By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
The Kamloops Blazers, their roster resting at 25, will trim a defenceman and a forward or two before opening the WHL’s regular season.
It doesn’t appear that they will be tinkering with their goaltending.
The Blazers went into their intrasquad game a week ago with four goaltenders on their roster. Immediately after the game, they chose to keep sophomore Taran Kozun, 19, and freshman Cole Kehler, while releasing Liam McLeod of Kamloops and Regina’s Cam Pateman, both 17.
Getting down to two goaltenders so quickly may have caught some observers by surprise. But head coach Dave Hunchak said it was the best move for all involved.
“We felt that committing a year’s school to guys when (Kehler) is already signed didn’t make any sense from an organization standpoint, or to those two other kids,” Hunchak said after the Blazers beat the visiting Vancouver Giants 4-3 in overtime on Sunday night. “We have to make decisions based on kids’ careers, and if we’re not sure if they’re going to be a part of our program for the long term, then we’re not going to bring them.”
Kehler, meanwhile, was the story of Sunday’s victory. He stopped 41 shots, including 16 of 17 in the first period, as his teammates struggled against a strong Vancouver forecheck.
Kehler, who won’t turn 16 until Dec. 17, was a sixth-round selection by the Blazers in the WHL’s 2012 bantam draft.
Kehler is the youngest of three children; his father, Ernie, owns a John Deere dealership in Altona.
He had hoped to play midget AAA with the Morden-based Pembina Valley Hawks last season, but, he said, “they elected to go with an older goalie.” So he ended up playing high school hockey with the W.C. Miller Aces. His numbers weren’t much — 2-14-0, 5.00, .864 — but the team was only 4-17.
The 6-foot-3, 190-pounder arrived in Kamloops wanting “to make the team, obviously. That was a big goal for me . . . as a 16-year-old to come in and make the team.”
He did just that, thanks to a strong training camp.
“I had a good camp,” he said. “I felt I was very consistent.”
He admits to being “a little bit” surprised at the decision the team’s management made to get down to two goaltenders before the exhibition season had even begun.
“I felt I had some strong competition,” he said. “I think it shows that they have confidence in me and that they really like me.”
His strengths, he said, are “seeing the puck and being calm. I really think my mental toughness . . . to bounce back afer a goal.”
Had Kehler not stuck with the Blazers, he would have attended the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton.
Meanwhile, McLeod has surfaced with the BCHL’s Nanaimo Clippers.
He is one of three goaltenders on general manager/head coach Mike Vandekamp’s roster, the others being Jayson Argue, a 20-year-old from Swan River, Man., who played 28 games in Nanaimo last season, and Connor LaCouvee, 19, from Qualicum Beach. He got into 20 games with the BCHL’s Cowichan Valley Capitals last season.
Last season, McLeod was 1-8-0, 4.69, .857 in 14 games with the BCHL’s Prince George Spruce Kings.
“The first thing with Liam, he’s 17 years old, and we wanted to have a look at him based on his age,” Vandekamp told Josh Aldrich of the Nanaimo Daily News. “I don’t know much about him yet, but he came to us from the Blazers. I know some people there, we talked about it and it made some sense to us to have a look at it as a possibility within our age categories of our roster.”
The Blazers are at home to the Kelowna Rockets on Friday, 7 p.m., then meet the Giants at Burnaby’s Bill Copeland Arena on Sunday, 3 p.m.
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