Monday, 22 August 2016

Wearing #13: Grizzlies Main Camp Preview

In just a matter of a few hours the Victoria Grizzlies will open their 2016 Main Camp at Westhills Arena in Langford, BC and if any of the anecdotal indications run true to form, I would suggest that this will be one of the most competitive and promising camps we have seen in years.  But more on that in a few moments.

I wanted to first take a quick moment before we begin and acknowledge the sad news concerning the loss of former Salsa player, Eddie Samuels.  Eddie was lost on 6 Aug, 2016 to heart failure at the young age of only 30.  Eddie was a just s fabulous young man and its funny because for reasons which I will soon explain, I remember him so well from that 04/05 Victoria Salsa team.

The first thing I remember about Eddie was that he wore #13, which as we all know is somewhat rare for most hockey players who are about as superstitious a demographic as any you will find.  Eddie was also on a team with teammates who would later become established NHL talents, Tyler Bozak and Jordie Benn.  I used to talk to Eddie on a lot of nights when he really shouldn't have been in that much of a mood to talk and be pleasant.  You see Eddie's jersey number often described in a literal way his position on the team's depth chart.  In many ways, Eddie was that proverbial thirteenth forward for the Salsa that season.

#13 Eddie Samuels, a player who always had a smile for anyone, regardless of his position in the lineup
I would often find Eddie in a business suit leaning against the blue railings along the south end of the brand new Q Centre (known then as Bear Mountain Arena), watching the Salsa warmup.  On night's when Eddie and I would chat, he was usually a healthy scratch and the truth is that he was unfortunately enduring those circumstances about half of the nights he played for the club. And that's hockey.  I always remember that he had tons of time for both me and any of my three sons on any given night and you could always count on him to be open and honest and quick with a smile.  He never once felt sorry for himself for being a scratch and on the contrary he would muse about the joy and honour about being a player in the BCHL.  He was way more than stoic on those occasions, Eddie Samuels was down right dignified.

Almost ten years later, my eldest son would end up playing his first regular season game in the BCHL and I remember thinking of Eddie Samuels when I saw him on the Grizzlies bench wearing the #13 without a name bar. I remember thinking how cool it was that a player of Eddie's skill and dignity would later have his jersey number worn by a local 17 year old who once looked up to #13 as a player and even more so as a role model.  Eddie was very special and he will be missed.  I can only wish his family well in these difficult times and may God Bless.

It's a bit strange, because the theme of the 13th forward is perfect for this Main Camp preview because this season's Grizzlies camp may in fact feature a few forwards in the potential role of that dreaded thirteenth forward.  Obviously there is the depth of this year's core group attending Main Camp.  But secondly and perhaps as no small point is the fact that 98' born forward Spencer Hunter will likely start the season on the IR as he recovers from an injury from last season.  This will allow Coach Craig Didmon to likely leave camp with a 23 man roster until Hunter returns. At least that's what the tea leaves tell me as I dissect this club on paper.

What this camp will see in my view is a very rare thing, a completely established position in goal with two returning 19 year olds in goalies Mitch Benson and Matthew Galajda, both returning in net.  That is a huge advantage for the Grizzlies.  They are backed up by an equally impressive returning core of defensemen in Cody Van Lierop, Jake Stevens, Brett Stirling and Drayson Pears. Add to that mix Nico Somerville of the VIJHL Champions Victoria Cougars and you suddenly have what I think could be the most formidable back end perhaps in the entire Island Division and maybe more.  Just sayin...

What surprises me is what I have read on line in many of the various social media sites about how the Grizzlies may not be rated that high this season.  From what I have read and heard from some fans in the off season, the big questions are around the forwards and there is concern.  Not for me there is.  I think the forwards will be just fine.

From what I can see of the returning group, I think that the often maligned position on forward for the Grizzlies may have an up year in 2016/17.  First off is the big news that Nathan Looysen has decided not to play for his SJHL club after all and has instead decided to complete his junior career back home in Victoria and I for one am very happy to see that is the case. Looysen, with 101 points for the aforementioned Cougars last year had just two call-up games for the Grizzlies, both on the road and he was fantastic in my opinion. With almost zero prep time to adjust to BCHL speed, he played in Penticton vs future 2016 NHL First Round draft picks and I thought he looked just fine. The next day he dominated the Langley Rivermen on the road with a nice tidy two point game.  In short, the return of Looysen in my view is about the best bit of news to come by way of the Q Centre in quite a while.

Looysen lead the entire VIJHL last year with 101 points and lead his club to a league championship in 15/16
Now there is the obvious problem that Looysen is another 20 year old and Coach Didmon suddenly found himself last week with no less than eight 20 year olds in camp.  But as we just saw a few days ago, the Grizzlies elected to move 96' forward Mitchell Barker to the West Kelowna Warriors for futures.  I am a bit sad to see such a great PK expert like Barker go, but room had to be made for squeezing 8 players into 6 spots.  Now there is but a single 20 year-old decision for the GM to make and while tough indeed, one difficult decision sure beats two in this case.

A WK Warrior since the 19 Aug trade, Barker was always a stalwart on the PK for the Grizzlies
Forgive me, but it is probably safe to say that core veterans Cole Pickup, Bret Stirling, Jake Stevens, Cody Van Lierop along with Looysen will all make the club as twenty year olds.  Could it come down to a decision between two solid and gritty forwards from last year's squad, Nick Guiney or Alex Peck?  The local newspaper seems to think so, but I wonder is there another shoe to drop? Could there be another surprise in store before the BCHL start deadline?

I just don't know.  Frankly likely very few know for sure, but one thing is for sure, this year's Grizzlies squad will not be like the team we saw last September which iced only 7 returning veterans from the 14/15 playoff squad.  This season the Grizzlies will be thick with returning vets and frankly I think that any opinion which sees the Grizzlies wallowing down near the bottom of the Island Division is one which is simply ill informed.

With The Shock and Awe Line of Keyvan Mokhtari and Tyler Welsh returning, the question I have is who will be the lucky forward who gets to join those two stellar playmakers for a full season?  I am picking Welsh to finish in the top 5 in the entire BCHL in assists for the season and if anyone cares to lay a wager on it, I drink Tim Hortons Medium Black.

Who will be the lucky forward who will join the speedy Mokhtari in 2016?
I mean here is a serious question:  If you were an attacking forward on an opposition club, how would you like to get a mouth full of Stirling, Stevens, Van Lierop and Pears shift after shift?  And even if you got through those veteran D-men, what shape would you be in and where would the puck be on your stick as you prepared to shoot on either Benson or Galajda?

Could this be the look of opposition forwards after facing 3 straight periods of Stirling, Stevens, Van Lierop and Pears
The newcomers could be very good and even if they take time to develop, I think this year, unlike 2015 will be much easier on the rookies.  Last year the rookies were simply asked to do cross a Bridge Too Far in my modest opinion.  There just was a touch too much pressure for the rookies to score and it hurt the club throughout the year.  Again, my opinion only. 

But this year the fresh faces of 98' (F) Brett Parker (44 points with Hanover High School), Arizona native 97' (F) Sage Eglund (14-6-10-16 Boston Jr Rangers), 97' (F) Lucas Clark (39-16-20-36 Port Perry MoJacks of the COJCHL), Vermont native (F) Adam Peck (26-17-31-48 Selects Hockey and younger brother of Alex), 98' (F) Jett Jaraczewski (19-8-20-28 Notre Dame USHS), 98' (F) Jamieson Rome (31-10-8-18 Calgary North Stars Midget AAA)  along with highly touted (D) Dayne Finnson (24-5-12-17), a former teammate of Brett Sterling form Salisbury School could all have enjoy that coveted "time to gel" and not be thrown directly into the fire on Day 1.  That could be huge in terms of the youngsters' development in the toughest Jr. A league in the country.

Then you have some of the locals and a few of the camp invites who I am really interested in seeing.  Frist there is VIJHL Rookie of the Year in 98' (F) Cam Thompson (45-23-21-44 Peninsula Panthers) .  But then there is the player I like to call "The Greatest Hands in Langford", 97' (F) Cory Hatcher (36-16-26-42 Westshore Wolves) who if it was up to me I would put on the Shock and Awe Line on Day 1 then get myself a big bag of popcorn and just sit back and watch the fireworks.

To sum up, I think the Grizzlies are going to be more than OK.  Yes I do also think that Coach Didmon will have some very tough decisions to make over the next two weeks, full stop.  But these decisions and issues are what I like to call "Quality Problems".  And I will just bet that there are a lot of coaches and GMs from across the league who would like to be in his shoes going into Main Camps which break out all across the league in a matter of minutes, not hours from now.

Why we all play this game: for each other
All I know is that for whomever those players are who are left in Coach Didmon's team by the end of camp, there will almost certainly be a jersey #13 available for name bar stitching from veteran Head Equipment Man extraordinaire, Mel Smith.  And while those days for me are nothing but a distant memory if I still wore the shoes of a seventeen year old hockey player, I think I know exactly what I would say if I was fortunate enough to make the 2016/17 Grizzlies:  "Hey Mel, is that #13 still available back there?  I think I might be able to give it a good home."

See you along the glass. -CC

No comments:

Post a Comment