(EDITOR’S NOTE: A week after this column was written, McCrimmon fired Clouston on May 15.)
The difference in opinion couldn’t be more striking for Cory Clouston and Kelly McCrimmon.
When asked what kind of a season his Brandon Wheat Kings had, McCrimmon offered a blunt analysis.
“I was disappointed in our year,” the Wheat Kings’ owner/ general manager said.
The man he hired to coach his team, however, clearly has a different point of view.
“Overall, I thought we had a pretty good season,” Clouston said shortly after completing his first season at the helm.
It’s an intriguing point-counterpoint from two strong hockey personalities who figured to be a good match when McCrimmon chose to step aside last summer after coaching for seven seasons and hire a former NHL bench boss in Clouston, fresh off a two-and-a-half year stint coaching the Ottawa Senators.
For the record, the Wheat Kings did make the WHL playoffs for the 12th straight season, overcame a mid-season slide to post a 39-28-1-4 record to finish sixth in a strong Eastern Conference and upset the third-place Calgary Hitmen in the first round of the playoffs before being swept by the powerful Edmonton Oil Kings.
Clouston signed what is believed to be a lucrative — by WHL standards — two-year contract last summer that does feature a standard out clause if Clouston is offered a job in the professional ranks this off-season. When asked recently if he expects Clouston to be back for 2012-13, McCrimmon didn’t exactly offer the obligatory vote of confidence.
“Cory signed a two-year contract when he came here and in the off-season he has the ability to pursue employment professionally and that’s totally up to him if he does that,” McCrimmon stated.
For his part, Clouston admits he would be open to an AHL or NHL offer, but at this point he plans to be back behind the bench in Brandon this fall.
“I would be very excited to come back, but I would, if the opportunity (for a pro coaching gig) presents itself, I would definitely have to look at it and weigh the options,” Clouston said this week.
“But no, I think it will be a real good situation next year coming back here and I am excited to work with the young guys and I think we have some real good people as far as chemistry is concerned.”
Clouston won’t have nearly as many weapons to work with up front. Mark Stone, Mike Ferland and Kevin Sundher have all signed NHL contracts and are expected to play pro as 20-year-olds, while overage forwards Darian Dziurzynski and Paul Ciarelli have now graduated, leaving a huge hole in the lineup.
That situation only got worse with the big bantam-draft deal that sent 81-point producer Brenden Walker — one of the few proven scorers left on the roster — to the Saskatoon Blades for a trio of top draft picks. It’s a move that will clearly help Brandon down the road, but gutted the offence.
“It’s obviously a big hole,” Clouston said. “He was an important part of the team this year. But from an organizational standpoint, we definitely got a lot of value for him.”
So how does Clouston plan to squeeze offence from a depth chart that now features only one forward — Swiss import Alessio Bertaggia (24 goals) — who scored more than nine goals last season?
“I think it’s too early to predict who is going to fill in those spots, but there’s a lot of opportunity for guys to step up,” he said. “But I don’t think you can replace one or two guys. I think it’s going to have to be more by committee.”
Dealing from a position of strength on defence also wouldn’t hurt. If you include impressive 16-year-old blue-liner Colton Waltz, who joined the team late in the season, the Wheat Kings will return seven defencemen who finished the year with the club. Moving one for some scoring help up front could top McCrimmon’s off-season to-do list.
“Obviously you can’t be the buyer and the seller at the same time,” Clouston said. “Those trades have to present themselves and that’s something you would have to talk to Kelly about ... But yeah, we definitely have a lot of depth on the back end ... You’ve got a guy like Colton Waltz come in and play as well as he did towards the end of the season in pressure situations, and (goaltender) Curtis (Honey) played well towards the end there when we had to use him and Corbin (Boes), the progression that he showed ... definitely from the back end to our goaltending is where we have a lot of depth and we are going to have to use that as one of our strengths next year.”
Whether the Wheat Kings tinker with the lineup at all in the off-season, it’s clear there will be plenty of opportunity for rookie forwards, with six or more projected to crack the roster. For Clouston, he is excited to see how the Wheat Kings’ impressive crop of young talent has developed when the club holds its annual prospects camp from June 1-3.
“When I think back to (training) camp, there were a lot of good, young hockey players,” Clouston said. “I thought our 15-year-old age group was outstanding when you look at guys like (Kord) Pankewicz and (John) Quenneville, those types of players.
“You add (Jayce) Hawryluk to the mix and then you have guys like (Taylor) Cooper and (Jack) Palmer, who played a couple of games for us early on in the year,” Clouston added, noting Brandon boys Tyler Coulter and Brett Kitt will also be in the running. “For sure, there’s a lot of opportunity for those young guys and it’s important they understand that and it’s important that they take advantage of that and work hard in the summer and be prepared for this fall.”