The Trail Smoke Eaters trimmed their roster down to 30 skaters after their training camp wrapped up on Wednesday.
The three-day camp saw 40 players take to the ice, including 10 returning Smoke Eaters looking to reclaim their positions, and at least a half dozen summer commitments and acquisitions.
“I was impressed with the compete level,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Nick Deschenes. “We had a pretty full camp and guys were able to push the pace and it was intensive, but at the end of the day it gave us a really good chance to see whose made progress and where everyone is at.”
After giving up the second most goals against (249) in the BCHL last season, a priority for the Smoke Eaters going into this campaign is to shore up its defence and goaltending. Connecticut native Bailey Macburnie, age 20, looked solid and confident in goal during the three scrimmages, and will be the Smokie starter come Sept. 11, against Vernon. Although, there were 14 defenceman in camp, the Smokies are likely looking to fill only one or two spots, however, expectations will be big for returning and committed defencemen.
“It was a priority,” said Deschenes. “And I think we have that goaltending part of the equation sorted, and I think now we still need to see what we have with the group right now, and see how far it can take us into the start of the season.”
On the front lines, newly acquired veterans like Kolby Livingstone, Kurt Black, Rhett Wilcox, and Jake Kauppila, along with returnees Harlan Orr, Max Newton, Kienan Scott, Connor Brown-Maloski, and Robbie Johnson provide skill, some size, and speed, and will be relied on to pick up the scoring pace.
“With our rink we definitely want a mix, we want a lot of speed, I think as long as we have a good balance (of size and speed) we’ll be in good shape.”
One of the camp’s pleasant surprises was the play of 18-year-old forward Kale Howarth from Red Deer, who played with the AAA Red Deer Midget Chiefs last season.
“He came to us unexpectedly, kind of bypassed the camp process, and I think he has a strong case, lots of potential, moves really well, so we’re going to have some tough decisions moving ahead here.”
Committed local players Spencer McLean and Ross Armour looked good up front for the Smokies, and Trail native Jake Yuris was impressive on defence. All three were back on the ice with the team on Thursday following Wednesday’s cuts.
The Smoke Eaters now ready for their first exhibition game of the season in Kelowna tonight against the Warriors. Their brief exhibition schedule doesn’t allow for a lot of preparation but a game Saturday in Trail and two against Selkirk College will have to be enough for the Interior division Smokies.
“It all depends on your evaluation process,” said Deschenes. “Sometimes you know your group, and either you need practices to prepare or you might need games to see them in action. But the reality for Trail is that we’re pretty isolated . . . so we’ll definitely have played less than anyone in our division but last year wasn’t an issue getting out of the gate.”
After a good start, Trail would slump mid-season and finish in sixth spot in the BCHL’s always tough Interior division with a 19-33-0-6 record. It was an improvement from the previous year where the team struggled to win just 10 games. Since moving to a three-division format four years ago, 26 wins was the lowest number of wins required to secure a playoff spot. Although early, when asked, whether this edition of the Trail Smoke Eaters will have the necessary tools to make the playoffs, the Smokie coach was cautious.
“I will have to hold off on that one, because the feelings I had last year at this time and the early season felt a lot differently from where the group ended up results-wise. I think there were lots of lessons learned and one was good starts don’t necessarily mean much. Seeing what we have now and assessing it but obviously we have to stay on our toes throughout the whole season and make sure we’re progressing as much as possible, because we’re going to face some stiff competition here this season.”
The Warriors dropped a 3-2 decision to the Penticton Vees in their first exhibition match, but have had a busy offseason getting bigger and older. The Warriors added 20-year-old goalie Daniel Mannella from the Ontario Junior Hockey League. Mennella posted a 17-14-1 record last year, with a very respectable 2.08 GAA and a .927 save percentage. West K also acquired forwards Garrett Forster, 20, from Victoria Grizzlies and the rights to Luke Harrison, 20, who is currently with the Kamloops Blazers of the WHL. The Blazers have six 20-year-old players at camp, and with a cap of only three overage players, there is a chance that Harrison could end up in Kelowna. The Warriors also traded forward Josh Bly for six-foot-four defenceman Tyler Anderson of Niverville, Man. Anderson played with Kindersley Klippers of the SJHL last season picking up three goals and eight assists to go along with 95 penalty minutes.
Trail plays a pair of exhibition games with the Selkirk College Saints next week, with the first match going Friday in Castlegar at 7 p.m. and Saturday’s game at Cominco Arena in Trail at 7:30 p.m.