It won’t take long for the Trail Smoke Eaters to see how they stack up against BCHL’s best when they open the 2019-20 season against the Penticton Vees this weekend.
The Vees have won eight straight Interior Division regular-season titles, and during that span captured three Fred Page Cups (the BCHL championship) and the 2012 RBC Cup national championship.
Trail faces its Interior Division rival in two back-to-back home games on Friday and Saturday.
“They (the Vees) are probably the most high profile team coming out of exhibition,” said Smoke Eaters head coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “They went 6-0 and came out of it pretty healthy, so it will be a great test.”
Despite taking top spot in the Interior last season, the Vees were unceremoniously dispatched in the first round of the playoffs in six games by the eighth-seed, Cowichan Valley Capitals.
Regardless, the Fred Harbinson coached team has a history of recruiting top players, and many highly-touted prospects choose Penticton because of its reputation.
Case in point: the Vees were the benefactors of a recent windfall when Jay O’Brien, a 2018 first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers, serendipitously fell into their line up. The talented forward was plagued by injury last season and had a less than banner year for NCAA Providence College. The Flyers’ coaching staff decided a change of scenery would be good for O’Brien.
“Brent Hextall, actually he played here (2006-08) and is one of the player development guys in Philly,” O’Brien said in a Global News interview. “And he said if you are going to go this route, you should play in Penticton.”
The 19-year-old centre looks to be back in form, scoring five points in two preseason games. The rest of the Vees line up is as potent with familiar NHL names like Jackson Neidermeyer returning and rookie Tristan Amonte following in his brother Ty’s footsteps. The Vees also completed its exhibition season with a two-game sweep of the defending National Junior A champion Brooks Bandits.
“We’re not so much worried about the last names,” said Tambellini. “If you look on both teams there is pretty high-profile names on both sides. We’re interested in matchups and we like how we’re built.”
The Vees will ice 13 committed players (eight for Trail), including returning veteran forwards David Silye, who scored 60 points with the Vees last season, Lukas Sillinger (14-12-26) and Jake Barnes (9-10-19), as well as veteran defencemen Carson Kosobud, Connor Hutchison, and former Trail Smoke Eater, Ethan Martini.
Literally, a huge addition on the Vees backend is 18-year-old defenceman Cade Webber, the Carolina Hurricanes 2019 fourth-round draft pick. The six-foot-seven, 200-pound Pennsylvania native was a member of U18 Team USA that played in the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, and is committed to Boston University.
In goal, Derek Krall, 20, returns to the Vees after a limited backup role last season, and 19-year-old Yaniv Perets, a Qunnipiac University commit from Quebec, rounds out the tandem.
The Smoke Eaters are a fast, hard working team that should be able to keep pace with the Vees. If Trail can limit Penticton’s scoring chances and play disciplined defensively, as they did in the preseason, then expect a couple of low scoring matches; but shutting down Sillinger, Silye, and O’Brien will be key to Trail’s success this weekend.
“I think the identities of the teams are different,” said Tambellini. “They have some high-end guys, and our job is to shut those guys down. We’re looking to give them a test that they didn’t get in the preseason so it’ll be very interesting, and a lot of emotion in both those games.”
Last season, the Smoke Eaters went 2-2-0-2 against Penticton with every game decided by one goal except a 7-4 loss. Trail finished in seventh place in the Interior with a 23-24-8-3 record, while Penticton put up a 37-16-3-2 record.
Finishing first or last in the Interior Division, however, didn’t mean much in the playoffs. Trail went on to play in Game 7 of the Interior semifinal, and the Vees were done in the first round. Nevertheless, wins early in the season will be a confidence builder and can make a difference when it comes down to the real season.
“It’s going to be two teams that are veteran teams, and they’re healthy,” said Tambellini. “We’re down a big player, but I think just to have a starting series where it’s two teams that have strong expectations for the season ahead, it’ll put a lot of guys in game mode right off the first two games here. So until that puck drops we’re not sure how this matchup’s going to look but we’re excited to get into a very important game right off the start.”
Trail hosts Penticton at the Cominco Arena with the puck drop at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.