Curtis Honey during a pre-season practice at Westman Place on Thursday afternoon. (BRUCE BUMSTEAD/BRANDON SUN)
Call it a plethora of possibilities or an embarrassment of riches, but the real battle begins now for the Brandon Wheat Kings.
The Wheat Kings open WHL pre-season play tonight with a whopping 21 forwards still on the roster in what is shaping up to be September’s most intriguing storyline.
Head coach/GM Kelly McCrimmon has nine veteran forwards back, but don’t be shocked if the Wheat Kings’ lengthy list of rookie hopefuls force McCrimmon to make room by moving a veteran or two at some point.
Leading the rookie forward candidates is new Latvian import Rihards Bukarts, who has come to Brandon as advertised, with a slick skill set, to lock up one of the few openings up front.
On paper, 17-year-olds Ryley Lindgren and homegrown Tyler Coulter, along with top 16-year-old candidates Braylon Shmyr (the Wheat Kings’ 2012 first-round pick) and bruising Jesse Gabrielle would be the leading candidates to fill four more spots, given the fact they were already called up for WHL games last season and have had solid training camps.
But Brandonite Brett Kitt has also forced his way into the picture, coming into camp in excellent shape and showcasing eye-catching speed off left wing as he builds a credible case for making his hometown team.
Fellow 17-year-olds Jordan Bochinski, Elkhorn’s Taylor Sanheim and Brandonite Duncan Campbell also hope to get a chance in the pre-season to prove they belong, along with 16-year-old forward Dakota Boutin (a third-round bantam pick from Moosomin, Sask.), who is also still in the mix.
For those rookies, Brandon’s short four-game pre-season schedule couldn’t be any more crucial to show who can elevate their game to another level from training camp. For their part, the nine veterans up front — led by Canadian under-18 team member Jayce Hawryluk — have held up their end of the bargain with impressive off-season conditioning, according to strength and conditioning coach Jim Frederickson.
But that off-ice work is just the first step for the veterans, who need to produce or risk getting pushed aside by the younger talent knocking on the door.
On the back end, things are a little clearer, with seven veteran defencemen on the roster, led by a trio of 19-year-old NHL draft picks in captain Ryan Pulock, Eric Roy and Nick Walters. Towering 6-foot-7 Taylor Green looks like a solid off-season addition, Colton Waltz and Kord Pankewicz are looking to step up in their sophomore seasons, while Rene Hunter offers veteran experience if the Wheat Kings choose to keep him as an overager.
There are still a couple of questions remaining on defence, but none bigger than what the New York Islanders will do with Pulock, their first-round draft pick (15th overall) this year. In theory, Pulock should be reassigned to the Wheat Kings for his 19-year-old campaign to play major minutes, represent his country in the world junior hockey championship and return to the Islanders a year from now better prepared to play at the professional level. But the Islanders aren’t exactly the most predictable organization and Pulock’s NHL-ready 100 mph slapshot might make them think twice about sending him back to junior.
While he’s away, Riley Van Horne — who played the first half of last season in Brandon as a 16-year-old before being assigned to Junior A — and fellow rookies Dominic Thom and Mark Matsuba will get a chance to show they belong, with at least one of them likely landing a roster spot this season.
Meanwhile, in goal, the Wheat Kings begin pre-season with their tandem already set in 19-year-old veteran Curtis Honey and highly regarded 17-year-old rookie Jordan Papirny, a 2011 first-round bantam pick. What is far from settled, however, is who will be the No.1 netminder.
While it would be a mistake to read too much into his training camp struggles, Honey does still have plenty to prove after an inconsistent 2012-13 season in which he finished with a rather pedestrian 3.81 goals-against average and a save percentage of .895. Papirny, meanwhile, notched a solid 2.84 GAA in three WHL games as a 16-year-old call-up and is coming off of a superb season of Midget AAA in which he showed he was a prime-time playoff performer by posting a brilliant 1.61 GAA and a .946 save percentage in the post-season. Honey may be the incumbent and could very well blossom into the consistent netminder the Wheat Kings hope to count on this season, but don’t be surprised if Papirny plays his way into the No.1 role by Christmas.
In the meantime, plenty of questions remain throughout the lineup. As the pre-season begins, we start to get some answers tonight.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 6, 2013