As mentioned a couple weeks back...it a mid-season update on the August 25th post Entitled "10 Things the Blazers Must Overcome" to have a strong season.
I'll keep in italics what was said in the August post as a reference...
Let's run down the list.....
Yes it might as well be the number one issue. Last year's team showed at times a complete lack of it. Leading the league in PIMS for a good chunk of the season, the Blazers finished with the 4th most in the WHL with 1500 as a team. Key players were also suspended for parts of the season including Chase Schaber, Brendan Ranford, and Jordan DePape. Players served a total of 22 games in suspensions and quite frankly the team was in no position to get a break from the officiating for most of the season. I know discipline will be stressed throughout camp by the coaching staff and will be a focal point of this team moving forward.
Mid-season: A vast improvement. The Blazers have taken the least amount of penalties in the BC Division through the half-way point. They've taken the third fewest PIMS in the Western Conference. It's been a focal point of this team since camp opened. The message from the coaching staff, and policing of the group from the players themselves has been the reason for the turnaround. I think the fact the Blazers have been in most games has also added to the better numbers. Really, through the first half, I can't think of too many bad, selfish, penalties. There was a few on the eastern swing to close off the first half, but that's about it. Suspensions are also way down with this group. Josh Caron's three-gamer for a check to the head right before he was traded to Everett is the only one on record.
2. Coaching Dynamic
The Blazers have not one, but two WHL head coaches on the bench this season. That is a good thing in my opinion but it poses some potential logistical problems. With the addition of Dave Hunchak as the team's Associate Coach, the Blazers will have to find a dynamic that works. Who controls what, who says what, and who puts their foot down. So far it's going well between Guy Charron and Dave Hunchak. I'm sure the two will be communicating their thoughts openly to get the best out of the scenario. Let's keep in mind, Guy felt Hunchak was the right guy for the job.
Mid-season: It's proving to be a great set-up for Guy Charron and Dave Hunchak. Guy has allowed Hunchak to implement his beliefs, trusting on him with his experience in the WHL as both a head and assistant coach. There isn't any reminisce of a power-struggle between the two either - they just aren't the type. It's my belief that both feel they are putting a stamp on this year's team. What a luxury to have two WHL Head Coaches on the bench. Charron runs the forwards, Hunchak the back-end and there's no doubt it is where they are most comfortable.
3. Penalty Kill
This has been a point of contention for this hockey club and is exposed more by the lack of discipline discussed above. Last year's PK had a decent 2nd half of the season but still only killed off powerplays at 76.4% - 20th out of 22 teams. Two seasons ago the PK was at 75.3% - again 20th out of 22 teams. A year before that, 76.9%. You have to go back to the 06/07 season to find the last time the PK was over 80% and even that year it was only 80.2%.
Mid-season: The penalty-kill has seen considerable improvement so far...more so on a consistency basis. It took a dip during the eastern road swing to finish the first half at 79.8% - 11th out of the 22 teams. That's the lowest it's been pretty much all season though. The PK has been good....it hasn't been lights out by any means. The one thing the Blazers have added this season is a shorthanded goal threat. Leading the WHL with 12 SH goals at the break, the Blazers scored only four shorthanded markers all of last season. The shorthanded prowess is simply a by-product of increased team confidence.
The Blazers gave up the most goals in the Western Conference last season with 285 - 3rd most in the league ahead of only fellow non-playoff teams Regina and Lethbridge. Granted, the Blazer blueline is older this season, they still have to go out and prove themselves. Just because everyone is a year older, improvement doesn't just magically happen.
With six returning veterans in Austin Madaisky, Bronson Maschmeyer, Tyler Hansen, Josh Caron, Brady Gaudet and newly acquired Marek Hrbas, it'll be up to all of them to take the next step. Madaisky, Caron and Maschmeyer will have to specifically lead the back-end but it'll be strength in numbers if the Blazers want to be a winner.
Dave Hunchak has a proven track record of developing defenseman as a coach. We will see if he can continue the trend with the Blazers.
Mid-season: The team's defensive game has jumped by leaps and bounds this season. The added experience and confidence from the core defenseman has made the Blazer blueline as good as any in the WHL. I think both Tyler Hansen and Bronson Maschmeyer's games have seen the biggest improvement. Again, a confidence thing. Marek Hrbas and Tyler Bell have been excellent. Austin Madaisky shows at times he can be that hard, number one guy the team needs. Landon Cross when given the opportunity has excelled as well. Brady Gaudet will need to keep pushing to get into games.
I think the Blazers will look to add another defenseman at the deadline to compliment the group - especially after moving 20 year-old Josh Caron to Everett. They are missing that pure powerplay QB on the back-end. They're tough to find anyways. F Chase Schaber showed some promise when moved to the point on the PP before getting hurt in Regina during the eastern swing.
5. Fragile mindset
The Blazers lost a handful of games last season and gave up precious points because of late goals against in tie games. Too many times the Blazers gave up that heartbreaking last minute goal. It was a "playing not to lose" mentality and not an assertive attitude that was their demise. There's nothing worse than giving up that late goal. It adds doubt and can snowball in a hurry. The Blazers need to dictate the pace and flow in those situations and not sit back and react. It won't happen overnight, but every situation they overcome this season will build momentum in their favor.
Mid-season: This has been a work in progress since day one. The Blazers haven't really had an incident to shake their confidence this year. They've been good in close games, they've shown they can play with the lead and they've shown they can play from behind as well. A fragile mindset can snowball... it's the "here we go again" syndrome. Fortunately, it can snowball in the right direction as well. That is seemingly what's happening with this group through 35 games. The Blazers are playing to win, rather than playing "not to lose" like they did most of last season.
The Blazers need to get quality goaltending all season long. They likely haven't had a legit game-stealing all-star goaltender since Devan Dubnyk in the 05/06 season. With the departure of Jeff Bosch, the Blazers will host an audition for the number one spot. Cam Lanigan and Cole Cheveldave are expected to battle it out in camp with Taran Kozun and Troy Trombley trying to push into a back-up role. As the saying goes...you only go as far as your goaltending.
Mid-season: Hello Cole Cheveldave. He's nearly cemented himself as the number one 'tender. He's gotten the start in the last eight games and 15 of the last 16. Sounds like a #1 guy doesn't it? His numbers are good too. 16-4-1-1 with a 2.74 GAA and .907 save %. Last year's AJHL rookie of the year has certainly stepped up. The coaching staff loves his compete level.
Cam Lanigan has been good, but has struggled in his last two outings. He won his last start but has been shaky in a pair of relief performances coming into the game cold in the 2nd period. The Blazers will need Lanigan in the 2nd half if they want to hold onto their BC Division lead. He will be called upon again there's no question. He'll have more opportunities.
7. Getting everyone on board
Last season I think there were times when not everyone was on the same page. Perhaps some players were more or less motivated than others and the coaching staff said as much in our post-game shows. It's cliche but the Blazers will need everyone "pulling on the rope in the same direction" this season if they want to have the year they hope to have.
The leadership group has done an excellent job so far this season. This is a tight team. They are a "team". You could look at the guys who wear letters as a big reason but it's unsung guys like Ryan Hanes that are the glue of this team. The rookies are popular with the veterans and there's great camaraderie amongst the group. From my perspective, they're all on board for the common goal.
8. Better play within the BC Division
The Blazers lost every single head-to-head series in the BC division last season. A combined record of 10-19-1-2. Division games are always big ones...the Blazers gave up too many points to their division rivals leading to a last place finish in the BC division.
Mid-season: This perhaps has been the biggest turnaround year-over-year. The Blazers are 12-2-0-0 against BC Division teams mid-season. That's two more divisional wins than all of last year. In fact, the Blazers are 9-0 combined against Vancouver, Victoria and Kelowna. Only PG has handed them a loss within the division. The Blazers are 3-2 vs PG.
9. Being more resilient
The Blazers will have to show a bit more of it this season. Whether it's overcoming a bad call, bad goal or injury problems, this team will need to be able to handle adversity better. At times emotions get the best of this team and usually it had a negative effect. The Blazers will have to battle through it this season because adversity will come up several times over the course of a 72 game schedule.
Mid-season: The Blazers haven't had a ton of adversity this season. Perhaps the only adversity has been the eastern-swing and the back-to-back losses to Regina and Prince Albert where both Chase Schaber and Matt Needham went down...two of the top three centermen. What did the Blazers do? They responded with wins in Brandon (first since 1998) and Saskatoon. They then went on to dominate Moose Jaw before losing 4-3 in a shootout to close off the first half. So far, they've answered the bell...but more adversity is coming. It's simply inevitable.
10. Exorcising the playoff demons
The truth of the matter is this: No matter how good or bad of a regular season the Blazers have, their year will be judged on playoff success or lack thereof. The Blazers haven't won a playoff round since 1999 - the last time they went to the WHL Championship. Since then, they've amassed a 5-40 record in the playoffs with 10 straight series losses. It is the biggest issue dogging the Blazers and will be until this team gets through a round or two and takes a run at an Ed Chynoweth Cup.
The prognosis is good for the club moving forward. With a move or two expected at the deadline to strengthen the group, and the potential early March return of F Jordan DePape from shoulder surgery, the Blazers only stand to get better. They will have to be better too...because teams like Kelowna, Portland, Vancouver, Tri-City and Spokane only stand to improve as well.