Under the Hood: Oklahoma City
From now until the season starts, we will be taking a quick look under the hood of each team. From players leaving, to new signings, we will preview each team based on what coaches and players have to say.
Oklahoma City Jr. Blazers
2018-2019 Finish: Thorne Cup Semi-Finals
Standings/Record: 37W-10L-2OTW-1OTL 116 Pts. (2nd Midwest)
Thorne Cup Record: 2W-2L
(Photo by Tim Broussard, Ogden Mustangs Photographer)
The Oklahoma City Jr. Blazers went from Wildcard to a Thorne Cup Semi-Final team thanks to a valiant effort in the round-robin.
The Northern Colorado Eagles posed a serious threat to the Arctic Edge Ice Arena faithful before three goals in under a minute sent the Mid-Western Division Semi-Finals to a Game 3. The Jr. Blazers knew once the hurdle was cleared that the comeback’s momentum could propel them, and it did just that with a 5-1 win to send them to the Division Finals.
Although the Rhinos essentially eliminated them, they qualified as the Wildcard team.
“They pretty much counted us out,” Jr. Blazers Owner/GM and former Head Coach Gary Gill said. “We had a team that never said ‘Die,’ we battled back.”
Once at the Thorne Cup, they scored 12 goals in their last two games of the round-robin to circumvent their opening loss to the Mustangs and qualify for the semi-final round.
“I thought we had a fantastic showing at the Thorne Cup,” Gill said. “We weren’t ready to go home [After the Ogden series], I fired the guys up and pretty much said, ‘we need to get past this, move on, and get better.’ We came out the next night and beat Bellingham and then beat Long Beach.”
The Jr. Blazers endured another loss to the Rhinos in the semi-finals. Despite being short one game from the pinnacle, the Blazers did the most out of a Wildcard spot.
In retrospect, the Jr. Blazers were fueled by a few players whose absence must be mitigated to maintain the same potency and stopping power.
Vitali Mikhailov (Photo by Tim Broussard, Ogden Mustangs Photographer)
The Russian forward etched himself into WSHL history when he tied the All-Time Goals Record with 135 career goals. He matched former Ogden Mustang, Matus Spodniak, with the amount of goals but technically broke the record as he accomplished it one game sooner. His 49G-58A-107Pts. was good for seventh among league leaders and top overall with OKC.
Mikhailov spent three and a half seasons with Oklahoma City where his knack for scoring soared each year. And that isn’t mentioning his 40-points with the Valencia Flyers in his first 17 WSHL games. The trade acquisition—for Oklahoma City—turned out to be one of the greatest in recent memory based on the sheer talent, leadership, and production that Mikhailov brought.
During the Blazer vs. Blazer showdown, at the Thorne Cup, Oklahoma City found themselves down 2-0 going into the second frame. Mikhailov triggered the come back with two goals and helped his team to a 4-2 lead when the season was on the line.
“He knows how to put the puck in the net,” Gill said. “I would be hard-pressed to say he isn’t difficult to replace. I don’t know if you replace guys like that, but we do have guys that are very talented coming up behind him that will pick up where he left off. Do they match up to Vitalii? We won’t find out until we get them all out there.”
We mentioned Mikhailov, but with Stephane Doering committed to Deggendorfer SC of the Germany3 league, this means the Jr. Blazers are down their two top scorers and team captain in Doering.
Doering started in the WSHL with the Springfield Express and his first season was one to remember. Doering lit it up for the Express tallying 76-points right out the gate. The next season he found himself on the OKC roster and outdid his first year with 32G-47A-79Pts.
He had 25 multi-point games last season and combined, with Mikhailov, for 82G-105A-187Pts. Doering added five points in four games, at the Thorne Cup, including a goal and two assists against Long Beach to sustain the tourney turnaround.
It goes without saying; the Jr. Blazers lost a lot of firepower with the two snipers gone.
“A team will certainly win games for you. An individual can sneak a few but it's the team first mentality that will always win games for you,” Gill said on the subject of Mikhailov and Doering.
Will Xavier Garneau Return?
Bobby Cloutier played the better half of games compared to Garneau. However, Garneau performed better than expected when it came to the marquee moments. He finished with a record of 13W-2L-0OTL, a 1.92 GAA, and a .929 SV%.
Garneau’s highlight of the season was easily his 49-save performance backstopping the Jr. Blazers to a victory over the Ogden Mustangs. What also impresses is the fact that he never lost consecutive games.
Former Head Coach Gill expressed his satisfaction with Garneau's performance down the stretch saying that "he really stepped it up for us."
If the team can bring back Garneau, the absence of Bobby Cloutier may not be as detrimental.
(Photo of Garneau via OKC Jr. Blazers Facebook/Candace K. Riley)
Of the players returning for OKC, it is important to lead with the re-signing of Jordan Sgro. Sgro sits at No. 10 of the Jr. Blazers All-Time Scoring list and is on track to 100-career points with the team. He finished fifth on the team in scoring with 19G-37A-56Pts. Sgro will carry a heavier load this season. As the second most penalized player on the squad, with 71 PIMs, the number may see a decrease due to higher responsibility.
Dylan Koch was announced to be returning for 2019-2020 and may also be relied upon as a mentor to newcomers. Koch is coming back for his final year in the WSHL. Although it is his third and final season, it will only be his second full season. Upon starting with the Jr. Blazers in 2017-2018, Koch was loaned to Wichita and Dallas, but didn't see much ice time. He finally returned in 2018-2019 playing 42 regular season games .
Joey Allegrini will help tighten up the defensive corps in his first full season with the Jr. Blazers. Allegrini had a stint with the Las Vegas Storm in 2016-2017 before going to the NCDC where he spent time with three different teams. Making his way back to the WSHL, Allegrini will look to continue his blue-line production tallying 6G-5A-11Pts in 18 games.
As of right now only two new players have officially been announced starting with Swedish netminder, Joel Svensson. He has committed to play for the Jr. Blazers and has experience at the J20-Division I and Super Elite levels. His transition will be one to watch in the Midwest.
"Born in 1999, Svensson joins the Blazers and the WSHL in his final year of eligibility, looking to backstop OKC in their quest for the Thorne Cup." (Via OKCityHockey.com)
17-year-old forward, Benjamin St-Onge, has also been announced. St-Onge played two years in the QJHL. He most recently captained the Ecole-Cardinal Roy registering 17G-31A-48Pts. in 32 games.
New Head Coach
A new head coach can mean a lot of things but what usually comes to mind is how will the playing system be affected. The Jr. Blazers will be without Gary Gill who coached the team to a deep season run. Gill took over prior to the 2017-2018 season and was responsible for the biggest display of player advancement in team history.
Now, Gill will only retain his ownership and General Manager titles for the Jr. Blazers who have since named former assistant coach Ty Smith as the new bench boss.
“Moving to the front office into a General Manager position allows me to stay actively involved with the Blazers, and having Ty [Smith] move into the head coaching position allows a seamless transition on the ice for our players. This move is only going to help continue the legacy of the Oklahoma City Jr. Blazers, and establish our team, and Oklahoma City as a whole, as a premier hockey destination for players in their careers.”
More news and details to be released by teams as the 2019-2020 season approaches. Stay up to date with the latest Oklahoma City Jr. Blazers news by going to OKCityHockey.com.