As the Brandon Wheat Kings finish a frustrating season with a bit of a flourish, the question has to be asked: Where was this effort before?
Had the Wheat Kings played all season the way they have in the final month of March, they could be preparing for the playoffs for the 13th straight season, instead of preparing to take part in the WHL bantam draft lottery for the first time.
The Wheat Kings (23-39-4-4) are poised to post their worst record in 21 years since going 11-55-6 back in 1991-92. But since being eliminated from playoff contention in their last game of February, Brandon has posted a solid 2-2-0-2 record in six games this month as they enter the final weekend of the regular season.
Here’s a look at things that we have liked and not liked in the six games since the Wheat Kings were eliminated:
Special teams: Changing up their power-play setup has paid off for the Wheat Kings — unfortunately they waited way too long to do it. In March, Brandon is 5-for-24 with the man advantage for a solid 20.8 per cent success rate. For the season that would be good enough to place them ninth out of the league’s 22 teams, instead of 20th where Brandon currently sits at 16.5 per cent.
The Wheat Kings’ penalty kill has also been very impressive in the past half-dozen games, successful on 15 of 17 kills for an excellent 88.2 per cent. Had they done that all season, the Wheat Kings would be leading the league in penalty killing, rather than sitting dead last as they currently are at 72.5 per cent.
Their special teams struggles for most of the season are a key reason why the Wheat Kings are missing the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
Lineup decisions: Bringing in 15-year-old prime prospect Jesse Gabrielle for a couple of weeks of practice and games was a superb move by the club, giving the talented forward a taste of what he can expect next season when he might be one of the top 16-year-old rookies in the league. Also receiving the thumbs-up? Largely keeping the productive all-rookie line of Jayce Hawryluk, Tim McGauley and Richard Nejezchleb together, a unit that could very well be Brandon’s No.1 line next season.
Thumbs-down? Making 16-year-old defenceman Kord Pankewicz a healthy scratch in four of the six games since being eliminated from the playoffs makes no sense. When the playoffs were no longer an option, development should have become more of a priority. And while Pankewicz has played a lot (48 games) for a 16-year-old, the vast majority of those games have come at forward, not on the blue-line where he needs the reps.
Interestingly, the Wheat Kings’ strong finish could keep them out of the running for the first overall pick in this year’s WHL bantam draft. Brandon sports the third-worst record in the league, with the bottom three teams having a chance to claim the No.1 pick in Wednesday’s draft lottery. But if Brandon sweeps the Moose Jaw Warriors in this weekend’s home-and-home series, the Wheat Kings would take themselves out of contention to pick first overall for the first time in franchise history.
Depending on what happens this weekend, Brandon could wind up picking anywhere from first to sixth overall on Thursday, May 2. Whatever happens, the Wheat Kings — who also hold the Saskatoon Blades’ first-round pick — are set up to have a super draft from what is considered to be a deep pool of talent topped by some truly elite bantam prospects.
Best case scenario? Brandon picks first overall and three times in the top 25 picks.
ODDS AND ENDS:
One of the players Wheat Kings scouts are looking at is homegrown prospect Tanner Kaspick, a skilled centreman who received special permission this season to move up and play as a 14-year-old for Brandon in the Manitoba AAA Midget Hockey League. Kaspick averaged a point a game in the playoffs with three goals and seven points in seven games after notching eight goals and 38 points in 42 regular-season games …
Speaking of bantam picks, Wheat Kings prospect Jordan Papirny has three shutouts in his last four playoff games for his Edmonton SSAC Midget AAA team. The 16-year-old was also solid in a three-game call-up for Brandon with a 2.84 goals-against average and is expected to push either Corbin Boes (20 next season) or Curtis Honey (19 next year) out of the crease in 2013-14 …
With the Midget AAA Wheaties eliminated and the WHL’s Wheat Kings done on Saturday, the last Brandon travelling teams still playing will be the Bantam AAA Wheat Kings — off to provincials this weekend — and the Westman High School Hockey League’s Crocus Plainsmen, who open the league championship series versus the Dauphin Clippers on Saturday (4 p.m.) at the Optimist Arena …
The Brandon University Bobcats year-end awards dinner banquet is Monday night at the Victoria Inn. Tickets are available at BU’s Healthy Living Centre or by calling 204-727-7375.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 15, 2013