With three weeks of training camp and preseason in the books, and two weeks to go until opening night, the pieces of the 2011-12 Chilliwack Chiefs puzzle are starting to fall into place.
General manager Harvey Smyl has trimmed his roster down to 25 skaters, with only a handful of tweaks still to come.
Smyl has arrived at the two goaltenders he will carry into the season, opting for ex-Peterborough Star Mitch Gillam and ex-Quesnel Millionaire Bryton Udy.
Eighteen-year-old Udy won the duel of ex-Mills, beating out former teammate Adam Harris (19).
“Udy did play a little more steady and continued to get better and better as camp went along,” Smyl explained. “That decision was pretty clear, and we’re happy with where we’re at at that position.”
Gillam has been the steadiest netminder throughout the preseason and figures to be the opening night starter.
“I don’t know if he’s number one, because Udy has more experience at the junior A level,” Smyl cautioned. “Gillam has played better to this point, and I think Bryton (Udy) would say that as well. But Udy’s been a good goalie in this league and hopefully they can push each other.”
The netminders will play behind a defensive unit that has looked leaky. Veteran Ty Miller leads the group along with returning ex-Mills David Thompson and Stefan Gonzales.
Former Chilliwack Bruins prospect Shea Laurent is in the mix, bringing previous junior A experience from his time with the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Fort MacMurray Oil Barons.
The 18-year-old was cut last week from the training camp of the Western Hockey League’s Victoria Royals, and Smyl seems happy to have him on board.
“Laurent’s already got two years of junior A under his belt,” he said. “He’s a bigger defenceman who brings a physical aspect to his game, and we think there’s some good things there.”
If there’s an area Smyl looks to upgrade before opening night, this might be it.
“There’s room for improvement across our whole lineup,” the coach noted. “We’ve got some work to do with this team.”
The Chiefs forward group has potential, but has lacked consistency in the preseason.
A couple ex-Mills counted on to be offensive leaders, Malcolm Gould and Spencer Graboski, have been hit and miss in exhibition action.
“Some of the kids haven’t reached the expectations we had for them at this point,” Smyl conceded. “Gould has played very, very well at some points and not so well at others. Graboski hasn’t played to his ability yet, and he knows it.”
Smyl is giving his players the benefit of the doubt for the moment, knowing how tough the transition has been for the former Quesnel players.
“This is a whole new scenario with a whole new group of guys, whole new coaching staff, new city and new building,” Smyl said. “Everything is new to them and it’s going to take some time for them to become a team, know what the coaches want and feel comfortable here.”
A forward who has quietly had a solid preseason is Derek Huisman, another ex-Mill who has frequently found his way onto the scoresheet.
Injuries have limited Chris Blessing’s availability, but Smyl is eager to see what the 20-year-old can do after posting 10 goals and 26 points in 45 games for Quesnel last season.
“We’ve got some kids who have contributed at this level and we’re expecting them to do that for us,” Smyl said. “I think the one area of concern is that we’re not abrasive up front at all. We’ve got some skill and speed, but the grit factor may be missing a bit.”
If in-house options don’t step forward, that may be another area Smyl has to fill by shopping around.
“I’m not so concerned about it at the beginning of the year because of the way the officials are going to call the games,” Smyl said. “But as the year goes on and games tighten up, the grit factor is a very important piece of the pie. We’ll see if the guys we have can do it. If not, we may have to go out and address that.”
While it sounds like there are many things Smyl would like to do, he doesn’t want the roster to be a revolving door.
“I don’t have a history of making lots of changes throughout the year,” he said. “We may tinker here and there, but I don’t expect us to be big movers and shakers. Our goal is the same, and that’s to be somewhere in the top five battling for a playoff spot at the end of the year.”
The last home preseason game is Friday night as the Chiefs host the Merritt Centennials. The home opener is Sept. 24 versus the Penticton Vees. Get the full schedule online at www.chilliwackchiefs.net.
l While he must still clear the BCHL’s transfer approval process, David Bondra appears set to join the club. If that last name looks familiar, it’s because David is the son of ex-National Hockey Leaguer Peter Bondra.
David’s dad scored 503 goals in an NHL career spanning 1081 games, topping 50 goals twice.
David spent last season with the Chicago Steel of the United States Hockey League, posting four goals and nine points in 58 games.