On Your Marks…

bchlIt seems like not much time has passed since West Kelowna hoisted their first national championship trophy and already tonight the Warriors will hoist their 2016 RBC Cup banner at Royal LePage Place as they host the Trail Smoke Eaters to kick off the 2016-17 BCHL season.

As is usually the case in junior hockey and in Junior A in particular, much has changed since the end of last season with most teams seeing a majority of players moving on to new ventures in college or otherwise while a massive crop of rookies have battled to earn their spot on a junior roster for the first time. But from a league perspective, little has changed since the last campaign. The Wenatchee Wild is preparing to begin their second season in the BCHL as the same group of 17 franchises we saw last year enter 2016-17 in the same division alignment despite much talk of potential change. Franchise stability has much improved in the league of late when just 5 years ago it was commonplace to see a move or fold every off-season. The BCHL has seen four different league champions in each of the last four seasons, another reason to celebrate if you’re commissioner John Grisdale and the Board of Governors. But if my suspicions are correct, we will see a familiar logo hoist yet another Fred Page Cup in 7 months’ time.

Yes, I would have to say the Penticton Vees are the early favourites to be crowned BCHL champions this season. Of course, many figured this would be the case last year only to be proven wrong when the eventual national champion Warriors upset the Vees in the Interior division final series. After losing the first two games of the best-of-seven, West Kelowna stormed back to win four straight. It was the first time all year the Vees suffered back-t0-back losses let alone four in a row. I suspect Vees boss Fred Harbinson and the rest of the organization has not forgotten their early exit. The last time Penticton found themselves bounced in the second round of the playoffs back in 2014 (at the hands of that year’s RBC host Vernon Vipers) they went on to win the league title the following season. If that isn’t reason enough to expect history to repeat itself, consider the fact the Vees are hosting this year’s Western Canada Cup (featuring the BCHL, AJHL, SJHL, and MJHL champions along with the host) which will see the top 2 teams in western Canada advance to the national championship this year being hosted in Cobourg, Ontario. So yes, Harbinson has even more motivation to prepare his roster for a run at another RBC title. While the Vees are without the likes of forwards Tyson Jost (selected by Colorado in the 1st round of the 2016 NHL draft) and Scott Conway along with another 1st round pick in defenceman Dante Fabbro (selected by the Nashville Predators), forward Nick Jones is returning as the Vees’ captain. After putting up 63 points (21 G, 42 A) in 42 games last season and another 16 points in 11 playoff appearances, the North Dakota commit can expected to be among the top scorers in the league this season. New star recruits for Penticton include 18 year-old winger Ty Amonte (son of former NHL’er Tony), and while he is not a rookie nor new to Penticton this season, Gabe Bast is expected to make his long anticipated return to the blue line for the Vees when they open up the season tomorrow night in Prince George. After missing almost all of last year due to injury, the veteran defenceman is among the very best in the league and will surely be eager for a successful final season of junior before heading off to North Dakota. Will the Vees be as dominant as last year’s regular season which saw them lose only 7 times? Perhaps not, but don’t bet against them to win it all in the end.

But enough about Penticton, what about the rest of the league? One thing we know for certain is the Interior division will be as strong as ever. As is usually the case, at least one very deserving team will miss out on the post-season with four of the six (Penticton, West Kelowna, Salmon Arm, Vernon, Merritt, Trail) advancing to the post-season. The Warriors have been in the mix regularly since head coach/GM Rylan Ferster came along and as the defending national champions you can’t count them out. But the Warriors have lost plenty of offensive power along with goaltender Matthew Greenfield who was a big reason why West Kelowna lost just three times once the calendar rolled into 2016. West Kelowna’s strength may come on their back end with the return of 20 year-old and newly appointed captain Nicholas Rutigliano, 6’4″ Tyler Anderson, and the dynamic Jake Harrison. An interesting team to watch will be Salmon Arm. The Silverbacks had a breakthrough season last year earning their first playoff berth in several seasons only to bow out in the first round to the eventual champion Warriors. The Silverbacks were one of the BCHL’s top teams through the first half of the year only to drop off significantly after the Christmas break. Salmon Arm had solid goaltending last year from both Angus Redmond and Brandon Kegler but neither are back for the 2016-17 campaign. Newly acquired Army commit Trevin Kozlowski will likely get the lion’s share of work between the pipes for the Apes. The Backs do have several notable returnees at forward including likes of 20 year-olds Carson Bolduc and Josh Blanchard. GM Troy Mick also acquired veteran offensive defenceman Carter Cochrane in the offseason from division rival Trail who had earlier traded for him from the Cowichan Valley Capitals. While the Silverbacks will look to hold their status as a division power, the Vernon Vipers will be looking to improve on what was by all accounts a disappointing 2015-16. Yes the Vipers did manage to make the playoffs (by the skin of their teeth) but given the apparent lineup depth they were expected to produce much better results. This year’s Vipers feature many familiar faces at forward including Jagger Williamson, Brett Stapley, Christian Cakebreak, Hunter Zandee, and captain Riley Brandt. It’s interesting Mark Ferner has elected to go with two 17 year-old rookies in net to start the season in Cole Demers and Ty Taylor who will face several offensively charged division rivals on a regular basis. Missing the post-season last year were both Trail and Merritt. The Centennials, however, can be expected to be a much more consistent threat this season with quite a few returning vets. After a very difficult first few months of the season last year, the Cents steadily improved throughout the latter half and finished in a tie with the Vipers for the fourth and final playoff spot which went Vernon’s way due to an additional win. The Smoke Eaters also barely missed the playoffs finishing just three points back of both Vernon and Merritt, one of Trail’s better performances in recent years. But the pressure may be on the Smokies more than ever to be playing into March this year. The community owned Smoke Eaters fired previous GM and head coach Nick Deschenes with a few games left in last year’s regular season and have since hired Cam Keith who will be charged with getting Trail to the playoffs for the first time since the 2010-11 season. The Smokies traded for a couple 20 year-old forwards in Luke Santerno (from Cowichan) and Josh Laframboise (from Salmon Arm) to help achieve this goal but will that be enough in the league’s best division? Again, only time will tell but hopefully for Trail’s sake this is the year.

The biggest shakeup to the BCHL in recent years was the addition of the Wenatchee Wild last season and the league’s first American franchise in decades had an immediate impact finishing second in the Mainland division and the fifth best record in the 17 team league. A quick look at this year’s Wild roster and it looks very similar to last season, perhaps most notably in net where Garrett Nieto is perparing for his second BCHL season after mostly playing behind Detroit Red Wings draft pick Chase Perry last year. But Nieto is a solid netminder with 11 wins in 19 appearances last season with a .911 save percentage and a very impressive 2.09 GAA. The goal for the Wild will be to win the division this season but the two-time defending division champion Chilliwack Chiefs will certainly have something to say about that. Jason Tatarnic has restored the Chiefs to status of annual contender having reached the third round of the playoffs in both of his first two seasons at the helm. Captain Jordan Kawaguchi is back after an 83 point season and will once again look to be an offensively dominant force. Denver commit Kohen Olischefski is back as well after putting up an impressive 48 points in his rookie campaign and look for the Denver commit to have a tremendous year. Another team that has proved its worth as a consistent force in the Mainland division can be found in Langley. The Rivermen have made the playoffs in four straight seasons and continue to be one of the top teams in the league in terms of helping their players acquire division I NCAA scholarships. There are plenty of changes for Langley this season, most notably the move away from the Langley Events Centre and into the historic George Preston arena which has undergone quite the transformation itself in preparation for the Rivermen’s arrival. It’s an old school barn with an intimate feel and it should go a long way to helping the Rivermen create a more difficult atmosphere for opponents compared to the cavernous and mostly empty LEC. Bobby Henderson’s squad boasts a rare feat this season and that’s the return of both of last year’s goaltenders in Bo Didur and Ncik Trenciansky. Stability in goal cannot be understated in any league and perhaps even moreso in the BCHL. Langley also features four returning defenceman including highly touted Alec Capstick along with Zach Blueler, Cam Ginetti, and John Schuldt. If the Rivermen can get some solid offence this could be a dangerous team in the Mainland this season.

While the Rivermen have achieved a solid level of consistency the same can be said for the Coquitlam Express. Head Coach Barry Wolff is entering his fourth season with the Express having won the Fred Page Cup in his first season while managing to make the post-season in each of the following three. But will this year be a bit different? I think it might very well be as the Prince George Spruce Kings should see a significant improvement upon last year’s disappointing result that saw them miss the playoffs for the first time since 2011. But Spruce Kings GM Mike Hawes has had a very busy summer and this year’s PG squad is remarkably improved. One of his biggest acquisitions came in goal acquiring Stefan Wornig from the Powell River Kings. Combined with the returning Liam McCloskey, the Spruce Kings have a good duo in net and a big, experienced defence corps. Up front the Spruce Kings added RBC champion and newly minted captain Brett Mennear to complement the likes of Tanner Campbell (also a former Warrior who after being traded to the Spruce Kings at last year’s deadline went on an absolute tear), and four year veteran Braiden Epp. The Spruce Kings should at the very least challenge for a post-season berth in the Mainland if not gain one, as I suspect they will. The question is, at whose expense? The final team in the Mainland will once again unlikely be of much relevance and that is the Surrey Eagles. Since winning the Fred Page in 2013 the Eagles have experienced a spectacular decline. They gave the Rivermen a decent first round playoff series in 2014 losing in six games but since then have been one of the worst teams in junior hockey winning a combined 16 games in the last two seasons. There is little reason to expect much improvement this year although the Eagles do have a few good pieces up front including Darius Davidson, Paul McAvoy, and Jeffrey Stewart. I am willing to be proven wrong but I have little faith the Eagles will be a threat to make the playoffs.

Finally that brings us to the Island division. The Nanaimo Clippers are the two time defending division champs but can they make it three in a row? I wouldn’t bet against them. Much like Tatarnic has done in Chilliwack, Mike Vandekamp has turned the Clippers into a consistent force to be reckoned with although losing Sheldon Rempal, Devin Brosseau, and Matt Hoover means a very different looking offence this season. The Clippers also have a bit of a question mark in goal to start this season going with rookie Austin Roden and some experience in Brendan Barry who is coming off a rocky previous season with the Vernon Vipers. But we all know what kid of team to expect from Vandekamp: a hard working, physically punishing group. If there’s one team I would anticipate could mount a challenge for the division title it would be the Powell River Kings. Kent Lewis is the longest tenured coach in the BCHL and for good reason. He is an excellent recruiter and an astute bench boss. And he has an high power offence this season to really make life uncomfortable for the rest of the division. Liam Lawson, Gavin Rauser, Carter Turnbull, Tristan Mullin, Kyle Betts, Jonny Evans are all back. Expect the Kings to have another solid season. Much as I see some question marks for last year’s upstart Silverbacks I have some for the Cowichan Valley Capitals. Last season the Caps finished a respectable third place in the division securing the team’s first playoff berth in four years before running into the Kings in the first round losing in six games. But the key members of offence from last year’s team are all gone as is the veteran Storm Phaneuf in goal. Lane Michasiw is back for his third season between the pipes and will likely be given the reins with rookie Adam Marcoux finishing out the goaltending duo. The Caps strength will likely be on the back end with Chris Harpur, Ben Verrall, and Josh Owings all returning. But with the persistent Alberni Valley Bulldogs and a solid looking Victoria Grizzlies squad both looking to improve on last year’s performances, the Capitals will have their work cut out for them. Speaking of the Bulldogs, Kevin Willison always seems to get the most out of his team. And with both of last year’s goaltenders returning in Brody Claeys and Carson Schamerhorn along with several key members up front, the Bulldogs have a good shot at securing yet another playoff berth. The Grizzlies possess one of the league’s most talented netminders in Matthew Galajda while Mitchel Benson will also be returning. I can’t remember the last time so many teams have had both goaltenders return for a second season. It’s a huge benefit in my opinion and the Grizzlies will likely be tough to score against as a result. With Cole Pickup, Keyvan Mokhtari, and other speedy, skilled forwards, Victoria might be a pretty entertaining group to watch this season. The question remains in depth, however. There are many local products on the ice for the Grizzlies to start the season, likely in an effort to cut down on operating expenses for a franchise that has had its share of public financial issues. But this still looks to be a team that can also improve on last year’s results, and expect them to make a return to the playoffs after a rare miss last year.

Of course all of this is mere speculation. The proof is always in the pudding, and the oven gets turned on tonight with the start of the regular season…enjoy!

 

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