Going into their opening home game of the BCHL season at the Cominco Arena tonight the Trail Smoke Eaters will have arguably their toughest test of the young season as they face off against the Penticton Vees.
How they match up will be a good indication of the Smokies compete level in the BCHL.
Early results including a resounding 6-2 win over Cowichan Valley Capitals on Sunday, suggests that the Smoke Eaters are a very different team in 2013-14, one that, I predict, will take the next step into the playoffs.
Here are five random reasons why.
1. Goaltending. It can’t be underestimated how important good goaltending is to a team, and the Smokies have acquired two eminently capable backstops in Adam Todd and Dustin Nikkel. Last season the Smokies were four points from a playoff spot in the Interior divsion, and would have made the postseason in either the Island or Mainland divisions despite having the worst goals against of any team in the league, 229, and the second worst goal differential, -58; which means they were scored on 58 more times than they put the puck into the opposing team’s net. That will not happen this season with a solid cast of veteran d-men and two very good goalies, look to see the goal differential move into positive territory.
2. Trail will identify a top forward line that should produce one or two top 20 scorers. Trail hasn’t had anyone finish in the BCHL top 10 scoring in the past 10 years, and you have to go back to 2010-11 since the Smokies had one, well actually two, in the top 20 in Scott Jacklin, 11th, and Sam Mellor, 16th. Scoring by committee is not a bad thing, and the more support from second, third, and fourth lines is a definite bonus, but few teams win a Cup – RBC, Memorial, Stanley or otherwise – without a highly skilled go-to trio that thrives on pressure and putting the puck in the net. Finding the right chemistry among top forwards like Knowler, Knapp, Davidson, Lamont, Kaupilla, Witala, and Stephens will be essential for success.
3. Few teams win championships without a premier defenceman. Look at Stanley Cup champion Chicago’s Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, L.A.’s Drew Doughty or Boston’s Zdeno Chara. A team needs a top point man who logs tons of minutes, kills penalties, backstops the power play, makes pinpoint passes and outworks everyone inside their own blue line. The Smokies have a very skilled D-man in Braden Pears who skates as smooth as and has the play-making ability of a Paul Coffey. The Smokies will look to Pears to fulfill that role, while being responsible in his own end. That part can be bruising, unspectacular work, where a successful shift is often measured by the absence of opposition scoring chances or spectacular plays.
4. An effective shut-down line. As much as a team needs to score goals, it also needs a relentless, hard working line, that harasses and hinders the opposition’s skilled top line into complete futility. The addition of Riley Brandt, Adam Ulfsax, Broden Nielsen, and Linden Horswill will compliment the hard work of a Jake Lucchini, Mitch Foyle, and Adam Wheeldon, and any combination should neutralize the opposition’s big guns.
5. Character and coaching. If anything can be said about last year’s Trail Smoke Eaters is that they bled character: that intangible and often elusive quality that makes good players and teams great, and not so-good ones better.
It starts with the coaching staff and filters down. Bill Birks is definitely an old-school coach who would rather outwork an opponent than outdazzle them, and last year’s team was a prime example of a hardworking, character team that never gave up, yet was occassionally overmatched. Birks is joined by his two assistants and studies’ in contrast, a cerebral Barry Zanier, and a youthful new addition in Craig Clair. A good mix of youth, brains, and guts should translate into effective motivators and communicators, and with a quality guy like Wheeldon as captain, and the support of a strong group of veteran players, this team should not lack in character or commitment.
Add it all up and a top-four finish in the Interior Division is inevitable if not essential.