The Kamloops Blazers are red hot to begin the new season.
Winners of four of five contests, the Blazers sit tied for top spot in the WHL’s B.C. Division, with the club’s most recent victory coming Saturday in an overtime thriller versus Victoria that saw second-year centre and 2021 NHL Draft prospect Logan Stankoven score late in the first period before adding a pair of helpers and the eventual game winner in the extra frame.
A gifted goal scorer, Stankoven’s early performance in which he has collected a team-leading eight points counting five goals and three assists – including three game-winning tallies – across four appearances comes on the heels of a dominant freshman campaign that saw him finish with 48 points and as a finalist for the Jim Piggott Trophy as the WHL Rookie of the Year.
A projected early round selection in the coming NHL Draft per Central Scouting, Stankoven has a brief window on WHL ice to impress talent evaluators before joining 22 other CHL talents later this month when the Kamloops local will head to Texas to represent Canada at the 2021 IIHF World Under-18 Championship.
“There was a little bit of pressure at the beginning of the season, finding out we only have 24 games to showcase ourselves,” Stankoven told Marty Hastings of Kamloops This Week. “Now with being invited to the U18s, I only have a few more games left before I start my quarantine. I realized I cannot take a night off or a game off. I only have a short stint of games to showcase myself and show the scouts and the people watching my skills and what I am made of. One bad night could change a lot.”
Notably, Stankoven is touted for his ability to find the scoresheet with regularity, something that has not been hampered despite his smaller stature. Of course, an extended offseason of working on an already lethal release has helped the budding talent reach another level in the goal-scoring column.
“The guys who are able to improve that much, they believe in themselves,” Blazers head coach Shaun Clouston told Hastings. “It is hard to put in that much work for that long if you do not believe in yourself. He believes in himself. He is not happy to have a good shot. He wants a great shot. Or maybe he has got a great shot and he wants the best shot.”
With the Blazers, while Stankoven leads the team in scoring, the club is also receiving strong offensive support elsewhere, most notably from fourth-year centre and Calgary Flames first-round pick Connor Zary, who also began the new campaign sporting the captaincy in Kamloops.
Following the 2019-20 season in which he jumped to 86 points to finish second in team scoring and earned recognition as a WHL Western Conference First Team All-Star, Zary got a taste of the pro ranks during the extended offseason, suiting up for nine games with the Stockton Heat – the Flames’ top minor-league affiliate – in which he lived up to his billing as a dynamic offensive talent by recording three goals and four assists.
“I think any time you can kind of soak in those experiences, it is going to be beneficial toward your career,” Zary told Daniel Austin of the Calgary Sun. “Sometimes a guy just tries to do too much or gets away from what he does best. For me, obviously the battle-level increases and the pace increases, but for me it is sticking to my strengths and still playing my game. It is not changing too much of what I do and trying to help the team win.”
Rounding out the forward ranks, Kamloops brings plenty of other scoring options like overage left-wing Orrin Centazzo, sophomore right-wing Matthew Seminoff, and 2021 NHL Draft hopeful centre Caedan Bankier – all of whom are producing at or above a point-per-game pace through the early goings – but the Blazers are also as equally talented on the back end.
In their own zone, the Blazers bring an intriguing collection of rearguards headlined by Tampa Bay Lightning draftee Quinn Schmiemann, a talented puck-moving defenceman who took another step last season in recording a career-high 37 points through 60 contests. That strong offensive showing has carried into the new campaign, with Schmiemann already with four points to his name, a total matched by overager and fellow defender Montana Onyebuchi for the team lead in defensive scoring.
Meanwhile, in the crease, Kamloops returns 18-year-old netminder Dylan Garand who assumed the starter’s role a year ago and impressed in coming up with 28 victories through 42 showings as well as a .921 save percentage that ranked second among all goaltenders who saw as much time in the blue paint.
Hearing his name called in the fourth round of the 2020 NHL Draft by the New York Rangers, Garand began the year in trying his hand at the pro ranks, seeing a pair of appearances with the Hartford Wolf Pack, the Rangers’ AHL farm club. The Victoria, B.C., native was also a part of the Canadian rendition that earned a silver medal during January’s World Junior Championship.
Garand believes those experiences will only help him as he returns to the Blazers for his third WHL campaign.
“Being able to play the last four months has definitely been huge for me. I have been lucky, for sure,” Garand told Cleve Dheensaw of the Victoria Times Colonist. “It gave me confidence I can play at the next level and really helped me, and I bring a lot of lessons learned back to junior hockey … We have got a lot more returning guys, but some youth too, so it is a good balance for us to push with in our goal of the division title.”
Undoubtedly, such confidence should only bode well for a Blazers squad that has had an outstanding start to the new season, a strong showing it hopes to continue when the club next hits the ice Friday versus Victoria.