When the Kamloops Blazers opened training camp in August, goaltending was the WHL team's most unsettled position.
When training camp opens in four months, goaltending will be the soundest position on the depth chart.
Such is life in major junior hockey.
And the way Kamloops head coach Guy Charron looks at things, it all starts in goal.
"I've always believed that you start from the back end and you build from goaltending to defence and the middle of the ice," Charron said Monday afternoon as he looked to future less than a week after his side had its season end with a Game 7 loss to the Portland Winterhawks. "When you've got that solidified, you're in good shape."
The Blazers didn't make the playoffs in 2010-11, Charron's first complete season as head coach. With goaltender Jeff Bosch having used up his eligibility, the Blazers' goaltending situation was wide open when camp started.
Charron actually began the season with three goaltenders - Cole Cheveldave, Taran Kozun and Cam Lanigan - on his roster, and all three got to play in the early going.
It became obvious, however, that Cheveldave would be the starter. The rookie of the year with the AJHL's Drumheller Dragons the previous season, Cheveldave took over the starting role and refused to surrender it, finishing 34-11-5, 2.62, .909, good enough to place him on the Western Conference's second all-star team. The Calgary native will be 19 next season and will go in as the starter.
Lanigan, who turns 20 on June 9, and Kozun, who will be 18 on Aug. 29, finished this season on the roster. It's doubtful that Lanigan will return as the Blazers won't want a 20-year-old serving as a backup goaltender.
On defence, the Blazers have seven players eligible to return, but that includes Austin Madaisky, who has yet to sign with the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets. They selected him in the fifth round of the 2010 NHL draft. Should Madaisky sign, he will be eligible to play in the Blue Jackets' system.
With Bronson Maschmeyer having graduated off the back end, the Blazers will need someone to step up and take over the leadership there.
"As far as who is going to do that . . . Madaisky apparently looks like he's going to sign," Charron said. "Will he be a player who will be made available to us or does Columbus project him to play in the minors? They have returned players before to junior hockey."
Madaisky aside, Charron and associate coach Dave Hunchak, both of whom have a year left on their contracts, will be looking for a whole lot more from someone like Brady Gaudet. The 10th overall pick in the 2009 bantam draft, Gaudet had a promising 16-year-old season, but struggled to make an impact this season, perhaps because there were fitness issues in training camp. By season's end, he had been a healthy scratch on 15 occasions. He missed eight other games with a concussion.
"As tough as it was," Charron stated, "hopefully it was a learning experience."
Still, Gaudet has shown enough potential that he appears in NHL Central Scouting's final rankings.
And let's not forget how quickly things can change at this level.
"What I've learned in my time here is how much difference a year can make with each individual young guy," Charron said. "A perfect example is J.C. Lipon."
Last season, Lipon, then in his second season, finished with 21 points, including three goals, and 111 penalty minutes in 65 games. He also was a team-worst minus-26.
"Then he comes in," Charron said, "and has the season that he had."
This time, Lipon had 65 points, 19 of them goals, and 111 penalty minutes in 69 games. He also was plus-23.
Lipon spent the season on the right side of a line with Tim Bozon and Colin Smith. They combined for 221 points, including 90 goals.
Smith, 18, came into his own in his third season, putting up 85 points, including 35 goals.
Bozon, a 17-year-old from Switzerland, had 36 goals among his 71 points. He was honoured as the Western Conference's rookie of the year.
Looking ahead to next season, Charron said: "Now they're all going to be one year more mature. Considering the success they had this season, if they were to play together again you can imagine even more success."
Throw in centre Matt Needham, who really came on over the last two months of his freshman season, defencemen Tyler Hansen and Marek Hrbas, both of whom will be 19, and, as Charron said, "That's a core of people who could be devastating in this league."
Others like defencemen Tyler Bell and Landon Cross, along with forwards Cole Ully and Aspen Sterzer, will be a year older with some invaluable experience under their belts. They now know, as Charron said, "what it takes to play in this league."
At this moment, veterans like Jordan DePape, Ryan Hanes, Brendan Ranford and Dylan Willick are in the mix as possible 20-year-olds. But those things have a way of sorting themselves out over the summer, so speculating on who will return is a mug's game.
At the other end, though, youngsters like forward Brayden Gelsinger and defenceman Jordan Thomson, both of whom got a close up look at the WHL late in the season, will be given every opportunity to crack the roster.
Thomson, the fourth overall pick in the 2011 bantam draft, is certain to be on the roster. How much impact he has will be mostly up to him.
"He's got all the tools," Charron said. "He's a very dedicated young man. He skates well and has good size. It's going to be a postiion that is going to have a lot of competition."
JUST NOTES: Two goaltenders whose WHL rights belong to the Blazers have committed to play next season in the BCHL. Liam McLeod of Kamloops, a ninth-round pick by the Blazers in the WHL's 2011 bantam draft, will play with the Prince George Cougars after spending this season with the major midget Thompson Blazers. Braden Krogfoss, a seventh-round pick in 2010, has committed to the Trail Smoke Eaters. He played this season with the major midget Vancouver Northwest Giants.
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