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Grizzlies, Kings on Island Division collision course

MARIO ANNICCHIARICO / TIMES COLONIST
SEPTEMBER 6, 2017 10:25 PM

The Victoria Grizzlies appear to be loaded for bear up front, but the questions heading into the 2017-18 B.C. Hockey League season will be how they fare on defence and in goal.

General manager and head coach Craig Didmon’s team opens play with a weekend set in Powell River on Friday and Saturday night. Victoria will be looking to claim its fourth Island Division title in six years, having achieved the feat in 2012-13, 2013-14 and last season.

The firepower at forward should not be an issue as veterans Jamie Rome, Justin Michaelian, captain Lucas Clark, T.J. Friedmann, Cam Thompson, Shawn O’Malley and Marty Westhaver all return. The much heralded Alex Newhook out of Newfoundland, just 16, is among the newcomers, along with 20-year-old Ethan Nother and 19-year-old Ryan Nolan, who have shown well.

You can add locals Jordan Guiney and Lach Hadley to the mix — who both played as affiliates last season — and scoring should not be a concern.

“We have three lines of veteran players, with Newhook involved in that, so eight veteran forwards,” Didmon said of his forward units. “Westhaver has shown that he will add offence this year and guys like Cam Thompson have matured.

“Suddenly there is good depth there and the kids who really came to camp in good shape and have shown lots of development through the off-season are the three kids from the States — Friedmann, O’Malley and Michaelian. They have been the most impressive through camp.”

The trio will play together and could form the No. 1 unit.

Rome, Clark and Thompson will be counted on to carry a heavy load as well.

On defence, veterans Drayson Pears and Dayne Finnson should form the No. 1 pairing and fellow veterans Nico Somerville and Carter Berger are also back. Didmon added talented local 16-year-old Jacson Alexander and some experience in 20-year-old Matthew Doran of St. Louis. Cole Noble, from the Alberta Junior Hockey League, rounds out the blue line.

The Grizzlies lost BCHL defenceman of the year Jake Stevens, captain Cody Van Lierop and Brett Stirling to graduation, which means a lot of ice time, points and leadership on the blue line are gone.

“Doran, I have been really impressed with,” said Didmon. “He’s shown he can be an elite player in our league — a big, physical defenceman. He wanted to come to the BCHL and see if he could get some exposure.

“To me, between him and Finnson, they are two 20-year-olds who show lots of maturity and have junior experience. Pears is in his third year and we have second-year guys in Berger and Somerville. Jacson has shown me he can be an elite player right away.”

Goaltending is a key area to watch as Zack Rose takes over the No. 1 spot, recruited from Lake Forest Academy near Chicago. Local Shawn Parkinson, who also played as an affiliate with the Grizzlies last season, out-duelled Jonah Capriotti to earn the backup spot.

How the two fare with little Junior A experience will be a key.

“I like the goalies. I think they’re skilled. The only thing they lack is experience,” said Didmon. “But we do have a lineup in front of them that should give them time to get acquainted in the league and adjust, much like two years ago.”

Defencemen Pears and Finnson are the assistant captains, along with Rome.

“We definitely lost some size and experience on the back end, but the guys coming in are going to step in a lot. Doran is an experienced guy,” said Pears, who is looking to have a strong year. “We just have to play tight together.

“I think in exhibition we definitely could have worked on that a bit more, but we’re into the regular season now and we know what we have to fix. I think we have a great group. We know what we need to work on and I think we have a definite shot,” added Pears.

Limiting shots and pinning opponents in offensively will go a long way.

“I think they will need to mature as a group and not rest on their laurels. They have to realize that teams will be coming at us,” said Didmon, who likes this group and is expecting as strong a year as last season when the Grizz finished an impressive 37-12-5-4. “I just have to make sure that they work hard. If they do that and pay their dues, they will be fine.”

As for the rest of the Island Division, the Grizzlies will face Powell River to start, the Kent Lewis coached team which features plenty of talent up front in the likes of Jonny Evans, Hunter Findlater, Carter Turnbull, Gavin Rauser, Ben Berard and Josh Coblenz.

The Alberni Valley Bulldogs and Cowichan Valley Capitals both feature change at the top.

The Bulldogs hired Matt Hughes as head coach and general manager, signing the former Pursuit of Excellence hockey academy (Kelowna) U-18 Midget Prep team coach to a two-year agreement with an option for a one-year renewal. Hughes then brought on Jeff Dubois, of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League’s Creston Valley Thunder Cats, as both assistant coach and assistant GM.

In Duncan, the Capitals hand the GM and head coaching duties over to Brian Passmore, who is well known on the Island having run the Peninsula Panthers and Westshore Wolves of the VIJHL, before spending the last two years as head coach of Shawnigan Lake School’s Bantam Prep team.

Passmore — a seventh-round pick of the Minnesota Wild in 1999 who went on to play more than 300 pro games between 2003-09 — takes over from Bob Beatty, who resigned after four seasons.

In Nanaimo, the always feisty Mike Vandekamp remains as GM and head coach. The focus up Island this off-season was on saving the team and bringing in more local ownership. The question will be how the organization handles all the interest that generated.

Among Vandekamp’s recruits this season is 20-year-old defenceman Jordan Wharrie, a former Victoria Royal who also had major junior stints in Brandon, Vancouver and Everett.

Alberni Valley opens in Nanaimo on Friday and the Clippers then travel to Cowichan on Saturday.

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