Trio trying to state their case

Matthew Gourlie
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Late round picks look to fight their way into roster race

They're three late round picks who have already pledged their future to the Moose Jaw Warriors.

Christos Zinis makes a pass during the opening day of the Moose Jaw Warriors rookie camp at Mosaic Place.

Ethan Lazaro, Brody Willms and Christos Zinis all hope their future in the Western Hockey League will begin this season.

The Warriors have 19 players with at least a full season of WHL hockey under their belts, but Lazaro, Willms and Zinis are all hoping to force their way into the roster conversation at training camp.

"I want to make it as far, if not further than last year at camp," said Zinis, a 17-year-old defenceman, following Monday's opening day of Warriors rookie camp.

There is some stiff competition for roster spots. In addition to the glut of possible returning players, the Warriors have former first round picks Brett Howden and Jayden Halbgewachs both looking to make the team. 

Manitoba midget AAA defenceman of the year Ryan Gardiner and Alberta midget AAA scoring champion Noah Gregor are also expected to get a very long look at camp.

Lazaro made his WHL debut last year with the Warriors, but the 17-year-old St. Albert, Alta. product knows the future is now for his WHL career.

"Being a 17-year-old it's my last kick at the can, so to speak. I have to try to keep that out of my mind and focus on my game and do what I can control," said Lazaro who had 14 goals and 29 points in 35 games last season. "I'm just trying to keep it simple and show what I can do. I want to use my speed, get pucks to the net and use my size. I put on a lot of weight this summer. I trained a lot this summer, I worked a lot on my flexibility and I'm trying to show that off to the scouting staff and the coaches."

Lazaro who added 18 pounds to his 5-11 frame and feels he's ready to handle the rigours of the WHL.

Zinis has also continued to add muscle to his frame. The 6-2 Broomfield, Colo. product is up to 203 lbs. after having his 2013-14 season cut short.

Zinis tore his labrum in his shoulder. He had surgery on it which cost him the second half of his season and kept him out of the Warriors' spring camp. The injury first occurred at main camp last fall and he aggravated it playing for the Arizona Bobcats midget team.

"I was actually going for a hip check on (Brayden Point) and he slipped by me and I kind of whacked myself into the wall. Then I popped it out a second time down in Phoenix," said Zinis who said his shoulder is fully healed and he feels 100 per cent healthy.

Like Zinis, Lazaro also missed the Warriors' spring camp.

"I wanted to be there to see the new prospects and meet the new guys. It was a little disappointing that I couldn't come. We had just gotten back from an emergency trip to India and I caught a bug and I could barely stand up," said Lazaro.

In an effort to improve his chances this year, Lazaro changed his off-season approach after playing three-on-three summer hockey last year.

"Last year I felt like it kind of got me into some bad habits before camp. There was a little too much toe-dragging," Lazaro said. "I did a lot more with my trainer this year and we did a lot more flow drills and battle drills to get me ready for camp. I think it will help a lot more than three-on-three."

Willms couldn't have asked for a better summer of preparation. 

After a strong season with the Okanagan Hockey Academy he was invited to Hockey Canada's goaltender camp this summer and then attended their under-17 camp.

"It was an unbelievable experience. Everything from the facilities to the coaches to the players and the calibre of the game was unreal," said Willms. 

He is expected to be a big part of the Warriors' future in goal. Whether the 16-year-old can force his way into contention this year remains to be seen after Zach Sawchenko backstopped Canada to Hlinka Memorial Cup gold and veteran starter Justin Paulic is looking have a bounce-back season.

Willms feels that, as a goalie, it's a little easier to ignore the big picture and focus on the details of camp. 

"I want to work as hard as I can and try to stop every puck," he said. "I'm taking it day by day and we'll see how it ends up. I want to play in as many games as I can and get as much experience as I can."

The experience he gained going through camp last year has also helped Willms prepare for his first attempt at cracking the roster.

"I'm a lot more comfortable this year at camp having been here last year. I know a lot of the guys and I somewhat what we're going to do every day," said Willms. 

Lazaro was a seventh round pick and Zinis and Willms were both eighth round picks.

Rookie camp will conclude tonight with a pair of scrimmages at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. The Warriors will make their first round of cuts and main camp scrimmages will begin Saturday.

Organizations: Western Hockey League, Arizona Bobcats, Okanagan Hockey Academy

Geographic location: Manitoba, Alberta, Phoenix India Canada

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