From a Smoke Eaters perspective the end of the first half of the season means the end of a ridiculous run of road games. They played 2/3 of their road schedule before even reaching this point. 20 of the first 29 games were away from the Cominco Arena. For a team with Trail's tough travel schedule that made it difficult for them to get any momentum going. The Smokies were also breaking in a lot of rookies and new players especially on the back end. Those players traditionally take a month or two to really get comfortable and confident with the level of play in the BCHL. When you break down the first 30 games into 10 game segments you can see that is starting to happen.
- First 10 games: 2-7-1-0
- Second 10 games: 2-7-0-1
- Third 10 games: 5-5-0-0
While all that ice time for the young guys is starting to pay off on the back end, we're also seeing a forward group with more scoring depth than I think I've ever seen in my time here. Every forward in the top 6 is scoring at at least a point per game pace. The "third line" is as good as the second line has been in previous seasons. Here's a situation where some injuries and new opportunities have thrust some guys into roles where they were able to prove they can produce points. Now Coach Ingram can be confident enough with his entire forward group to roll four lines and know there won't be a shift off for the opposition. The whole top 9 has a ton of skill while the current fourth line has skill and also the ability to work and grind you to death in the corners. Vernon has had so much of their success with the ability to send wave after wave of top end forwards at the opposition. If the Smokies are willing to work as hard as the Vipers do or harder I feel like the skill is here to play in a similar way. However, the work ethic has to be consistent or that skill won't amount to anything.
I'm not saying we can expect a 25-5 run in the second half of the season. There will continue to be growing pains. I'm sure there will be more injuries and bad games here and there. However, I have to believe the worst is behind them. The initial growing pains and endless bus trips are a thing of the past. Now is Trail's opportunity to use those lessons they learned to pull away from the other teams in the so called "second tier" of the Interior Conference and start putting a scare into the Okanagan teams. They can start doing that with 2 more home games this weekend and then 7 of 8 in December. If this team is as talented as I believe they are they'll prove it during this stretch.
Now that we're at that halfway point we can also take a look at who might be potential winners at the awards dinner 3 months from now.
MVP: Last year's winner Ryan Bulach did it all for Trail. He was the leading scorer and one of the top defensive forwards. Scott Jacklin is a guy who is making that kind of an impact for Trail right now at both ends of the ice. The entire top 6 forward group is producing at a similar rate and all could get consideration depending who has a stronger finish. Lewis, Mellor, Sandor, and St. Denis have all been go to guys depending on the game. Dyck has been producing at the same rate as them since a slower September. Wilkins was there too before his injury and Mailey's scoring is coming back. Right now I think my choice would have to be Jacklin. However if we see Mike Betz continue at anywhere near a 2.2 point per game pace that will likely change. You also have to consider a very impressive 21 points in 29 games on the back end from Steve Koshey. Of course this could all change come March.
Leading Scorer: Right now it seems like it'll be between Jacklin, Sandor and Lewis. St. Denis and Mellor could still catch up though. The team has up to 7 guys who realistically could score 20 goals this season. Only 2 scored that many last season. Scoring has not been the issue in the first half.
Top Defenseman: Danny DeKeyser won this award for Trail last year after a superb second half of his rookie season. I could easily see one of the first year Smokies like Matthews, Walker, Kaufmann and Rizzardo play a huge second half to take the award. Right now you'd have to go with Koshey based on his very significant offensive production and much improved play in his own end. He had a tough September but has been making big strides at both ends of the ice. Also don't count out Graeme Strukoff for this one once he gets healthy. Unfortunately injuries have limited him to 17 games so far.
Rookie of the Year: Travis St. Denis took this last year after he emerged as an offensive force in the last 2/3 of the season. It didn't take Sam Mellor that long. The Cranbrook product has been one of Trail's best forwards from the moment the puck dropped in September. He's been scoring goals, winning puck battles and playing smart hockey all season. Wilkins could give him a run for his money, but he's hampered by those missing 18 games. Any of the four rookie defenceman could also challenge for the award with a big second half. Look at how much of an impact Eric Walker has already had, and as a 16 year old he's got so much room to grow.
Fan Favourite: Jadon Porterfield won this last year and if that's the style of play the fans love I'd have to think Josh McEwan and Sean Nugent would have a really good chance this season. McEwan is a mad dog out there who doesn't seem to fight unless he's giving up 2 or 3 inches and 10 to 30 pounds. He's got the never say die kind of attitude that fans in Trail love. Nugent is another guy who will fight hard for every puck and pound his opponent into sand. However, if the fans go another way I could also see this one going to one of the many local players on the team.
Most Improved: It depends if you define this as most improved from the start of the season or most improved from last year. Porterfield won this last season so I assume it was most improved since the start of the year. In that case right now I'd have to go with Tommy Rizzardo or Darnell Dyck. Both had slow starts and have come on to be two of the team's most reliable players. I'd also like to think that by the time the season comes to an end we could be saying the same thing about the goaltenders. It seems like we're headed that way. If it's most improved from last season Dyck again qualifies as he's already almost doubled his point total. Scott Jacklin had a very slow start to his Trail career and is now one of the team's best players. Steve Koshey has already almost equalled his point total from his rookie year, is playing with a lot more confidence and is in better shape.
As for the awards like inspirational, most dedicated and the sportsmanship/hard work award... it's hard for me to really speculate on that stuff. As well as I know the players I'm not in the dressing room or at practice. That's why these awards are in the hands of the coaches. I do know there are a ton of very good candidates for those awards starting with the team's leadership core.
The first half has obviously been a frustrating one for the Smoke Eaters. I think I probably expected a record closer to .500 than where they are now. 13-16 wins was more in the range I thought we would see. However, they are well positioned to make a run at getting close to .500 in the second half. Hopefully we'll see some big crowds at the Cominco Arena as the guys finally get an extended run at home.
...As you've heard and read elsewhere the Merritt Centennials are starting life without the Forsythe brothers. Coach and GM team Dylan and Tyler have either quit or been fired depending on who you talk to. Is it that hard to put out a press release? Luke Pierce takes over as the fourth coach in Merritt in 2009. Al Glendinning, Joey Bouchard and the Forsythes have all left or been shown the door in a turbulent year for the Cents. Pierce is for now just the interim Coach and GM. Can he last? A 7-3 win over Williams Lake is a good start for the young man only a year removed from his playing career. That being said, his long term future will likely depend on how consistent the team can be and what other candidates are available. I do know that I've heard from several sources how well liked Pierce is among the players and staff of the club. If that translates into them working and playing hard for him it's a good start. He has to go up against a league full of very experienced coaches so he'll need all that good will and more.
As for the departure of Dylan and Tyler Forsythe, it's hard to comment on their ability without really knowing what was going on behind closed doors. I will say that generally it's unfair to judge a Coach/GM without at least giving them a full off season to recruit their own players. The Forsythe's came into this situation very late in the game with almost no time to properly recruit. Even when Bouchard was hired I felt like it was too late in the game. Is this the team they would have had in Merritt if they had taken over in March or April? I highly doubt it. That doesn't mean the team they'd have recruited would be better or worse. I'm just saying they really didn't get a chance to prove it one way or another.
I know there was talk of them being involved with some potential investors for the Cents. I assume their departure likely signals the end of that interest. Hopefully whatever hiring the club makes in the future will be entirely hockey related rather than connected somehow to one potential ownership group or another. In the end the society is still running the club and hiring Bouchard for one ownership group and the Forsythes for another (if that is what happened) doesn't seem to have done anything for Merritt. Hire a good hockey guy and that'll work for any reasonable new owner.
I certainly wish Luke good luck in his new role.
...The Okanagan clubs have started making their moves as we start the flurry of activity heading to the December 1rst carding deadline and the January 10th trading deadline. Salmon Arm struck first in dealing local product Mike Puddifant to Burnaby for Matt Ridley. Ridley has moved around from Cowichan Valley to Penticton to Burnaby and now to Salmon Arm in the past couple of seasons. His talent and pedigree is undeniable. However, the son of former NHLer Mike Ridley has yet to find the consistency and mental game to go with his undeniable talent. Playing with the high end talent in Salmon Arm will certainly give him that opportunity. As for Puddifant, he's a hard working young player who will give his all for an Express team that needs a spark.
It's also a very important move for Salmon Arm because 16 year old super rookie Jagger Dirk has left the team for Chicago of the USHL. That's the same team that sniped Patrick Raley from the Smoke Eaters and Sahir Gill from the Vipers. It's bad enough to have them take players from this league in the off season, but when it starts happening during the season? Yikes. Dirk has been a major player on Salmon Arm's young blue line. Ridley is going to have to replace Dirk's offensive production while making up for the loss of Puddifant's solid play in his own end.
...The Vernon Vipers have made a blockbuster deal sending a couple of very promising young players in Nick Amies and Drew George (plus futures) to Cowichan Valley for stud defenceman Curtis Gedig (plus futures). There are a couple of ways we could go with this one. One thought is why would the Vipers want to mess with their chemistry by making a move like this when they're already 28-1 to start the season. Let me again note that they've only lost one game!
Of course anyone saying that probably hasn't talked to Vipers Coach and GM Mark Ferner. Every time I've interviewed him this season he's made it clear he is not yet satisfied with how they've played. He judges the team on their performance not on their opponents and it seems like he still wants to see them play better. That's a scary thought for the rest of the BCHL. Plus while it's always tough to trade good young players like George and Amies, they aren't trading guys who were key cogs on either of their special teams units. We're not talking about core players or members of their leadership group. These are young players whose best seasons in the BCHL are ahead of them.
In return the Vipers get an NHL draft pick who is among the better all around defencemen in the league. Gedig may only have 9 points so far this season, but he's a guy who can play in every situation. I saw him dominate a game here in Trail. He was basically the only reason the Capitals were in that game and pushed them to a 3-2 win. That's just one example, but in talking to coaches, players, broadcasters and scouts around the league there's no question he's considered one of the better completely players out there. He'll also get a great opportunity to pad that point total playing with the deepest roster in the league.
As good as the Vipers are I'm not sure they had a defenceman with as much pure ability as Gedig. I think he can walk into that dressing room and take a spot on both of their top special teams units. I also know that he's a player who would have been a target for any other top team looking to improve their depth on the back end. Can you tell me that he wouldn't have been a welcome addition to Penticton, Westside and especially Salmon Arm? The Vipers in making this move both add Gedig to their line-up and make sure he doesn't end up with one of their closest rivals.
It's a good move. It's also a good move for the Capitals as they add top end young talent in Amies and George. There are also futures involved in the deal that could make it even more valuable depending on what they are. Will next year's Vipers miss those two young talents? Sure they will, but they're also a team that doesn't even have a slight problem recruiting good young talent. Do you think they'll have any issue filling those spots next year? It's all about winning a Royal Bank Cup again this season -- and this move makes that more likely.
Let us not forget that it also clears a roster spot heading towards the December 1rst deadline. The Vipers had 23 guys on their roster and now will be down to 22. I wouldn't be surprised to see them move one of their 8 d-men to move down to 21 before then. At that point their roster players and cards can only total 25. If Vernon had held on to all 23 players they'd have limited the amount of movement they could make at the trade deadline if any injuries or opportunities came up before then.
What do you think?
...The Quesnel Millionaires also got in on the act by picking up forward Jesse Verheyden from Winnipeg in the MJHL and Clayton Chessa from Surrey. Verheyden played last year for Burnaby and has also played for Merritt and Alberni Valley. Both forwards immediately jumped on to their top line with Trevor Hertz. I thought they were the only good line for Quesnel in their 8-2 loss in Trail. Perhaps Chessa is another player like Darnell Dyck was in Surrey -- just didn't get the opportunity to show what they're capeable of. The Millionaires certainly needed to add some forward depth. However, in doing that they appear to have let go of Eric Hansen. Are they much better off with Verheyden over Hansen? It's an improvement, but I don't know if it's a huge one.
...The KIJHL announced that they will welcome the expansion Osoyoos Coyotes into the league for next season. That will bring the league up to 8 Thompson/Okanagan teams and 10 Kootenay teams. Are we headed towards a split and the eventual formation of the Okanagan Junior Hockey League? All parties deny that at this point, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it happen. They're already cutting back the travel between the two conferences. With each up to at least 8 teams it will soon be easy for owners to say "well why not cut our travel bills and just stick to our own region?" I also think that the number of teams continues to dilute the talent pool in the league. They have the lowest number of 20 year olds of any Junior B league and that has allowed them to focus on being the best developmental Junior B league out there. However, with a limit of only 2 16 year olds and their limit of 20 year olds... it's going to be hard to fill 18 rosters with enough strong 17, 18 and 19 year olds. Especially with Major Midget, BCHL, WHL and now USHL teams all after the best young players.
...I'm still planning to do a full alumni update on the blog soon. If you want links to the graduated alumni you can find it on the official site by clicking here. I did want to note that Grant Rollheiser is back healthy and playing for Boston University. He'll be getting the start at the historic Madison Square Garden this weekend. That'll be an experience for the big guy! You should read the Terrior Hockey Fan Blog for the latest on BU. I also wanted to congratulate former Smoke Eater Travis Gawryletz who got the call up from the ECHL Elmira Jackels to the AHL's Lake Erie Monsters. Good luck to Travis as he tries to make an impression at the next level.
...Trail hosts Prince George Friday at 7:30pm and Penticton on Sunday at 3pm. Hope to see you there!