TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN
Taylor Cooper has the potential to have a breakout season as a sophomore.
It would be foolish to read too much into the Brandon Wheat Kings’ 2-0 start to the season.
After all, we’re only a year removed from a Brandon team that started the season a perfect 4-0 before beginning a long slide into last place in the WHL’s Eastern Conference, and 16 of those same players are back this year. With five games scheduled over the next nine days, starting with a road doubleheader this weekend against the early East Division favourite Prince Albert Raiders, we should have a better indication of what this team is all about.
However, there were some interesting signs on opening weekend for the Wheat Kings. Here’s a look at a few of them entering Week 2:
•Taylor Cooper showed superb speed and slick skill in firing four goals in two games — he’s on pace for 144 goals — but Ray Ferraro’s record 108-goal season is not in any jeopardy. However, if Cooper continues to employ excellent acceleration and a willingness to drive to the net, the 18-year-old left-winger could be in for a superb sophomore season.
• If there was one notable knock on young defenceman Kord Pankewicz in his rookie season, it was he played with a little too much risk to his game and didn’t have the foot speed to make up for it when he got caught up ice. However, with a league-leading +7 plus/minus rating through two games, Pankewicz proved on opening weekend that he has the potential to be a dependable two-way player as he begins his 17-year-old campaign.
• Goaltender Curtis Honey answered the challenge in his first test as the Wheat Kings’ No.1 netminder, posting an impressive 2.00 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage — both second among WHL netminders — while stopping 76 of the 80 shots he faced. While the Raiders will pose a much more formidable test, with the Wheat Kings also itching to give highly regarded rookie Jordan Papirny a start this weekend, it will be interesting to see how sweet Honey’s numbers are in a week’s time.
• Eric Roy’s 17 goals last season were tied for fifth among all WHL defencemen, but his plus/minus rating of -32 was one of the worst. However, Roy has come back with confidence following his first NHL camp with the Calgary Flames and has set the tone for a solid season at both ends of the ice with four points in two games and a +5 plus/minus rating. Roy will be counted on to be a leader this season and filled the role well on opening weekend.
• Much is expected of overagers Jens Meilleur and Minnedosa’s Chad Robinson this season and both delivered in Week 1 as point-a-game players. Meilleur’s +5 rating is also tied with Cooper as best among Brandon’s forwards. The Wheat Kings only minus players? Import forward Richard Nejezchleb and defenceman Colton Waltz are both -1.
• Rookies Ryley Lindgren, Braylon Shmyr, Rihards Bukarts and Dominic Thom each had points and were plus players on opening weekend, while Jesse Gabrielle showed he will be a physical force, engaging in his first scrap of the season. Brandonite Brett Kitt displayed speed and tenacity on the forecheck, while Riley Van Horne didn’t look out of place on a shortstaffed blue-line. It will be interesting to see what Brandonite Tyler Coulter can do once he gets his opportunity.
• It’s worth noting that the Wheat Kings won back-to-back games despite Jayce Hawryluk and Tim McGauley — Brandon’s top two scoring forwards last season — combining for only one assist. It should be only a matter of time before the second-year forwards break out.
• With such a small sample size, special teams numbers (Brandon was 0-for-7 on the power play and killed off 6-of-8 penalties) are pretty irrelevant at this point. But those who watched the kid in action on the weekend know that Brandon’s power play will probably miss 15-year-old phenom Kale Clague on the point this weekend, while the biggest loss is the continued absence of captain and power-play quarterback Ryan Pulock.
Pulock, a first-round draft pick with a 100 m.p.h. slap shot, is expected to play in split-squad games this weekend for the New York Islanders, but could be returned to Brandon before Tuesday’s start of the NHL regular season, which would be a huge boost for the Wheat Kings, especially on special teams that have plenty of room for improvement.
• Nobody in the Wheat Kings organization will admit it on the record, but you can’t tell me that there aren’t a few players in the room who would love to stick it to their former coach Cory Clouston this weekend in Prince Albert. And you can bet that Clouston, who wasn’t exactly universally loved in the Wheat Kings room during his one-year tenure, is relishing the idea of matching lines with new Brandon bench boss Kelly McCrimmon, the man who fired him a year ago. Yes, both teams are focused first and foremost on their own teams and their own performances, but whether they publicly admit it or not, someone will be taking a little extra pleasure out of wins this weekend.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 27, 2013