Finally! Part Two! After some considerable delay (I think we all know why), it’s time to look at the defensive core in this series and two very good ones at that. Both depths boast impressive depth on their respective blue-lines, as ten of the twelve defensemen that make up the top six on each side, are committed to NCAA programs in the next two years. Two of the top three scoring defensemen will take part in this series in Devon Toews and Troy Stecher. Toews also was ranked as a ‘C’ list prospect by NHL Central Scouting for this June’s NHL Entry Draft.
Penticton and Surrey have received some solid contributions from the back-end this post-season. Through nine games, the Vees defensemen have teamed up for four goals and 20 points; averaging just over two points per-game. The Eagles blue-liners are not far behind, combining for two goals and 19 points in 11 games; slightly down from their regular season average. Leading the Vees, in a bit of a break-out performance, is James De Haas who has three goals and eight points. Impressive as De Haas had just five goals in the regular season; peaking at the right time. The Eagles are led by two stalwarts in Craig Wyszomirski and Devon Toews. Wyszomirski has the only two goals from the blue-line and seven points, whereas Toews has eight assists.
The talk of this series is how these two teams eerily mirror each other in most areas and they’re not too far off when it comes to the blue-line. Both teams have a good mix of skill, speed, size and grit. Both teams have experience and depth.
A big reason why the Eagles are in the Fred Page Cup Finals for the first time since 2005 is because of their play away from the puck. The Eagles only surrendered 18 goals through 11 playoff games to reach the final and recorded three clean-sheets along the way; shutouts if you don’t follow. In nine of their 11 games the Eagles held their opponent to two goals or less and only once allowed more than three goals. Yes, Michael Santaguida plays into it but he’s not just the sole reason why this team has been so good defensively.
Before I go any deeper, I’m dissecting their top-six based on their most recent game, and that was game four against the Alberni Valley Bulldogs. The makeup of their back-end has changed over the course of the season; injuries the most notable reason. If you do recall, the Eagles traded for veteran rear-guard Troy Paterson earlier this season but he was lost to a season-ending injury just two games into his Surrey career. Also, they lost some size and grit when Tommy Stipancik went down two games into their playoff run. Just imagine their blue-line with those two inserted; yikes.
Despite the two injuries the Eagles have continued to solider on and have gotten major contributions from a whole cast of characters. Probably fair to say Devon Toews in their leader on the blue-line and in my books, a top-three defenseman in the BCHL. Toews won a silver medal with Team Canada West in November, is on the NHL Entry Draft radar, finished second in scoring by defenseman in the BCHL and is committed to Quinnipiac University for next fall (who are competing for a national championship Saturday); an impressive resume for an impressive player.
Toews isn’t big in stature, listed at 5’11 and just 165 pounds but his great skating ability and vision make him a “slippery” player; one that is hard to hit. You hear that a lot about certain guys in the NHL, the likes of Duncan Keith, Keith Yandle, and Dan Boyle. Guys who aren’t overly big but very good skaters and who always seem to elude hits. I’m not saying Toews will be at that level but he does possess that innate ability. Toews plays on the Eagles top-pair and logs a lot of ice in pretty much every situation imaginable. Without hesitation, he can rush the puck from his own zone and across the oppositions blue-line or he can make that tape-to-tape breakout pass. His game away from the puck is pretty darn good too, as he always seems to be in position inside his own zone and plays the angles so well in one-on-one situations.
After Toews, there is other standouts in the tower that is Craig Wyszomirski, stay-at-home type in Dan O’Keefe and the skilled Jordan Klimek. Wyszomirski is the biggest on the blue-line, checking in at 6’4 and tipping the scales at 215 pounds. Despite his size, Wyszomirski isn’t heavy-footed and can actually move pretty well. He has the only two goals from the blue-line thus far in the playoffs and does have a heavy shot that is a threat on the power-play. He also has a bit of a mean streak, as he leads the team in penalty minutes with 22 and was second only to Colton Mackie in the regular season.
Dan O’Keefe’s main concern is not putting pucks in the net but rather keeping them out of his. The Wall, New Jersey product doesn’t have any points in the playoffs and only had nine assists in 53 games in the regular season; still in search of his first BCHL goal. O’Keefe did see minutes alongside Toews in the last round against the Alberni Valley Bulldogs and that’s where I expect to see him start in game one. He’s a nice compliment to Toews, as O’Keefe stands at 6’3 and checks in at an even 200 pounds. He’s one of only two right-handed shots on the team and that works well with the lefty in Toews. O’Keefe is the guy who likely draws back, allowing Toews to jump up in the rush and take some chances; all be it calculated ones.
Jordan Klimek is another one that I was impressed with in the short two-game season series. Not overly big like Toews, as he is 5’11 and weighs only 165 pounds. But like Toews, what Klimek lacks in size he makes up for with his foot speed and vision. A defenseman who takes a more offensive approach to the game, Klimek had 23 points in the regular season and that’s pretty darn good considering he’s only 17; young by defensemen standards. Not saying he isn’t a good defender but he’s another guy who can lead a breakout and make that all important first pass; an underrated skill. I was impressed with his poise and the calmness in his game and that’s saying something considering he is age. It’s not common to see defenders at his age play the amount of minutes he does. Klimek plays top-four minutes and has been paired recently with Craig Wyszomirski. Klimek is just another weapon in the Eagles blue-line arsenal.
Ryan Fraser-Lee and Tommy Stipancik are two pieces that should not be passed over. Stipancik has been injured and his status for the Finals is not known is still uncertain. Fraser-Lee has been healthy and is a defender who plays important minutes for Matt Erhart’s club. Fraser-Lee came over from the Langley Rivermen earlier in the season after a 10 game stint and actually started the season in Ontario with the Pembroke Lumber Kings. He’s another D-Man with good physical makeup, as he measures 6’2 and checking in at a buck ninety-five. From what I remember, Fraser-Lee is more of a grittier type, who doesn’t shy away from contact. A defenseman that isn’t playing in the top-pairing but a guy that eats up important minutes and brings some sandpaper to the blue-line.
Tommy Stipancik as mentioned went down with an injury early on in the Eagles playoff run and hasn’t seen action since their opening series against Langley. From what I recall from the regular season, he’s another guy who brings a physical element to the Eagles defensive corps. Stipancik is an ex-WHL’er who played parts of the last two seasons with the Saskatoon Blades. Stipancik has some good physical traits, as he’s 6’2 and a third member of the blue-line that is over 200 pounds. A defender who is doesn’t shy away from the rough stuff but also can make his away around the rink just fine. He and Fraser-Lee aren’t asked to put up points and play a lot in the offensive end. If healthy, he will likely see time on the third pairing with Fraser-Lee and be asked to make life miserable for the Vees forwards in front of the Eagles net. If he isn’t healthy then I’m not quite sure who the Eagles do use. By looking at the boxscores, AP Tanner Lenting has seen a lot of action. Lenting isn’t a young buck, a 20 year-old out of the Pacific International Junior Hockey League, the Jr. B circuit in the Lower Mainland. He was with the North Delta Devils for the past two seasons and has played in eight of the Eagles 11 playoffs games.
As you can tell, the Eagles have a good mix of skill, speed, size and grit on their blue-line and it’s key factor in why they’ve made it this far. They can hurt you on the score-sheet with the likes of Toews, Wyszomirski and Klimek and can leave you a little battered and bruised with the likes of O’Keefe, Fraser-Lee and Stipancik / Lenting. For teams to goes far, you need experience on your back-end but also some skill and toughness. The Eagles have all three and that combination has them just four wins way from their first BCHL Championship in eight years.
Devon Toews 0-8-8 Craig Wyszomirski 2-5-7
Jordan Klimek 0-4-4
Not going to go into as much detail as I did with the Eagles, as if you’re a Vees fan you have a pretty good idea of the Vees makeup on the blue-line. It starts and stops with the Captain Troy Stecher, as he’s the engine of this team. Only 19 but in his third season with the Vees, Stecher is the pulse of the team. He plays more than any other Vees on any given night and in all situations. I wrote earlier about Toews and Stecher being in two of the top three in the league and there is good reason for it.
Stecher plays on the Vees top pairing with another BCHL veteran in Thomas Nitsche. Defensively Stecher is pretty much all you can ask for at this level. Where he’s made strides is in his offensive game, as he recorded career highs in goals (8), assists (39) and points (47) in the regular season. Last year Stecher didn’t have to worry as much about the offense as he was paired with Mike Reilly. During the off-season, Stecher made a conceded effort to one, put on more muscle but also work on his offensive touch. It wasn’t like he needed to drastically improve, as he did collect 42 points in 53 games last season. However, I’ve seen a much more confident player with the puck. Stecher doesn’t have any concerns about leading the rush into the offensive end and will use his speed and creativity to create something out of nothing; seemingly always finding open areas. You know what you’re getting from the Captain every night.
Thomas Nitsche is as advertised and that’s a veteran defenseman with an edge. He’s fit nicely with Troy Stecher, and his defensive abilities has freed up Stecher to help out in the offensive end; though the two are defense-first type thinkers. When the Vees traded for the Rivermen Captain in December it was for this time of year. If you look at teams that win at this level, one common theme would be experience on the blue-line. Teams also need some nastiness to win in the playoffs, guys who are hard to play against. That’s where Nitsche steps in. He and Stecher go up against the oppositions top forwards nightly and in order to be successful you need to be physical. Nitsche is very good in the dirty areas, a guy who makes his living in the corners and in front of his net. He will dish out a lot of abuse but also receives his fair share and that’s par for the course when you battle in the trenches. Nitsche can be a physically imposing force, at 6’3 and just over 200 pounds, but for me it’s all about the attitude he brings on the ice; a straight up jerk to play against and that’s a good thing.
The next pairing is similar to the first, a nice blend of grit, skill and speed. Bryan Sinz is your prototypical stay-at-home defenseman. The Alaska native makes a living eating pucks and leaning on other teams’ forwards. You will find within of five to 10 foot radius of the Vees goal, as he doesn’t stray too far above the circles. More often than not, Sinz is clearing the front of the Vees net or engaged in a puck battle below the goal-line. A guy trusted in keep pucks out of the Vees net and plays in most key defensive situations, whether it is killing a penalty or protecting a lead late in the game. Sinz has really come on in the playoffs, especially in the last round, as he blocked a tonne of shots in the West Kelowna Series. I rave about his play in his own zone but Sinz isn’t a slouch with the puck, as he has shown he can turn the it up ice in a hurry; something his partner is asked to do more of.
Sean Flanagan has a similar story to that of Thomas Nitsche, a veteran BCHL defenseman added to the Vees line-up for this time of year. Flanagan is more of the slender build, a defender who is fleet of foot; a puck carrier. Flanagan was brought in to help the Vees breakout and give them a push from the back-end. He can bring the puck out of his own zone in a hurry and has great vision when it comes to finding forwards in transition. Flanagan isn’t shy about jumping up in the rush when the opportunity presents itself and has great patience too with the puck. He’s along made great strides in his defensive game, as he’s settled in nicely with Sinz, blocking his fair share of shots; a defender who has really embraced the “two hundred foot game” in his time with the Vees.
Maybe the talk of the Vees blue-line has been the emergence of James De Haas. The young blue-liner leads all defenseman on the team in scoring with three goals and eight points; three points better than the next best. De Haas only needs one more point to move into first place in playoff scoring by defensemen. The lead is currently held by West Kelowna’s Josh Monk who has nine points. However De Haas has more goals than Monk so either a goal or assist will push him into the lead. De Haas offensive production has been a pleasant surprise but he’s made some significant strides in his defensive game. De Haas looks to be putting it all together and using his size (6’4 -205) to gain the upper hand in his own zone. He’s a gifted skater and now with growing confidence is carrying the puck more; adding another dynamic to the Vees blue-line.
De Haas is paired with “Steady Eddy” Rob Mann, who’s quietly going about a solid playoff performance. Mann is not counted on for his offense but is starting to show more confidence with the puck as well. Even though he’s listed at 6’7, Mann can get up and down the ice fairly quickly. More importantly, Mann always seems to make smart decisions with pucks. Mann isn’t going to try and do anything risky but rather make the simply outlet pass or clearing attempt; he makes the play that’s before him. That’s an underrated quality and every good team needs a guy like that. A defender who’s there to keep it simple, play smart in his own zone and who can be trusted by his coaches. Like De Haas, Mann has made some noticeable strides in the post-season and is a guy who’s rolling up his sleeves and going to work in the dirty areas.
James De Haas 3-5-8 Sean Flanagan 1-4-5
Thomas Nitsche 0-4-4 Troy Stecher 0-4-4
Bryan Sinz 0-2-2 Rob Mann 0-1-1
Well, there’s a long look at the blue-lines for the Vees and the Eagles. As I referred to numerous times, both teams have a similar makeup on the back-end. Both teams have skill, speed, size and grit. On paper the stats are pretty similar and physically as well. Rough figures but the Vees average height on the blue-line is 6’2 at they weigh in at 198. The Eagles average height, roughly, is 6’1 and they weigh in at 190. We are talking centimetres in height and a handful of pounds separating the two teams. It’s going to be entertaining to watch the battle between the blue-lines.