Tri-City Americans

Ams' blue line coming together

KENNEWICK -- Quality defensemen always are in high demand in the Western Hockey League, and after losing Tyler Schmidt at the end of last season, Tri-City general manager Bob Tory was in search of a couple to bolster his blue line.

Tory orchestrated a trade with the Victoria Royals for Mitch Topping, picked up Michal Plut-nar in the CHL Import Draft and brought in a couple of young players to fill out the blue line that has five returning players.

"We are happy with the progress of the blue line," Tory said. "Getting Topping, and Michal in the CHL draft, who has come in and played better than we thought, gives us depth. Two of them (Brock Sutherland and Matt MacKenzie) are 20, and we are still in the process of making decisions, but the players have come back and raised their level of play."

The Americans, who host Spokane tonight in their final preseason game, have three veteran defensemen -- MacKenzie, Zach Yuen and Sam Grist -- at NHL camps, giving the new and young defensemen a chance to impress the coaches.

"I like our defense this year," said Brent Bilodeau, the Americans' defensive coach. "As a coaching group, we are excited. Mitch has been playing really well, and we'll have to see what happens with MacKenzie (the Buffalo Sabres might have other plans for him)."

Plutnar, Riley Guenther and Justin Hamonic have gotten extended ice time with the veterans gone, and Bilodeau said experience will come with playing time.

"The speed of the game and the strength of the players is different than in midgets," Bilodeau said. "You can seen the growing pains. It's a lot like Sam (Grist) last year -- he got better as the year went along. That's what we prepare them for. They are getting a lot of playing time in different situations. You want to see improvement. You want to see who can do the work and who can think."

Sutherland and Drydn Dow are the two returning veterans who have been given the task of mentoring the younger players.

"Brock and Drydn have played a lot of years and the guys look to them to see how things are done." Bilodeau said. "It's a big step and a learning process."

Dow, who also can play forward in a pinch, said he's enjoyed the extra responsibility.

"It's good for us to be leaders in the room and on the ice," Dow said. "You have to lead by example and play hard every shift. When you are young, you are a bit nervous out there. When you are in the shoes, you are more confident. It has been nice to have the ice time."

With a depleted group of forwards at one point last year because of injuries, Dow moved up and showed flashes of brilliance on offense.

"On defense, there is a lot of stuff you need to pay attention to, but after awhile, it gets ingrained in your mind," Dow said. "Playing forward gave me an opportunity to learn different aspects of the game and develop as a player. I feel more confident to take more chances and I'm more comfortable with the systems and what I'm doing."

Sutherland, in his final year in the WHL, is happy to share his knowledge with the younger players.

"It's nice to be one of the older guys on the blue line," Sutherland said. "When I was younger I looked up to guys like Jarrett Toll and Tyler Schmidt. I want to be able to be there for these guys. A few times this week, I've had to remind them this is still training camp and they haven't earned anything yet. They have to work hard in practice and in the preseason games. Even though I'm a veteran, I'm still trying to make the team. You have to go out and show you deserve to be here."