It’s starting to look like the Brandon Wheat Kings’ run of 12 straight playoff appearances will end this season.
But there certainly are plenty of intriguing questions to be answered down the stretch. Here are 10 on my list:
1. Will captain Ryan Pulock become the first defenceman ever to lead the Wheat Kings in scoring? No blue-liner has topped the team in scoring in the club’s 46-year history in the Western Hockey League. Pulock, who appears ready to return to the lineup after missing a couple of weeks with a cracked bone in his wrist, currently leads the Wheat Kings in scoring with 31 points in 37 games, four points up on 20-year-old forward Nick Buonassisi. Pulock is projected to be a possible top 10 pick in this year’s NHL draft.
2. Will head coach Dwayne Gylywoychuk — and assistants Darren Ritchie and David Anning, for that matter — be back in the same role next season? Part of Brandon’s coaching staff since 2003, Gylywoychuk signed a two-year contract last summer to replace Cory Clouston, who was fired with one year left on his own deal. Gylywoychuk took over a rebuilding team that was floundering as it approached the WHL trade deadline and GM Kelly McCrimmon unloaded his top two forwards in Alessio Bertaggia and Michael Ferland.
Since then, the Wheat Kings have played better with a 3-2 record, although special teams continue to be disastrous with Brandon ranked 21st out of 22 teams on the power play (15.1 per cent) and dead last in penalty killing (70.4 per cent). How competitive they are over the final third of the year and how well the rookies develop could be key for the coaching staff.
3. Will Tyrel Seaman play again this season? Or ever? Seaman, who missed a big chunk of last season with a serious concussion, has been out of the Wheat Kings lineup since suffering another head injury on Nov. 18. The 6-foot-2, 217-pound forward played in only 32 games in 2011-12 and has been limited to 24 this season.
4. Will the Wheat Kings give 18-year-old Curtis Honey a chance to prove he’s a No.1 netminder? The Wheat Kings already know what they have in 19-year-old Corbin Boes. But if they aren’t going to make the playoffs, why not give Honey the bulk of the starts to see exactly what he is capable of, especially with 16-year-old standout Jordan Papirny waiting in the wings for next year. With a 3.46 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage, Honey’s numbers are better than Boes’ 4.18 GAA and .885 save percentage.
5. How high will centre Tim McGauley climb in the NHL draft rankings over the final two months of the season? The 17-year-old rookie, who now leads the club with 15 goals — including seven in his last 10 games — has silenced doubters who wondered if he was going to live up to his billing after being picked in the first round of the 2010 WHL bantam draft.
6. Will playing in this month’s CHL Top Prospects Game as one of 2013’s top 40 draft candidates give Eric Roy a boost down the stretch? Although he sports a team-worst -24 plus/minus rating, the 18-year-old defenceman has been steady over the past five games, going +3 without being a minus player in any of those games. While he needs to continue to work on his defensive game, NHL scouts like the size — 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds — and skill — seven goals, 24 points in 48 games — that Roy brings to the table.
7. How well will Kord Pankewicz transition from forward to defence over the final third of the season? The 11th overall pick in the 2011 WHL bantam draft, Pankewicz started the season at forward before being moved back to the blue-line after 20-year-old Ryley Miller was released. A highly skilled player, Pankewicz’s production has been limited to five assists in 36 games, but he could blossom with more ice time on the back end.
8. How will 16-year-old phenom Jayce Hawryluk finish the season? The Roblin native is 10th in scoring among WHL rookies with nine goals and 24 points in 39 games, but second only to Moose Jaw’s Brayden Point (10 goals, 32 points) among all 16-year-olds in the league. Hawryluk has already caught the eye of NHL scouts and has quickly become a fan favourite with his combination of skill and grit.
9. Who is going to make a case to earn one of the Wheat Kings’ three overage spots for next season? Brandon has six candidates on the roster in Boes, defenceman Rene Hunter and forwards Chad Robinson of Minnedosa, Jens Meilleur, Jason Swyripa and new Czech import Marek Kalus, who has proven to be a nice addition and could make a case for being a two-spotter (overager/import). How much they contribute down the stretch, and what kind of leadership they show on a young team with 10 rookies, could give them the inside track on a job next season.
10. Could the Wheat Kings wind up in the running for the first overall pick in the WHL bantam draft lottery for the first time ever? Currently 11 points out of playoff position, the Wheat Kings sit in 19th place overall and would draft fourth overall at this point, pending the results of the draft lottery. Brandon hasn’t picked in the top five since drafting sniper Eric Fehr fifth overall in 2000.