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Colts' strong suit this season will be on the back end 0

By Gene Pereira, Special to QMI Agency

Barrie Colts defenceman Jonathan Laser battles Nevin Guy of the Ottawa 67’s last season at Scotiabank Place in the nation’s capital. The Colts host the Guelph Storm tonight at  the Barrie Molson Centre in Ontario Hockey League exhibition play. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. QMI AGENCY FILES

Barrie Colts defenceman Jonathan Laser battles Nevin Guy of the Ottawa 67’s last season at Scotiabank Place in the nation’s capital. The Colts host the Guelph Storm tonight at the Barrie Molson Centre in Ontario Hockey League exhibition play. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. QMI AGENCY FILES

Defenceman Jonathan Laser arrived at Barrie Colts training camp this season and saw lots of familiar faces next to him on the blue-line.

For Laser and the Colts, that should mean a real good thing heading into the start of the regular season next week. 

Barrie has six returnees from a blue-line that played a big role in helping the club reach the OHL final last season and come within a whisker of winning it all.

Only one Eastern Conference team (Belleville) gave up fewer goals than the 185 Barrie did last season. Actually, in the OHL only Owen Sound, Belleville and London were scored on fewer times than the Colts.

“We have a pretty strong group coming back. We have our core,” said Laser, who lines up alongside top NHL prospect Aaron Ekblad on the Colts top defensive pairing. “I’m looking forward to this year. Every year guys move in and out, but we have a good core coming back and I’m excited about this season.”

Returnees also include Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Jake Dotchin, who has lost more than 20 pounds and is in the best shape of his junior career, former first-round pick Alex Yuill, Michael Webster and C.J. Garcia.

“It’s not like it’s an older defence, either,” Colts general manager Jason Ford said. “We’ll see what happens with Ekblad (in the NHL draft) and see where he ends up, but we could have all (of them) back next year.

“We’re pretty happy with how some of these kids have come along,” the GM added.

With former captain Ryan O’Connor and veteran Alex Lepkowski both signing pro deals, the reality coming into camp was that only one or two spots, if the Colts elect to go with eight back on the point, were open.

Rookie Josh Carrick, who made quite the impression during a summer prospects skate, has followed that up with an impressive training camp and was signed by the club, locking down one of those spots.

“He started a little bit slow maybe the first day, but I think the year in Stouffville (Junior ‘A’) and the opportunity to play a lot there really helped him,” Ford said of Carrick, who has three older brothers who have all played in the OHL. “He’s a great skater and he’s pretty poised with the puck.

“He’s a young kid and has some learning to do and some filling out to do, but he’s a character kid and he showed that in the second day of camp where he was willing to stick up for teammates. He really showed that he wanted to be here.”

The battle for the remaining spot on the Colts blue-line is down to former Erie Otter Liam Maaskant and Jayme Forslund.

The rugged, six-foot-four, 214-pound Maaskant got into 12 games last season after he was picked up in mid-October from Erie, but was eventually sent down.  

“Maaskant played in the league a little and then he had to go the hard way and play Junior ‘B’ last year,” Ford said of the 19-year-old. “He’s making a good case (to stay).

“He’s shown he wants to be here and he’s taken a little bit of a leadership role as well.”

Forslund, a ninth-round pick in 2011, is another hulking body, who came into his third camp with the Colts this season.

“He’s pretty focused and determined to make the Colts,” Ford said of Forslund. “We’ll just have to see how exhibition goes here. There’s some really tough decisions to be made here (as the pre-season winds down).”

Ford is also quick to point out the depth on the blue-line in the Colts’ system.  

Young prospects such as Rocky Kaura, Tristan Whynot and Kody Gagnon got a taste at camp this season and could be pushing for spots next season.

Topping that list was 2013 fourth-round selection Kaura.

Listed at six-foot-one and 190 pounds, Kaura has all the makings of a physical, stay-at-home defender.

“He was one of the strongest ’97 (birthdates) in camp,” Ford said. “Him and Gagnon were right there in the fitness tests. Rocky’s just a battler. He was very close, but he’s 16 years old so we just figured he’d be better served developing for a year and then we’ll see what happens next year.”

One young defenceman who has had an impressive camp and is expected to contribute this season and take that next step in his game is Garcia.

The 17-year-old, who was a third-round selection in 2012 (48th overall), got into just 22 games last season and even in those he played sparingly.

Yet, Garcia served notice early by arriving to camp in great shape and he’s shown a great deal of confidence in his game, especially in his willingness to support the rush.

“He’s come in with a lot of confidence. He’s a second year player now,” Ford said. “It was tough after Christmas last year. He was in and out of the lineup, but with a 16-year-old kid that’s part of the development process. He’s gotten stronger and he’s actually lost a bit of weight.

“He’s leaner and stronger. He’s always been a strong skater. He has a lot of talent and we’re expecting some big things this year,” the GM said.

Laser knows what it’s like coming into the second season when you’re expected to take your game to that next level.

After missing most of his rookie year with a broken ankle, Laser delivered in a big way last season, developing into one of the Colts’ top shutdown defenders.

For he and the five other returnees on the point, last season’s success will only make that returning core stronger.

“It was a long playoff run, but it was a good experience for everybody,” Laser said. “Anytime you can go deep in the playoffs, it’s fun. You were kind of running off of adrenalin there at the end, but it was a good experience for everyone, and it’s good to get those situations under your belt.”

After all, isn’t the saying familiarity breeds success?

Laser and the Colts certainly hope that’s the case this season.

Gene Pereira covers the Barrie Colts for the Barrie Examiner.

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