Ah yes, opening night when everyone is a contender and dreams of WHL glory have yet to be tempered by roster reality.
Keep in mind that a year ago, a young, rebuilding Brandon Wheat Kings team under former coach Dwayne Gylywoychuk generated a buzz by starting the season 4-0, before beginning the long slide into last place in the Eastern Conference.
So what can we expect this season? With workaholic Kelly McCrimmon back behind the bench — juggling the demands of head coach, general manager, governor and owner — the Wheat Kings likely won’t get outworked many nights and should have little problem getting back into the playoff picture coming out of what should be a weak East Division.
With that in mind, here’s a half-dozen keys to the season and interesting storylines to follow for the Wheat Kings:
1. Ryan Pulock: The Wheat Kings should — emphasis on should — get their multi-talented captain back from the New York Islanders for his 19-year-old season. But this is the Islanders we are talking about, so nothing is guaranteed, especially as they watch their 2013 first-round draft pick unleash his 100-mph one-timers from the point in NHL pre-season games. If he returns as expected, Pulock is poised for a superb season in which he should challenge for WHL defenceman of the year honours and suit up for Canada in the world junior hockey championship. Paired with fellow NHL draft pick Eric Roy (17 goals last season) on the point, Pulock should quarterback one of the more potent power plays in the league this season and be a dominant force at both ends of the ice.
2. Impact imports: The Wheat Kings should ice their best pair of European players since the 2009-2010 Memorial Cup season when they had Toni Rajala and Alexander Urbom.
Big 6-foot-2, 210-pound Czech right-winger Richard Nejezchleb — four points in two pre-season games — could be a force if he can just stay healthy after playing in only 35 games last year. Meanwhile, Latvian left-winger Rihards Bukarts has come as advertised after being selected seventh overall in this year’s CHL import draft, as the 18-year-old rookie showed he fits in just fine in the WHL game after leading the Wheat Kings in pre-season scoring — don’t believe what the WHL website tells you — with seven points (2-5-7) in four games.
3. Goaltending: With McCrimmon demanding nothing less, and seven veteran WHL blue-liners on the roster, the Wheat Kings will be a tighter team defensively after giving up a whopping 284 goals against last season in their worst showing in 20 years. But the key remains between the pipes where either 19-year-old veteran Curtis Honey or highly regarded 17-year-old rookie Jordan Papirny need to emerge as a go-to guy to give the Wheat Kings consistent quality netminding. While it wouldn’t be a shock to see über-prospect Papirny push for the No.1 job by Christmas, Honey will get the first chance to prove he’s the guy and is relishing that opportunity. It will be interesting to see how this battle plays out.
4. Veteran presence: Like all teams, the Wheat Kings are expecting their returning players to take another large step forward this season, or get pushed aside by younger talent with bigger upside. The good news for the Wheat Kings is their best players were their youngest players last season as Jayce Hawryluk, Tim McGauley and Pulock topped the team in scoring as 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds. They should all be in for big seasons, while much more will also be expected from veterans like 20-year-olds Chad Robinson and Jens Meilleur, especially in the leadership department.
5. The boys from Brandon: The Wheat Kings begin the season with a homegrown trio on the roster in Brandon Midget AAA Wheat Kings graduates Tyler Coulter, Brett Kitt and Duncan Campbell. The feel-good story of training camp for local fans, it will be tough for all three to stick for the season, with 16 forwards still on the roster. But with the trio of Brandon boys, as well as local players from Minnedosa (Robinson) and Neepawa (Quintin Lisoway), Westman is well represented on the Wheat Kings to start the season.
6. Young guns: Brandon begins with a pair of 16-year-olds in Braylon Shmyr and Jesse Gabrielle, and for opening weekend have also kept around 15-year-old Kale Clague, the youngest player still on a WHL roster at this point. Shmyr is superbly skilled, although undersized at 5-foot-8 and 156 pounds and will need to battle for space to score. The hard-hitting Gabrielle, on the other hand, is a wrecking ball on skates and will quickly become a fan favourite. While Clague’s time will be short this season, the dynamic defenceman and fellow blue-chip bantam prospects Nolan Patrick and homegrown Tanner Kaspick give the Wheat Kings plenty of hope for the future.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 20, 2013