They have survived training camp, but for the 17 rookie players still with the Brandon Wheat Kings, this could be the most important 10 days of their young careers.
The Wheat Kings began a stretch of four pre-season games over 10 days last night in Regina — Game 2 is tonight at Westman Place — with pre-season performances crucial to clinching roster spots.
And Wheat Kings general manager Kelly McCrimmon is watching closely.
“You usually see some players are able to elevate their play or rise to the occasion and others will have trouble for one reason or another and that’s what the game situations help us see to make our final decisions as we get ready for opening day,” McCrimmon said.
The biggest battle is up front where the Wheat Kings have seven WHL veterans on the roster, with room for at least seven or eight rookie forwards.
“I felt our rookie forwards acquitted themselves well (in training camp),” McCrimmon said. “I think what is challenging is there is a lot of them.”
Indeed. Of those 13 rookie forwards, 18-year-old Czech import Richard Nejezchleb has been the best of the bunch, with the 6-foot-2, 212-pound right-winger blessed with size and skill and appearing able to contribute right away.
“He’s been exceptional and we’re anxious to keep moving ahead with him,” McCrimmon said. “From what we saw of training camp, and even just his personality, his disposition, his command of the language is far ahead of what we would have expected, and he’s got great size and he’s going to be a real good player is what you would project at this point.”
Kord Pankewicz, Jayce Hawryluk, Geordie Maguire, Tim McGauley, Taylor Cooper and John Quenneville also had solid camps, but clearly it’s still wide open up front where 20 forwards remain on the roster.
The blue-line is much more settled, with 17-year-old rookie standout Colton Waltz set to join six WHL veterans, with possibly room to add one of the two 16-year-olds, either Riley Van Horne or Dominic Thom, as an eighth D-man.
“Waltz was excellent in camp,” McCrimmon said. “When we made the decision (last year) to put Tim McGauley back in Notre Dame and Colton Waltz went to Bonnyville in the Alberta junior, and Taylor Cooper went back to Sherwood Park in Alberta midget, I think those players had great seasons.
“And in the case of McGauley and Waltz, they also had the benefit of rejoining our team late in the year. So really, for those two players, they got a lot of experience in one year and I think that’s a big part of why you’re talking about Colton looking as mature and poised as he has … And I should say also physically, Colton Waltz did exceptional in his fitness testing.”
In goal, Corbin Boes returns as a 19-year-old and is poised to be one of the best in the league after finishing third in the WHL last season with a .916 save percentage. The question is whether to keep 18-year-old Curtis Honey — who spent half a season in Brandon — or 16-year-old first-round bantam draft pick Jordan Papirny as the backup. Brandon hasn’t kept a 16-year-old goaltender in 22 years, but Papirny is pretty special.
“We feel we owe him the opportunity to compete for a spot,” McCrimmon said. “So we’re evaluating each player and that’s one thing we’re really looking forward to is getting those players into the net. We have to make sure we allow Corbin to be ready for opening night and past that, we really want to give an opportunity to Honey and Papirny to show us what they can do.”
The Wheat Kings will also have to make a decision on their 20-year-olds before the Oct. 11 deadline to get down to three overagers. You can pencil in hard-nosed defenceman Tyler Yaworski and skilled centreman Nick Buonassisi for two of the spots after being acquired by McCrimmon in a couple of shrewd deals for a pair of fifth-round bantam picks.
“They’ve played well and I think they will both address needs on our team and fit in real well,” McCrimmon said.
That leaves the battle for the last overage spot coming down to feisty defenceman Ryley Miller or forward Dominick Favreau, but that a decision could take a while.
“There is no urgency,” McCrimmon said.
With 32 players still on the roster, there are plenty of other tough decisions that need to be made soon. After all, opening day is just two weeks away.
ICINGS: Brandonite and former Wheat Kings captain Brad Twordik has joined the Red Deer Rebels as a scout ... Neepawa’s Halli Krzyzaniak, a 17-year-old defenceman with Canada’s under-18 women’s hockey team is already being recruited by NCAA schools and is making her first campus visit to Ohio State University.