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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About shawnmullin

Play by Play Broadcaster for the WHL's Swift Current Broncos on 94.1 FM The Eagle.
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