any bad goals that can so often deflate a young team.
With the addition of McCune, Kamloops released David Klatt (18) who had struggled with his confidence early in the season and was backing up
seventeen year old Davis Parley when McCune was acquired. The calming influence of McCune in net and the confidence he gives the young guys
looks like a big reason the Blazers are currently on a nine game undefeated streak, as the players know they can play their high pressure offense and
Grant will take care of matters in his own end.

Sixteen year olds Chad Schockenmaier, Kyle Ladobruk, Mark Rooneem and Eric Christensen have all shown solid skills for their young age and
have been asked to contribute from the get go. Mark Rooneem is a 6’1″, 180 pounder who can out and out fly, while showing he is a quick study as
his puck handling and passing are much improved from the start of the season. The big kid also likes to throw his weight around and isn’t afraid to get
his nose dirty. Kyle Ladobruk is more of a finesse player than Rooneem, not near as quick, but always seems to be looking for the open man when he
has the puck and when he doesn’t, he’s looking for open ice to receive the puck in good scoring position. As Kyle gets used to the speed and
physical play of the WHL, he appears at this point to be a player who will bring tremendous offensive ability to the rink if he can adjust to the higher
level of play. Eric Christensen, a sixth round pick of the Blazers in the ’98 bantam draft appears to be the Blazers diamond in the rough. His speed is
somewhere in between that of Ladobruk and Rooneem, but he’s showing signs already at fifteen (late birthday, 12/17/83) of being pretty gifted with
the puck. Fans have seen some highlight reel moves in traffic with the puck already from this kid and one would think more is to come as he learns the
league and gains size and confidence. Eric appears to be willing to risk the wrath of coach Evason to try out some of his more daring feats with the
puck, but if he continues showing this kind of confidence he could become a real steal from the draft. Eric also brings a gritty, almost chippy side to
the game as well, as he’s labeled a few players with high elbows already when they haven’t been keeping their heads up. This toughness combined
with a high skill level for such a young player has already made scouts stand up and take notice. Chad Schockenmaier, a more gritty and agitating
player than the other three seems to be the up and coming power forward the Blazers are looking for with this young team. Chad shows no fear of
going in the corners and has shown a distinct ability to get others players attention with an elbow hear, a Sherwood massage there or even the odd
sloughfoot. The surprising aspect for me has been the skating and puck handling abilities this guy has shown. For a guy projected to be a feisty,
tough forward, this kid can skate and has a decent set of hands that look capable of not only throwing punches if need be, but potting a few goals
along the way.

Jared Aulin (17), currently rated by Central Scouting as the fifth ranked WHL prospect for the 2000 draft, has been injured off and on this season
(currently nursing an injured ankle) but has found time to score 29 points in 20 games. Because of his offensive talent, Jared has been the recipient of
some questionable hits and extra attention from other teams checking units when he’s been in the line up and if the Blazers need any help, it would be
an enforcer who could deter other teams from taking liberties with Jared and the other skill players. Currently Jason Bone fills the role for the Blazers,
but with league tough guys coming in around 6’4″ and 230 pounds or more, Jasons 6’1″, 200 pound frame is often overmatched. The kid has the heart
of a lion, but it appears the Blazers need an upgrade in this spot. Blazer GM Mike Moore says the team “doesn’t want to deal any of it’s future to
upgrade the toughness” and Blazer coach Dean Evason (once coached by Bill Laforge) doesn’t feel you need the toughness element as much as you
once did, however, I don’t know how long they’ll feel this way if Aulin continues to be on the shelf due to cheap shots from opposing teams players.
Don’t get me wrong, If I’m playing against the Blazers I’m going to give the kid a tough time. It appears the Blazers are willing to roll the dice and stick
with the team toughness motto, but hopefully it won’t be at the expense of a very talented young player, who is just off crutches and probably about
a month away from returning.

Though the Blazers won’t be challenging for any championships this year, they certainly look as though they’ll be competitive and the future
looks very bright indeed as the Blazers look to continue with their winning ways. Who knows in a division that doesn’t appear all that strong, maybe
they’ll surprise me and a few others and win more than most think, but one things for sure, it’s well worth the money to see these young, high flying
kids perform each and every night!