As the Chilliwack Chiefs prepare to host the Penticton Vees in their home and season opener Friday night at 7 p.m., Black Press writers from the BCHL’s Interior conference markets have been hard at work compiling previews for the teams the Chiefs will face. The conference appears deep and talented, and Chilliwack has a tough road to the playoffs.
#1 VERNON VIPERS
Key Returnees: Forwards Patrick McGillis (13-12-25), Mike Zalewski (12-17-29) and John Knisley (10-25-35) lead the offence while blueliner Brett Corkey (1-23-24) and goalie Kirby Halcrow lead the D.
Rookie Sensations: The son of Edmonton Oilers’ GM Steve Tambellini and brother of former Vancouver Canuck Jeff, hockey runs in Adam Tambellini’s bloodlines. The lanky forward pocketed 54 points and 113 penalty minutes in 34 games last season with Edmonton’s South Side Athletic Club.
Strengths: With seven of their 11 returning players being forwards, Vernon’s strength will be up front. This is an organization that has reached the national finals three straight years. The vets know what it takes to succeed and can teach their talented crop of newcomers what it takes to be one of the top junior A clubs in Canada.
#2 PENTICTON VEES
Key Returnees: Local kid Logan Johnston is back to captain the Vees after a 11-21-32 campain last year. Forward Joey Benik (30-26-56) gets one of the alternate A’s on a team loaded with talent. Goalie Michael Garteig went 36-8-3 with seven shutouts, a 1.69 GAA and .934 save percentage last year.
Rookie Sensations: Minnesota Wild draft pick Mario Lucia scored 30 goals in 27 games with Wayzata High School. The son of Minnesota Golden Gophers coach Don Lucia, Marco was chosen 60th overall in the 2011 NHL Draft. Mike Reilly, featured in the Prospects report in The Hockey News on Sept. 19, was drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the fourth round in the 2011 draft. In 2010-11, Reilly led Shattuck’s St. Mary’s defence in scoring with 13 goals and 43 points and helped them capture the Under-18 Tier 1 National Championship. Steven Fogarty, drafted by the New York Rangers in the 2011 NHL Draft, racked up 23 goals and 40 points in 24 games with the Edina Hornets in Minnesota.
Strengths: Speed and size will be the key ingredient for the Vees success. Coach Fred Harbinson has assembled a big team that will move the puck up and down the ice and use its quickness to create offence.
#3 WESTSIDE WARRIORS
Key Returnees: Tyler Krause (11-31-42) will be an offensive leader along with fellow forwards Dru Morrison (14-17-31) and Brett McKinnon (10-13-23). The D is anchored by Michael King (5-18-23), Izaak Berglund (2-12-14), Peter MacIntosh (0-11-11), and Brayden Sherbinin (4-8-12).
Rookie Sensations: A pair of Warriors rookies from the B.C. Major Midget League will look to make the jump to junior. Forward Seb Lloyd had 17 goals and 37 assists in 30 games with the Cariboo Cougars in the BCMML, helping his team to a second place finish (28-11-1) in the 12 team circuit. Defenceman Ben Betker had 13 points with the Kootenay Ice, who finished 10th with an 8-25-7 record. A quick transition to major junior for both players would go a long way helping Westside catch up to the big dogs in Vernon and Penticton.
Strengths: The Warriors’ strength will likely come from the blueline with its top four returning blueliners, including Berglund, who was named the Warriors captain. New coach Rylan Ferster is preaching defence and work ethic as he takes over from the departed Darren Yopyk. Last year’s Warriors were able to score goals in bunches, lighting the lamp a league high 246 times.
#4 MERRITT CENTENNIALS
Key Returnees: Regan Soquila (20-25-45) was a consistent offensive contributor last year. Evan Stack (13-19-32) Chad Brears (4-17-21) and Jacob Reichert (7-11-18) provide help up front with Brandon Pfeil (6-10-16) the rock on D. Goaltenders Lino Chimienti and Tyler Steel should be solid.
Rookie Sensations: Eighteen-year-old Brandon Bruce was a late arrival at Cents’ training camp, but the former Swift Current Bronco (WHL) has made an immediate impact. The feisty 5-foot-10 centre plays with an edge, and has a ton of talent to back up his style. Local player Payton Schaefer cracked the lineup after putting up respectable numbers last season with the Kamloops Storm (KIJHL). On the back end, look for Texan Ross Mancuso (KIJHL champion Osoyoos Coyotes) and sixteen-year-old Dylan Chanter (POE midget prep) to round out a very experienced defensive corps.
Strengths: In Chimenti and Steel, the Cents have two proven netminders who allowed just 12 goals in six preseason games. Stack, Soquila and Bruce could be one of the most potent forward trios in the league. Blueline returnees Pfeil, Marshall, Willcox and Richard Sabourin will be the keys to a successful season.
#5 SALMON ARM SILVERBACKS
Key Returnees: Brett Knowles (30-28-58) hit the 30 goal mark for the Silverbacks last year and leads a high powered attack into the new season. Forwards Morgan Zulinick (12-17-29) Bryce Gervais (29-22-51) Devin Muller (12-16-28) will help as James Friedel (1-5-6) anchors the D.
Rookie Sensations: Defenceman Brendan Kennedy, who played last season with Okanagan Hockey Academy, and forward Kyle Oleniuk of Moose Jaw (Saskatchewan Midget AAA) were rookie standouts in Salmon Arm’s main camp and look poised to earn quality minutes in the regular season. Vernon minor hockey product Alex Gillies, the SilverBacks’ 16-year-old, has the size and grit to handle the more physical junior style.
Strengths: The SilverBacks boast a solid top-six forward corps that can put the puck in the net at any given time. With just one returning d-man (Friedel), Salmon Arm head coach/GM Colin O’Hara acquired veteran blueliners Klay Kachur (Powell River), Bennett Hambrook (Prince George/Vernon), Matt Brown (AJHL Drumheller Dragons) and Sean Flannagan (SJHL Kindersley Dragons) in the offseason. Salmon Arm is a threat every year in the BCHL.
#6 PRINCE GEORGE SPRUCE KINGS
Key Returnees: Surrey native Jujhar Khaira (10-32-42) teams with Chilliwack native Connor Tiechko (13-13-26) and Alaska’s Jeff Earnest (6-16-22) offensively. Defenceman Ben Woodley (6-11-17) will keep things clean for goaltender Kirk Thompson (3.91 GAA, 88.76 save percentage).
Rookie Sensations: On a team that also has triplets, the McHaffie twins (Scott and Spencer) garnered attention during the Spruce Kings spring prospect camp. The 1994-born forwards from Surrey committed to the Spruce Kings after winning a provincial Midget Tier 1 title with the Surrey Thunder. At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, 18-year-old Cody Bardock will bring size to the blueline, while 16-year-old Kitimat native Michael Klonarakis joins the team after skating for the highly respected Pursuit of Excellence hockey academy in Kelowna.
Strengths: Under head coach Dave Dupas, the Kings have become a more disciplined defensive team. While they ultimately missed the playoffs, the less entertaining brand helped the team climb back to respectability by the end of the season. They won’t get pushed around easily either, with the likes of Woodley and Trevor Esau (6-foot-4, 110 penalty minutes) on their back end.
#8 TRAIL SMOKE EATERS
Key Returnees: Veterans are few and far between. Trail will rely on the likes of Eric Cooper (11-15-26), Logan Proux (3-8-11) Adam Boytnick (3-12-15) and Rajan Sidhu (1-22-23) up front while goaltender Matt Larose (2.67 GAA, 92.4 save percentage) holds the fort at the other end.
Rookie Sensations: Vancouver Chiefs F Matthew Bissett finished fourth in scoring in the Major Midget League last year; 16-year-old forward Luke Bertolucci netted a point a game for the Major Midget Kootenay Ice (15-19-34), winning a gold medal at the Canada Winter Games with Team B.C. Dallas Calvin played for the KIJHL Beaver Valley Nitehawks, counting 40 points in 40 games as a 16-year-old. The 6-foot-3 forward will provide speed and size up front. Other rookie notables include D Brandon Egli, F Brandon Long and D Daniel Delbianco, all from Major Midget.
Strengths: The Smoke Eaters will be a young team with approximately 12 rookies. Depending on how they develop, offence may be a concern but the team should be strong defensively with goalie Matt Larose backstopping a solid defensive core of veterans led by Sidhu, Clayton McEwan and recent acquisition Nicholas Wong from Cowichan Valley.