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Victoria Grizzlies counting on young guns

Brendan Bowie had 88 points in 55 games for St. Andrew’s College in Ontario last season.
Photograph By DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Brian Drewry / Times Colonist
SEPTEMBER 6, 2019 09:57 PM

Rebuild, retool, youth movement, call it what you want, the Victoria Grizzlies are in it.

After a long playoff run a season ago with the likes of NHL draft picks Alex Newhook (Colorado Avalanche), Alex Campbell (Nashville Predators), Carter Berger (Florida Panthers) and Riley Hughes (New York Rangers), the Grizzlies’ roster for the 2019-20 B.C. Hockey League season is being rebuilt this season by general manager and head coach Craig Didmon.

And after a busy off-season of recruiting, Didmon has brought in some key pieces to help get the Grizzlies back on track in the Island Division.

“We’re happy with where we’re at right now, but yes, we are a little raw so it might take a few games to get on track,” said Didmon, whose team opens the season tonight in Duncan against the Cowichan Valley Capitals.

Here’s a look at how things break down for the Grizzlies.

• FORWARDS

The Grizzlies will be counting on new captain and 20-year-old sniper Marty Westhaver to carry a huge load up front as Victoria is without its top seven scorers from last season. And Westhaver, entering his fourth season in the Grizzlies’ den, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I have a lot of goals in mind this season, but mainly I want to be a top-10 scorer in this league and I’m confident I can do that this season, especially with the young, fast forwards we have coming in,” said Westhaver.

Westhaver had 16 goals and 11 assists last season when he was the only Grizzly to play all 58 regular season games. But it was in the playoffs where the speedy winger/centre really caught fire scoring eight goals and eight assists in 13 games before his post-season was cut short by a shoulder injury in the Coastal Conference final against league champion Prince George.

“Based on last year’s playoffs and what I’ve seen in the preseason, I expect Marty to be one of the best forwards in the league,” said Didmon. “And Marty is a complete player, a 200-foot player, and yes he’ll be pressed to be more offensive this year, but he brings an ability to play at both ends of the rink and that’s great asset to have.”

Westhaver will be surrounded by some new faces and some familiar ones. Eddie Yan, Darwin Lakoduc and Henri Schreifels are entering their second years in the league and Didmon expects more offence from all three, who are fast and skilled and not afraid to go to the net.

And newcomers Brendan Bowie, Cody Monds and Chase McInnis — all 18-year-olds — are coming off big point-producing seasons for their prep schools out east and will be counted on to score at the junior level if the Grizzlies are to be near the top of the BCHL again. Bowie (St. Lawrence), Monds (Providence) and McInnis (Northeastern) have all committed to NCAA schools for 2021. The addition of Bryce Anderson from the Trail Smoke Eaters also adds some speed up front.

“This will be a team that is deep, that we can roll over even four lines,” added Didmon. “And Monds, Bowie and McInnis can step right in, in a top-six role, and then you have Yan, Lakoduc and Schreifels who will see much bigger roles this season, and then guys like [Stephen] Konroyd and [Jake] Veilleux bring some grit to the lineup so I really like our makeup of forwards.”

• DEFENCE

The Grizzlies bring back 20-year-old Nico Somerville and 19-year-old Brady MacDonald, who will sport an ‘A’ on their jerseys as assistant captains. Somerville had a career-high six goals and 24 assists in 57 regular season games last year and will be counted on to quarterback the Grizzlies’ power play this season. The Grizzlies’ second pairing will be the rookie tandem of 19-year-old American James Davenport, who already has an NCAA scholarship to Brown University in his back pocket, and 18-year-old Quebec native Isack Bandu. Both had impressive preseasons.

“Somerville and MacDonald were in our top four last season and now we have no problem making them our top pairing,” said Didmon. “And we have [Reid] Lindsay and [Ryan] Fischer returning so the fact we are a relatively new defensive unit, we do have four returnees.”

Didmon also expects big things from the newest and youngest Grizzlie, Chace Oliver. The 17-year-old younger brother of Victoria Royals forward Kaid Oliver attended the Lethbridge Hurricanes WHL training camp, but the 6-foot-1, 175-pound blue-liner has decided to play in the BCHL.

“Chace is a tough kid with a lot of skill who, if he has a good season, could find himself on the [NHL Central Scouting] draft list.”

• GOALTENDING

The one position where the Grizzlies are completely set is between the pipes with 20-year-old veteran Liam Souliere and 18-year-old rookie Joe Howe.

The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Souliere played Junior A last season in Ontario for the Brockville Braves where he posted a 2.13 goals-against average and .930 save percentage, which led to a spot on Team Canada East for the World Junior A Challenge and a scholarship next fall to Penn State.

And despite an early injury setback that limited Souliere to one preseason game and may keep him out of tonight’s opener, Didmon is excited to see what the veteran can do. If Souliere can’t play tonight, the 6-foot-3, 185-pound Howe will make his Junior A debut after coming west from Upper Canada College, where he spent the past two season.

“Liam is a guy who has played a ton of junior hockey and had a lot of success, and when he did play in the preseason he showed he’s a calm, collected goalie and that’s exactly what this young team needs,” said Didmon.

“And Joe, you can tell he’s going to be a real good goalie in this league, he’s big and agile, so we’re really happy with where our goaltending situation is right now.”

• SYNOPSIS

The Grizzlies are young with only three 20-year-olds (Westhaver, Somerville, Souliere) while most teams will carry five or six, so Didmon does have some room to add players if needed because the Island Division will be a tough one again. Powell River and Nanaimo return several key players and Mike Vandekamp’s Capitals are coming off an impressive playoff run where they knocked off the Penticton Vees.

“I see the Island Division as even better than last season,” said Westhaver. “It may not have one powerhouse team but this year every team looks good, there’s no weak link, so there’s going to be a lot of parity. Teams coming to the Island to play are going to have a tough time.”

Making things even tougher for the Grizzlies is the Mann Cup being played at The Q Centre. The Grizzlies are forced to play their first seven games on the road.

“It’s a tall order,” said Didmon. “The stars are going to have to align for us because this is a tough league to win on the road. So we’re going to try to get better every period and I think we’re ready for the task and will be a better team for it when it’s all said and done.”

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