Three of the Blazers’ top four picks in the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft were in town last week. Mats Lindgren — who last suited up for the Blazers on December 30th against the Victoria Royals — was joined by Connor Levis and Fraser Minten.
Lindgren, who some believe slipped to the Blazers at seventh overall because of his verbal commitment to the University of Michigan, signed a standard WHL Player Agreement with the Blazers last June.
Levis and Minten, however, are still weighing their options. Like Lindgren, it was suggested that Levis’ own verbal commitment to Michigan shied teams away, thus “dropping” him to 20th overall where Blazers staff couldn’t resist.
At the time, the message from general manager Matt Bardsley was simple: “If you want to be the best, you need the best players.”
Lindgren has since played four regular-season games in a Blazers uniform. Dylan Ernst — the Blazers’ second-round pick and first goaltender selected in the draft — signed last summer and has guided the Moose Jaw Warriors to the best record in the SMAAAHL this season.
The same day as Ernst’s signing, the Blazers announced that third-round pick Tye Spencer had put pen to paper.
That leaves Levis and Minten. While general manager Matt Bardsley was pleased to touch base with the players in person, the visit also allowed the two prospects to assess the organization that drafted them.
“The whole purpose of them coming out wasn’t so much as us evaluating them as much as it’s them evaluating us. It’s from seeing what the routine is like — practice, workouts, our game day preparation — and getting to understand how our education works here. It just gives you a really good feel of what the day-to-day routine is if you’re going to play here in Kamloops and that’s what it’s all about, just giving them the information so when they do make their decision, they have all that information.”
There’s plenty to consider. Age and an intense schedule are perhaps two of the most notable differences between the CHL and the NCAA route.
“If players want to give themselves the best chance of being a pro, certainly our schedule…we play a 68-game schedule. Our league really is a younger league compared to Jr. A. We have 48 16-year olds in our league. I think it’s the best development league in the world, especially for 16-, 17- and 18-year olds. I think it’s really important for the three or four years you’re here that you’re with the same core group of people — your teammates, coaches, trainers, everything.”
“And that’s what I love about our team. We have a lot of players that are very driven. They want to be pros, they want to give themselves the best chance to be a pro and we can see that. It starts from the top, from our top players and it brings the young guys up to that level and it forces them to play at their best. I think that’s an advantage that we have. That’s something that we’ve talked about with both Connor and Fraser — what the environment is, what the culture is here and looking at the young group going forward, what the team’s going to be like consistently for two, three or four years.”
The current group — a conglomeration of players assembled by essentially two separate regimes — is a source of pride for Bardsley.
“Certainly, we want to win championships, but we’re also here to develop hockey players and I think we’ve seen that this year with our group. Just from the start of the season up until this point, we’re seeing a lot of our guys improving. Even our veteran players are improving within their game. The young guys are taking another step, so I think that’s certainly an important piece for players making their decision.”
If and when Minten and/or Levis sign remains to be seen. In the meantime, Bardsley and his staff are focused on maintaining their lead atop the B.C. Division.
13 points separate the top four teams in the province. Friday’s trade deadline could see teams make a big splash, particularly the Memorial Cup hosting Kelowna Rockets.
Regardless of who lands where, odds are that Bardsley is quite content with the direction his team is heading.