One thing you can say about Brandon Wheat Kings general manager Kelly McCrimmon this season: He wasn’t afraid to make big, bold moves to improve his team.
In the end, however, McCrimmon’s moves — hiring former NHL coach Cory Clouston, acquiring top overager Darian Dziurzynski and landing 19-year-old NHL prospect Kevin Sundher — couldn’t help the Wheat Kings get past the hottest team in the WHL.
When the Wheat Kings were swept aside by the impressive Edmonton Oil Kings — now winners of 19 straight games — on Wednesday night at Westman Place, it marked the end of a bizarre roller-coaster ride of a season. Back on Nov. 18, Brandon sat in first place in the WHL before beginning a slide that bottomed out in January when the Wheat Kings went 4-9-0-1 and suffered through a six-game home losing skid that left them clinging to the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
To their credit, the Wheat Kings turned it on down the stretch by going an impressive 14-4-0-2 in their last 20 games to climb into sixth place and begin the playoffs on a roll, upsetting the third-place Calgary Hitmen in five games before running into an Oil Kings juggernaut that just may wind up winning it all this year.
A young and talented squad blessed with great team speed, the Oil Kings — who will likely return as many as 19 players next season including top scorer Michael St. Croix and starting goaltender Laurent Brossoit — were simply too quick and too deep for the Wheat Kings to handle.
For their part, the Wheat Kings clearly didn’t get enough contributions from their big acquisitions as Sundher — who fired 50 goals and piled up 151 points in 128 games over the past two seasons — scored just one goal in nine playoff games, while Dziurzynski managed just four points while posting a team-worst -5 plus/minus rating.
Brandon could have also used more from 19-year-old veterans like Brenden Walker (zero goals in the playoffs) and Dominick Favreau (zero points in the playoffs), while the Wheat Kings’ vaunted power play that produced at a 26.3 per cent clip during the regular season disappeared in the playoffs (11.1 per cent success rate).
The Dziurzynski and Sundher moves, in particular, will be second-guessed, although you can’t question McCrimmon’s commitment to trying to improve his team.
While neither player paid off in the playoffs, Dziurzynski was clearly the best overager available at the 20-year-old deadline and Sundher was the top scorer available at the WHL trade deadline and McCrimmon got both of them.
In hindsight, it’s easy to say that McCrimmon paid too steep of a price.
Dziurzynski, who was held pointless in the Oil Kings series, cost the Wheat Kings two second-round bantam draft picks and a third-rounder, while Brandon gave up its first-round pick in this year’s WHL bantam draft, 18-year-old defenceman Jordan Fransoo and 17-year-old left-winger Dakota Conroy in a surprising move to land Sundher, who was held to one measly assist in his last six playoff games.
(Brandon also acquired goaltender Brandon Anderson, 19, and an early third-round bantam pick from Lethbridge for netminder Liam Liston, 18, and defenceman Spencer Galbraith, 18, in a deal earlier this season that didn’t really help, or hurt, the Wheat Kings this season.)
Still, McCrimmon hasn’t exactly left the cupboard bare for next year. Dealing Fransoo gave 16-year-old standout Ayrton Nikkel plenty of ice time to develop, while moving Liston helped clear the way for 18-year-old Corbin Boes to establish himself as a legitimate No.1 starter in the WHL. As for the draft picks, last season’s blockbuster Brayden Schenn trade gave the Wheat Kings an extra first-round pick this year that will replace the one they gave up to get Sundher, although they will miss the second-rounders in the 2012 and 2013 drafts that they surrendered.
Still, the Wheat Kings’ protected list is stocked with prospects, including 16-year-olds Colton Waltz and Tim McGauley who both got called up for a taste of the playoffs and look ready to step into the lineup next year, while 16-year-olds forwards Taylor Cooper and Jack Palmer and 17-year-old goalie Curtis Honey also got a look-see this season. In addition, Brandon has a fine crop of 15-year-olds who will push for roster spots next season, including a pair of first-round bantam draft selections in high-scoring forward/defenceman Kord Pankewicz and highly regarded netminder Jordan Papirny, as well as a trio of local forwards in Roblin’s Jayce Hawryluk and Brandon’s Brett Kitt and Tyler Coulter, among others.
McCrimmon may have gambled and lost this season, but he still has stacked the deck with a full house of prime prospects to pick from next year.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition April 13, 2012