As the Brandon Wheat Kings open main camp today, there are more questions than answers at this point.
So let’s start with what we can be fairly certain about.
No.1: Simply put, this is a rebuilding year. After losing six of their top seven scoring forwards — including 40-goal snipers Mark Stone and Michael Ferland — this team won’t challenge the likes of the defending champion Edmonton Oil Kings or the 2013 Memorial Cup host Saskatoon Blades for a league title this season. However, a deep defence led by the dynamite duo of Ryan Pulock and Eric Roy and great goaltending from underrated Corbin Boes should be enough to carry this young club to a 13th straight appearance in the WHL playoffs.
No.2: For fans who love to see the young guns get plenty of ice time, this is your year. With only seven veteran WHL forwards on the roster, and two of those — newcomer Nick Buonassisi and returnee Dominick Favreau — likely fighting for just one overage spot, at least seven or eight rookies from this training camp will make the opening-day roster. And there are plenty of prime prospects poised to make the jump and take advantage of that opportunity to contribute right away in the WHL.
So what are the biggest question marks this season?
Clearly, coaching tops the list, followed closely by who will put the puck in the net.
After nine seasons as an assistant coach with the Wheat Kings, how successful will Dwayne Gylywoychuk be in his first stint as a head coach in the WHL? It’s the proverbial million-dollar question for Wheat King fans, not to mention for owner and general manager Kelly McCrimmon. It will be interesting to see just how patient McCrimmon will be, especially after firing former Ottawa Senators head coach Cory Clouston after just one season behind the bench — with the team still on the hook for his salary this season.
Gylywoychuk has had the chance to learn from a variety of coaches and soak up a wide range of coaching styles during his 14 seasons in the organization as both a player and an assistant coach, from the likes of McCrimmon himself to Bob Lowes, Mike Kelly and Clouston. While he is well-liked by current and former players alike, how well Gylywoychuk commands respect on the bench and in the dressing room will be a big key to his success, or lack thereof.
For his part, McCrimmon has already made a couple of shrewd off-season moves to give his new coach a better chance to succeed.
McCrimmon ensured that the half-dozen rookies up front will be adequately protected in the lineup by trading for tough guy Tyler Yaworski, a bruising blue-liner who has racked up 181 and 188 penalty minutes in the past two seasons. The onus will be on the likes of Yaworski and Ryley Miller and veterans up front like Jens Meilleur to ensure that the Wheat Kings’ talented rookie scorers are free to do what they do best.
McCrimmon also brought in a potential impact player when he traded excesss overager Brandon Anderson for forward Geordie Maguire — a 17-year-old who led the Manitoba AAA Midget Hockey League in scoring last season — in what could turn into a steal of a deal. Meanwhile, a fifth-round pick landed the Wheat Kings some veteran presence up front in Buonassisi, a player who has averaged more than 50 points in the past two seasons and will provide much-needed offence.
McCrimmon also successfully secured the services of a new import in Czech forward Richard Nejezchleb, an 18-year-old who brings size and skill, although the jury is out on how quickly he can be counted on to produce. But certainly, the club needs to find someone other than Swiss sniper Alessio Bertaggia to score consistently.
What the Wheat Kings really need are breakout seasons from the rest of their veterans up front, players like Meilleur, Tyrel Seaman, Daniel Asham, Jason Swyripa and perhaps Favreau, who will all get a chance to contribute more than ever before.
And in a perfect world for Wheat King fans, the club will catch lightning in a bottle again this season the way the talented trio of Brayden Schenn, Matt Calvert and Scott Glennie did as rookies five years ago. Will it be Maguire, Jayce Hawryluk and Kord Pankewicz whose chemistry clicks immediately, or the likes of Tim McGauley, Taylor Cooper and Jack Palmer who provide an instant impact?
As camp concludes this weekend and the pre-season begins, the Wheat Kings should soon start to get some of those answers.