In a season of firsts, tonight will be a big one for Dwayne Gylywoychuk.
The new head coach of the Brandon Wheat Kings makes his official debut as the man calling the shots behind the bench tonight when the Wheat Kings begin the 2012-13 WHL season by battling the rival Regina Pats at Westman Place in the Brandon Sun Home Opener. For Gylywoychuk, it’s a night he has been anxiously awaiting since replacing Cory Clouston as head coach back on July 18.
“I’m really excited,” Gylywoychuk said. “It’s something that when the announcement came down, it was something that you kind of circle that date for sure and you get excited about it and you kind of work backwards from it when you are doing your planning. But it is going to be the same game of hockey. It’s for two points, but I’m sure the emotion will be up a little bit more. It’s a moment I have been waiting for and I know the guys are getting excited about it.”
To be sure, Gylywoychuk and assistant coach Darren Ritchie have their hands full this season. There are always high expectations in the Wheat City, but clearly they need to be tempered this season with the reality of a rebuilding year, at least up front where six rookie forwards will dress every night. On the plus side, the Wheat Kings have a proven goaltender in Corbin Boes — third overall in the WHL last season with an impressive .916 save percentage — and have a deep defence that features six veterans, including a trio of NHL draft candidates in captain Ryan Pulock, Eric Roy and Ayrton Nikkel.
Gylywoychuk’s goals will begin with trying to make the playoffs for the 13th straight season in an Eastern Conference that will be dominated by the defending WHL champion Edmonton Oil Kings and the 2013 Memorial Cup host Saskatoon Blades, but could be wide open after that as 12 teams battle for the eight coveted post-season spots.
The Wheat Kings hope their experience on the blue-line and in net will keep the goals against down while they struggle to score after losing six of their top seven forwards from last year. But to be a playoff team, Gylywoychuk and Ritchie will have to work some magic to conjure up some scoring from somewhere. Brandon scored 273 goals last season, but the six veteran forwards on this year’s roster only combined for 61 last season, leaving a gaping hole offensively.
“If you look at our lineup and look at what we lost up front, for sure it’s a little bit of a concern,” Gylywoychuk said. “But I think if we worry about the team game we are playing, we are going to be able to generate some offence from the back end with the guys we have back there ... And if we play strong defensively and we get the puck in the other end and spend some territorial time in the offensive zone, I think we’re going to create some goals.”
For veterans and rookies alike, the opportunity for Wheat King forwards has never been better to become a go-to guy. And while they will grind out some goals up front, the power play could play a pivotal role in the team’s success this season. With arguably the best pair of power-play point men in the league in Pulock and Roy, and Swiss sniper Alessio Bertaggia poised to break out up front, the Wheat Kings need to capitalize with the man advantage to help make up for what could be a lack of even-strength scoring.
Whether it’s Nick Buonassisi or Tyrel Seaman who step up to flourish in that new role or rookies like Czech newcomer Richard Nejezchleb, special teams could be a huge equalizer for the Wheat Kings.
“Special teams are always important and I think you will find that a lot of times early in the year, they can singlehandedly win or lose games,” said Wheat Kings general manager Kelly McCrimmon.
One thing Gylywoychuk has made clear is that he will look anywhere and everywhere for scoring, chemistry and consistent effort every night to turn a rebuilding season into a playoff season. Opportunity is knocking. Who is going to answer?
“For sure we’re looking at different combinations and that’s what’s going to appear in the lineup every night,” he said. “But I think as every game goes by … we’re going to get better as a team. I think we will go through some growing pains, but it’s up to the coaching staff to put a game plan in place that is going to give them the chance to play to the best of their ability and the best opportunity for the team to win every night.”
And when it comes to coaching, in the end it always comes down to wins and losses. In his first stint as a head coach after nine years as an assistant, it’s that winning percentage that will ultimately determine how long Gylywoychuk’s tenure will be.