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Veteran blue line leads Victoria Grizzlies into B.C. Hockey League season

Victoria hosts Alberni Valley on Friday night
San Jose Sharks draft pick Eli Barnett will sport the ‘C’ for the Grizzlies this BCHL season. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

The defence never rests for the Victoria Grizzlies. With seven blue-line returnees, the hopes for a breakout from last season’s mid-pack status begins at the back end, as the Grizzlies open their B.C. Hockey League season tonight at The Q Centre against the Alberni Valley Bulldogs.

“Our blue line is a combination of both size and skill,” said Grizzlies GM and head coach Rylan Ferster.

“We are defence first. You can’t try to outscore your problems. You check to score goals. A 2-1 win is as good as a 7-6 win.”

The Grizzlies’ blue line is led by newly-minted captain Eli Barnett, the seventh-round 2022 NHL draft selection of the San Jose Sharks.

“I will need to be a leader in the room [this] season for ­Victoria,” said Barnett, when drafted.

The six-foot-six reargaurd, who just turned 19 last week, is committed to the University of Vermont Catamounts in NCAA Div. 1 for 2023-24, and will be just that for the Grizzlies in wearing the ‘C.’

“Eli [Barnett] has presence, size, leadership qualities and he knocks every day and acts like a pro,” said Ferster.

Barnett will be backed by assistant captains Justin Gibson, who joins Barnett as a ­returning defenceman, and returning ­forwards Devon de Vries and Noah Leibl.

“They have been with the program and have earned it,” said Ferster, of his four players who will wear letters this season.

“They are the kinds of players who make the coaching staff’s jobs easier.”

You don’t doubt the choices of a coach with Ferster’s resume. Ferster’s first 2 ½-season stint on the Salsa/Grizzlies bench included coaching future Dallas Stars captain and Olympic gold-medallist Jamie Benn, Stanley Cup champion Tyler Bozak and NHLer Jordie Benn. Ferster also coached 2004 NHL first-round draft selections Travis Zajac and Chris Chucko with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks. Ferster guided the 2015-16 West Kelowna Warriors to the BCHL and RBC Cup national Junior A championships and took Salmon Arm to the 2003-04 BCHL final before ­losing to the Nanaimo Clippers.

Ferster, 53, replaced Craig Didmon, who had a 12-season run with the club as assistant coach, head coach and GM.

It was thought Ferster would inherit a Grizzlies team that included projected 2023 first-round NHL draft pick Matthew Wood — the 2021-22 BCHL leading scorer with 85 points in 46 games, league rookie of the year and MVP finalist as a 16-year-old — but the Nanaimo product has made a surprise move by jumping to NCAA Div. 1 with the University of Connecticut Huskies earlier than anybody expected. Losing a marquee talent like that is a huge blow for not only the Grizzlies but also the BCHL as a whole.

That leaves the Grizzlies offence looking for scoring by committee with the likes of ­veterans de Vries, Leibl, ­Boston University-committed Jack ­Gorton and newcomers ­Jacksenn Hungle and Olivier Picard, who both showed well in ­preseason. Veteran forward Jackson ­Morehouse, meanwhile, was traded this week to the ­Cowichan Valley Capitals for future considerations.

New goaltender Ansel “Gus” Holt, committed to NCAA Div. 1 Army, looks to be the choice to hold down the crease with the likes of Barnett, Gibson and promising Hoyt Stanley in front of him on defence.

“We will be an honest hockey team that works hard and the kind of team fans will appreciate,” said Ferster.

The Grizzlies went 29-25 in the 2021-22 BCHL regular season to place fifth in the Coastal Conference before losing to the fourth-seed Langley Rivermen in the first round of the playoffs.

“This is a big opening weekend for us against two of the top teams in the league [tonight’s game against the Bulldogs will be followed by a game against the West Kelowna Warriors on Saturday night at The Q ­Centre],” said Ferster.

Meanwhile, pundits are pointing to the Bulldogs and Nanaimo Clippers as among the teams to watch in the Coastal Conference. The Clippers, who survived a tumultuous 2021-22 early- and mid-season on and off the ice to win the Coastal Conference and make the 2022 BCHL final, return 10 players. The ­Clippers, however, lost some top-end offensive talent and are taking nothing for granted.

“We are optimistic because this group knows what it takes and how much fun it can be at the end of the season and in the playoffs when it all comes together. But knowing what it takes and doing it are two different things,” said Nanaimo GM and head coach Colin Birkas.

“This is a very tough league in which to win. It is going to be very competitive. Powell River and Cowichan Valley were at the bottom last season but they have worked their butts off and brought in a lot of players and don’t expect to be at the bottom anymore.”

A highlight for the ­Clippers will be the continuation of its recent penchant for big American goaltenders. Six-foot-seven Aiden Campbell, out of the U.S. Under-17 program and the Erie Otters of the major-junior Ontario Hockey League, will replace in the Nanaimo crease last season’s ­six-foot-eight standout Cooper Black of Alpen, Michigan, the NHL summer rookie camp invitee of the ­Calgary Flames who is now in the Ivy League in NCAA Div. 1 at Dartmouth.

In other BCHL season openers tonight involving Island teams, the Clippers are in Powell River to play the Kings and the Capitals host a highly-regarded West Kelowna squad at the ­Cowichan Community Centre.

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