The Trail Smoke Eaters wrapped up their 2014-15 season last week, missing the BCHL playoff for the fourth straight year, nevertheless, there is room for optimism for the upcoming season.
The Smoke Eaters started the year with a major house cleaning and a big question mark, as Coach and GM Nick Deschenes traded or released most of last year’s eligible returning players, then scouted ‘out of the box,’ recruiting a number of unknown players from eastern leagues, or trading for character veterans like Harlan Orr.
“We swung for the fences and we definitely hit some home runs,” said Deschenes. “There is definitely, lots of positives, and there is some lessons to be learned from a coaching perspective and player perspective – all the above – but I’m excited, I think we’re moving in a good direction for sure.”
One of those homers was realized in the first game of the season when a small, unassuming forward named Charlie Zuccarini scored five goals, a preview of things to come for the eventual Arizona State commit. The Smokies got off to a strong start and Smokie fans were confident that this year would be the one to climb the standings and garner a pass into the post season.
But just when the future looked bright, the early hopes were eclipsed by a number of unforeseen circumstances. Harvard commit Viktor Dombrovskiy wanted out barely 20 games into the season, and injuries to Adam Todd, Craig Martin, Dallas Calvin, Robbie Johnson, and Bryan Gerstenfeld precipitated a mid-season slump that was impossible to shake off.
The Smokies were playing .500 hockey up until the end of November, 11-11-0-1, but a nine game losing skid in December decided their playoff fate.
For Deschenes, in his second year as coach of the Smokies, the year was an improvement on last season, with an 18 point increase and nearly double the number of wins, despite competing in an Interior division that was especially fierce.
And the season was not without its highlights. The Smokies kicked it off on a high note with the softball game fundraiser for the booster club and special Olympics, then continued on the ice with a rare win in Powell River, and a come-from-behind overtime victory against Penticton in January. But even more significant was the success of players like Jake Lucchini (Michigan Tech), Zuccarini (Arizona State), Craig Martin (Quinnipiac), and most recently Dallas Calvin (Selkirk College commit).
“Just seeing some of these players having the seasons that they had, like Charlie and Jake, Marty and Dallas came on strong at the end, for a coach that’s kind of what you’re hoping for is for players to elevate their games and get opportunities to move on.”
Lucchini’s 35 goals and 83 point total, fourth in the league, is one of the highest for the Smoke Eaters since Massimo Provenzano won the BCHL scoring title for Trail in 1998. Lucchini is the only Smokie to finish in the top 10 in BCHL scoring in the last 10 years, and was voted Interior division MVP but lost out in the final ballot for league MVP to Corey Mackin of Coquitlam Express earlier this week.
Going forward, the Smoke Eaters should have a solid core of returnees with forwards Orr, Connor Brown-Maloski, Kienan Scott, Max Newton, Johnson, Cooper Leitch, Sheldon Brett, and Jordan Passmore, along with defencemen Jeremy Lucchini, Dexter McLeod, Evan MacEachern, and Stephen Penner, and goaltender Brett Clark eligible to return next year.
“If you look at last year, three players returned and 19 new bodies, so I was going crazy at the super market buying everything off the shelf. This year it’s going to be okay, we need two or three here, so lets identify the very best and hit them hard.”
As for local players, the Smoke Eaters also took good looks at Beaver Valley Nitehawk 16-year-old forwards Ross Armour who played six games for Trail as AP, and Spencer McLean who played five.
“As an organization, we always want to work with players who are from this area, and comfortable here, and have that connection and it paid off really well this year, so it’s always going to be a priority of ours to hold onto our homegrown talent.”
Deschenes now begins a long summer of recruiting and evaluating beginning with Trail’s spring camp at the Cominco Arena Mar. 27-29, and another scheduled for Whistler May 29-31.
“The decision making process will take a little bit longer, to make sure we hit home runs on every player we bring in, because that’s the reality of Trail getting into the playoffs is we have to have 20 guys that can play the game really well.”
As for lessons learned for what he also described as an underachieving year, the Yale alumnus will make some changes externally and internally for the upcoming season.
“I would restructure our daily routine,” said Deschenes. “I think there needed to be a little more flexibility there. I will also do a little more preparation and planning and systems throughout the offseason, and bring more of a positive approach to my coaching style. It’s different times . . . and we did have better results after Christmas and were very competitive with that kind of an approach, so I obviously want to get better myself, and of course get the most out of our players.”