As the Brandon Wheat Kings begin main camp today, we take a look at 10 questions for a team clearly on the rise:
1. How many 16-year-olds will make the cut? Brandon is blessed with some of the top blue-chip prospects in the league, including a bevy of 2013 WHL bantam draft picks led by centre Nolan Patrick (fourth overall), defenceman Kale Clague (sixth overall), centre Tanner Kaspick (25th overall) and forward Ty Lewis (47th overall). All four have a good chance to crack the lineup, although with as many as 12 forwards back, the competition for rookie roster spots up front will be intense. However, one thing head coach/general manager Kelly McCrimmon has always been known for is finding a way to make room for a young kid when he shows he’s ready to make the jump.
2. Will the Wheat Kings get all three overagers back from pro camps? Wingers Richard Nejezchleb and Peter Quenneville and defenceman Eric Roy could give Brandon its best trio of 20-year-olds since the 2010 Memorial Cup season if they are all returned to junior by their NHL teams. Interestingly, since Nejezchleb (New York Rangers) was just drafted this year and Quenneville (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Roy (Calgary Flames) were 2013 picks, all three could be sent back to the WHL with their NHL teams still retaining their rights. However, all three will likely have stints in both NHL and AHL camps before the Wheat Kings will have their answer.
3. Who will fill the Wheat Kings’ two import spots? Nejezchleb’s pro status is key to this equation, with 19-year-old Latvian left-winger Rihards Bukarts and new 17-year-old Russian defenceman Ivan Provorov the other candidates. Provorov — Brandon’s pick in this year’s CHL Import Draft — is probably a lock for a position if he lives up to the advance billing, considering the Wheat Kings only return five blue-liners (four if Roy turns pro). Both Bukarts (28 goals) and Nejezchleb (32 goals) are proven scorers, giving McCrimmon trade options to consider if Nejezchleb does not earn a pro contract next month.
4. Who will serve as Brandon’s backup goaltender? You can pencil in former first-round bantam draft pick Jordan Papirny as the Wheat Kings’ undisputed No.1 netminder as he enters his 18-year-old season. Papirny should be good for up to 60 starts, but who will play the other dozen is up for grabs. Calgarian Logan Thompson and American Evan Robert are the top candidates, with the spot likely going to the 17-year-old who has the best camp and pre-season performance. However, if they fail to impress, watch for McCrimmon to look for veteran help via the trade route.
5. How big of a step will last year’s 16-year-olds take? Talented and truculent Jesse Gabrielle quickly became a fan favourite in the style of former Wheat King standout Jordin Tootoo, with his ability to score and scrap. Already on Central Scouting’s radar for next year’s NHL draft, Gabrielle should continue to drive opponents crazy and could blossom offensively if he continues to ride shotgun with the dynamic duo of John Quenneville and Jayce Hawryluk. Meanwhile, Braylon Shmyr had flashes of brilliance as a 16-year-old but also showed he needs to get stronger, as he was often muscled off the puck. More strength will allow the first-round bantam pick a better chance to put his superb skills to use in his sophomore season.
6. Just how good can Hawryluk and Quenneville be this year? The linemates and best buddies were selected two picks apart in June’s NHL draft — Quenneville 30th by the New Jersey Devils with the last pick of the first round and Hawryluk 32nd by the Florida Panthers — a huge confidence boost for their 18-year-old seasons. Watch for Hawryluk (24 goals, 64 points) and Quenneville (25 goals, 58 points) to be among the league’s scoring leaders this season.
7. Is Ryan Pilon poised to be a dominant defenceman? Entering his NHL draft year — Pilon doesn’t turn 18 until Oct. 10 — the former third overall bantam draft pick possesses size (6-foot-2, 212 pounds) and skill (seven goals, 36 points in 66 games) and could be in for a big year. On NHL Central Scouting’s early list of prospects for 2015, the Canadian under-18 team member has already been ranked as high as 13th overall for next year’s draft by independent scouting reports like Future Considerations.
8. How many Brandon boys will make the cut? It’s not out of the realm of possibility that 18-year-old veterans Tyler Coulter and Brett Kitt could be joined by the likes of Tanner Kaspick (16), Ty Lewis (16) and possibly Duncan Campbell (18) to give the Wheat Kings five homegrown forwards. The last time the WHL club had five former Brandon Midget AAA Wheat Kings forwards was back in 2006-07 when Mark Derlago, Andrew Clark, Tyler Dittmer, Bryan Kauk and Brandon Lockerby all made the team.
9. Who will fill the leadership void? First-round NHL draft pick Ryan Pulock has turned pro after two seasons as captain, while alternate captains Chad Robinson and Jens Meilleur have graduated. Eric Roy and Colton Waltz served as alternate captains last season, with one of them a good bet to don the ‘C’ this season. Expect the Wheat Kings to work a couple of their young stars into the leadership group this season.
10. How far can this team go? While some observers have projected 2015-16 as the season in which the Wheat Kings will be WHL contenders, this team — on paper — is pretty strong already. If they get everyone back from the pro ranks, veterans stay healthy and productive and their prime prospects make immediate contributions, this year’s club should be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference this season.