- Today is the first day of the real deal - main camp! Nothing against the rookies, but now we see who is good enough to wear a Rockets jersey this season. A few veterans better come to camp prepared to win a job though, or they will see themselves sitting on the sidelines while a younger player with less experience earns a chance to show the coaching staff that they deserve to be one of 20 players suiting up every night.
- The Biggest Battle:The biggest battle at camp this year may be in goal. No weakness here as Kristofer Westblom returns as a solid overager while sophomore Torrie Jung showed us down the stretch last season that he can start in this league. Pick your poison, but both goaltenders are starters in my mind. Sure it will be a friendly battle, but the two will fight it out to see who starts the season September 22nd against the Tri Cities. May the best man win.
- Who's on the Bubble: Being 19 is not a good age as a junior player if your ability is in question. If you are a 19 year-old defenseman, and you are struggling to get into the top four back on the blueline, you better come to camp focused. In my opinion Tysen Dowzak and Colin Joe find themselves in that scenario. Younger defenseman like Luke Schenn, Tyler Myers and Tysen Barrie have to be considered in your top 3. If so, does a 17 or 18 year-old with the same ability as Dowzak or Joe get the nod over the two veteran d-man. You would think the answer would be yes!
- Up Front Battle: Speaking of 19 year-old's, Myles MacRae will be asked to do more this season. Fourteen goals and 27 points won't cut it, and he realizes that. Colin Long will make the team no doubt, but the coaching staff would like to see him in the top two lines. Long should be a regular on the power play, and are waiting for the 18 year-old to have a breakout season.
- While the focus at main camp will be on the individual players battling for 1st, 2nd and third line status, much of the credit in getting the veterans prepared for this season goes to Athletic Therapist Jeff Thorburn. Thorburn was busy this summer making sure that veteran players remained in top physical conditioning, while keeping a close eye and lending a helping hand to some players that may avoid the gym over the summer. Avoiding the gym like the plague usually translates into a poor performance during training camp and the regular season.
The end result of Thorburn's watchful eye has been huge improvements in conditioning from the likes of Justin Bernhardt and Colin Long.
"The guys that have come back have done very, very well. Some guys have been excellent, and even beyond our expectations. Overall it's been very, very good", Thorburn told me Friday afternoon during rookie camp. This summer Thorburn pulled a series of players into his office to assess their conditioning, and was asked if that move may have paid dividends at training camp this year. "One of the things we wanted was to make sure guys, especially some of the guys who stuck around after the season ended as they finished school, to really make sure they kept up with the gains that they had made, and carry on their training right through the summer. So we not only wanted to keep them on the right track, but maintain the gains they had built up to that point."
So who impressed Thorburn when it came to V.O.2 testing and strength testing prior to Monday's on ice session?
"James McEwan is always in peak physical condition. As far as athletes go, he's in a class of his own in terms of his physical ability, and motivation levels. He drives himself like no other and it makes my job alot easier. Let's just say he doesn't need a kick in the pants like some guys may,"Thorburn added.
Among the players who needed a kick in the pants following last season was forward Justin Bernhardt. The end result this year is a 19 year-old player who could be in the best shape of his junior career. "Justin was obviously behind a little bit when he got here from Regina, so that was a work in progress through the season last year. We kept Justin close to home through the summer, so we could not only keep an eye on him but help him. He's done very well, and has worked extremely hard on top of the landscaping job he was working at this summer. He still has a ways to go, and we are happy with where he is. Now we want to see that turned into a great season", Thorburn added.