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Blazers have 20-year-old conundrum (Part 1 of five-part season-preview series)

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Defenceman Marc McNulty is among the Kamloops Blazers vying for one of three available overage spots on the roster. Training camp starts on Friday. For the full camp schedule, go online to blazerhockey.com. Allen Douglas/KTW

KTW will look ahead to the 2015-2016 Kamloops Blazers’ campaign by addressing five areas of the team in a series that starts on Thursday, Aug. 27. Stories will run each Thursday until Sept. 24, a day before Kamloops opens its season in Kelowna against the Rockets. In today’s instalment, we break down the club’s 20-year-old dilemma, with three spots available and at least four players fighting for jobs. Next Thursday, we take a look at the Blazers’ blue line.

Someone has to go.

Assuming Cole Ully plays professional hockey in Texas, there are four Kamloops Blazers in the running for three overage spots on the roster this season.

With centre Matt Needham expected to captain the Blazers for the third consecutive campaign, defencemen Marc McNulty and Ryan Rehill, along with forward Luke Harrison, will be left fighting for their hockey lives in Kamloops.

“We’re all good buddies and will continue to be buddies but, when you get out on the ice, there are no friends and I want that spot and so do the other guys,” said McNulty, a six-foot-six, 210-pound blue liner from Medicine Hat.

“One of us will go and it’s up to the coaches to figure that out.”

The local WHL club’s training camp gets underway on Friday and wraps up on Sept. 1 with the Blue versus White intrasquad game at the Sandman Centre. Game time is 7 p.m.

For a complete camp schedule, go online to blazerhockey.com.

At first glance, it might seem Harrison is on the outside looking in, competing against two NHL draft picks who would provide veteran leadership on an otherwise youthful back end — but it’s no foregone conclusion.

The Blazers have a dearth of big, strong, gritty, two-way forwards — and Harrison fits that bill.

“I like to play a physical game, a shutdown role, and I like to provide a lot of energy,” said Harrison, who was traded to Kamloops from the Victoria Royals in November 2013. “I feel like that’s a big asset that the team does need.”

Harrison, who is six-foot-one and weighs 207 pounds, is certainly no joy to play against and he pitched in offensively last season with 23 points, 12 of them goals.

General manager Craig Bonner will weigh into his decision the play of those younger defencemen — such as 16-year-old prospects Nolan Kneen and Conner McDonald — and Czech Republic import Ondrej Vala, the 17-year-old D-man picked 11th overall by the Blazers at the CHL Import Draft in June.

If they show well at camp and throughout the pre-season slate, it might make it easier for the eighth-year GM to part with either Rehill or McNulty.

“We’re going to keep, for sure, one older guy back there, but it’s going to come to exhibition and how that young group can handle things and how the new European fits into the mix,” Bonner said.

“If you’re talking about Harry, he’s a great guy in the room and he brings an element that we don’t have a lot of. It’s not going to be an easy decision.”

Rehill made it clear he wants to finish his junior career in the Tournament Capital in an interview with KTW after exit meetings in March.

“I’ve grown up here with the team and with the guys and made so many friendships and relationships with coaches and teammates and Toledo [Blazers’ trainer Colin Robinson],” said Rehill, who was picked by the Blazers in the sixth round of the 2010 bantam draft.

“I would be pretty upset to not play here next year.”

Rehill, who is six-foot-three and weighs 225 pounds, was selected by the New Jersey Devils in the fifth round of the 2014 NHL Draft and McNulty was picked in Round 6 in 2013 by the Detroit Red Wings, but neither have been signed to contracts.

Each of the sizeable defencemen attended summer development camps with the teams that drafted them and will head to NHL training camps in September, Rehill to New Jersey and McNulty to Detroit.

The Blazers have until Oct. 10 to decide which three overage players are staying, a decision that could be influenced by Ully’s standing with the Dallas Stars and their American Hockey League affiliate, the Texas Stars.

If Ully is returned to Kamloops before the January trade deadline, the Blazers can carry four 20-year-old players for 14 days before league rules require they move one of them out of town.

“We’ll stay in touch with Dallas as the process goes on,” Bonner said.

“This is kind of an exciting problem to have because the last couple years we haven’t had the group of 20s like we do this year.

“We like all of them. Training camp and, more importantly, exhibition will work things out.”

Injury bug bites early

The Blazers will open training camp without McNulty and 17-year-old forward Quinn Benjafield as both players will be out for about two weeks due to injuries.

McNulty suffered a hairline fracture in his foot during off-season training about three weeks ago and Benjafield underwent an appendectomy in early August.

Benjafield, a six-foot-one, 180-pound forward, is entering his second season with the Blazers.

McNulty and Benjafield are both expected to return to the lineup during the WHL pre-season, which begins for the Blazers on Sept. 4 when Prince George comes to town.

Game time is 7 p.m. at the Sandman Centre.

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