Friday, July 12, 2013

Blazers: Rebuilding, reloading or retrenching?

Rebuilding, reloading or retrenching.
Take your pick, because the Kamloops Blazers have placed themselves firmly in the ‘re’ world.
If there was any doubt, it was erased Wednesday when the WHL team traded Cole Cheveldave, its starting goaltender for each of the last two seasons, to the Prince Albert Raiders for a 15-year-old forward, Jake Kryski, who is two or three years away form making an impact in this market.
If you are an aspiring WHL player, in any position, who is searching for an opportunity to play, Kamloops will be the place to be in late August when training camp opens.
The Blazers, who ended a horrible drought when they got into the second round of playoffs two seasons ago and reached the Western Conference final last spring, have some openings on their roster. Yeah, like Lindsay Lohan has some openings on her schedule.
The Blazers have 10 forwards with at least some WHL experience, but five of those are really, really raw. The roster shows five defencemen, but only one of those, 19-year-old Landon Cross, has played regularly at this level.
Of the five goaltenders on the depth chart at the moment, only one, Taran Kozun, has played even one WHL game.
On top of that, the chances are good that two of their prime 20-year-old candidates – centre Colin Smith and right-winger JC Lipon, who finished tied for fourth and 11th, respectively, in the WHL scoring race last season – will open the season in the AHL. Smith, who has signed with the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, would seem ticketed for the Lake Erie Monsters, while Lipon, who has yet to cut a deal with the Winnipeg Jets, may start with the St. John’s IceCaps.
In making the run to the Western Conference final a few weeks ago, where they were beaten in five games by the eventual-champion Portland Winterhawks, the Blazers morphed into a team that relied on one goaltender, four defencemen and seven or eight forwards. At season’s end, they were using three 20-year-old forwards and eight players who were 19.
When a team does that, it knows that the time will come to pay the piper. For the Blazers, that time is now.
Over the last two seasons, Cheveldave played in 111 of the team’s 144 regular-season games and was credited with 70 of its 94 victories.
Kozun, a 19-year-old from Nipawin, Sask., got into two games in 2011-12 before being assigned to the SJHL’s Nipawin Hawks.
Last season, in 1,092 minutes over 20 games with Kamloops, he went 11-4-3 with a 2.36 GAA and a .914 save percentage.
However, he had a propensity for letting in one bad goal – one that was either of the soft variety or one that came at an inopportune time — and that, more than anything, ate at the coaching staff’s confidence in him. Of course, Kozun really was caught in the backup goaltenders’ conundrum — he needs ice time to improve, but no matter how well he plays he’s stuck behind the veteran starter.
It also hurt Kozun’s chances that his team came out of the gate like a cat on fire.
The Blazers, you’ll recall, were the major junior game’s early-season sensation last autumn. At one point, they rattled off 14 straight victories and climbed to the top of the CHL’s rankings. That only served to fuel the fire as management went all-in on the season.
You will recall that in acquiring veteran defenceman Joel Edmundson from the Moose Jaw Warriors on Dec. 6, the Blazers surrendered a 2015 first-round bantam draft pick and forward Jayden Halbgewachs, who had been their first-round selection, 19th overall, in 2012.
The Blazers, who knew that Edmundson, then 19, was a rent-a-player and would be somewhere in the St. Louis Blues organization in 2013-14, recouped some of that loss with the acquisition of Kryski, who put up 118 points, including 59 goals, in 58 games with the Burnaby Winter Club’s top bantam team last season. Kryski was honoured in 2012 as Hockey Now’s B.C. minor hockey player of the year, and attended the Raiders’ spring camp in late May.
WHL rules prohibit Kryski, at the age of 15, from playing for the Blazers in 2013-14. He will be expected to make the roster in September 2014 and start being a serious contributor one year later.
Between now and then, though, you can expect the Blazers to be wheeling and dealing.
As has been well documented, the Blazers reached the WHL final in 1999, then weren’t able to get out of the first round of playoffs until 2012.
Let’s hope this latest (a) rebuilding, (b) reloading, (c) retrenching, (d) all of the above doesn’t take as long.

(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at gdrinnan@kamloopsnews.ca, gdrinnan.blogspot.ca and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)

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