Were the WHL’s playoffs to begin on Sunday, rather than it being the resumption of the regular season, the Kamloops Blazers wouldn’t be on anybody’s wish list.
They are 17-5-4 since opening the season with six straight losses. The way the WHL calculates these things, that’s a .731 winning percentage — of the league’s 22 teams, only the Kelowna Rockets, at .729, went into the Christmas break above .700.
The Blazers also are coming off a six-game East Division road trip during which they won five games for the first time in franchise history.
But, of course, they can’t just take that six-game season-opening skid, throw it away and, while they would like to, pretend it never happened.
Still, when you look back at those six games, and knowing what we know now, that start really wasn’t as bad as it was made out to be.
Two of the losses were at the hands of the Rockets who, to this point, are the WHL’s best team.
Three of the losses were against the Victoria Royals. At the time, not many people outside the Royals organization envisioned a Victoria team that would be near the top of the Western Conference at the Christmas break, which is right where it is.
When the Blazers resume play next week, they will go home-and-home with the Rockets and then entertain the Royals twice as 2015 morphs into 2016.
Those games should show us how much the Blazers have progressed since those first six games, even though the Rockets and Royals will be missing top-end players with international commitments.
Of course, neither centre Gage Quinney nor defenceman Dallas Valentine was on the Kamloops roster during those first six games. It isn’t a coincidence that the turnaround began shortly after Quinney, 20, was acquired from Kelowna, and Valentine, 19, from the Moose Jaw Warriors.
It’s doubtful that any WHL team has made two more important acquisitions this season. Quinney has 32 points, including 13 goals, in 24 games with the Blazers. Valentine has been a rock on the Blazers’ blue line.
As with any hockey team that has some success, goaltending has been a key. In the Blazers’ case, as goes goaltender Connor Ingram, so go their fortunes.
After five starts, Ingram had a 4.09 GAA and a .889 save percentage. He was 0-4-0; the team was 0-6-0. Today, Ingram is 15-7-4, 2.92, .911. From Imperial, Sask., he just went 5-0-0 and surrendered only eight goals as the Blazers swept through Saskatchewan like a Prairie blizzard.
Of course, there are any number of other reasons for the Blazers’ recent roll. At 19, left-winger Collin Shirley has matured into the goal producer that the Kootenay Ice projected when it selected him 17th overall in the 2011 bantam draft. Right-winger Deven Sideroff only gets better and better, after missing the start of the season with mononucleosis. Centre Matt Needham continues to be the picture of consistency. Freshman forward Garrett Pilon is showing that he can put up points at this level.
On the back end, Ryan Rehill, in his fourth season here, has never been better, while sophomore Dawson Davidson is playing with confidence and has 17 assists in 32 games.
The defencemen on the Kamloops roster have combined for 51 assists, and that’s important because of the way this team plays the game.
You will recall that the Vancouver Giants let Don Hay out of the last year of his contract over the summer of 2014, allowing him to return to Kamloops to take over as the Blazers’ head coach. At the time, the buzz out of Vancouver was that Giants management wanted a puck-possession team, rather than one that cycled the puck and tried to play behind the opposing team’s icing line. What they were saying, in effect, was that someone didn’t think Hay could change his coaching ways.
Well, the Blazers, without the size up front that would allow them to play a grinding game, are a puck-possession team, one that loves to play up-tempo and in transition and scores a lot of goals off the rush. Offensive zone entries often come close to the boards — the puck carrier shoots from above a face-off dot with the other two forwards going hard to the net looking for a rebound or a scramble situation.
A team can’t play that kind of game without defencemen who can make a good first pass, because dump-and-chase no longer is an option. As a measuring stick, those 51 assists show growth and improvement, but the Blazers aren’t quite in the company of the Brandon Wheat Kings, whose defencemen have 83 assists, or the Lethbridge Hurricanes (75).
Still, as a group, the Blazers defencemen are headed in the right direction, just like the offence.
One wonders, though, if the attendance will do the same thing.
After 17 home games — one shy of the halfway point — the attendance in the Sandman Centre has been anything but robust. Already, the team has played in front of five of the six (and seven of the 10) smallest regular-season crowds in the history of a facility that opened in 1992-93.
The average attendance this season is 3,528, a decrease of 288 from the same point last season.
What should be alarming to the ownership group is that more than 1,000 fans seem to have disappeared in recent times. In 2012-13, a season in which the Blazers reached the Western Conference final, the average regular-season attendance was 4,825, which still is 600 short of capacity. (In seven home playoff dates, they averaged 4,677.)
Should this season’s average hold for 36 games, it would mean a decrease of 1,297 in just three seasons.
Just as it will be interesting to see if the Blazers can maintain their solid play of late as the season resumes after Christmas, it will be worth watching what happens in the seats.
December 23, 2015 11:10pm
I think we can make a little noise this year, they have beaten Red Deer, Victoria, Lethbridge, Prince Albert, Prince George.
I believe Stu will add a bit by the trade deadline.
December 24, 2015 01:50pm
December 23, 2015 10:05pm
December 23, 2015 02:23pm
It was pretty obvious club was tone deaf as keeping Bonner (and Recchi) around after last year was a tough sell. How they botched the 96 draft year is beyond incompetence.
Would think a survey of ticket holders at end of season would have high lighted this.