Lamb reflects on a summer of change

lamb conference

Mark Lamb (photo from scbroncos.com)

For the first time in seven years the Swift Current Broncos opened training camp without Mark Lamb at the helm. Lamb was the Coach/GM here from 2009 to 2016 and left for an AHL head coaching job with the Arizona organization. On Monday I had a chance to chat with Lamb on what this summer has been like for him, his plans with the Roadrunners, his reflections on his time with the Broncos and how he feels about the future for Swift Current’s WHL franchise.

Interview with Tuscon Roadrunners coach Mark Lamb:

Lamb appears very bullish on Manny Viveiros and the state of the Broncos right now. I’m sure he’ll be cheering for them from Tucson.

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Heponiemi Interview

Suomen Jääkiekkoliitto

Photo from scbroncos.com

I had the chance to chat with skilled Finnish forward Aleksi Heponiemi on Tuesday. From watching practice he sure looks like an impressive talent and his english is very good for someone who just arrived in Canada. You can click here for my full story on him.

Interview with Aleksi Heponiemi:

You can check out the schedule and roster for training camp by clicking here.

Scroll down for my preview stories on all three positions heading into camp.

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Broncos Camp Preview: Forwards

Broncos Warriors Gawdin goal

Glenn Gawdin & Tyler Steenbergen (photo by Darwin Knelsen for scbroncos.com)

After looking at the picture in goal and on the blue line earlier this week, it’s time to review the forwards as the players hit the ice for training camp later today.

There are two big things that stand out when you look at the returning core up front. First is the graduation of three top-six forwards in Jon Martin, Jamal Watson and Scott Feser. The other is how many players they can still return. The only other assured departures from the team at the end of last season are Austin Adamson and Gustav Olhaver.

That leaves the Broncos with Glenn Gawdin, Tyler Steenbergen, Lane Pederson, Calvin Spencer, Arthur Miller, Tyler Adams, Connor Chaulk, Brandan Arnold, Kaden Elder, Tristen Elder and Cole Johnson. If you include Ryan Sokoloski who started the season with the Broncos before being sent back to Junior A that’s a full line-up of forwards you could slot in for a game tomorrow. So how likely is it they will all still be here come say November 1st or even October 1st?

In the Eastern Conference last season only the Kootenay Ice scored fewer goals than the Broncos. Jon Martin scored 38 of those 189 and he’s gone. There’s a lot of heart, talent and compete on the roster. However, if that crew of returning forwards wants to keep their spots they are going to have to show they can step up their production.

I think it’s pretty clear which veterans will start in the top six. Gawdin, Steenbergen and Pederson should be three of the more dangerous forwards in the league this season. The three of them had 19, 20 and 20 goals in 2015-16 with lots of room for growth yet. If you look at projections based on the second half of last season it’s promising for those three. You can probably pencil Swift Current’s lone overage player Calvin Spencer in for a bigger role as well. After that the door is wide open. Tyler Adams did show he can play top six minutes without looking out of place. No other forward scored more than 6 goals last season, but they did get valuable experience. With the injuries and changes the Broncos went through last season almost everyone got a chance on different lines against varying quality of opposition. They should be able to hit the ground running this season.

It’s not like these guys haven’t scored before at other levels. Kaden Elder is a former 1st round bantam pick who put up big numbers in minor hockey. Adams, Chaulk and Miller were all point per game players together on their championship midget team. Johnson is a 2nd round bantam pick who has all the talent and has been devastated by injury in his first two seasons. If you look at all of their histories you see a time where they played key roles on their teams.

Training camp and pre-season is going to be so vital for some of those other guys to show that experience and their remaining potential is more valuable to this season’s team than a talented raw rookie.

Another thing worth mentioning is that the Broncos have two overage slots open. This is a very shallow class of overage players in the WHL this season, but if they need to the Broncos have the ability to slot two more veterans in if they aren’t getting enough out of what they have. I don’t know if that’s a move they would make right away though.

Stotts signed

Riley Stotts (photo from scbroncos.com)

Rookie Options

Broncos management has been saying for a while how excited they are about what is coming down their pipeline in terms of prospects. Some of those young guys are going to need a place to play on this team while others could go back to midget for more seasoning. The question is how many young guys the Broncos want to bring along. The list of guys with a legit shot at making the roster is pretty long.

At the top of that list is import draft pick Aleksi Heponiemi. He’s a lock and will very likely receive significant offensive minutes. Just from some brief exposure to him his elite skill level is evident. We’ll see how smooth the transition is for him to the WHL.

Riley Stotts is also probably close to a lock. Swift Current drafted him 10th overall in the 2015 bantam draft and all he did was score 31 goals with 27 assists in 38 games on a championship Midget AAA team. He’s got the tools to be a franchise type forward, but Riley is only 16 so expectations should be measured. You can’t expect too much too soon from guys that young.

There is strong group of players from Manitoba this year. Tanner Mole (who was on the same midget team as Stotts) and Owen Blocker are both signed players who could push for spots. Mole is 17 this year and has size to spare so he probably has a leg up, while Blocker will probably have to make a special case for himself to be here this season at his age.

Josh Baker is another signed prospect who seems to have offensive upside. The Edmonton product scored 32 times in 36 games of Midget AAA prep hockey last season and I would guess entering his 17-year-old season has an inside track on a potential roster opening.

There are some other 16-year-olds who certainly appear to be poised to get here eventually. The Broncos signed big Quinton Waitzner this week. That doesn’t mean they see him as ready now although Director of Hockey Operations Jamie Porter noted they are open to keeping some younger guys if they show they belong here. Dominic Turner then springs to mind as another possibility coming off a 46 point season in 36 games of Alberta Minor Midget AAA. Yet he could also benefit from getting a season of Major Midget AAA under his belt as well.

That doesn’t even account for any surprises and we’ve seen a few in my time covering the Broncos. Ryon Moser and Tanner LeSann come to mind as guys who surprised at camp and earned big roles here in very different circumstances. You never know what you might find at this age when players change so much in a short period of time.

Now I can’t wait to see the battles start on the ice. Check out the schedule for Decor Complete Training Camp by clicking here.

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Broncos Monday Camp Audio

camp

I stopped by the Credit Union iPlex last night as the Broncos skated their 2016 bantam draft prospects. It’s an orientation for the young guys as we get set for main camp starting on Wednesday. I chatted with a couple of the players and the management staff. Here’s the start of our training camp audio:

Broncos Coach/Director of Player Personnel Manny Viveiros:

Broncos Director of Hockey Operations Jamie Porter:

Broncos prospect D Jacson Alexaner:

Broncos prospect F Logan Barlage:

Broncos prospect G Joel Hofer:

Broncos prospect D Ethan Martini:

The prospects are back on the ice today at 3pm. Fitness testing goes Wednesday.

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Broncos camp preview: Defensemen

Broncos Hitmen Lajoie

Max Lajoie (photo by Darwin Knelsen for scbroncos.com)

After spending 2015-16 with a young and inexperienced blue line, the Swift Current Broncos expect to reap the rewards in 2016-17. After trading away Jaydan Gordon, five of their defensemen from last season’s roster will return to make up the core of their D this season. Their experience is significantly upgraded but you still wouldn’t call them old. Kade Jensen and Max Lajoie come in as 19-year-olds, while the other returning veterans are 18-year-olds Artyom Minulin, Colby Sissons and Sahvan Khaira.

It’s one thing to return guys with seasons under their belt and it’s another to return guys who now have experience playing big minutes. The Broncos are able to return their entire top four from last season and have the opportunity to slot them all in the same spots. It’s rare you’re able to avoid having to fill any holes at the front of your lineup and that should allow them to hit the ground running on the back end.

Lajoie leads the way. The Ottawa Senators draft pick was given quite a task as a sophomore last season. He went from a rookie insulated by veterans like Dillon Heatherington and Brett Lernout to a sophomore expected to be Swift Current’s top defenseman in every situation without that veteran support. It was an adjustment for him as it would be for anyone. With the pressure of that role and being draft eligible I thought Lajoie had an up-and-down first half. After Christmas I felt like he was the team’s MVP. Lajoie had a nearly point-per-game pace in the second half and got the Broncos pushing for a playoff spot before mono took him out at the worst possible time.

Lajoie should now be among the top veterans in the league. He’s got two years of top four experience and a season as a #1 under his belt. Now is the time for Lajoie to continue asserting himself while leading the way for the rest of the group.

It was also interesting to see how Lajoie’s season really seemed to get a boost from a switch to the right side for the lefty. He played very well on a pair with Kade Jensen that Swift Current could go right back to. The Broncos only have two returning veterans who are right handed shots so Lajoie’s ability to play the right side could be quite useful.

Minulin had a wonderful season as a rookie adapting to the North American game almost instantly. There are growing pains for almost any player in his situation and yet he didn’t seem to suffer too severely from them. The Russian even added an offensive element to his game after starting the season as a very steadying defensive force. Now Minulin is considered a player to watch by NHL Central Scouting and will have all eyes on him in 2016-17.

Sissons really came on strong at the end of the season and cemented himself in the top four. He also earned an invite to New Jersey’s rookie tournament team this fall and got himself on the draft radar. The slick defenceman will likely be able to take his puck moving game up a notch or two with a year of confidence and experience under his belt now.

Jensen has had experience at an NHL camp as well from his time at Blackhawks camp last year. Both guys showed they can play legit top four minutes last season and would naturally slot back in to those roles this year to start.

The other returning veteran is a guy who Broncos fans are really still getting to know. Khaira came over in the Cavin Leth deal and has all the tools. He’s big, he can skate, has a good shot, passes well and can outmuscle the opposition. He was still a raw player last season and it will be interesting to see how he can continue to develop.

Just the returning veterans alone at this stage give us plenty of reason for optimism. All five guys have shown talent for and interest in rushing the push. Manny Viveiros was one of the best rushing defencemen in WHL history and one would have to think with the ability and experience he has on his blue line there may be an opportunity to open things up a little bit for them. That doesn’t mean playing river hockey, but maybe the Broncos can activate their D offensively more. We saw during the season Honka was here what that kind of ability can do not only in the offensive zone but in generating an attack from their own end.

Rookie Options

The most obvious rookie is Dom Schmiemann who proved he could be effective during a late season call-up because of injury. The former first round bantam pick had 25 points in 37 games for the Midget AAA Notre Dame Hounds last season. He follows the model the Broncos have used with their young D recently of sending guys who might be ready back from some extra seasoning. It worked for Lajoie and Sissons. Schmiemann could be another great example and I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes a big push for bigger minutes as the season progresses.

Noah King will likely make a case for himself at camp after a strong season in helping his team (playing with fellow Broncos prospects Tanner Mole and Riley Stotts) win the provincial championship in Midget AAA. King is 6’3 and had 18 points in 42 games last season. I know the Broncos are high on him and there is room on the roster.

He has some competition from the likes of Matthew Stanley who signed with the team at camp last season before going to Junior A as a 17-year-old. He didn’t put up big numbers but I’m told played a very solid game while getting used to the junior level. He’s likely to have fewer hiccups transitioning to the lineup than a younger player would as he does play a smart and effective game.

A wildcard could be Ethan Martini. The big 16-year-old was a third round pick fo the Broncos a couple of years ago and has all the tools to be a top defenseman in the WHL down the line. He is slated to go play for Trail in the BCHL if he doesn’t make the Broncos this season. If he’s ready for that level maybe he can show enough at camp to prove he is ready for the WHL at a young age. He’s 6’4 so he certainly has the size to make a strong push.

Those are just a few names of course and you never know who may surprise at camp. Jacob Bernard-Docker put up 14 points in 13 games last season at the midget level but battled injuries. He’s young but maybe he comes to camp and blows the doors off. There could be a list player or a walk-on that makes an impression too. At the very least if there are two or three open spots on the roster there should be a good fight for those spots. Schmiemann looks to be a shoe-in. After that it could get interesting.

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Broncos camp preview: Goalies

Broncos Warriors Child

Travis Child (photo by Darwin Knelsen for scbroncos.com)

The Swift Current Broncos enter training camp this year with an interesting situation in goal. They have two as yet unproven 19-year-old goaltenders battling to show they can carry the load of top flight starter. They also have young guys nipping at their heels in all age groups. This one isn’t near as obvious as it was the last few seasons.

The Broncos picked Travis Child 29th overall in the 2012 bantam draft. Red Deer picked Taz Burman 30th. Their careers have been tied together from that moment on and last winter they found themselves on the same team. When it appeared the Landon Bow trade opened the door for Child to  take over in Swift Current, Burman arrived and went on the best run of his career. When Burman’s numbers faltered a bit down the stretch that’s when Child put a run of strong games together. Young and developing goaltenders are always seeking consistency. The biggest question mark in the Broncos’ crease this season is who can find it first?

Burman was on fire at the start of his time in Swift Current. He was even nominated for the CHL Goalie of the Week award in early February and had a 2.25 GAA and a 0.940 save percentage in his first nine games with Swift Current. Those numbers tailed off some and in 22 games after coming over from Seattle Burman had an 8-10-1-2 record with a 3.39 goals against average and 0.903 save percentage.

How did that compare with Child? He went 7-14-2-1 with a 3.26 goals against average and 0.904 save percentage. The differences between the two statistically are almost insignificant. However, those numbers aren’t quite average WHL starter numbers either. One of them or both are going to have to take another step forward to be worthy of a being a true #1 at this level.

New coach Manny Viveiros has made it clear he would be willing to run with a 1A/1B type goalie system. We have seen that work elsewhere before like Lethbridge during the regular season in 15-16. It would be quite a departure for Swift Current as the Broncos have had a true top guy almost every season in recent history from Friesen to Groenheyde to Laurikainen and eventually Bow. Child was next in line for that spot and now the man drafted one spot behind him four years ago is a wrench in those plans.

Rookie Options

Do the Broncos even want to run with two 19-year-olds? That doesn’t create a spot for a younger player to develop and leaves them with the potential of two overage goaltenders to deal with next off season. Perhaps there’s a team out there looking for a WHL veteran with some experience. If the Broncos move one of Child or Burman what do they have for options behind them?

It starts with Caiden Kreitz. The Broncos signed him after he had a strong camp last season and he enters this season as an 18-year-old. Kreitz then had an injury plagued struggle for a poor Calgary Canucks team in the AJHL last season. Despite an 0.880 save percentage for the season, Kreitz showed signs of growth as three of his last four starts featured a save percentage of at least 0.937. Kreitz has a pedigree. He had a 1.98 goals against average and 0.936 save percentage in his final season of midget. He will need to show that form to push one of the veterans out here because it may be now or never. You rarely see 19-year-old rookies in the WHL.

The Broncos also have three other eligible young goaltenders we don’t know much about. Bailey Brkin and Curt Doyle are entering their 17-year-old seasons, while Joel Hofer is entering his 16-year-old season.

Brkin was excellent for Coeur d’Aalene in CSSHL prep hockey last season with a 0.915 save percentage on a poor team. Doyle also played on a poor Kootenay Major Midget team and saw a ton of rubber. Both are real wildcards from a fan standpoint because the stats really won’t tell the whole story in their situations. Either would probably have a lot to prove in order to unseat the more experienced options in front of them.

Hofer may be a longer term option after a nice season in the CSSVHL for Pursuit of Excellents. A 1.74 GAA and 0.937 save percentage certainly serve as intriguing reasons to keep a close eye on what he brings to camp.

If it’s not one of the drafted guys or list guys who gets the nod there is always the trade market. I doubt the Broncos go that way. The most likely solution appears to be a continuation of what we saw at the end of last season with two veterans battling for starts. If that’s going to be the way they go this season the Broncos have to hope one or both of their returning netminders are ready to move their game up another notch. The talent is obviously there. Whether or not one or both can put it together will go a long way in determining how good Swift Current’s playoff chances look.

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Leth & Black Interviews

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Graham Black (Photo by Darwin Knelsen for scbroncos.com)

It’s always nice to catch up with alumni at the MNP Broncos Alumni golf tournament. Last month I had the chance to chat with Seattle Thunderbirds forward Cavin Leth and now Florida Panthers property Graham Black. The two former Broncos are feeling good as they approach seasons that could bring career crossroads for them. They both gave a lot to the Broncos on and off the ice. Hopefully this won’t be their only stop back in town for the tournament.

Interview with Thunderbirds F Cavin Leth:

Interview with Florida Panthers F Graham Black:

From the past to the present and future… training camp begins on Wednesday and the 2016 bantam draft class is in town starting Monday.

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