The Trail Smoke Eaters are in a dogfight for a playoff spot, but led by forward Brent Baltus the team is finding it has the fire power to compete with any team in the BCHL.
Just barely half way through the season, and coming off a two-goal performance in a win against the league-leading Chilliwack Chiefs on Sunday, Baltus has already hit the 20-goal mark and is leading the league in goals, while tied for second in points with 35.
“It is kind of nice to have a breakout season in the BCHL because last year I definitely didn’t produce quite as much, so it is nice to contribute offensively,” said Baltus Wednesday.
Baltus has already surpassed his total output from last year, 14-16-30, and attributes his early success to renewed confidence.
“I put in a lot of work in the off season, but I think it is just a lot to do with confidence and having a bigger role on the team this year, with more ice time, and more responsibility, but I think confidence is the biggest thing.”
The Smokies coaching staff depend on the skilled winger to be a leader on and off the ice, and knows he is a reliable and productive asset in any situation whether it be the power play, penalty kill, or even strength.
“He’s been up there now (at the top of scoring race) for a few weeks, it’s not like it just happened recently,” said assistant coach Brent Heaven. “He’s been great all the time. He works hard and you know what you’re going to get out of him every night – without him we’d be a lot different team.”
His success has not gone unnoticed outside of the BCHL either. Last month the graduating forward also committed to play for the University of Alaska, Anchorage Seawolves in the NCAA Div. 1 hockey.
“I am really looking forward to next year, but we’ve got the rest of this year to focus on for now so we’ll see what happens,” said Baltus.
Just how special is Baltus?
Trail has not had a top 10 scorer since Massimo Provenzano won the scoring title in 1997 and not one 20-goal scorer in all of last year. Not since Kyle Jones scored 54 goals in 2003-04 has there been a player as prolific with the puck as the 20-year-old Nanaimo native, and Jones finished 11th in scoring that year.
It would be a rare accomplishment for a Smoke Eater to finish the season at the top of the scoring race, but Baltus recognizes his individual success takes a back seat to the team’s.
“That would definitely be a bonus, but I think the main goal for us right now is to get into the playoffs, and whatever happens with the scoring race happens.”
Linemate Garrett McMullen is also producing, and is currently in the top 20 in league scoring, while Tyler Berkholtz and import Luke Sandler are contributing more and more as the season wears on. Sandler had a big four-point night against the Chiefs, and along with McMullen, the Smokies are on pace to have at least three 20-goal scorers this season.
But all engines have to keep firing if the Smokies are to move up the standings and secure a playoff spot in the tight Interior division.
“Any two games can change the standings. It’s tight and you can’t afford to give away points. The inter-divisional games, you’ve got to get those wins and try to get a bit of a cushion before we go into the Christmas break,” says Heaven.