They had a remarkable run of 12 straight playoff seasons, five East Division titles, five trips to the Eastern Conference final, one appearance in the WHL championship and another in the Memorial Cup final.
But in a rebuilding year under a rookie head coach, it all came crashing down this season as the Brandon Wheat Kings finished dead last in the conference and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
It’s a situation that doesn’t sit well with owner/general manager Kelly McCrimmon and you can be sure there will be significant changes to the roster, and perhaps elsewhere in the organization.
“When you miss the playoffs, I think it’s an opportunity to review every aspect of your organization — management, coaching, scouting,” he said. “Our attendance was down and we’ve talked about that previously. So I think it’s an opportunity to take a hard look at all aspects of the organization and make sure this isn’t something that happens again.”
What that means for head coach Dwayne Gylywoychuk, who signed a two-year contract last summer, is unclear at this point. But after firing Cory Clouston a year ago and being on the hook to pay the second year of his significant salary this season, I’m not sure McCrimmon wants to eat another contract while also opening the revolving door to a fourth coach in four years (McCrimmon in 2010-11, Clouston in 2011-12 and Gylywoychuk in 2012-13).
To be sure, Gylywoychuk’s debut wasn’t coach of the year material as the Wheat Kings struggled to a 24-40-4-4 record, the club’s worst in 21 years. But on an underachieving team that featured a whopping 10 rookies in the lineup, a strong case can be made that the coaches didn’t have a whole lot to work with in this rebuilding season.
That talent pool was further depleted when McCrimmon traded away his top two forwards, Mike Ferland and Alessio Bertaggia, for future help at the WHL trade deadline. Those deals are sure to pay big dividends in the future — including giving Brandon two first-round picks (fourth and 17th overall) in this year’s WHL bantam draft — but the moves pretty much sealed the Wheat Kings’ fate this season.
You can also chalk it up to growing pains as Gylywoychuk called the shots for the first time, or to the club collectively underachieving. But the bottom line is Brandon was a disaster defensively, surrendering the second-most goals against in the league, and struggled on special teams, finishing 18th on the power play (16.2 per cent) and 22nd in a 22-team league in penalty killing (71.7 per cent).
“I think that there’s a lot of learning to do as a first-year head coach and I think for Dwayne, he would have gained a lot of experience and learned a lot over the course of the year,” said McCrimmon, who added David Anning as a second assistant coach, joining Darren Ritchie, this season. “And bringing David in, a month into the season, I thought was a good thing for our team. I think the staff worked well together and gave our players good guidance and a chance to win.”
However, wins proved hard to come by for most of the season on this rookie-laden team. But the biggest problem was the veterans, particularly the 19- and 20-year-olds, who failed to live up to expectations on both ends of the ice.
“I think that our players, collectively, didn’t achieve at the level that we felt they would,” McCrimmon said. “I really felt that our young forwards were inconsistent. I felt that defensively our team wasn’t as good as we expected it to be (based on) the veterans we had on defence and in goal. And our older forwards not scoring was something that we were concerned about and yet overall we needed more out of our forward group.”
Indeed. When your top-scoring forwards are a pair of rookies — as good as Tim McGauley and Jayce Hawryluk are — you know you’re in trouble. On the other hand, those 10 rookies on the roster received valuable ice time and did develop over the course of the year.
“I don’t think they improved as much or on as consistent of a basis as I would have liked, but there is no question that really, to a man, our players did get better,” McCrimmon said.
That’s not to say that all of those rookies will make the roster next season, while at most three of the six 19-year-olds will be kept as Brandon makes room for a plethora of prime prospects waiting in the wings.
“When you miss the playoffs, players have to understand there’s no guarantees and we do intend to make room for some first-year players that we think are ready to play,” McCrimmon said. “So our players need to be focused, need to be in shape and ready for a competitive training camp and pre-season. We’ve got a five-month off-season, so players are going to be able to really get better in preparation for the upcoming season if they are committed to doing that. And we will see at camp who those guys are.”
(Shew’s Views returns April 12)