Optimism reigns supreme as the Victoria Grizzlies head to B.C. Hockey League training camp, starting Monday at Juan de Fuca Arena.
The 2016-17 version of the club is much different from a season ago when returning players were few and far between.
“It’s probably going to be one of the more competitive camps we’ve had in years,” said Grizzlies general manager and head coach Craig Didmon. “It’s a different situation from last year for the fact that we had so many young guys coming in. This one is one where guys could be pushed out, so it will be interesting, for sure.”
A total of 12 returning players will hit the ice, including goalies Mitch Benson and Matthew Galajda. The strength sits there and in defencemen Cody Van Lierop, Jake Stevens, Brett Stirling and Drayson Pears. Nico Somerville, of the Victoria Cougars, was also an affiliated player last season who Didmon believed could have played in the BCHL.
Up front is where the question marks come.
Didmon will look to veterans Cole Pickup, Keyvan Mokhtari and Tyler Welsh to produce some much-needed offensive numbers. Nick Guiney, Spencer Hunter and Alex Peck are all back. Nathan Looysen, who suited up in a pair of games for the Grizzlies last year, is joining the club, deciding not to move to Saskatchewan.
Many other prospects will battle for forward positions including locals Cam Thompson, Cory Hatcher and Marty Westhaver. Others to watch are Sage Englund of Arizona, who played in Massachusetts; Jett Jaraczewski of Wisconsin; Calgary’s Jamie Rome; Justin Michaelian of Michigan — all strong 1997- or 1998-born athletes. Defenceman Dayne Finnson of Manitoba is another to keep an eye on.
“It’s going to be one of those camps where things are decided through exhibition games,” said Didmon. “There is a really good veteran core coming back. There are some really good prospects that are coming in and challenging guys for spots.
“It’s the unknown, really,” Didmon said. “As far as defensive corps and goaltending is considered, I think we’re really solid. Up front, it’s the guys that show us in camp that they can post some numbers this year who will get the opportunity.”
Pickup, a 20-year-old who had 20 goals and 28 assists last season, is among the top six forwards. His 48-point total was third on the team last season behind now graduated players Brayden Gelsinger and P.J. Conlon. Welsh was next with 40 points and Mokhtari added 30.
“It’s kind of nice to know what you have and what you’re bringing to camp,” said Pickup. “Last year we didn’t know what was going to happen. We had some really good players who are now coming back and had some good players who have moved on.
“We were young down the stretch last year, and we could tell. This year, having the amount of vets coming back, is going to be that much more helpful,” he added.
“Guys are battling for jobs and that’s probably good for training camp. You don’t want a bunch coming back and thinking they’re already on the team. It pushes the pace for us during the summer.”
What Didmon does have is an extra 20-year-old. It’s shaping up for Guiney and Peck to be battling for one position as Pickup, Stirling, Stevens, Van Lierop and Looysen will all be depended on and should be guaranteed spots.
“He’s a legitimate top six guy or even a top-three guy,” Didmon said of Looysen, who had 101 points for the Victoria Cougars last season. “We think he can score goals for us.”
The Grizzlies will skate Monday and Tuesday with intra-squad games throughout and then Didmon pushes the group right into four straight exhibition games, which start on Wednesday at Juan de Fuca Arena at 7 p.m. against Alberni Valley.
On Thursday, they are in Duncan to face the Cowichan Valley Capitals before the two teams return to JDF on Friday at 7 p.m. Victoria then heads to Alberni Valley on Saturday.
After the exhibition games, Didmon is expected to whittle down to 15 forwards, eight defencemen and three goalies and begin simulating a regular-season week with practices.
He’ll have 45 skaters to start on Monday (first session at 1:30 p.m.), but wants to be down to 30 after two days. Intra-squad games go at 6:30 p.m. (young guns) and 8 p.m. (main camp) on Monday and beginning at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday.