Sunday, August 28, 2011

Blazers have more questions than answers as camp opens

Daily News Sports Editor
One of the longest offseasons in the history of the Kamloops Blazers came to an end Friday as the local WHL team opened training camp at Interior Savings Centre.
The Blazers are coming off a season in which they finished 29-37-6 and didn’t qualify for the playoffs for only the second time in the franchise’s 30-year history in this city.
The last time that happened was 2005-06. With Dean Clark as the general manager and head coach, the Blazers bounced back with a 40-26-6 regular season before being swept from a first-round playoff series.
That summer the franchise was sold to private owners.
Today, the Blazers are preparing for their fifth season under private ownership — Vancouver-based businessman Tom Gaglardi owns 51 per cent, with ex-Blazers Shane Doan, Jarome Iginla, Mark Recchi and Darryl Sydor sharing the rest.
The Blazers have played an even 300 regular-season and playoff games under this ownership group. They have won 121 of those games. The winning percentage of .403 is less than mediocre.
The bloom that was on a franchise that once won three Memorial Cup championships in four years has long since wilted. The rose looks more like a dandelion.
The result is that the Blazers go into this training camp facing far more questions than there are answers.
Going into training camps, coaches often can be heard saying that the goaltending position is wide open. Those coaches, for the most part, are talking through their hats.
Not Guy Charron, the head coach of the Blazers.
“There’s going to be a competition to see who rises to the occasion,” Charron says.
Over the last few seasons, the club has relied on veterans like Justin Leclerc, Kurtis Mucha and Jeff Bosch. Not this season.
There would appear to be four candidates for what should become two positions, but trying to handicap them at this stage is a mug’s game.
Cam Lanigan, 19, has WHL experience, but his numbers (3-9-0, 5.59, .843) were woeful after coming over from the Edmonton Oil Kings last season. Granted, he was playing behind Bosch, but the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Lanigan, who has appeared in 90 regular-season games, didn’t show much when given the opportunity, so has a lot to prove.
Taran Kozun, who turns 17 on Aug. 29, and Cole Cheveldave, 18, are the two other main combatants for the two spots.
Kozun, 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, had a big season with the midget AAA Prince Albert Mintos, going 17-4-2, 2.22, .914.
The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Cheveldave, 18, was named the AJHL’s rookie of the year after going 16-20-6, 2.90, .917 with the Drumheller Dragons.
But don’t count out 6-foot-6, 185-pound Troy Trombley, 17, who played midget AAA and was the playoff MVP with the Fort Saskatchewan Rangers.
Charron indicates that, depending on how the exhibition season goes, he may open the season carrying three goaltenders.
“Does it mean we have three guys for a while? Does it mean someone takes the ball and runs with it . . . obviously we are going to need goaltending and that’s where it’s at,” the head coach says.
This will be the most interesting battle in camp.
It is no secret that the Blazers have a deep and veteran defence corps.
However, let’s not forget that this team had the WHL’s third-poorest defensive record last season. That translated to the poorest defensive record in the 10-team Western Conference.
Granted, hard-nosed Josh Caron missed a lot of the season with collarbone problems and Austin Madaisky had his season ended prematurely by a broken neck.
The Blazers likely will use two of their three 20-year-old slots on Caron and Bronson Maschmeyer, with the 19-year-old Madaisky expected to return to his minute-eating role now that he is healthy again.
Associate coach Dave Hunchak is especially high on puck-moving Czech Marek Hrbas, 18, who was acquired from the Edmonton Oil Kings in June.
Charron wants his team to spend far less time in its zone, thus the acquisition of Hrbas, which resulted in the trading of Brandon Underwood, 19, to the Regina Pats.
“We need people to help get the puck out quicker so that we’re not spending more time than we have to in our zone,” Charron says. “We have reason to think (Hrbas) will be a plus in that department.
“And that’s an area we have to be better at.”
When you spend as much time in your zone as the Blazers did last season, it causes problems. It’s more tiring to play defence than it is to skate with the puck. When you’re on defence a lot, you get tired, you stop moving your feet and you take penalties. And with the rules changing in an attempt to increase offence — a team icing the puck from its zone can’t change personnel, for example — defencemen who can make the first pass are becoming more valuable.
“That’s where the game has evolved — speed and execution,” Charron says. “Size is important but you need that element to get out of trouble.”
With the injuries to Caron and Madaisky, Brady Gaudet got plenty of playing time as a 16-year-old and the Blazers should benefit from that this winter. Gaudet, the 10th overall pick in the 2009 bantam draft, had really improved by season’s end. Don’t be surprised if he is quarterbacking the power play before the season is too old.
With Tyler Hansen, going into his third season at 18, rounding out the top six, freshmen Landon Cross, from Brandon, and Tyler Bell, from Regina, will be hard-pressed to earn playing time. Both are 17.
Or perhaps Josh Connolly, a 16-year-old who was taken in the third round of the 2010 draft, will show enough flash and dance that the Blazers have to keep him. From Prince George, he is the younger brother of Cougars captain Brett Connolly, who was picked sixth overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the NHL’s 2010 draft.
The first thing that must be solved is the enigma that is left-winger Brendan Ranford.
At Christmas, he looked as though he might take a run at leading the WHL in goals and points. But it all came apart like a cardboard box in the rain.
Ranford finished with 86 points, including 33 goals, in 68 games, but scored only three times, and added 21 assists, in his last 29 games.
And it all boiled over on March 11 when he cross-checked a linesman, a move that ultimately drew a six-game suspension. He will miss the season’s first three games as he completes that sentence.
According to Ranford, he lost his conditioning after Christmas and that was a big factor in his play.
"Hey, I'm not going to make any excuses, but I live with an Italian family in Kamloops, and they feed me a lot of pasta," Ranford told Frank Seravalli of the Philadelphia News earlier this summer.
"The biggest thing I learned is that I've got to stay in good condition through the whole year. I got a really fast start. Everything was going in for me. I started the season in really good shape. Then, probably halfway through the (season), I just got out of condition, and it caught up to me."
Ranford spent time at the Philadelphia Flyers’ development camp where veteran NHLer Ian Laperriere took him under his wing.
Of course, Ranford was not alone in bottoming out in last season’s second half.
“From my conversations with (the players), I believe that most, if not all of them, have come to realize that we can’t put ourselves in a position like that any more,” Charron says.
One of his messages to the players, he says, has been: “Is that what this franchise is about?”
With 10 returning forwards, the Blazers are going to need the likes of Colin Smith, Jordan DePape, J.T. Barnett, Logan McVeigh and Ryan Hanes to find more offence in their games while also improving on the defensive side of the puck.
Charron hopes that with another year under their belts, the forwards show a new level of maturity. With experience, he says, comes better leadership.
“We have to teach them that and each guy has to learn,” Charron says. “I have had discussions with some of those older players and it appears to me that they’ve grasped it, that whatever we did wasn’t good enough.”
The Blazers will get a full season out of freshman Matt Needham, the eighth overall selection in the 2010 bantam draft, who had seven points in 13 games last season. However, he’s only 16 and players of that age rarely have huge impacts in a league in which goals have become tougher to come by.
Aspen Sterzer, from Canal Flats, Dallas Calvin of Trail and Calgarian Cole Ully should get decent looks. Sterzer, 17, was pointless in 10 games last season, while the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Calvin, 17, had 40 points in 40 games with the KIJHL’s Beaver Valley Nitehawks, before adding 17 points in 12 playoff games. Ully was a second-round pick in the 2010 bantam draft.
Charron readily admits that it has taken him longer to adapt to junior hockey than he thought it would. Before joining the Blazers on Nov. 23, 2009, Charron had spent more than 20 seasons coaching in the professional ranks.
Now, though, he is adamant that he will be more involved in all aspects of this team than he has been to this point. He will, he says, be holding players more accountable than has been the case.
He also says he is looking forward to working with Hunchak, who brings seven years of WHL coaching experience to the Blazers. He spent the last four as head coach of the Moose Jaw Warriors, who didn’t renew his contract after last season when they won 40 games.
“I’ve got an experienced guy with me,” Charron says. “I’ve got players I’ve coached in the past . . . I know them, they know me. I’m excited about it. But there is going to be an onus on the players . . . let’s see how they react.”
Charron is into the last year of his contract, with no extension in sight. The Blazers didn’t announce the length of Hunchak’s deal when he signed, but it’s safe to assume it is longer than one season.
Charron says none of that matters, that he is most comfortable with Hunchak.
“Very much so . . . very much so,” Charron says. “He’s got that experience. He’s been in the league for seven years. He’s coached a team to some success. In most cases, guys don’t get fired when they have that kind of success with a team. I do have a good rapport with him. We’ve had numerous conversations. We are becoming familiar with each other.
“His experience at this level is going to help me be a better coach.”
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