By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
During his playing days with the Kamloops Blazers, Craig Bonner was a rugged defenceman who was part of one Memorial Cup championship.
By the end of his playing days here, he stood 6-foot-4 and weighed 215 pounds, and he would just as soon have chopped down an opposing forward as said “Hello!” It was then that he first learned the value of solid defence.
In six seasons on the Vancouver Giants’ coaching staff, he watched as the club established itself by putting together a dominant defensive corps. That paid off with a WHL championship and a Memorial Cup title.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Bonner, now the Blazers’ general manager, is working from the same blueprint.
"Yeah, it's big," says a chuckling Bonner. "I think it's important to have some size back there. We have a good mix now — guys who can move the puck and some size."
As the Blazers prepare to open training camp today — there is fitness testing at TRU and registration at the McArthur Island Sport and Event Centre — it is obvious that the team’s strength is on the blue line.
That is something that you can bet Guy Charron recognizes as he begins his first full season as head coach. As a result, those young defencemen will get ample help from assistants Scott Ferguson and Geoff Smith, both of whom are former NHL defencemen.
Led by Austin Madaisky, who had quite a coming-out party in a first-round loss to the Vancouver Giants last spring, the Blazers will have five veteran defenders in camp who stand at least 6-foot-2.
They are even bigger when you add 6-foot-3, 215-pound Corey Fienhage, a third-round selection by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2009 NHL draft who has left the U of North Dakota and joined the Blazers.
Still, this is a franchise that hasn’t seen the second round of a playoff series since 1999 and has turned into something of a graveyard for coaches — Charron is the fourth head coach since the present ownership group took control during the summer of 2007.
In other words, there are questions . . . yes, there are.
So, as the franchise begins its 29th training camp, here are 10 things for which to watch:
1. What about the discipline? This will be Charron’s first training camp as the team’s head coach. It will be interesting to watch him work with this bunch on its discipline, something that has been a bug-a-boo here for a number of seasons now. A lack of discipline leads not only to the penalty box, but it also results in systems breakdowns and the helter-skelter play that has plagued this team.
2. What about the goaltending? Jon Groenheyde, 19, goes into camp as the starting goaltender, but there’s a lot of pressure on his shoulders. He has mostly been in a backup role for the last two seasons and there is concern among management because he really hasn’t taken the bull by the horns when given the opportunity to be the go-to guy. Barring the arrival of a veteran in a trade, the backup, at least to start the season, will be one of two 16-year-olds — Troy Trombley, a 2008 draft pick from Sherwood Park, Alta., who has signed, or Taran Kozun, a list player from Nipawin, Sask. Kozun actually turns 16 on Sunday.
3. Fienhage, at this point the only 20-year-old on the roster, spent two seasons at North Dakota after playing in the USHL for a winter. But in the last three seasons he has played only 53 games, including playoffs. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to a game-heavy schedule. Fienhage put up only six points in those games, so don’t be looking for offence from him.
4. How much stronger did Bronson Maschmeyer, at 5-foot-10 the smallest of the returning defencemen, get over the offseason? He may have the most offensive ability of the defencemen but strength was an issue. He played in all 72 regular-season games in 2009-10 but wore down in the second half. He had 38 points on the season but just 10 in his last 33 games.
5. As big and strong as the defence appears, someone may have to go if Bonner and Charron feel a need to make room for 17-year-old Max Mowat, a 5-foot-10 prospect from Coldstream, or Brady Gaudet, 16, the 2009 first-round bantam pick out of Redvers, Sask.
6. If the defencemen are to play big in their zone, the penalty killing, which was abysmal last season, has to be a whole lot better. Last season it was 20th in the 22-team league at 75.3 per cent, while giving up 96 goals, the second-worst total in the WHL. If the Blazers are to be successful, the success rate has to get above 80 per cent and they have to surrender at least 40 fewer goals in those situations.
7. From where will the goals come? The Blazers return one 20-goal scorer — Brendan Ranford had 29 — but have added J.T. Barnett, who scored 21 times for the Vancouver Giants. Still, forwards like Colin Smith (5), Dalibor Bortnak (9) and Dylan Willick (12) are going to have to pick up the pace.
8. Will third-year forward Jake Trask find some scoring consistency? He scored 10 goals in 65 games as a freshman, but seven of those goals came in his first 20 games. Last season, he finished with 13 goals in 68 games — with nine of the goals coming in the first 17 games. He can’t afford to do that again this season.
9. Will third-year defenceman Josh Caron continue to improve? He may have been the most improved player in the league last season; in fact, he improved to the point where he was asked to curtail his pugilistic activities because the team needed him on the ice. He will go to camp with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild so his confidence will only improve.
10. Will the Blazers be able to improve their relationship with the WHL referees in less than one season? The Blazers were shorthanded a WHL-leading 388 times last season, which tells you about all you need to know about this team’s discipline and its relationship with the referees, both of which have been allowed to fester. You have to think, though, that the personable Charron will have a lot to say about both of those items.
JUST NOTES: The Blazers can’t use Interior Savings Centre for training camp because the arena is being readied for a five-day (Sept. 1-5) stand by Cirque de Soleil. . . . F Brett Roulston, a list player from Whitehorse, isn’t expected in camp thanks to a re-occurring back problem. . . . F Kiefer McNaughton, a fourth-round pick in the 2008 bantam draft, is out with a broken leg suffered while playing soccer with some friends. McNaughton, from North Vancouver, was to have attended main camp. . . . The Blazers will do fitness testing at TRU this morning (8 to 10 o’clock), with registration later (5-6 p.m.) at McArthur Island. The first players hit the ice Friday at 9 a.m. There will be rookie practices at 9, 10:15 and 11:30 a.m., and 12:45 p.m. Main camp practices are scheduled for 2:15 and 3:45 p.m., with rookie games at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m.