New-look Blazers confident heading into season, ready to prove haters wrong

Blazers like their chances

When the Kamloops Blazers lift the lid on the 2023-24 Western Hockey League season on Friday night against the Spokane Chiefs at Sandman Centre, the roster will look dramatically different than the team on the ice four months ago during the Memorial Cup — and more changes could potentially be on the way later this month.

“It feels good to be back. The team looks different than before, but I still think we have a really good group. I’m surprised to hear some of the talk around the league that we won’t be super competitive this year,” said 20-year-old blue-liner Logan Bairos.

“I disagree with that thought and I’m looking forward proving them wrong and to the challenge this year brings.”

Bairos is joined by forwards Dylan Sydor and Ashton Ferster in the over-age department. WHL roster regulations only allow three players entering the season as 20-year-olds. Club brass are more than comfortable breaking camp with this current group of veterans, but that could change if any former Blazers get sent home from NHL training camps over the next few weeks.

“For our 20 year olds in NHL camp, we hope that they stay and get sent to the American Hockey League,” assistant coach Don Hay told Castanet Kamloops.

“We want to move on without them, but if they come back, that will be a huge bonus. Until then, we will deal with the players we have here.”

Two of the biggest pieces from last season’s Memorial Cup roster are gone, and it would be a shock if either suited up this year for the Blazers. Hometown product Logan Stankoven is away at Dallas Stars camp following a stellar junior career, including a CHL Player of the Year award, and Olen Zellweger, two-time defending WHL Defenceman of the Year, is expected to crack the Anaheim Ducks’ roster.

“I’m always texting those guys to hear how they’re doing and what NHL camp is like – they’re like my brothers at this point,” Sydor said.

“We wish them all the best and hope they do the best they can.”

Matthew Seminoff was nabbed by the Dallas Stars in the sixth round of the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. After a 31-goal, 82-point performance in 62 games last season, the Stars inked him to a three-year NHL contract. He is expected to report to the Texas Stars of the American Hockey League for his 20-year-old season.

Slovakian Jakub Demek is currently in camp with the reigning Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights. Unlike the three previous players, Demek – who the Knights took in the fourth round of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft – is without a contract.

“He’s down there to try and earn a contract and then he would go play with the Henderson Silver Knights,” said Tim O’Donovan, the Blazers assistant general manager. “That would be the best case for him.”

If he doesn’t catch on in Nevada, Demek could return to the Blazers as an overage or test the professional waters in Europe.

The European route was calling for Aapo Sarell, a lefty D-man who spent one season with the Blazers. He returned home to Finland to turn pro as a 20-year-old.

From last year’s veteran crop, that leaves the Minnesota Wild prospects Caedan Bankier and Kyle Masters. Both have signed NHL contracts in their pockets, but both suffered significant injuries early in the spring that has impacted their offseason training.

Masters was slammed into the corner during the Blazers’ second game of the Memorial Cup tournament and left on a stretcher. Hay said Masters didn’t start working out again until after the Wild’s developmental camp in July.

Bankier, coming off a career-best 37-goal campaign, ruptured his Achilles tendon while running sprints shortly after the Memorial Cup. Jon Keen of Radio NL reported that the surgery went well and that Bankier is on track to get back on the ice sometime this month.

“[The Wild] will do their best to decide if it’s best for those players to rehab with their American League team or back here with us,” said Hay.

“We talk to the Wild but we don’t force anything. We just like to be informed. They are the NHL’s property now, so we will go with the team we have now and if players show up later, we will adjust then.”

Aside from forwards still away at NHL training camps — Emmitt Finne (Detroit Red Wings), Connor Levis (Winnipeg Jets) and Fraser Minten (Toronto Maple Leafs) — the rest of the Blazers roster is ready for puck drop. None of them are expected back in time for opening weekend.

With so many players graduating to the professional ranks, there will be plenty of new names on the ice this year on Mark Recchi Way — and plenty of opportunity for players looking to get a foot in the WHL door.

The Blazers will take four 16 year olds and eight 17 year olds into the regular season. That’s a much younger roster than last season, when the team suited up one 16 year old and four 17s.

The club’s belief in its prospect pipeline was one of the major reasons Blazers’ management pulled the trigger on the blockbuster trade that landed Ryan Hofer and Zellweger last season.

“Those trades were made possible because we basically only sent out draft picks and kept a lot of our young group together,” said O’Donovan, who is heading into his 20th season with the hockey club.

“We think those two age groups are going to be an exciting piece of our core moving forward. Now that they are in the program, we need to develop them and create a great atmosphere to grow in.”

Headlining the young crop is Nathan Behm, a Calgarian who the Blazers selected 13th overall in the 2022 WHL Bantam Draft. Standing 6-foot-2 and weighing in at 185 pounds, he is already built for the rigours of a 68-game slate. He notched a goal and one assist while appearing in all four games of Kamloops’ 1-2-0-1 preseason schedule.

He is joined by fellow 16s Andrew Thomson (third-round pick in 2022) and Zach Pantelakis (fifth-round pick in 2022) up front, with Isa Guram (fourth-round pick in 2022) ready for his debut on the blue line.

“With the turnover, we have a lot of guys that were lower down in the lineup or were forced to sit games last year that are going to be asked to take on a bigger role,” Bairos said.

“So far, through training camp and preseason, guys have shown a lot of excitement to jump into those vacant spots.”

The battle between the pipes is beginning to clear up, as the Blazers reassigned 16-year-old netminder Logan Edmonstone to the Saskatoon Contacts of the Saskatchewan Male AAA Hockey League. It appears Kelowna kid Jesse Sanche, who appeared in one game with the Blazers last year, has nabbed a backup spot.

“We had two guys competing for one job and we had two other guys competing for the other spot,” said Hay. “All four of them have proven that they can play here — our guys had a hard time scoring on them during training camp.”

O’Donovan said the team’s plans are to keep both 19-year-old goalies Dylan Ernst and Matthew Kieper for now, rolling with three puck stoppers to start the season and plans to sort that position at a later date.

Ernst carried the bulk of the duties last year, appearing in a career-high 53 games to go with a 2.69 goals against average and a 0.906 save percentage. He also started every game of the playoffs and the Memorial Cup for the Blazers.

Kieper was acquired just before the deadline from the Regina Pats last season in exchange for a few late draft picks. He’s amassed 66 career games in the WHL, earning 32-23-1-2 record with a 3.72 goals against average and a 0.879 save percentage over four seasons.

On the European front, the Blazers picked up a pair of southpaw blue-liners from Czechia last summer during the CHL Import Draft.

Vojtech Vochvest brings some muscle to the lineup, clocking in at 5-foot-11 and 192 pounds, while Matteo Koci is no shrinking violet himself, standing six feet and weighing 186 pounds.

“Vojtech is a big human being,” Bairos said. “He’s mean, physical and loves to hit guys. Seeing a guy play the way he does sort of inspires everyone else to play that brand of hockey.”

If Demek returns to the Blazers, they will certainly need to address their import situation, but O’Donovan will wait to cross that bridge if and when it presents itself. Each CHL club is allowed two European imports.

The Blazers will look to begin the quest for their fifth consecutive B.C. Division title when the puck drops on the season on Friday night. Game time is 7 p.m. at Sandman Centre.

The club will have to wait a bit for Game 2, with the Vancouver Giants scheduled to visit Kamloops on Sept. 29 before the Blazers head to Everett for their first road game of the season.

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