Trail Smoke Eaters coaching staff didn’t take any time off as they prepared for their annual Spring Camp this weekend.
Following an impressive playoff run that came to an end March 25 in Game 7 of the BCHL Interior Division semifinal, coach and GM Jeff Tambellini, assistants Jessie Leung, Dustin Korlak and Barry Zanier and Director of Hockey Ops Craig Clare put on their recruiting caps to identify potential Smoke Eaters.
“We’re excited that at least we can focus full time on that (the spring camp),” said Tambellini. “We got an outstanding group of recruits coming and we have some spots where we’d love to see as many players as possible.”
About 65 players will hit the ice Friday, divided into four teams for three days of scrimmage. Trail’s highly-touted commits like Kelowna Rockets leading scorers Colby Elmer and Chase Dafoe, d-men Jordan Hendry and Corey McCann, and goalie Logan Terness will be at the camp, and Tambellini also hopes to find one or two diamonds in the rough.
“We had a player like Michael Hodge come to the spring camp this year and he was on the first-line power play for the first 30 games. So my philosophy as a General Manager is you take the best player available and you never know where your going to find that player.”
KIJHL prospects will also be in the mix, with Nitehawks Michael Hagen, Paul Leroux, and Nolan Corrado expected to attend, as well as a strong contingent of local players including Anthony Williams, Austin McKenzie, Cooper Ross, Jarred Macasso, Zackary Park, Jacob Smith, and goalie Kevin Engman.
“We have a good local group coming,” said Clare. “The key is right now we have a good defensive core coming back, we have some forwards, we’re going out recruiting and we have some guys that we have coming in to build a strong line up.”
The Smoke Eaters start with a somewhat firmer foundation than last season, when Trail had to surrender top-end forwards Andre Ghantous, Ryan Moon, and Daine Dubois as part of the futures deal made in trades for goalie Adam Marcoux and d-man Connor Welsh.
“That’s the most exciting thing is that we didn’t have to give up anything at the trade deadline to add people,” said Tambellini. “Last year we gave up three players for futures trades and that really hurt us.”
The Smoke Eaters saw five players graduate this season, and may lose five more to NCAA commitments, including Carter Jones (Bemidji State), Tyler Ghirardosi (Quinnipiac), Powell Connor (Michigan State), Hayden Rowan (Yale) and Chase Stevenson (New Hampshire), however, Trail’s returning contingent is a promising one.
The Smoke Eaters hope to have as many as 10-12 players back, led by veterans Mack Byers, Owen Ozar, Diarmad DiMurro and rookie sensation Kent Johnson.
“Kent Johnson is going to be a super star next year and we’re going to build a line that is a top line in the league,” said Tambellini. “But that’s up to us to recruit a couple certain players that should be coming our way.”
Trail’s defence is a bright spot going into camp with Jimmy Darby, Trevor Isaksson, Kyle Budvarson, Luke Gallagher, DiMurro, and Kieran O’Hearn set to return. A stark contrast to last year, when there were only two returning blue-liners.
“The biggest thing this year was to get our defence to a spot where they can really help us win games, so to have almost a full returning defence is going to be outstanding,” said Tambellini.
Trail’s trade-deadline pickups, defenceman Gallagher and goalie Donovan Buskey, were big pieces of the Smokies playoff run and while Gallagher is expected to be back, Buskey is still a question mark, and may return to the WHL.
As for the rookie coach and GM, Tambellini faced a lot of challenges in his first year behind the bench. Many questioned his ability, pointing to a lack of coaching experience, particularly mid-season when the Smokies won just seven of 22 games, after trading veteran defenceman Jeremy Smith and top-end forward Levi Glasman.
However, a strong finish and inspired play in the playoffs put those fears to rest, and bodes well for the upcoming Smoke Eaters class of 2019-20.
“In a rebuild year, for us to be able to get to where we got to with that group, we put young guys in big games and that can only help for next year,” said Tambellini. “They progressed so fast in one year. There’s a learning curve yes, but if you take time to develop these kids, what you get in the second year is very promising.”
Players that perform well in Spring Camp, get invited back to the Smoke Eaters Main Camp in August. The 2019-20 BCHL season gets underway the first week of September.
“I’m not sure how we’re going to start, but by the time we get to the playoffs next year, this team is going to be a lot to handle,” added Tambellini.
The Spring Camp scrimmages go at 5:30 and 7 p.m. on Friday, and on Saturday at 10 and 11:30 a.m. and 3:45 and 6 p.m. The Camp wraps up Sunday with games at 8 and 10:30 a.m. followed by exit interviews, all at the Cominco Arena in Trail.