Around the BCHL: Chilliwack Chiefs snag spot in CJHL national rankings

Around the BCHL is a look at what’s happening in the BCHL and the junior A world.

Welcome to the October 23, 2018 edition of Around the BCHL.

For a league that is generally regarded as the best junior A circuit in Canada, the BCHL doesn’t get a ton of respect in the Canadian Junior Hockey League’s weekly top 20.

The latest list is out, and only one BCHL team is on it.

The No. 15 Chilliwack Chiefs are deserving of a spot, sitting first overall in the standings, and the Coquitlam Express get a well-earned honourable mention, but how about a little love for the Merritt Centennials, Victoria Grizzlies or Prince George Spruce Kings?

Just saying.

It is nice to see the Humboldt Broncos earning an honourable mention. Everyone in Canada is behind them this season as they come back from last year’s terrible tragedy, and Humboldt is off to a solid 10-5-1 start, tying them for first overall in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. It’s still early days, but the Broncos are shaping up to be a fantastic story.

Nathan Oystrick is doing a great job.

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The Interior division is crazy competitive so far this season.

Check out the standings and you’ll find Merritt alone at the top, five points ahead of the field with an 11-7-0-0 record and 22 points.

The remaining six teams are all within one point of each other with 17, 17, 17, 17, 16 and 16 points.

The sixth place Wenatchee Wild play the fifth place Trail Smoke Eaters tomorrow (Wednesday) night. A win for the Wild could see them leapfrog four teams into second place if Penticton loses to Coquitlam.

For all the fretting about the last place Vernon Vipers, they’re in the same position where one good weekend could have them right back where they’re used to being, at the top of the heap.

There doesn’t seem to be a runaway train in the BCHL this season, one of those teams that is head and shoulders above the rest. Thirteen of the league’s 17 teams could be classified as ‘solid to very good.’ It’s early enough for the Nanaimo Clippers and Alberni Valley Bulldogs to turn things around, leaving the Surrey Eagles and Cowichan Capitals as the only weak links.

Circling back to those CJHL rankings for a second, I suppose this is why the BCHL is considered a premier league but doesn’t always have a nationally ranked team. Players who come to the Chiefs often talk about how deep the league is, how there are no dogs, where other leagues (hi AJHL!) are far more top-heavy.

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The Chiefs finally picked up a backup goalie late last week, trading for ex-Penticton stopper Nolan Hildebrand.

One of the most eye-popping stats early this season is Chilliwack netminder Mathieu Caron playing all but 13 minutes for the Chiefs. He’s already above 1,000 minutes for the season (1,065). He’s played 247 minutes more than the next busiest cage cop, Victoria’s Kurtis Chapman (818), and that is obviously unsustainable.

Chilliwack head coach/general manager Brian Maloney was dressing a young affiliate player (Hope native Dawson Pelletier) as the backup, but the kid only saw a brief bit of action in one game.

Hildebrand, 20, brings veteran experience and knows how to function as a seldom-used backup. With Penticton the last two seasons, his combined minutes-played total was 1,538 and last year he fashioned a solid 2.42 goals-against average and .910 save percentage in 19 appearances.

Who knows how long he’ll be in Chilliwack.

Daniel Chenard, the top goalie in last spring’s RBC Cup tournament, is working his way back from hip surgery and is targeting a December return. Once Chenard is back, Maloney may have a tough decision to make, and it wouldn’t surprise this writer to see the Quebec kid dealt to a team who will make him the unquestioned number one guy.

It would shock me if Caron is the one who gets moved. He’s super popular (not that Chenard isn’t) and he’s a local boy from Abbotsford. His numbers this year put the 18 year old right there with the BCHL’s elite, and he was also a central figure in one of the stranger Chiefs related videos I’ve seen.

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Victoria super sophomore Alex Newhook had four points (no goals) in his first five games.

He’s collected eight goals and 20 points in 12 games since, zooming to the top of the BCHL scoring parade. Newhook (with 24 points) is just one point behind Merritt’s Bradley Cocca (25) and is the heavy favourite to be the league leader at season’s end.

What a talented duo of young guns the Grizzlies have when you consider that Alexander Campbell is also 17 and sits sixth in BCHL scoring with 22 points.

There are only four 2001-born players inside the top 20. Chilliwack’s Harrison Blaisdell is 10th and West Kelowna’s Max Bulawka is 20th. There are only two 18 year olds on the list. Chilliwack’s Kevin Wall is tied with Newhook and Victoria’s Riley Hughes is 19th.

The rest of the top 20 is filled by 19 and 20 year olds.

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Three more BCHLers have secured NCAA scholarships in the last week.

Nanaimo’s MacKenzie Merriman has committed to Princeton U for 2020-21. The 18 year old forward has eight goals in 16 games so far this season.

Penticton forward Lukas Sillinger will be a member of the Nebraska-Omaha Hawks in 2020-21. He’s already collected three goals and eight points in 10 games this year after producing seven goals and 20 points all of last season.

His older brother Owen is in his first season at Bemidji State U.

Powell River’s Jayden Lee will join the Quinnipiac Bobcats in 2020-21. The five-foot-nine defenceman is already up to six points in 15 games this season after accumulating five points in 29 games last year.

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Finally, after starting the season with 11 straight games on the road, the Wenatchee Wild were no doubt thrilled to be coming home to the Toyota Centre, where they’ve been absurdly dominant in recent years.

In 2017-18 the defending BCHL champs went 24-4-1-0 on home ice. In 2016-17 they were 27-0-2-0.

But the friendly confines aren’t so friendly right now.

Wenatchee’s Lucas Sowder in action against Merritt last weekend. WENATCHEE WILD PHOTO

Wenatchee got their first win in three tries Saturday, blitzing Merritt by a 6-1 count.

Prior to that they suffered a pair of overtime losses, 4-3 to the Centennials and 5-4 to Nanaimo. They technically also have a home loss against Chilliwack (2-0), but that came at the BCHL Showcase in Chilliwack where they were listed as the home team at Prospera Centre.

Wenatchee’s home struggles aren’t something I’d expect to continue, but they have two tough opponents skating in this week as Trail drops by tomorrow (Wednesday) night and the Prince George Spruce Kings are in town Saturday.

Eric Welsh is the sports editor at the Chilliwack Progress and has been covering junior A hockey in B.C. and Alberta since 2003.

Email eric.welsh@theprogress.com

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